The 1850s were a time of great challenge for Australia’s European settlers, as the new migrants struggled to grapple with a land so foreign to their own back home. In particular, the Australian river systems proved to be a great mystery to the settlers as they were prone to both drying and flooding.
The small country town of Gundagai, about 170 kilometres west of Canberra, became a hub as a service town for passing travellers and farmers (known as pastoralists), who would often use the town as part of their route between Sydney and Melbourne. After explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell passed through the region in 1824, the township of Gundagai quickly developed as it was a key location (and often the only location) from which to cross the Murrumbidgee River.
Gundagai’s river flats had been home to the Wiradjuri people for over 50,000 years prior to settlement. The Wiradjuri would use dried-up flat as camping grounds, meeting places, hunting grounds and ceremonial grounds – where sacred trees used in rituals still live today. Of course, the Indigenous population was familiar with the Murrumbidgee River’s nature to flood, and urged settlers to move their dwellings off the river flats; however, this was ignored by the settlers, who would later face the deadly consequences.
Throughout the mid 1800s, the river would swell and flood Gundagai – even claiming several lives and causing irreparable damage in 1844. The people of Gundagai even told the New South Wales Government of their growing concerns for the safety of their community should the Murrumbidgee River flood again, but this was met with reassurance from the government that the settlement didn’t need to move as the river was not likely to flood again.
This, of course, was not the case as heavy rains pummelled the region throughout the winter of 1852. Finally, on Thursday 24 June 1852, the Murrumbidgee River flooded the banks and swept into the township. Residents who were familiar with previous flooding knew to escape to their attics and rooftops until the swell subsided – but this particular flood was different. Angrier, more violent and more unpredictable, the waters rose exponentially, leaving Gundagai’s residents to cling to treetops as entire buildings were crushed and swept away into the river’s surging current. It’s reported that some residents clung onto branches for two nights and two days – with many finally losing grip and falling to the deadly waters below due to exhaustion. Thankfully, many were saved due to the efforts of four local Wiradjuri men, who rescued close to 70 people trapped in trees and on rooftops via a canoe made from bark. Only two of the men’s names are known – Yarri and Jackey – and they are now memorialised in bronze statues in modern Gundagai’s town centre.
Tragically, not all could be saved, and the flood is considered one of the deadliest in Australia’s history. More than one-third of Gundagai’s permanent population was victim to the flooding. While there is no official final death toll as it isn’t known how many travellers and pastoralists were moving through the township at the time of the flood, between 80 and 100 people are believed to have died. Out of the victims, there were 35 children and infants, including newborns.