Hawkesbury Floods & History

In reflecting on the current major floods on the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers and the surrounding districts it is interesting that in the course of my family history research this past year I have written something about the great 1867 flood. This is the biggest flood on record when the river rose to 19.1m.

The information I was looking at in relation to my family history indicates why farming with floods and living along the river was difficult in the early settlement of these areas. It also highlights the difficulty faced by those who have settled in these areas and the associated flood plains without looking at the history of the environment and the impacts of flood, drought and fire. The early settlers instead of listening and working alongside local indigenous Dharag and Darkinjung peoples often caused conflict and unrest by settling on traditional hunting and food source lands for the Dharag and Darkinjung peoples.

The video below explains how floods develop and operate within the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system as a ‘bath-tub’ effect. Of particular interest to the story of the Everingham’s is the river ‘choke point’ at Sackville explained at 1:35 of the video.

Why the Hawkesbury Nepean Floods are so dangerous

The 1867 ‘Great Flood’ is the worst flood on record from settlement and hit just after my great great great grandparents George and Keturah Everingham left the area. George Everingham was the son of the first fleet convict Matthew Everingham, a young law clerk, who was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for 7 years for stealing and selling law books. He had lost his job from a difficult employer, was behind on his rent and had no means of support. George Everingham grew up in the Sackville Reach area nearby Keturah Stubbs, the daughter of a free settler and who would become his wife. Others in the Everingham family remained in the Hawkesbury region after George and Keturah left to take up farms on the Clarence River in the north of NSW. George Everingham was a farmer who owned and worked on several farms in the Hawkesbury region, he was the first of the new generation born in Australia to become a lay preacher in the Wesleyan Methodist church. He had donated land on his farm known as ‘The Greens’ where a chapel and school were built.

From James Colwell’s – The Illustrated History of Methodism- Australia- 1812-1855. New South Wales and Polynesia – 1856 to 1902

‘At this place [Sackville], we have two persons engaged as Exhorters for half a year. In the preceding quarter, [October to December], 1838, it appeared to me that they would be more useful if recognised as Local Preachers and frequently hearing favourable reports of their public efforts, I appointed them to preach a Trial Sermon respectively and concerning each, I can say I was pleased and profited. One has an appointment in the Macdonald every four weeks and another two appointments there, for we have two preaching places, the highest of which is about thirty miles from his home.He has also an appointment at Mangrove Creek every eighth Sunday, which is about the same distance. He is punctual to his appointments and acceptable to the people. This man, whose name is George Everingham has been very useful and as a natural consequence is highly esteemed …The other Local Preacher was James Cotton, who conducted the school where George’s children were now pupils; but his activities were necessarily restricted to Sackville. It was George who was supporting Schofield elsewhere in Circuit in this initial stage.’ 4

1867 Flood on the Hawkesbury – Newspaper reports

Numerous reports of flooding in 1867 are recorded in the National Library of Australia’s ‘Trove’ website.

This is a link to those articles https://trove.nla.gov.au/search/category/newspapers?keyword=1867%20flood%20hawkesbury%20nepean

I have recorded six of those articles here:

A report from the Illustrated Sydney News on 16 July 1867; ’THREE years ago it became our painful duty to record the visitation of disastrous floods, and great destruction of property ; but we regret that during the past month a calamity of the same nature — more widespread in extent and more disastrous in its results — has desolated immense tracts of land, swept away numerous homesteads, and driven the occupants in a pitiless wintry storm to seek for shelter and safety beneath the roof of some more fortunate neighbour ; some to climb trees and await the arrival of boats to rescue them, while others less fortunate perished in the seething waters.’ 1

In 1860 ‘another disastrous flood in the Hawkesbury’ was reported in the Sydney Mail noting at Portland Head; ‘The river began to rise here on Monday, rather slowly, and continued rising up to Wednesday, when it rose much taster, averaging about three inches per hour perpendicular to have attained its highest rise, being within two inches of the height attained by the flood of May last, and warning about five feet of the great flood of 1857. On Friday morning the river had fallen about eighteen inches. All the lands of Messrs. Turnbull, Manning, Everinghams, Hall, Bradley, Tuckerman, Doyle, Fleming, and others were covered with water — the greater part of Sackville Reach, and many other parts of the river being one sheet of water from hill to hill. There can be no doubt this flood will press harder on the farmers than any which has occurred for many years — numbers of them, who having their growing crops of wheat destroyed by the late flood, had resown their land, but only to experience (in a majority of cases) a similar misfortune, but with this addition, that the season is now too far advanced for wheat to be sown, even if the water had left the land, and it was in a fit state for working. Oats may be sown on low strong lands until the end of August, and unless the farmers do sow them there will be little or no harvest on the Hawkesbury this year, which will be a serious drawback to the whole district.’ 2

Again in 1864, a flood was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald; THE heavy rain which fell on the 2nd and 3rd instant, and produced a considerable rise in the river, seems to have been preparatory for the greatest flood known to have taken place on the Hawkesbury. ’Scarcely had the river gone down to its original level when the weather became threatening, and on Thursday night, the 9th instant, it commenced raining, with heavy showers occasionally. On Friday morning it came down in torrents and continued till the following morning, when it slackened, but the river commenced rising rapidly. At sundown it was bank high, and continued rising at the rate of one foot per hour, which was the signal for the farmers to remove their stock from the low lands without delay. On Sunday morning the rain had ceased, when the whole of the cultivated lands were inundated … At noon the water had risen to a great height, and was quite alarming, from the appearance of haystacks, dead pigs, poultry, household furniture, and other property floating down the river in rapid succession, which was conclusive evidence that an unusual quantity of rain had fallen upwards, and that a fearful destruction of property would be the result … when it began to recede – here a most appalling and destructive scene appeared – the waters extending from mountain to mountain, having risen, it is affirmed, a little above the mark of the great flood of August, 1809, which was the highest flood on record having taken place on the Hawkesbury … The Colo and the Macdonald Rivers must, as a natural consequence, be very high in flood, and a great quantity of grain destroyed ; thus, the farmers who have been struggling under adverse circumstances for a considerable time, and who were in a great measure depending upon their maize crops for the support of their families, will, in most cases, have to contend with difficulties hitherto unknown to them. The flood is rapidly subsiding, and the wreck of property in the shape of fences, buildings, &c, is already becoming apparent. Sackville Reach, June 18th.3

So by the time flood hit again in 1867, there had already been significant and repeated losses for farmers in the Hawkesbury over the 1860’s. At a later flood in 1869 in Sackville Reach the Sydney Morning Herald reports; ‘It may be truly said that the farms will present a miserable and desolate appearance for some time to come ; it is useless to endeavour to carry on farming in a systemic manner on the Hawkesbury of late years. Such an idea cannot be entertained when the plans and arrangements of the agriculturist are thus set aside so frequently with such destructive consequences. A similar visitation as the present has taken place every year during the last three years in succession, which have caused many poor families to endure great privations, and struggle hard with the assistance of a generous public to cultivate their lands during that period. However, they have reason to be thankful for the opportunity afforded them for gathering their crops on this occasion, and providing the means of support for a time. It is probable that some of the inhabitants will leave the river ere long and seek some more favourable locality, but it is likely that the greater portion will still remain, and await with patience a return of more propitious seasons.’ 4

Although in 1867 George’s brother Matthew Everingham did not lose his house like many, he did lose ‘Outbuildings flooded, and a few inches in dwelling’ 5

Henry Parkes (later Sir Henry Parkes) organised relief for those affected in the Hawkesbury Floods, he travelled on the steamer up the river helping to distribute clothing and food. Here are a few examples from the report of what they found; ‘Proceeding up the river the first picture of abject misery which meet our gaze was at Peat’s Ferry, about two miles from the sea, a number of persons, men, women, and children, were observed on the ferry wharf, and on landing we found a man named John Woods, a limeburner, who with his wife and eight children had been washed out of their hut, and were now in a state of the utmost destitution … Woods had been forty years on the river, but had never seen such a flood … By hailing a man, named William Everingham, we learned that a little more than a week ago this was the comfortable homestead of a family named Green (a man, wife, and three children), who had lost all they possessed, narrowly escaped with their lives … A Mrs. Rose, whose husband was away, stated that she and her family of ten children were on the point of leaving their house for a new one built upon the hillside, when the floods came and carried away the old house and all its contents, together with eight hundred bushels of corn, two hundred of which was ready for pulling. They subsequently lost the whole of their crop on a farm of sixty acres for which they had to pay a heavy rent. The only thing they had in the house at present in the shape of food were a few pumpkins, which they had rescued from the river while they were being swept down from some of the farms further up, all their own pumpkins having been carried away … on the Macdonald River and Webb’s Creek. From this it appeared that all the settlers on the banks of the river had suffered more or less. Some had their houses, furniture, and food swept away, together with their crops; and, to make the matter worse, the land was covered with a thick layer of white sand debris. Others had their crops carried away or destroyed; and in almost every instance the corn was nearly ready for pulling. Others had their houses inundated and their store corn destroyed; but who, since the subsidence of the waters, had gone back to live in them again. The state of these houses – smothered in mud – may be more easily imagined than described. It is feared that much sickness among the people will result from going back to reside in these damp houses … a man, named John Lahey, pulled down the river in his boat, and with his wife came on board. These two persons presented one of the most, if not the most pitiable picture, that we had seen on the river. The man had obtained a precarious livelihood by building chimneys, &., being a rough bricklayer and stonemason. He, with his wife and child, resided in a hut on a neck of land at a point where the waters of Webb’s Creek empty themselves into the Hawkesbury; and when the flood came down they lost everything but their lives, escaping almost naked. The man had been the father of twenty-eight children, nineteen by his present wife, and, singular to relate, only one, a girl of seven or eight years, survived. This couple were supplied with some tea, sugar, hose for both, a pair of trousers, pair of blankets, six loaves of bread, a quarter of mutton, and some corn-flour for the child, who was represented to be sick. They, like other recipients on the river, appeared deeply grateful for the assistance thus afforded … two boys – fine intelligent lads, the younger especially, although neither of them could read or write, – came off to the ship (which had stopped) to see what was required on board, as they had not heard the object of the vessel’s visit, although they saw her pass upon the previous day. They stated that they lived with their mother and father, brother and sisters, there being eleven in family, at the mouth of the Mangrove Creek. In the flood the family had lost everything, leaving nothing but a few pumpkins to exist upon. Furniture, clothing, and food, together with a small crop, had all disappeared at one fell swoop, and they had pulled six miles down the river to see if they could obtain some food for their mother and sisters. They told their tale in such a simple straightforward manner that they enlisted the sympathies of all on board, and a feeling of regret was expressed by all when they left, that they should remain to grow up in utter ignorance on the river.’ 7

The report in 2017 looks at the Aboriginal experiences of the Great Flood – a gap in the record https://www.hawkesburygazette.com.au/story/4759500/what-was-the-darug-experience-of-the-great-flood/ when the 200 years anniversary of the 1867 floods was commemorated.

Erin Wilkins of the Muru Mittigar Aboriginal Cultural and Education Centre was there listening to Uncle Wes, and she said while no stories have been handed down, the Aboriginal people were attuned to the movements of animals and could read the signs which indicated impending flood and so would have moved to higher ground … (This is borne out by Warragamba Dam workers who told the Gazette a few years ago that they knew when a flood was coming as huge numbers of eels gather against the dam wall) … Local history librarian at Hawkesbury Library Michelle Nichols said while she had never seen mention of any Aboriginal flood experiences in newspaper reports of 1867, there were records of Darug people warning the earliest white Hawkesbury settlers many decades before of impending flood … Local historian John Miller corroborated this, saying in the 1790s the Darug people warned white people who were building a granary near Windsor wharf that water had reached the treetops at that site only six months before. He hadn’t ever heard anything either though of how the Darug people had fared in 1867Ms Nichols feels however that if Aboriginal people had been found drowned, it would have been reported. She said part of the problem was that there was no newspaper in the Hawkesbury in 1867 – there had been some in the 1840s but then there was a gap until the 1870s when another started up (The Gazette started in 1888).8

  1. Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 – 1872), Tuesday 16 July 1867, page 7
  2. Sydney Mail (NSW : 1860 – 1871), Saturday 4 August 1860, page 5
  3. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Wednesday 22 June 1864, page 5
  4. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 14 May 1869, page 8
  5. Sydney Mail (NSW : 1860 – 1871), Saturday 6 July 1867, page 11
  6. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Tuesday 2 July 1867, page 3
  7. Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881), Wednesday 3 July 1867, page 2
  8. The Hawkesbury Gazette JUNE 28 2017 https://www.hawkesburygazette.com.au/story/4759500/what-was-the-darug-experience-of-the-great-flood/

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