Flood, Fire and Famine

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold

My Country, Dorothea Mackellar

In this famous ode to her adopted country written in 1908, Dorothea Mackellar successfully captures the spirit of Australians battling a hostile environment in which flood, fire and famine are a part of everyday life. This is a land of climatic extremes which can have one part of the country battling bushfires while another sandbags against floods. Occasionally all three disasters can occur in Queensland at the same time, one often leading on to another in a vicious cycle of nature.

Rarely seen documents, records and photographs detailing these disasters provide a poignant insight into the human cost of devastating events and show how governments and agencies over the past 150 years have dealt with the aftermath.


Queensland’s worst floods occurred in 1893 after three cyclones hit southeast Queensland leaving behind the highest flood levels ever recorded. The Indooroopilly Bridge and the northern end of Victoria Bridge were swept away. The flood claimed eleven lives and caused one million pounds of property damage.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 492: First permanent Victoria Bridge across the Brisbane River, destroyed by flood, 1893

The township of Clermont was hit by a devastating cyclone in late December 1916. Most of the township was washed away and 63 people, out of a population of 1500 were drowned; whole families washed away in their houses during the night. After the flood, the town’s buildings were literally moved to higher ground, using tractors and large rolling logs.

On the Australia Day long weekend in January 1974, Cyclone Wanda brought record rainfall to an already saturated Queensland and left record floods in her wake. Ipswich lost approximately 40 homes to flood waters. The Brisbane area, where twelve people drowned and nearly 7,000 homes were flooded, was the most severely hit. In all, 16 lives were lost and $200 million damages was recorded across the State.


As well as tragic loss of life, destruction of architecture and property, fires have also destroyed valuable records relating to Queensland. When the Supreme Court was gutted by fire on 1 September 1969, most of the ecclesiastical files for 1955 – 56 and the intestacy files for 1946-68 were lost, a heartbreaking blow for historians and family history researchers.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 25660: Labrador State School, fire damaged, Gold Coast, March 1970

Bushfires have shaped Australia’s environment and are a vital part of the Australian eco-system with the regeneration of many species of trees and plants reliant on the intense heat of fire. With a mostly hot, dry and drought-prone environment, and an ever-widening population spread, the threat of bushfire is a reality for many. Controlled burnings, vegetation management and reforestation programs are an integral part of Queensland rural life.


Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 4405: Panorama of Drought Country, “Toorak”, Northwest Queensland, May 1952

Of all the natural disasters, drought is probably the most economically costly. Both State and Federal governments have provided financial assistance via drought relief packages to agriculturalists and pastoralists; the construction of dams; the provision of funds for scientific research into drought and wet resistant crops; the desalination of sea water and the tapping of the Great Artesian Basin.

Many attempts have been made to control the unpredictability of the weather and to contain the violent ravages that prolonged periods of wet or dry climate bring. As a result, Queenslanders have become fascinated with long range weather forecasting.

Long-range weather forecasting made household names of Clement Wragge, the first government meteorologist, Inigo Jones (1878 – 1954) and Lennox Walker, who all spent years painstakingly researching and collecting data to determine weather patterns which went beyond their lifespans. Inigo Jones’ long range predictions continued up until 2003!

One of the more intriguing inventions was the Stiger Vortex rainmaking gun. Clement Wragge, the first government meteorologist, had seen these used in Italy to break up hail storms and felt they could also be fired into promising clouds to produce rain. They were used in Charleville in 1902 and to Wragge’s bitter disappointment the experiment failed.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 22333: Image of hail cannons from French publication L’Illustration, No 3017, used in research for the Stiger Vortex, 22 December 1900.

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

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