1860: Summer storm floods Melbourne

Flooding in Elizabeth St in 1862
Flooding in Elizabeth Street in 1862. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

In December 1860, at the peak of the Victorian gold mining boom, a severe storm hit Melbourne and unleashed a deluge that swamped the central business district. Arriving just two weeks before Christmas, the floodwaters swept through downtown Melbourne leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

“The immense mass and force of the water in various parts may be imagined from the fact, that the streets in many places were completely torn up, the water washing away the whole of the earth, and leaving merely the bluestone metal underneath. At the foot of Elizabeth-street, near the railway station, the metal itself seems to have been torn away, for large holes are left in all directions,” reported The Argus.

The Argus stated that the downpour started at midnight on Saturday (8 December 1860) and continued unabated for nearly 24 hours. This heavy rain created a torrent of water running along the foot of Elizabeth St that swept away a pedestrian trying to make their way across.

“One old man was carried off his legs by the flood, but was rescued by a cabman, who boldly drove to his rescue and succeeded in snatching him from a watery grave, but lost his horse, and wrecked his cab in the attempt,” reported the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser.

The flood struck Melbourne at a time when the burgeoning city was undergoing rapid expansion thanks to the Victorian gold fields. The population had grown from 70 000 to half a million people over the previous ten years. Melbourne residents witnessed two more major floods in quick succession (1862 and 1863) that were immortalised in iconic photos (above and below).

Gary Cook recently discovered the articles detailing the 1860 flood while working as a volunteer on the citizen science project OzDocs. The project is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history.

Flooding in Melbourne in 1863
Flooding in Melbourne, 1863. Image Courtesy of National Library of Australia.