1848: Floods in Adelaide

Severe flooding affected Adelaide in August, October and November of 1848, when the Torrens River broke its banks, carrying all before it.

Within four hours, the river had gone from its normal low-level as barely a stream, to the highest levels of the season – and just a few inches below the level that carried away the Torrens Bridge the year prior.

“In consequence of the heavy rains of Friday and Saturday last, the Torrens was so much swollen that the stream commenced rising at six o’clock p.m. and by ten was higher than at any time before this season.” South Australian Register, reported on Wednesday 25 October 1848.

While there are known flooding events in Adelaide in 1847 in the report: Floods in South Australia 1836-2005, these 1848 events seem to be previously unknown. 

The 1848 flooding seems to be localised in the Adelaide city area, and it had some significant impacts. The South Australian Register newspaper report added that one farmer, located in the Reed beds:

“…has lost about an acre of vines, a quantity of peach, apricot, and plum-trees, half-an-acre turnips, half-an-acre potatoes, sufficient tobacco plants (eleven varieties) to plant five acres, and 500 yards of fencing, and calculates his loss at the least, in 100 Pounds.” 

Source: Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/4148759

These flooding events were found by a volunteer (MNMetman) working on our current citizen science project on Zooniverse.

The comments transcribed were:

“Heavy rain during the night. Highest floods. Except that of last year,
which carried away the bridges.” – 20 October, 1848.

“Very heavy rain during the night. High floods. Within a few inches as
high as that of the 20th August.” – 29 October, 1848.

In addition, there’s another mention of a ‘flood’ the following month:

“Stormy and heavy rain during the night. High flood in the Torrens
in the afternoon.” – 14/15 November 1848.

These observations will overlap with the weather diaries of William Wyatt  as well as George Kingston’s rainfall records. We now have more meteorological data digitised that provides a much higher level of detail of these past weather extremes and how they affected people at the time. 

South Australia is the driest state in the driest inhabited continent – yet these floods are another example of how heavy rain and flooding is a part of the natural variability of the area. In 1844, the Adelaide Observer reported a particularly disastrous flood of the Torrens, and over the next 100 years the city of Adelaide suffered numerous flooding events. When the City Weir was built in 1881, it mitigated much of the flooding of the Torrens, however there are examples of flooding since – as recent as 2016 when the Torrens river and weir flooded after severe storms.

You too can help find unknown historical weather events in Adelaide through our citizen science project on Zooniverse. We’re almost there, but we still need your help to complete the last transcriptions for this missing gap in the Adelaide record. Visit: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/caitlinhowlett/climate-history-australia

The images below show some examples of flooding in Adelaide and surrounds in the 19th century and early 1900s.

Catching oranges in the River Torrens with improvised nets in September 1923. There are many newspaper reports of people taking advantage of the floodwaters to collect the floating fruit and vegetables as they floated down the Torrens – one of them sadly about a young boy drowning in floodwaters in 1898. Source: State Library of South Australia.
Adelaide Torrens River 1919_SLSA_PRG-280-1-17-241
Approximately 1919: A bridge over the Torrens River with floodwaters passing below. Piles of branches and other debris swept downstream by the torrent have been trapped in front of the bridge’s cross-beam arch. Source: State Library of South Australia.
An inundation at Port Adelaide on 12 May 1865. This picture appeared in the Melbourne Post on 24 June 1865. The scene was drawn by Samuel Calvery from an original sketch by WA Cawthorne. This was then engraved by R. Bruce. Source: State Library of Victoria. Accession number IMP24/06/65/88.
The above two images and captions are from page 46 of the report: Floods in South Australia 1836-2005.