Gundagai Injustice

The Sydney Morning Herald

7 July 1852

The late disasters at Gundagai.

The awful catastrophe of which it was on Monday our painful task to record the heart-rending particulars, is unequalled for the extent of its disasters by any calamity that has ever occurred within these colonies since their foundation.

In the course of a few short hours, not only was the township of Gundagai swept from the face of the earth, and numbers of industrious and thriving settlers reduced to absolute ruin, by the overwhelming fury of the raging torrent, but, alas! amid the horrors of that fearful night, not less than sixty-four human beings perished, - husbands and wives, parents and children, in many instances, engulphed together in a watery grave.

Of course, humanity shudders at the contemplation of such a scene. But there is something besides humanity in the case - there is something besides a feeling of sorrow for the hapless dead, and of sympathy for the weeping and impoverished survivors.

To the dispensations of that mysterious but all wise providence by whose permission the rain descended and the flood came, it becomes us to bow with adoring submission.

But in this case it is impossible not to see the hand of God chastising the misconduct, the criminal misconduct, of man. Originally an error of judgment, subsequently aggravated by an act of deliberate and inflexible injustice, involves the Colonial Government in a deep responsibility for this appalling sacrifice of human life.

Had the error been rectified as soon as possible after it was discovered and made known to the Government, Gundagai would at this hour have been a flourishing township the obstinate refusal to rectify it, on just and equitable terms, was the undoubted cause of the sad calamity that has befallen the inhabitants.

Upwards of seven years ago, the cause of Gundagai - the injustice that had been practised upon its purchasers, and the imminent danger to which they were consequently exposed - was earnestly advocated in this journal.

On the 13th and on the 15th of February, 1845, our leading articles were devoted to the subject, but neither the appeals of the sufferers, nor the remonstrances of the press, as is now too mournfully shown, was of any avail.

Our attention was at that time drawn to the case by the publication of a correspondence between the local Commissioner of Crown Lands, Mr Bingham, and the Colonial Secretary, in which the former pointed out the dangerous mistake winch had been made by the Government in the mode of laying out the site of the township, and suggested a very obvious and reasonable mode of correcting the error.

As this correspondence now acquires peculiar interest, we beg once more to lay it before the public.


[from] Commissioners Office, Tumut River, November 4 1844

Sir,- I do my self the honour to transmit for His Excellency the Governor s consideration, that from the late floods in this part it would be highly essential to the future welfare and advancement of the township of Gundagai to have a surveyor sent up to lay out part of the township on the south bank of the Murrumbidgee River on a moderate high ground, well adapted for building on; and some few allotments might be laid out north and by east of the present township, giving the parties who have now alotments on the recently flooded lands, allotments on the high land.

The water was from four to five feet deep in the huts at Gundagai, and parties suffered severe losses of property with a prospect of similar inundation, all chance of the advancement of Gundagai as an inland township, in its present site, I would say is at an end, as no person would now think of purchasing allotments for building in such a precarious situation. 

I have, &c., H. Bingham. [to]The Hon. the Colonial Secretary.


[reply from] Colonial Secretaty's Office, Sydney, 7th December, 1844.

Sir,- In acknowledging the reiceipt of your communication of the 4th ultimo, recommending the laying out of allotments on the high ground on the south bank of the Murrumbidgee River, in the vicinity of Gundagai, out of the reach of the floods to which the township has been subject, and suggesting the exchange of the flooded allotments for those on higher ground, I am directed by His Excellency the Governor to inform you, that the Surveyer-General has been instructed to cause some allotments to be laid out on the situation peseribed, but that a survey of the features will in the first instance be necessary.

His Excellency further directs me to inform you that he cannot, however, sanction the proposed exchange of flooded allotments, as he considers that what a man buys he buys for better or worse.

I have, &c., E. Deas Thomson [to] Henry Bingham, Esq , Commissioner of Crown Lands, Tumut River


To enable the reader to understand more clearly the merits of the case thus timely put by Mr. Bingham, and thus summarily disposed of by the Government of the day, we may mention some facts stated in a letter from one of our correspondents, written at Queanbeyan, a few days after this correspondence appeared in our columns.

It seems that the township of Gundagai was laid out during one of those periods of comparative drought to which this colony is so frequently liable, when the rains were light and great floods unknown.

An alluvial flat on the banks of the Murrumbidgee was chosen as the site; and although it bore the appearance of having been under water in former years, no apprehensions wore entertained of a similar visitation in future.

It was then high and dry, and was considered to be quite out of the reach of danger.

The Government therefore sold allotments, and the people settled and built. But in the year 1844 came that great flood which at once exposed the delusion into which the Government had been betrayed, and into which they had betrayed their purchasers, and for which the reparation recommended by Mr. Commissioner Bingham was sternly refused.

The fallacy and gross injustice of this refusal were dwelt upon in the leading articles above referred to; and indeed they were so obvious to common sense, that our only object in dwelling upon them at all was, if possible, to shame the Government into a right position.

The allotments had been sold under what is called in trade false representations.

Not known to be false at the time, and therefore not implying anything wrong on the part of the seller; but ascertained to have been false subsequently, and therefore rendering it imperative on the Government to take back the spurious articles, and substitute genuine ones.

Our argument then was, that in all ordinary purchases in the every-day transactions of life, there is a settled understanding that the thing bought is what it is said to be, and will answer the purpose for which both vendor and vendee intend it.

If you buy a coat from your tailor, and it falls to pieces the first time you put it on; a loaf from your baker, and it proves to be half sand; a pipe of supposed wine from your merchant, and it turns out to be a pipe of water; it would not be tolerated that, in answer to your demand for the genuine article, any of these sellers should tell you, what the Government told the Gundagai purchasers, that "he cannot sanction the proposed exchange" of the rotten coat, of the sandy loaf, or of the pipe of water, "as he considers what a man buys, he buys for better or worse."

In order, however, that the facts of the lamentable case may be placed fully before the public, we do hope that some honorable member will move an address to the Governor-General, requesting that the letters, papers, and plans, relating to the subject, may be laid upon the table of the House.

It will then be seen how far the surviving sufferers from the late inundation have a claim for compensation on the Territorial Revenue.

We are glad to find, since the above was written, that Mr. Macleay has given notice of a motion to this effect.