The Destruction of Gundagai

Empire, Sydney

15 July 1852

Goulburn. A Meeting of the inhabitants of Goulburn, was advertised in the local papers of yesterday, to take place on Monday, for the purpose of devising the best means of assisting the survivors of the late disastrous flood at Gundagai. The advertisement is signed by the Reverend W. Sowerby, and I am confident that some good will arise from the movement. As there is still a painful interest felt in the details of the terrible night of the 24th, when the devoted township was swept, away and nearly a hundred of its inhabitants drowned, I send you extracts of a letter, dated Gundagai, 7th July, written by a friend of mine, who was an eye-witness of the distressing scene, and. who is, himself a great loser. "On Thursday the 24th June, the river (Murrumbidgee) rose rapidly and towards evening it was getting bank high, but those who had lived long on the river thought but little of the fresh, especially as it was usual for the river to rise to that height several times during the winter months. The tragedy commenced on the morning of the next day, by some man taking the punt boat to the rescue of parties on, the north bank of the river. They reached there well enough, and took on board Mr. Butcher's daughter and three or four of his younger children; while returning to the south bank they had to stem the stream; the fences on the flats were nearly submerged, but at this time a boat could not float over them: the rowers tried to pull the boat, into the still water, but after three or four efforts to do so, they got into the strong current, and becoming much alarmed at the sea of water and the rapidity at which they were swept along, they lost all courage and presence of mind, and drifting against an oak tree the bout capsized, two or three shrieks were uttered, and the living freight with the exception of one man were seen no more: this person swam ashore and was saved.

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It was not until Friday evening, that the river was higher than at any previous flood. Persons then became alarmed, but still it was hoped that nothing fatal would occur. By ten o'clock, the river was higher by ten feet than at the highest flood time. The moon shone beautifully bright upon a scene of danger and distress. House after house was carried away by the torrent that rushed through the valley, and the cries of the drowning were terrible and distressing. I will mention to you a few of those who have suffered, and the names of some who are drowned. I do not know the names of some, but it is computed that ninety lives have been lost!

Mr. Hichard Hunt and family; all his promises have been swept away. He was the oldest inhabitant here.

Mr. and Mrs. Hemphill (of the Murrumbidgee Cottage Inn), three daughters, and one son; all his stock-in-trade, furniture, stable, kitchen destroyed. His other son was saved, by the roof on which he stood drifting to a tree, into which he got and was afterwards picked up. Mr. Horsley also saved himself by getting into a tree; he endeavoured to rescue the elder Miss Hemphill, to whom he was engaged to be married, by fastening his belt round her and drawing her up, but the belt broke and she fell into the stream and was soon swept out of sight.

Mr. Sweeney the watchmaker was drowned. He was standing on the roof of Mr. Hemphill's house, and bent his head to allow a tree to pass him, instead of grasping it, and so save himself. Mrs. T. Lindley (of the Rose Inn) and family, old Mr. Luff and others, also Mr. Lindley's servants, in all nineteen persons, took refuge in the kitchen-loft of the Inn, from its being a brick building and the highest about there; Mr. Lindley was absent from home at the time. The stable and kitchen were swept away, the house, stood; all the people perished.

John Scott (a butcher), his wife, two children, and a little boy named Henry Castleton, were all drowned. The house &c, entirely demolished. Charles Ross (carpenter) and three children drowned. His wife being a good swimmer saved herself. The hut, &c., swept away.

Mrs. Butler and child drowned.

Mrs. Thatcher and all the children, the wife of Mr. H. Thatcher, junr., all drowned; house, &c., swept away. Mr. Thatcher got into a tree and was saved after having been three days there.

Mr. Lilley (Innkeeper) lost the verandah of his house, stable, &c., but the main building stood; all the family saved.

Mr. and Mrs. M'Kenna, of the ''National School; their children, and a little girl named Mary Brennan, all drowned; the school-house much damaged, one end of it being washed away.

All the huts in the township, and the courthouse and lock-up are swept away. The end walls of the new brick building of Mr. Simpson, occupied as a store by Mr. Turnbull, gave way, and the place was completely gutted. All the family saved. (The main building had some tons of flour in the loft; this most probably kept it together.

Mr. Gormby, wife and family, with the exception of his two sons, all drowned. House, &c., swept away.

John Morris (horse breaker) and two children drowned; house swept away. His wife was saved by the blacks.

Mr. Charles Jones's promises and stock washed away. Mr. Jones and family saved.

Mr. Spencer's Family Hotel, stable, 20 tons hay, 300 bushels oats and corn, stock-in-trade; furniture, &., all washed away. Five persons drowned. Mr. Spencer saved himself by swimming to Stuckey's Island, and then remaining in a tree all night naked. He was got off by a black the next day. The five drowned consisted of John Williams, cook; Mr. Sachas, a German; Mr. John M'Pherson; James, the punt man; and an old man, 70 years of age, name not known.

"Mr. Bingham, late Commissioner of Crown Lands, used his influence in getting the blacks to cut canoes and go to the rescue of the survivors, who were in trees, &c..

The punt is saved, and with a little repair, will be fit for use in a very short time. When the waters subsided a number of men, who were on the road to the diggings, began to appropriate to their own use all the property that came in their way. They broke open chests, trunks, and other packages; broached casks and made free with their contents.

On Saturday evening a number of special constables were sworn in for the purpose of protecting property and apprehending any person found following the occupation of wrecker.

I nearly forgot to mention that Mr. Davison's store though much injured stood out the flood. A great deal of his stock is spoiled. The family saved."

Wagga Wagga. - The report I forwarded to you of the destruction of Wagga Wagga; turns out to be untrue. As It was well authenticated; it was universally believed here, and even on most parts of the Murrumbidgee. Indeed, a letter I have received from Gundagai, dated July 7, stales that the writer "believed that Wagga Wagga had been entirely demolished, and that only two lives had been saved." A letter received last night from Mr. Davison, the storekeeper at Gundagai, positively states, that the report is without foundation; the flood having at no time risen higher than three feet in the buildings. Both Mr. Peter Stucky and Mr. Henry Stucky are saved. It is impossible at the present time to say, who are and who are not lost along the banks of the river.