The year 1870 was wet across Australia. In January, summer storms brought flooding to Ballarat and Bendigo. Then, for several months, floods plagued NSW and Queensland. Winter came and the Western District received more than its share of rain.
The Hopkins River was up and water lapped the back door of the Hexham Hotel. Mail couldn’t get through to Warrnambool from Melbourne and at Allansford, not only had the old bridge washed away but also the new bridge under construction.
Bryan Creek, a tributary of the Wannon River, rises up near Vasey about thirty-five kilometres north-east of Coleraine, not far from the Dundas Ranges. Several small creeks run into it as it flows through the valleys of rolling hills. Those open hills enhance the beauty of the district but as Adam Lindsay Gordon wrote in his famous poem “The Fields of Coleraine”, “…the gullies are deep, and the uplands are steep” expediting water runoff into the creek.
By the end of September 1870, farmers were lamenting the wet weather as potatoes rotted in the ground and shearing was delayed.
Unsettled weather continued throughout October. On Friday 28 October 1870 in Coleraine, it was humid with a squally wind.
As the day moved into night, clouds appeared and lightning illuminated the sky like nothing the residents had seen before. Thunder rumbled for two hours. Rain began to fall “gentle and warm” and then, when it seemed to have past, the people of Coleraine “went to repose, fearing nothing from the weather”.
Among them was Emma Laird, who lay down with her sleeping infants James and Isabella. She lived in a cottage behind the Albion newspaper office (below). The Drummond family, David, Margaret and their children were her neighbours. David’s niece Janet was staying over for the night.
Closer to the creek, carrier William Lewis, William Weaven, and another man were camped on what they thought was high ground near the bridge. There was no sleeping under the stars for them that night, instead they made their beds under the dray of William Lewis to shelter from the storm.
As the town went to sleep, little did they know what they thought was the sound of gale force winds roaring through the trees was actually water raging along Bryan Creek. Heavy rain in the catchment area was rapidly entering the waterway. At Gringegalong close to the creek’s headwater, water was knee-deep within an hour. By midnight Bryan Creek was “a roaring torrent and inundated the sleeping town” having risen five feet in two hours. There was chaos. People ran between houses trying to wake the occupants and soon a crowd was gathering near the lowest part of the town where the cottages were submerged in water.
The Coleraine correspondent for the Hamilton Spectator opened his front door only to be almost swept off his feet by the rush of incoming water. He managed to close the door again, but only with the help of another person. He said outside it was “a sea, roaring and boiling, and crushing all in its course.”
Such was the commotion, the order in which the events of that night occurred differ slightly between eye-witness accounts from the likes of the Hamilton Spectator‘s correspondent and the Coleraine Albion reporter. Piecing the various reports together, I believe this is how it all unfolded.
Around 12.30 am, an attempt was made to rescue residents on the low ground, including those at the residence of Robert Wright, the brickmaker on the banks of the creek, and dressmaker Betsy Gillies. In the nick of time, the Wright family got themselves across the deluge to safe ground. Miss Gillies was woken from her slumber and also escaped. In both cases, another few minutes, and the outcome would have been disastrous.
Attention then turned to the two cottages behind the Albion office, that of the Drummonds and Lairds. By now, the water was knee-deep and the current was too fast to safely cross. Constable James Mahon made a dash for it but was carried away. Fortunately, he managed to land on top of a pigsty and was able to get back to safety. He tried again and was able to save one of the children. Storekeeper Louis Lesser also headed across the water and rescued another child. He was also able to lift Mrs Margaret Drummond out of the water and on to the roof of a cowshed. Her husband, David Drummond got three children to safety and went back for three more, James and Margeret Jr and his niece Janet. He had one on his back and one in each arm as he made his way across. Suddenly, the current caught him, and all four were swept away.
Charles Loxton, the young accountant from the National Bank of Australasia (below). attempted to cross on his horse. They were both swept away, and it was then the rescue was abandoned.
Around 1.00 am the water had fallen enough for another attempt to cross to the cottages. Margaret Drummond was found sitting on the cowshed but the rescuers’ worst fears were soon realised. During all the commotion, Emma Laird and two of her children had washed away on their beds as they slept. William Lewis and William Weaven camped by the creek were swept away from beneath the dray. Their friend managed to get himself to safety.
By 8.00 am on Saturday morning, the creek had “assumed its natural proportions” and the horse of Charles Loxton grazed nonchalantly by the creek. It was as though nothing had happened.
But looking around the town, it was anything but normal. It was devastating. “The scene when morning dawned was heartrending. Men, women, and children were found on chimneys and housetops; and all sorts of property was floating about”. The water was three feet deep in McLean’s timber yard and the store of Edmond Dacomb (below) was also flooded.
Also flooded was the store of Abraham Lesser (below) and his brother Louis, a hero only hours earlier.
The bridge over Bryan Creek on the Penola road was destroyed, and the streets were a mess. Almost ominously, headstones at Alfred Priest’s monumental yard were scattered. There was slime everywhere the water had been. Logs, bales of wool and a haystack had washed down the creek. Further downstream, Murdoch McCaskill’s farm once again suffered damage.
The harrowing task of searching for bodies began at first light, with the whole town turning out even though very few had slept. Holes were checked and logs were turned over. By 6.00 pm on Saturday evening, five bodies had been recovered, all of them children. Five adults were still missing. On Sunday, the bodies of Emma Laird and William Lewis were found. Later, the searchers noticed a piece of clothing pocking out from under a huge log. It took around fifty men to remove the log and expose the body of Charles Loxton
As they were found, the bodies were laid out in McKnight’s “old courtroom” and family gathered around their lost loved ones. George Trangmar, the coroner, issued the certificates of burial. The funeral for eight of the victims took place on Monday 31 October at 6.00 pm. The coffins left McKnights for the cemetery with the Oddfellows in the lead, two abreast, then a hearse with some of the coffins, followed by a wagon with the rest. There was a very large cortege and to emphasise the tragedy, reports mentioned there were thirty to forty women in attendance. It was not customary for women to attend funerals in those times.
The body of William Lewis was taken to Sandford for burial.
The Portland correspondent for the Hamilton Spectator told of how the news of the lives lost at Coleraine came in by telegram subsequently casting a gloom over his town. He hoped a suitable monument would be erected to remember the bravery of Charles Loxton and David Drummond.
A week on and William Weaven’s body had not been found, but his family kept searching along the creek for him but to no avail. During September 1872, human remains were found in Bryan Creek about five kilometres downstream from the bridge at Coleraine. The local police decided an inquest was unnecessary as it seemed almost certain the remains were those of William Weaven.
DAVID DRUMMOND and his children James and Margaret DRUMMOND.
David Drummond married Margaret Watson in Tillicoultry, Scotland on 12 June 1852 (1) and they boarded the Chance at Liverpool, England on 23 July 1852 (2). It was a difficult journey with forty-six deaths and on arrival in Melbourne on 28 October 1852, the ship was quarantined and remained so for almost three weeks. Once on dry land, the couple made their way to the Geelong district. A son James was born in 1853 but sadly he died the next year (3). Another son Richard was born in 1854 (4) and a daughter Margaret in 1857 (5). James was born in 1862 at Duck Ponds near Geelong (6).
The family moved west to join other members of the Drummond family sometime after 1862 with John born at Casterton in 1867 (7). It was there in the same year, Margaret Jr, aged ten, faced the Casterton Court of Petty Sessions. Her charges of stealing a pocketbook were eventually dismissed. It was also the year David Jr died at Sandford, aged seven (8). The following year, baby John died, also at Sandford. (9) In 1869, another son was born and named David (10). He was born at Dundas suggesting the family had moved to Coleraine, within the Shire of Dundas.
After the tragic death of her husband and children in 1870, Margaret Drummond continued to live in Coleraine. In her old age, she lived with her son Richard. She died on 1 March 1914 her life punctuated with tragedy. She was buried at the Coleraine Cemetery with David, James, and Margaret (11). Richard died on 17 July 1932 at Coleraine (12). Margaret’s other surviving son David Jr. settled at Streatham. He died in 1941 at Sebastopol (13).
Janet, the niece of David and Margaret Drummond was born at Branxholme in 1861, the daughter of George Drummond and Margaret Scott (14). Her father owned the Shamrock Inn at Coleraine from the early 1870s and then the Koroite Inn from February 1876.
Emma Jane LAIRD and her children James and Isabella
Emma Jane Laird was born around 1842 as Emma Jane Till. Emma arrived from Middlesex, England in 1861 aboard the Oithona and went to work as a housemaid at Dundas station for Samuel Proudfoot Hawkins (15). She married James Laird in 1864 (16). The following year, a daughter Louisa Matilda was born at Coleraine (17). Isabella Jane was born in 1867 (18) followed by a son James Alexander in 1869 (19). James Snr and Louisa were not mentioned in newspaper reports of the flood. James appears to have worked for a contractor and may have been away working, maybe the same reason Louisa went into the care of her grandparents at Casterton in the years after the flood. That, however, soured when in 1876 Alexander Laird took his son James to court for costs incurred for the board and lodging of Louisa. At the age of eighteen, Louisa married John McCreddan in 1883 (20). She died at Noradjua in 1887 aged just twenty-one (21).
Charles Arthur LOXTON
Charles Loxton was born in Liverpool, Lancashire in 1847, a son of George Loxton and Catherine Holland (22). The Loxton family including eight children arrived on the Catharine Mitchell when Charles was three in 1853 (23). It’s not clear when twenty-two-year-old Charles went to Coleraine for work but it may not have bee long before the flood. The National Bank of Australasia where he was an accountant was opened in 1870. Charles’ brother Holland Loxton was the town clerk at Kew. In 1948, Charles’ grave at the Coleraine Cemetery was restored using money donated by then-current and past residents. More about the grave can be seen on the link to Monument Australia – Grave of Charles Arthur Loxton
William Lewis was a son of Thomas Lewis and Rebecca Braham and was born in Tasmania in1843 (24). At some point, the family travelled to Victoria and settled at Sandford, and William worked as a carrier. On Saturday 22 October 1870, he departed the stores of Stephen Henty in Portland with goods for Coleraine. It would be his last job. William was twenty-seven at the time of his death.
William Eric WEAVEN
William Weaven was a son of Thomas Weaven and Christiana Butcher and was born at Portland in 1844 (25).
FLOODING IN OTHER AREAS OF THE WESTERN DISTRICT
At Brung Brungle Station at Redruth (Wannon) close to Coleraine, and owned by John B, Hughes, employee William DUNTON was drowned while trying to save the station’s stud rams. He fell from his horse into the water and, despite being a strong swimmer and struggling for some, exhaustion saw him and succumb to the waters. William was a local boy born around 1853, a son of William Dunton and Elizabeth Edwards. He was buried at the Coleraine Cemetery on 4 November 1870.
Also at Redruth, trees were washing down the Wannon River and hitting the bridge on the main road to Coleraine. On Saturday afternoon 29 October at about 2.30 pm the bridge, only six years old was washed away. Trees were going over the Nigretta and Wannon Falls. The local correspondent for the Hamilton Spectator ventured to the Wannon Falls and found a “huge boiling cauldron” beneath. Trees from further up the river lay below. He then went to see the bridge on the main road. It was on its last legs and soon it washed down the river towards the Wannon Falls.
With the bridge out, the only way to get the mail through was a rope over the river or behind the path of the falls (below).
At Hilgay not far from Coleraine, John MOFFAT was drowned. A number of horses on the property were in hobbles and stranded in deep water. The owners of two of the horses offered £1 each to anyone who would go underwater and cut the hobbles. Shortly after, John Moffat asked one of the owners for a knife and a pipe of tobacco. He didn’t say he was going to free the horses but instead just “strolled away. Later it was noticed he was missing, and a search was made. His clothes were found on the river bank by his friends, but his body couldn’t be found.
At Roseneath on the Glenelg River north of Casterton, eleven-year-old Lewis Frank Russel RALSTON, a son of Robert Ralston and Jane Ross was drowned in the river.
There was an electrical storm at Casterton and subsequent floods were considered the “greatest floods ever” or at least since 1851. Stores and homes were flooded while at nearby Sandford, the bridge over the Wannon River washed away. At Balmoral, the “old” bridge was gone and around Harrow, the water offered “an almost uninterrupted swim”.
At Hamilton, communications were down and the Hamilton Spectator said it “rained in torrents for hours”.
One report suggested around 34 mm of rain fell in a short time. The bridge over the Grange Burn on Dunkeld Road (now Ballarat Road) was partially washed away. Further downstream, the Grange Inn on the banks of the creek was in more than a metre of water resulting in the kitchen breaking away and washing down the creek. One of the abutments on the nearby Portland Road bridge had washed away and the roadway had fallen in.
To the east, sheep washes were swept away at Strathkellar and around 600 sheep were drowned at Warrayure. At Portland, the storm was spectacular and around 17mm of rain fell.
A horse was struck by lightning at Streatham and at Colac, the heaviest rain in years fell. Murray Street was like a river and Lake Colac was rising.
At Ballarat, the rain brought the worst flood in memory.
There were cries of “Not October storms again” as people recalled the floods in the town the year prior. Then Bridge Street was a river (below) but in 1870, the water level exceeded that high mark.
COLERAINE’S FLOOD HISTORY
The people of Coleraine have been no strangers to flooding over the years. For example, there was 1893, 1906, 1983, and more recently 2016, the worst flooding since 1946, the year of ‘The Big Flood‘ across the Western District. Even earlier this month while writing this account, two days of almost constant rain saw the Bryan Creek once again rise, resulting in some minor flooding.
The flood of October 1870 was disastrous and possibly the worst in the town’s history, but as there weren’t official records kept for rainfall and the creek levels, it is difficult to compare. The only comparison can be made with the number of fatalities and fortunately, there has never been a repeat of the loss of life seen in 1870.
You can find more about the history of flooding at Coleraine from the following video prepared for the Southern Grampians Shire Council investigation into the 2016 Coleraine floods. You can read the full report on the link – Coleraine Flood Investigation
* Bryan Creek – While researching the 1870 floods, I came across several variations of the name of the creek which passes by Coleraine, Bryan Creek, Bryan’s Creek, Bryants Creek, Koroite Creek, and Koroite Rivulet. The use of Koroite comes from the Koroite run. The homestead stood on the northern bank of the creek just west of the township once known as Bryan’s Creek from the name of the run taken up by John Bryan in 1837 and later his brother Samuel. In 1937, the Portland Guardian claimed Samuel Pratt Winter said in the Hamilton Spectator in 1878, also the year of his death, that somewhere along the line someone had added a”t”.
1. Scotland, Marriages, 1561-1910, FamilySearch, David Drummond, 1852, FHL Film No. 1040210
2. PROV, Assisted British Immigration Index, VPRS 14, Book 7, Page 54, Chance, 1852
3. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, James DRUMMOND, 1854, Reg. No. 3277/1854
4. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, Richard DRUMMOND, 1854, Reg. No. 6918/1854
5. Victorian BDMS Birth Index, Margaret DRUMMOND, 1857, Reg. No. 15416/1857
6. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, James DRUMMOND, 1862, Reg. No. 1963/1862
7. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, John DRUMMOND, 1867, Reg. No. 7017/1867
8. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, David DRUMMOND, 1867, Reg. No. 9949/1867
9. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, John DRUMMOND, 1868, Reg. No. 545/1868
10. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, David DRUMMOND, 1869, Reg. No. 7703/1869
11. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, Margaret DRUMMOND, 1914, Reg. No. 1220/1914
12. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, Richard DRUMMOND, 1932, Reg. No. 8881/1932
13. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, David DRUMMOND, 1941, Reg. No. 2076/1914
14. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, Jennet DRUMMOND, 1861, Reg. No.3467/1861
15. PROV, Assisted British Immigration Index, VPRS 14, Book 13A, Page 141, Oithona, 1861
16. Victorian BDMs, Marriage Index, Emma Jane Till, 1864, Reg. No. 3529/1864
17. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, Louisa Matilda LEARD, 1865, Reg. No.4907/1865
18. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, Isabella Jane LAIRD, 1867, Reg. No. 20916/1867
19. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, James Alexander LAIRD, 1869, Reg. No. 21412/1869
20. Victorian BDMs, Marriage Index, Louisa Matilda LAIRD, 1883, Reg. No. 3794/1883
21. Victorian BDM’s Death Index, Louisa Matilda McCREDDEN, 1887, Reg. No. 3417/1887
22. Liverpool Record Office; Liverpool, England; Liverpool Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: 283 PET/2/37
23. PROV, Unassisted Passenger List, Catharine Mitchell, Fiche 27, p. 7, Charles LOXTON
24. Libraries Tasmania, Name Index: 1089108, Births, William Lewis, 1843, Resource: RGD32/1/3/ no 2271
25. Victorian BDMs Birth Index, William WEAVEN, 1844, Reg. No. 30623/1844