On Thursday 24 June 1852, after weeks of heavy rain, the Murrumbidgee River broke its banks and surged into Gundagai. In previous floods, residents sought shelter in their attics and on rooftops. This time the water rose rapidly and soon there was no escape. The island that Gundagai had become was sinking fast.
By midnight, under a full moon, the floodwaters became a raging torrent. Whole buildings were swept away. For the terrified residents, the treetops became the only things left to hold on to. Some people clung on for two nights before losing their grip and being swept away. Others died from exhaustion in the branches.
Estimates of the death toll are between 80 and 100 people, more than one-third of Gundagai’s population of about 250.
It remains Australia’s deadliest flood. The final death toll will never be known, as it was not known how many travellers were in town. Bodies were discovered for months afterward. At least 35 of the victims were children; the youngest was only three weeks old.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gundagai correspondent clung to a treetop until he was rescued. He reported:
As night drew in the unavailing cries for assistance all-around became fearfully harassing. Crash after crash announced the fall of a house and the screams that followed the engulfing of those who clung.
The death toll would have been much higher if not for the heroic efforts of local Wiradjuri men. Of the four men involved, only two are known by name, Yarri (Yarrie or Yarra) and Jackey (Jacky or Jacky Jacky).
Over three days they navigated the treacherous waters in a bark canoe and a rowboat, pulling survivors from the trees.
Wiradjuri men were renowned for their skillful use of bark canoes. Such canoes were only able to carry one passenger, so Yarri made many trips, taking people one at a time. He rescued 49 people while Jackey rescued 20 using a rowboat.
The Wiradjuri people had been decimated by introduced diseases including smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles, and violence as they were displaced from their homelands, but they did not hesitate to rescue the settlers when disaster struck.
Sculpture of two muscular Aboriginal men with bark canoe. A crowd of people looks on, with shops in the background.
Sculpture of Yarri and Jackey unveiled on the main street of Gundagai
Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1852:
The scenes … are truly distressing. At every step you see someone lamenting the dead. Here and there the sorrowing remains, of what three days before was a large and thriving family.
Of the 78 buildings on the Gundagai flat, 48 were completely swept away and the rest were irreparably damaged. The town’s flour mill was one of only three buildings still intact.
Throughout the colony, there was an outpouring of sadness. Anger was directed at the NSW Government for short-sighted town planning.
In October 1852 the government gave in to mounting pressure and agreed to exchange any allotments at risk of flooding for land on higher ground.
By the end of 1859, the old town was completely abandoned and Gundagai was settled on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where it remains today.
It was years before Yarri and Jackey received any recognition for their heroic acts. In 1875 they were given an engraved breastplate each and granted a lifelong pension from the settlers.
Their story lives on in oral history and poetry, and in the descendants of those who were saved by the men. In 2017, on the 165th anniversary of the great flood, Gundagai unveiled a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jackey with a bark canoe.