Brisbane Flood

As material captured by the flood stacks against one the smaller of sawmill buildings, the Tadorna Radjah is buffeted in the current.

The Brisbane River rose in flood on three occasions in February 1893. An early cyclonic deluge was followed by a second cyclone event on 11 February. The third cyclone on 19 February peaked slightly lower than the first. Destruction in Brisbane and beyond was widespread.

The first peak occurred around 6 February 1893. Water rose 10 feet (3 metres) above the previous high of 1890, peaking 23 feet 9 inches (7.2 metres) above the mean spring tides. In the South Brisbane Reach of the Brisbane River, between Kurilpa Point and the Kangaroo Point cliffs, the rise flooded wharves and warehouses. Houses swept from their stumps upstream crashed into Victoria Bridge with such force that the northern end of the bridge was swept away.

Both old and new Queen’s Wharf structures were covered, with the river waters inching towards the rear of the then Museum, along what is today’s Queen’s Wharf Road. According to newspaper reports, the Commissariat buildings were under water to a depth of 2-3 feet (approximately 1 metre). The lower portions of the former Immigration Depot, having by then been converted for Department of Agriculture purposes, were flooded to the same extent. Most of Pettigrew’s sawmill buildings were inundated, with a small stone building collapsed.

The Brisbane River again peaked on Sunday 12 February at 7 feet 3 inches (2.2 metres) above the high spring tides but 6 feet 6 inches (2 metres) below the 1890 level. Queen’s Wharf again flooded. The river rose yet again on Friday 17 February following 36 hours of steady rain that the Brisbane Courier described as ‘phenomenally heavy’. It peaked on 19 February around noon, some 10 inches (0.25 metres) below the first flood of that February.

The damage across south-east Queensland was considerable, though not well recorded in outer districts. At Queen’s Wharf the best evidence of damage can be found in the ‘during’ and ‘after’ images. In what appears to be an image from early in the flood, one adventurous photographer captured the rising water as it swirled through Pettigrew’s sawmill wharf. The doomed Tadorna Radjah then seemed securely tied to a wharf slightly upstream.

People viewed the swollen river from the safety of the road to Queen’s Wharf. There they could see how the long western wall of Pettigrew’s sawmill received a broadside of water, while the current in the stream tore at the moored Tadorna Radjah. It sank on 9 February 1893.

Another photographer captured the way in which buildings collected within the sawmill yard, with yet another image showing how the material settled in stacks as the water receded. A photographer standing on the new Queen’s Wharf captured the extent of the sawmill damage by looking uphill towards the buildings on William Street. He was watched by a man in a bowler hat, not surprisingly carrying an umbrella. The remains of the stone building, possible the store constructed by Orr and Honeyman in the 1860s, is at right. A roof and a tumbled pile of timber planks have been left higher on the bank. An image taken by Greenfield& Barraclough provides a close-up of the damage once the river had resumed its usual run.

While the flood peaks of February 1893 adversely affected many Brisbane residents, it proved yet another setback for Pettigrew’s sawmill enterprise at Queen’s Wharf. Operations concluded there in 1900.

Additional Reading

Brisbane Courier, 6 February 1893, p. 3.


  • Fryer Library, UQ, uqfl28_b02_a03_o0032.jpg from the Philp Family Collection
  • SLQ Image APE-067-0001-0011
  • SLQ Image API-033-01-0007
  • SLQ Image API-082-0001-0003