When the Rain Falls in July

Macleay recalls its greatest flood disaster


A photo reproduced in a souvenir edition of the Macleay Argus showing an Army duck towing the carcases of drowned cattle down river for a proper burial. Photo courtesy Macleay River Historical Society.

A photo reproduced in a souvenir edition of the Macleay Argus showing an Army duck towing the carcases of drowned cattle down river for a proper burial. Photo courtesy Macleay River Historical Society.

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The great deluge of '49 washed 15,000 head of cattle to their death and scoured established upstream paddocks of topsoil.

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Slim dusty, the one-time yodeler from Nulla Nulla, recorded a time in the mid 1940s when winter on the Macleay brought floods –  each one so large it seemed the last would never be repeated.

Alas, each year the rain ‘tumbled down in July’, washing the rural economy to a low ebb. But few predicted the deluge of ’49, coming on the back of a wet winter.

The great wash, with a ‘wall of water’ coursing down the catchment, drowned more than 15,000 head of cattle, killed six people and washed away 53 homes and businesses, with scores more wrecked. The damage bill amounted to more than two million pounds, the dearest disaster in the state’s young history.

Almost a metre of rain fell into the great valley by late July –  a year’s precipitation in half the time. One week later leading residents called on the council to enact some sort of flood warning system, the intentions of which were duly confirmed at the next monthly meeting –  just days before the big one.

Macleay River Historical Society has an excellent search program and flicking through those timely issues of the Argus , focusing just on the word flood, cast a light on this historic event, which  lifted the river at Bellbrook from eight to beyond 56 foot in 16 hours. The day before water a spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology was quoted saying the sodden catchment posed ‘no danger of flooding’ and that the saturated soil should go towards a bumper crop come the warmer months. Ominously, the last issue before the printing press went under, carried an ominous observation: Gale off the central coast whips seas into fury.

Indeed that East Coast Low was the catalyst for disaster, as surface winds drove ocean air onto the vast and jagged escarpment that rings the upper catchment. There must have been a cold front as part of this storm as it snowed so much at Walcha and Guyra that drifts covered the guideposts. Rain followed and the freezing slurry rushed to the coast, each creek uniting with another as they formed rivers. At Toorooka the Macleay rose more than three metres in an hour and the wall of water crashed towards Kempsey with the sound of a freight train. By the time it arrived no one was ready to act, as if any action would have made a difference.

Don’t strip off!

Jack Dowling went to work as normal the day of the flood, at Hagan’s sawmill on Sundown Creek, a tributary of Hickey Creek, and water came up so fast they were trapped.

“It had been raining heavy all day and the water rose pretty quick,” the 91 year old recalled from his bed at St Vincents aged care facility in Kempsey. “We decided to swim out, across the torrent, myself with Pat Clark and Ernie Williams.”

Across the channel was Rex Johnson with his cream lorrie and he suddenly called out: “Don’t strip off, there’s women over here!”

But in a moment Jack, halfway across the wide expanse of freezing water, thought swimming at least bare chested would have been a good idea as the sodden elbows of his woolen jumper dragged him down with every stroke.

Rex drove them all to the Willawarrin pub where empty bottles stacked in the back yard had floated out of their cases and were washing against the back steps in a rhythmic clink.

Downstream at Aldavilla, where the river winds around fertile alluvial flats, there was a huddle of families eking a living out of cream, pigs and mixed cropping. All were unprepared for what was about to unfold.

Rose Smyth, living at home, aged 89, recalls her brother Kevin helping Ray Daley move his stud Jersey heifers off the river flats.

“It was getting late and there was lightening continuously,” she recalled. The rain was pouring down and they couldn’t do anything with those cattle.”

All of them were washed downstream by morning, joining 15,000 head that drowned in the event. In the clean up that followed some 2000 of them were buried in a trench at Clybucca by an army of volunteers

The water rose so swiftly at Aldavilla, as it would everywhere, that  Rose’s niece and her family were trapped in their home. As water trickled up over the floorboards the children were ushered up a ladder into the ceiling.

A saturated Macleay catchment responded quickly to rain.

A saturated Macleay catchment responded quickly to rain.

Most remarkable were the actions of a good Samaritan named Bob Kebby of Frederickton, a life member of the Crescent Head Surf Lifesaving Club who commandeered a seaworthy rowboat from the Greenhill ferry and arranged to have it trucked to the river upstream of Belgrave Falls. With just a tin of condensed milk for sustenance he rowed downstream towards the trapped families at Aldavilla.

The Macleay at Bellbrook rose with ferocious intent on August 27, 1949.

The Macleay at Bellbrook rose with ferocious intent on August 27, 1949.

George Ptolemy recalled neighour Bill Goldy saying how Mr Kebby went through the rapids of those falls, which were a frightful row of triangular standing waves, and disappeared for 50 metres before he ‘came up spinning’.

By the time Mr Kebby arrived it was dark and cold and he couldn’t get too many volunteers for a further row towards Kempsey. And anyway the water level seemed to have stabilised so he spent the night with the family.

Brothers George and Vince Ptolemy recall the experience as children, peeking down the manhole at the men gathered ‘round the kitchen table, which by now was surrounded by cold muddy water.

By morning the river had dropped and the emergency upstream of Kempsey was over. But it was clear the Ptolemy’s farm, like so many others, was scoured of its assets.

The house survived but all the outbuildings were scrubbed away –  the concrete slab of the dairy actually washed onto the road slightly upstream, carried by the force of a giant eddy. Where the shed had been was a great hole. The family recovered their draft horse in the riverbank quarry thanks to some aboriginal boys at Greenhill and the gelding lived to plough another day. Sadly Joe Ptolemy’s prized racing mare drowned and Vince remembers finding her buried, just feet sticking out of alluvium.

Slim Dustry sings 'When the Rain Falls in July'

An inland sea

From Kempsey to the coast there was an inland sea and those living on the flats were trapped for days.

Belmore River resident Noel Bannon, 90, remembers absolute inundation with his family huddled for three nights in the ceiling. When the sound of rain on tin subsided he kicked open a sheet of tin to let a bit of light and air into dank refuge. The view from the rooftop was of water to the horizon.

In this great flood the Macleay cut corners in its haste, washing out the railway viaduct at West Kempsey and flowing ’round Red Hill into Pola Creek and along what is now Frogmore Drain, cutting the corduroy track on Old Station Road before filling the Belmore River from the upper catchment in a sudden rush  that deposited alluvial soil on what had been a boggy quill rod swamp. At its peak the flood found its own way to the ocean through Ryans Cut, south of Hat Head.

At the time Noel was working for his uncle Ray Rowe who returned from Kempsey railway station where he picked up his visiting daughter Phyllis. Noel recalls his relation kissing the bonnet of the car in praise for navigating through a torrent of water falling from the sky. “This is going to be a big flood,” he said. “We’re not going to bed tonight.”

They did their best to secure livestock in secure paddocks, but they lost two horses which floated into a tangle atop river oaks, three metres off the ground. So soft were those branches that they survived.

“My father said to me it would be another 20 years before we’d get a flood of that magnitude,” recalled Mr Bannon. And it is true that one as large has yet to return but when the next flood came –  very nearly as high –  it was just nine months later.

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