October 20, 2021

The Great Melbourne Flood of ’72

In The Great Melbourne Flood of '72, a violent storm front buried the CBD under a surging torrent of water. It set a rainfall record for the city, that still stands.

The Great Melbourne Flood
The Great Melbourne Flood of '72

February 1972 was a wet month in Melbourne. The recorded rainfall was about five times the normal monthly average, setting a precipitation record for February that still stands.

The heaviest single day of rain was February 17.

Around 3.30pm on that day, a sudden, violent storm blew up over the CBD.

The Great Melbourne Flood

Black clouds filled the sky, and darkness settled over the city. Mid afternoon was like night.

Rain began to fall and was soon pelting down at a furious rate, quickly overwhelming the city's storm water drains. Flood water spilled out into the streets.

The deluge would continue for only seventeen minutes, but this was enough to put the entire southern half of the city under several feet of water.

The Great Melbourne Flood, Neil Bowler's photo of Bourke Street
Neil Bowler's famous picture of Bourke St.

On hand to capture the chaos was Neil Bowler, a photographer for 'The Age' newspaper.

Bowler was hanging out in the staff room at the paper when the downpour started. The editor on duty, Greg Taylor, soon appeared and asked Bowler if he would mind stepping out to get some pictures:

'I got halfway down Bourke St and couldn't go any further. The street was under water. I walked through the old state bank building to the water and started snapping away.'

 

- Neil Bowler

The water rose so quickly that Bowler was nearly swept away. Another photographer grabbed him by his shirt just as he was about to lose his balance and tumble into the flood.

The Great Melbourne Flood

The Great Melbourne Flood
More photos of the deluge.

In the end, 75mm of rain fell in just twenty minutes.

The rain then eased, but continued to fall throughout the afternoon. Public transport in the CBD ground to a halt, cuasing chaos at 5pm as the city's workers tried to get home.

Robert Padula, an engineer working in South Melbourne, left work at 4.30pm, to catch a train from Flinders St station:

'When we reached Princess Bridge we looked out across the railway yards, to discover they had become a vast lake! The rain was still pelting down, like a monsoon.

 

All the trains out of Flinders St had been stopped.

 

So, with many other drenched commuters, we walked along Alexandra Avenue to Richmond Station. There, we jumped onto the train tracks and walked a further 2km to Hawthorn Station, which had become a temporary terminus.'

 

- Robert Padula

Other eyewitnesses recalled riding in trams where the water was level with the floor, or seeing actual waves rolling down Elizabeth Street.

The rain ceased overnight, and the water had largely receded by the next day.

While Melbourne's CBD has flooded many times over the life of the city, the great flash flood of '72 was probably the most dramatic of these events in recent times.

Substantial efforts have been made to improve the city's drainage and fortify the banks of the Yarra. But the proximity of the river to the city, and its shallowness, means that flooding still occurs when rainfall is heavy enough.

Read more about Melbourne's history by clicking the link below:

THE MELBOURNE FILES

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