July 28, 2021

The Great Melbourne Flood of 1972

Melbourne used to be prone to flooding. In The Great Melbourne Flood of 1972, a violent storm front buried the CBD under a surging torrent of water.

The Great Melbourne Flood of 1972
The Great Melbourne Flood of 1972

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 of 1972

Black clouds filled the sky, and blotted out the sun. Rain began to fall and was soon pelting down at a furious rate, quickly overwhelming the storm water drains so that they 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 of 1972: Neil Bowler's photo of Bourke Street
Neil Bowler's famous picture of Bourke St. Photo: The Age

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 of 1972

The Great Melbourne Flood of 1972
More photos of the deluge.

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

The rain eased after that, but continued throughout the afternoon, which meant the flooding spread beyond the city centre. And as 5pm arrived, this lead to public transport disruptions, and general chaos, for city workers trying to get home.

Robert Padula, an engineer working in South Melbourne, left work at 4.30pm, to catch a train home 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, eyewitness

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

But the rain eased 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 sudden and dramatic of these events.

Substantial efforts have been made to improve the city's drainage since this time, and fortify the banks of the Yarra. But the proximity of the river to the city, and its shallowness, means that some flooding is inevitable.


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