In the last few days, I’ve had quite a few emails, messages and phone calls from friends concerned about how my family have fared in the current floods. “That’s not a flood”, I’ve told them, “It’s a high river. 74 – now that was a flood”. At which point I’ve gone on to tell them (bore them?) with my memories of Lismore floods, along with some interesting family folklore.

Although the river had gone up and down several times already during my life, my first “real memory” of a flood was of the 1974 flood. I was eight years old at the time. As with most Lismore floods it had been raining heavily for several days. “What’s happening at Nashua?”, I recall my mum saying as my dad listened to 2LM. Early in my life, I learned there was a relationship between the extent of flooding and the amount of rain they had at Nashua and the level of the flood we could expect in Lismore.

As I recall it was a Sunday night when South Lismore flooded. Although due to an expected failure in the levee bank, dad must have known something terrible was going to happen, as we spent much of Sunday afternoon securing things underneath the house. The washing machine was raised three or four feet off the ground and the family car had been moved to the higher block of land next door. With everything secure, we came back upstairs and sat to watch “Disneyland”, as was the Sunday night family tradition. By the end of Disneyland, our house was surrounded by almost six feet of water. Needless to say, both the washing machine and the family car were covered in water.

As our house was on stilts, we avoided inundation this time. The people who lived across the road, however, the Jobson’s (their daughter Wendy was in my year at school) were evacuated in the middle of the night.

The flood-waters surrounded our house for three of four days, as I recall. When they finally subsided we were able to walk around the neighbourhood to visit family and friends to see how they had fared. These were the days before telephones were common in households, and communication was therefore limited. In particular, there was concern about how my sister, Pat had fared with her infant child. As she lived opposite a fuel depot (she still does), she told us of her late-night fears (while her husband was out volunteering for the State Emergency Service) as she heard the floating fuel drums smash against each other.

From there we walked across the Ballina Street Bridge to see how people who lived in the CBD had fared. Long before the establishment of the levee bank there were a number of families living on the riverbank, many of them Aboriginal. Standing on the bridge we were able to look down to see the water just a dozen feet or so beneath our feet. Rushing rapidly, and carrying livestock with it, I remember, in particular, seeing a distressed cow mournfully mooing as it floated underneath our feet.

Although the 1974 flood was and remains the highest in recorded history, the 1954 flood was far worse, in terms of financial devastation and lives lost. A decade before I was born, I’d only been told stories of what occurred. Most significantly, our house was low-set in 1954, which meant the floodwaters came right inside reaching to almost the top of the window-sills.

As it was in the days before the State Emergency Service, my family, like many others, had no other option than to move higher and higher as the water came up. Famously, my mum and my granny sat on chairs on the kitchen table until the rising waters forced them too into the ceiling.

When they soon realised my overweight granny couldn’t squeeze through the manhole, they cut a larger manhole. Thus, my mum, my dad, my granny, my uncle and my four sisters spent close to a week living in the roof-top of our house, with flood-waters swirling just below them.

It’s hard to imagine how isolated they were at the time. According to press release issued by Telstra a couple of years ago, recognising my Uncle Alf as “Bigpond’s Oldest Customer – he was 100 years old at the time – Having been introduced into amateur radio by a cousin in 1922, Alf obtained his Amateur Radio Operators License in 1947 and today remains an active operator. During the 1954 Lismore flood, he provided the only communication to the outside for telegraphs, police and councils.

With monotonous regularity, much of my early life was spent on flood-watch. Listening to the radio and listening to the stories told by family members, I became knowledgeable at an early age about how flood-waters come and go and about the flood-markers you need to keep an eye out for. I wonder if any of the newer arrivals in Lismore know of the significance of “AGR’s Corner”?

Although my family continues to live in one of the two most flood-prone areas of Lismore, we have been fairly lucky. Like most people who have lived in the area for a number of generations, we have developed an in-built sensibility about how best to deal with floods. Mostly they have been an inconvenience more than anything, although we did lose a few family things in the 1989 flood which came up very quickly.

Perhaps not as quickly, though, as the flash flood which occurred in the 1960s (I think), which my mum told me saw her quickly surrounded by three feet of water while putting out the washing.

The last time I was genuinely worried about my family was in 2005 when the river reached near-record heights. At the time there was a genuine threat to South Lismore, and my niece, with a young child, for the first time in years considered moving to higher ground. As it happened, she didn’t need to.

My most significant flood memory remains, however of the 1974 flood. Whether or not 1974 will remain the biggest flood in recorded history remains to be seen. My dad told me a story many years ago relayed to him by his sister-in-law, Eileen Crummy. By way of interest, Eileen and her family (and my grandmother, Lena) lived in a house in North Lismore, the area of Lismore most prone to flooding. An Aboriginal woman whose family had lived in the area for, presumably, thousands of years, she told dad of a flood which had gone “over the top of the Cathedral Hill”. If such a flood occurred again, Lismore would be in SERIOUS trouble.


* The flood photograph from the State Emergency Service website demonstrates how deep the flood-waters became in 1974. Source unknown. And by the way, that’s AGR’s Corner you’re looking at.

SES Floods

Going to Venice – Stories from the 1974 Richmond River flood

Going To Venice – Radio National

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13 thoughts on “Flood Memories

  1. How fascinating for a child! Your diary has brought out some dusty memories James, because it reminds me of the floods that hit Rockhampton (QLD) while I was holidaying with my family in the late 70’s. The Fitzroy River broke its banks, and instead of me and brother riding our bikes from my aunty’s place to my nana’s, we jumped in the dinghy and rowed up. It took us nearly an hour because we had no idea how to row a boat. It was such an adventure! My aunty and nana both had homes on stilts, and my nana lived on a hill so everything was dry. We tied the dinghy up to the gate post and rode Popstar, my uncle Terry’s racehorse, up to nana’s steps. All her chickens were sitting on the steps clucking and we had to climb over them. It was hilarious to a couple of kids.

  2. hey james. im just wondering if you have any pictures or information on the 1954 floods on hand. Im doing an assignment for HSIE at Southern Cross Uni.your journal has been a fantastic help!

  3. Hi Rebecca, glad it’s been useful. A few years ago I remember going through copies of “The Northern Star” on microfilm at the State Library. There were pages and pages of photos and stories. They might be useful to you also to have a look at? James

  4. Hi James,
    We are doing a tree on our family.
    i am a daughter of Pearl&William Carter.
    My mother was Pearl Irene Cooper,her father was
    Joseph Cooper&Doris Holzhauser.The Obriens are her
    relations.Could i ask for any info you may have please.
    My name is Florence Ann Carter,I get called Ann.

  5. Dear Ann,
    Thanks for your email. I’ve been interested in the Holzhauser connection for a while, but haven’t done any research in that area. All i know is that as I’ve gone through the records, there’s a big Holzhauser/O’Brien connection. As I recall, when my grandparents, James O’Brien and Lena Noonan moved from the South Coast to the North Coast, there were already some Holzhausers there too. So at the moment I have nothing much to add, but will keep in touch if I come across any information along the way.
    Cheers, James

    1. Lena was my grandfather’s mother his name Kevin O’Brien is my mother Leslie O’Brien’s father

  6. Hello James
    could you please pass on my contact details to Ann Carter

  7. Hi James, i was just wondering what is Pats husbands name? the SES worker? Iam completing an assignment and would like to talk about SES workers!

  8. That weekend in 1974 we came up from Kempsey for an inter-schools slalom canoe competition. At first the slalom gates were set up under Simes Bridge, but by half-way through the morning the water in the river was too high so we went out to Lismore lake and started to set up there when I remember my Dad hearing on the radio that the road home was cut by fllod waters. That was when we decided to give up on the slalom! Luckily we had friends who lived in Goonellabah so we stayed there for a week – I remember the view out their north-facing windows was just a grey curtain of rain for the whole week while sat inside and played “Mahjong”. Our canoeing friends were down in Lismore delivering bread and other necessities by canoe to those stranded. When the sun finally came out this grand vista north to the Border Ranges appeared, with all the low lying land in between being covered in a sea of flood water.

  9. Hey james i have an assignment at school its on history of flooding i was wondering if you have more information on 1974 and 1954 if you do please email me

    1. Hi Megan, good luck with your assignment. Everything I know is here. If you’re looking for some great articles about previous floods, you might try which is terrific for old newspapers. You might also be interested in the book Great Australian Flood Stories by my colleague, Ian Mannix, which you might be able to find in your local library. Cheers, James

  10. Hi James my pop was Kevin orbrien son or Eileen crummy from north lismore he had a son James orbrien to also woundering if u had any more information on the. Family. As I need to find history to show my own children cheers x

    1. Hi Latoya, Sorry for the delay. The last few weeks have been crazy busy. I remember Kevin, and in particular his large family. The last I remember he had moved from Crown Street to somewhere in East Lismore. I also remember Eileen. Everything I know about the family is here, though you might want to make contact with some of the other people here, as there seems to be a a few people doing exactly what you are right now. Cheers James

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