Watery Graves: Floods at the Cemetery

As Brisbane’s only riverside cemetery, the South Brisbane Cemetery has been affected by major flooding events on a few occasions. The majority of the cemetery is on high ground and is quite safe, but there are some low-lying areas that do go under when the Brisbane River breaks its banks.

It was reported in the Brisbane Courier that the cemetery had “again demonstrated its total unfitness as a last resting place, with floods in several places, and communication with the higher and the lower sections is very difficult, if not impossible, for the bridge is submersed.” The bridge referred to here was on the road near portion 6B.

In February 1893 Brisbane experienced one of the biggest floods in its recorded history. The massively swollen river and the debris it swept along caused much destruction along its path, and the South Brisbane Cemetery was also affected. The steamer Midge passed the cemetery and reported:

‘On the South Brisbane side a landslip has occurred, and undoubtedly some graves have disappeared, and gravestones are strewn all about.’ (Brisbane Courier, February 23 1893)

However, cemetery trustee Joseph Baynes visited the cemetery the very next day to assess the damage himself, and wrote:

‘On examination I find that no graves have disappeared, but many headstones and other fixings are very much damaged, and persons interested would do well to look after them.’ (Brisbane Courier, February 24 1893)
Sketch of the flooding at South Brisbane Cemetery, 1893.

Despite this clear evidence that no bodies were lost, misinformation continues to be repeated on certain tours today that bodies were indeed washed away in the flood, a claim that has upset some people who believed this happened to their ancestors. There is absolutely no credible evidence that any graves or bodies were lost in the 1893 flood.

Brisbane was hit by massive flooding again in 1974, the worst since 1893. Once again no graves were lost, but some headstones were damaged by floating debris in the receding waters. There have been stories about an entire portion, graves and all, collapsing into the river during this flood. According to the Department of Environment and Resource Management, a small portion of cemetery land did collapse in 1974 but this was a small area on the northern boundary and it was not used for burials.

Aerial photo of the cemetery during the 1974 floods.

Some recent stories claim the cemetery was entirely covered by flood waters but it is clear in the photo above that only a small area of the cemetery was actually affected by the floods. It would take a flood of truly Biblical proportions to submerge South Brisbane Cemetery!

Parts of the cemetery were flooded again in January 2011 when the Brisbane River broke its banks. Although not as extensive as previous flooding, the receding waters left a number of sections in a filthy condition. No graves or headstones were damaged.

South Brisbane Cemetery during flooding, 2011 (FOSBC).

Two big community clean-ups quickly followed. The first one was organised by Channel 7 and the FOSBC and attracted over 100 people. The second clean-up, run by the FOSBC, attracted similar numbers. These events were the biggest volunteer community projects ever seen in the cemetery. (See The Great Graveyard Shift and Karma, the Cemetery and the Floods for more about these events).

Parts of the cemetery, particularly the area near the central office building, still suffer occasional flash flooding after heavy rainfalls, but once again the volunteers are on hand to clean up afterwards.