Brisbane 1893

the rain began falling in January and over the next month more than 40 inches, or 2000 millimetres, fell across the south-east. At 8.3 metres the flood waters’ peak was almost double that of the flood of January 2011. With the telegraph lines between Ipswich and Esk damaged by the cyclonic weather, the grazier H P Somerset, from his property at Caboonbah near the present day Somerset Dam, sent a horseman named Billy Mateer to deliver a crucial telegram warning the people of Ipswich and Brisbane that a great flood was on its way. Some sources say Mateer made the journey on one horse, some say there were two, named Lunatic and Oracle, and that he rode them flat out all the way. [1]

As the floodwaters rose, dozens of professional and travelling photographers across the state set up their cameras and made images of the dramatic scenes. In 1893 the population of Brisbane had only just passed 100,000, the rail system was in its infancy and trams were still horse-drawn, but there was a small but thriving community of professional photographers. While most of these photographers made their living by producing studio portraits and cartes de visite, they also photographed cities, towns, landscapes and notable events. The negatives of these scenes were often on-sold to album or postcard producers to feed the interstate and overseas demand for images of the rapidly expanding young nation.

Image 25a


is a rare collection of 82 large format photographs taken in Brisbane and other flood-affected towns across the state in 1893. The album itself is of handsome marbled boards backed with leather and forms part of the collection of the Philp family, (UQFL28).[2] Robert Philp, a businessman and politician, was born in Glasgow and arrived in Queensland in 1862. After entering state politics in 1886 as member for Musgrave he became Premier of Queensland in 1899. As co-founder of the successful Burns Philp Company and a wealthy and eminent person he would have been one of only a small number of people able to afford such a luxury item as this album.

While the first camera for the amateur photographer, the "Pocket Kodak", was introduced in 1888, these images of the floods were made with large, unwieldy cameras using the "dry plate" process, an emulsion of gelatine and silver bromide on a glass plate. The publisher of the album is uncertain, but some of the images were produced by the Poul C. Poulsen studio, which operated in Queen Street from 1885 to 1900, the Alex C. Wishart studio, also in Queen Street, and, in Rockhampton, Jens Hansen Lundager.

Also on display is another album inscribed, ‘C. Hurworth, Richmond, Bowen Hills, ’93 Floods.’ [3] More than likely compiled by him, Christopher Hurworth, 1834-1898, was an immigrant from the north of England who resided in ‘Richmond’, his family home on the corner of William and George Streets, Bowen Hills, and was a former Headmaster of the Boys’ State School in Fortitude Valley. This album contains another 70 photographs of the 1893 flood, some showing incredible detail of ships, dockyards, buildings and people. For reference, an 1888 ‘birds-eye’ illustration of Brisbane is also on display, giving an excellent idea of the city which faced the 1893 floodwaters.


  • [1] Account of the flood of 1893 in Brisbane, Fryer research manuscript F840, Cuttings on the 1893 Brisbane River flood,
    Fryer research manuscript F2044
  • [2] Philp family papers 1874-1920, Fryer research manuscript UQFL28
  • [3] Photographs : Brisbane floods 1893, Fryer research manuscript F3284

Darren Williams, Fryer Library

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