08 March 2022

South Brisbane Cemetery Floods 2022

The water at the office, about 1.5 metres below the high water mark. (P. Granville)

The South Brisbane Cemetery is the city’s only riverside cemetery and it suffered during the recent flooding, with the shed, office and toilet blocks all going under to the highest levels we’ve seen since 2011. However, this was different to 2011 in that the inundation wasn’t a result of the river breaking its banks in the cemetery. This flooding happened after the water that came down the surrounding slopes during the heavy rainfall (and didn’t get caught by the drains) just pooled around the office and toilet blocks, and eventually the shed, slowly getting deeper as the rain continued. But then it got much worse as the river rose.

The office and (to a lesser extent) the shed are situated in a low hollow in the cemetery. Until the mid-20th century this area contained a creek, which is now culverted. It is still a natural drainage area. Low-level flooding can occur in this spot during heavy rainfalls, but the drains here will eventually take the water out to the river.

Still, even by Sunday afternoon it wasn’t ‘that’ bad, with the water just reaching the base of the green shed, which is on higher ground than the office and toilet blocks. The problem got much worse as the river rose and high tides hit, to the point that the cemetery outlet drain on the riverbank was underwater and the water inside the cemetery could not drain out anymore.

The water here peaked at over 2 metres deep, with the office levels reaching about 1.8 metres and the shed 70 cm. This was maybe 50 cm lower than the 2011 levels.

To the office from the west. (P. Granville)

Waters rise during the rain. (K. Burstow)

The view over section 9A. (P. Granville)

At the junction west of the office. (P. Granville)

Looking over the lower part of section 6B. (P. Granville)

Water behind the office. The high water mark can be seen on the wall. (P. Granville)

I’ve been told that localised flooding wasn’t much of a problem here in decades past but has recently got worse. This makes sense as the office was constructed during the 1950s, around the same time as the culverting of the creek, and it was used as a BCC staff room. Building a staff room in a place that floods a lot wouldn’t be logical. I’m no engineer, but there are a couple of issues that could be contributing to a change in flooding patterns here.

Firstly, the construction of the Busway up by the cemetery’s northern border in the 2000s changed the topography there in a way that sends much more water run-off over that part of the cemetery (Hockings Hill) and down to the hollow. Another problem is that one of the drains on that slope is often blocked due to what seems to be a collapsed pipe (this is just my theory). This results in most of the water there going overland down to the office, instead of into the drainage pipes. An actual engineer might disagree with all that, but there is clearly a drainage problem in need of a solution.

So the buildings did flood, but the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery managed to escape too much property loss as we don’t keep a lot of gear in the office due to that known threat of minor flooding. We are still assessing what needs to be replaced and the ways to replace that.

Brisbane City Council were quick on the job and cleared out the old fittings in the office, and these should be replaced in the near future.

Elsewhere in the cemetery, there was some pooling of water in low-lying areas near Princess Street, but the damage is nothing like what we saw in 2011, when the receding riverwater left behind a thick coating of mud that required two massive community cleaning bees (involving around 200 people in total) to clear away. There is no mud this time.

The tree damage was also not as bad as anticipated. One large tree did come down in section 5C and caused damage to some surrounding headstones (this still needs to be closely inspected), but we had been expecting more tree to come down with the ground being so saturated.

The fallen tree. (J. Parrish)

All in all, this flood didn’t impact the cemetery as much as other major deluges (1890, 1893, 1974 and 2011 come to mind), but there is a real concern that this will be ‘new normal’ and hopefully measures can be taken to reduce the possibility of localised flooding around the office.

I heard that historian Margaret Cook, historian and author of the flood history book ‘The River With a City Problem’, was taking questions on ABC local radio when somebody phoned in and said they’d heard a story that after the cemetery had flooded back in 1893, somebody found a hand with a ring on it in the river and took the ring (complete with hand) to the pawnbrokers. I know this story, and sometimes debunk on the cemetery tours, and apparently Margaret laughed it off as nonsense as well.

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