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floods, facts and fiction 


In the past we have usually written about floods of Governor Macquarie's day. In 2017 we move forward and talk with those who have experiences of a more recent past.

"I love the Hawkesbury and I can't imagine living anywhere else…'

he declares with emotion as we walk from a Windsor café into a gentle afternoon rain. Yet this resident has travelled the world both as a youngster and later after marriage. He has experienced life beyond the boundaries of the Hawkesbury area. Now perhaps the travel bug bites only occasionally - ties to family, friends and the land bind him tightly.

Earlier we talked about living along the Hawkesbury River. The first flood he recalls vividly was that of 1978 when he was in primary school. A cat clinging to a bale of hay floated past his father's work crew. A worker swam out, grabbed the hay and rescued the cat, which was immediately adopted by the youngster and fittingly named, 'Disaster'. On that Easter long weekend, the water rose approximately 14 metres flooding over the banks of the family property. Now he recalls the thrill, the excitement of the rising water. Being cut off from the rest of the world, a little body of land surrounded by water seemed to create a private universe - an experience by turns exhilarating and spine tingling. Yet, he also remembers the anxious looks on his parents' faces. "I didn't have or understand responsibility or financial risks then…that's the beauty of childhood and loving parents who want to protect you."


Another long time resident recalls:

"At Colo River in 1978 the water was pinched and rushed through at 60 feet high in a very confined space, leaving caravans wrapped around trees at that height."

"We rowed a boat from the partly submerged steps of the old police station across deep water to the shingled awning of the Jolly Frog hotel. We beached the boat and recovered the liquor stores of the hotel. We loaded the boat, rowed back to the police station and placed the stores in the old Georgian stables at the rear. It took a few trips, which built up a powerful thirst. Nobody considered water a fitting reward in the circumstances."

By 1988, our storyteller was old enough to take on responsibility and work alongside his dad and his older brother. By then, he had learned a mathematical calculation that precedes and predicts the severity of a flood: the intensity of rainfall times the number of rainy days. A gentle rain can fall for several days without impacting the river while providing water for the catchment. But heavy rainfall in a short period of time - calamity is likely to come calling.


In 1988, the flood carried vegetation, trees and nature's waste. With all the debris, the water looked like dirty snow. Floodwaters rose approximately 14.1 metres before receding, leaving the family to face a major clean up task on the river front property. His education about the Hawkesbury River and nature's oft-unruly temperament sank in. His father passed on common sense wisdom salted with "don't take Mother Nature for granted" and he learned the business of being prepared. Move anything portable such as water pumps, bins and equipment. In 1988, they had to move the heavy items without the help of big machinery he owns today. Perhaps this is why his shoulders and arms look as though he works out daily in a gym.

Yet it was not until 1990 that a shocker of a flood occurred. While the Hawkesbury's high water mark was lower than in 1988 - approximately 12.9 metres - destruction came in the form of 120mph winds. The river, propelled by high winds, tore through properties spearheaded by three-foot waves that took down tall trees, fences and animals of all sizes left unprotected in paddocks. With this flood, he saw the truth of his father's words and learned not to try and tame the unpredictable forces of nature.

floodwaters 06 large

By 1990, he had learned to rely upon his senses to predict the possibility of danger, driving up to Warragamba Dam to check capacity, watching the flow of the Colo and McDonald Rivers and testing the soil on his property. He learned - as must all women and men who live and earn their livelihoods from the river - to pay attention to the capriciousness of Mother Nature. Common sense and scientific guesswork were the bedrock of his education. In 2003 with the passing of his father, the financial risks of running a commercial venture along the river and the ever-present risk of floods now fell on his shoulders.


Today, his knowledge of the river is informed by environmental stresses - urban sprawl, changing agriculture crops, and increased recreational activities on the river. In the era of smart phones and smart applications (apps), he has accurate and minute-by-minute information delivered directly to his mobile. But has the new tech replaced his urge to drive up to the Warragamba? Has the mobile scratched his itch to check on flow of the Colo River? We think not. Today, he is passing down to his children the knowledge of an earlier generation - all that he learned from his own father. His face, his big smile and genuine belly laughs are the bearings of a man happy with his Hawkesbury life - floods or not.


Why would a ship, a ship's port and an entire penal colony be labelled as a brothel by historians?

Perhaps early colonial records of prostitution were read incorrectly. Or they were purposely used as a political weapon to promote an economic and moral ideology back in England. In any case, women arriving by ship in Botany Bay like those aboard the Lady Julian (Juliana) were viewed as the source of a badly-behaved, disorderly and immoral influence on the new colony.

Did you know?
The view of the convict settlement as a vast brothel was suggested in early documents and was a powerful weapon in the armoury of those such as Samuel Marsden, the colonial chaplain wishing to end transportation.

Viewed through the eyes of Sian Rees (2001) in her description of female convicts aboard the Lady Julian (Juliana) penal records were hopelessly inaccurate. The Transportation Register lists 172 women passengers, but some had already received a pardon, a few escaped, and several had died while still in a London jail. Of those jailed outside London, none of the women - girls really - were listed. John Nicol, the steward on the Lady Julian perhaps had the most accurate headcount of 245. The ship set sail in July 1789.

We must place these young women in context - England, city or countryside - fell into an economic crisis when a disbanded army of 130,000 males descended upon cities and shires. Not a promising outlook. Jobs and food were a necessity for an out of control population. The first wave of the disenfranchised to hit the streets were injured veterans, crippled or amputees from the lost American colonial war. The second wave occurred more slowly: when able-bodied men returned, they were unemployed. Women were employed. 'Giving women's jobs to men and sending the women home is a familiar post war story' (Rees 2001). But in this case, many of the women did not have a home to go to. Most turned to domestic labour to earn and to keep them out of extreme poverty. Then, Prime Minister Pitt in 1785 proposed a tax on all maidservants over the age of 15. The following year, The Times estimated that 50,000 common women - read prostitutes - were on the streets.

Put out of appropriate or legal employment. Taxed if she did have domestic employment. Often without family support, 'her name had been sullied' after some romantic interlude. Women survived either by stealing or seducing. Jailed and hauled up before a court to be labeled, they were finally transported to Australia. Society could not acknowledge or perhaps even understand the cause of her crime might be outside of her control. Rehabilitation was out of the question in the late 1700s. She was disgraced, her character destroyed, never to be retrieved '…whereas disgraced males 'after many errors, may reform and be admitted into that same society.' (Rees 2001)

Onboard the Lady Julian (Juliana) the women were late teens or twenties. Sailors were the same age and the officers only a little older. The women arrived malnourished, debilitated and inadequately clothed. Some were ill from disease-bearing lice though we have read in other sources that women were hosed and combed before boarding.

Every seaman and every officer was entitled by law to the woman of his choice to serve him as 'mate' for the duration of the voyage.(Rees 2001). She, on the other hand, was 'to oblige' sailor or officer who chose her. Coercion or consensual - we can only guess of her attitude towards men, whether onboard or on the streets of London. Men as a species could not possibly engage in a relationship. Perhaps. Men believed in ownership, so for these young women engaging in serial monogamy was the only way to survive.

Yet, according to Rees' research, the treatment toward women onboard The Lady Julian was a humane one; 'it was an interlude of tranquility and care before arriving to the hardships of Sidney Cove'. According to legends of other convict ships - brutality was the norm.

Once onshore at Sydney Cove, she was again without protection. As she was the most disadvantaged and economically vulnerable, she immediately sought another partner for survival. Cohabitation was seen by society as immoral. And through religious eyes, she was to blame for she could not be rehabilitated. Hers (prostitution) was a terminal illness. (Daniels 1998)

So, the reputation of floating brothels continued with subsequent ships carrying female convicts. By 1832, in pamphlets written for the literate population, Anglican Archbishop Richard Whatley - who had never been to New South Wales nor had he met any convicts - denigrated all things Botany Bay and warned of the risks posed to Britons should any [convicts] be returned. (Smith 2008).

Did you know?
Until the 1960s access to penal records was strictly limited. Colonial reminiscences abounded, but the actual records were carefully safeguarded.

In 1838, a committee chaired by Sir William Molesworth to investigate transportation extended the disgraceful reputation to include Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Again the subject of women prisoners was examined by the Committee under the guise of choice, not of circumstance. The moralists back in England merely recycled the 1812 findings of the Reverend Samuel Marsden 'with the same exclamations of horror as had occurred at many intervals since Botany Bay was established'. (Smith 2008).

From ship… to port… to an entire colony, the branding held firm…


This year, we continued our search for unusual sightings in the old buildings of Windsor.

Hawkesbury Regional MuseumThe Myth of the Flabbit

In the not too distant past, a creature up in the Colo wilderness was sighted by a clever man who is revealed to us only as 'RR'. He prefers to avoid further contact with the media or hordes of visitors who want to interpret the meaning of the creature - a rabbit with wings - or why the creature chose him, this clever man for a sighting. But it is with 'RR' where our legend of the Flabbit began.

Since that first sighting, Flabbit spotters and journalists roamed the Colo wilderness often in a futile search for Flabbit evidence. Keep in mind that mythical creatures choose their 'spotters' - rarely revealing themselves to sceptics, or mythbusters.

With time, this mythical creature - the rabbit with wings - developed a cult-following within the realm of commercial ventures: quirky T-shirts, posters, stuffed toys and a song recorded and released by a Hawkesbury musician. All were produced in celebration of the Flabbit's uniqueness.

So popular was the Flabbit in the land of big yarns and whopper tales, the Hawkesbury Regional Museum held an exhibition of Hawkesbury Myths & Legends some years back. The most exciting news: two original Flabbits joined the exhibition. [Editor's note: we are uncertain how the exhibition curator knew the two Flabbits were originals.]


These two Flabbits donated along with other Flabbit memorabilia came to live in the permanent collection of the Museum. [Editor's note: Taxidermy played a role but according to the RSPCA, no Flabbits were harmed for this exhibition.] If you want to see an original myth, just stop by the Museum on Baker Street in Windsor from 10am - 4pm. The Museum is closed on Tuesdays.

In keeping with today's celebrity profile-raising, the Museum provides lasting memorabilia - Flabbit postcards, Flabbit button badges, Flabbit key rings and always available, the quirky Flabbit T-Shirt! Perhaps a Facebook page for our celebrity Flabbit is next in line for promotion? However, please don't interpret your Flabbit sighting at the Hawkesbury Regional Museum as an invitation to seek out 'RR' - a very clever man.