Remembering The 1955 Flood

“I remembered the smell of that mud for years, maybe decades. It’s a smell I’d still recognise today.”

Memories like this, forged when Singleton local, Florence, was just 10 years old, still linger in the minds of many people who lived through the devastating 1955 flood.

The rains begin

It had been a particularly wet summer that year, with eastern Australia experiencing what today we’d call a La Niña weather system. After months of rain in Singleton and the Hunter Valley, it started raining yet again on Saturday 19 February. It increased in intensity over the coming days.

Then on the morning of 24 February, Singleton’s flooding began.

“I knew something was wrong when I saw water coming up through the grate under the backyard tap,” Florence recalls.

Florence and her brothers – the youngest only four years old – were at home, being cared for by a relative while their parents were away. Realising the situation was worsening, a family friend came to rescue them. He led them to higher ground, where they stayed at a stranger’s house for a few days until heading to safety at a relative’s farm some miles out of town.

Others weren’t so lucky. Throughout the region, people clambered onto rooftops as the water continued to rise, stranding them.

By nightfall of that first day, most of Singleton had succumbed, with roads, communications and electricity cut. A staggering 95 per cent of homes in the municipality became inundated with water. The floodwaters remained at their peak for 36 hours. Locals sheltered where they could – in the courthouse, the Strand Theatre, the train station and even train carriages.

Footage from the time shows floodwater barrelling down the streets, homes submerged up to their roofs, and RAAF planes conducting food drops.

The army steps in

Difficult currents initially hampered any rescues, but eventually amphibious army “ducks” set to work, plucking people from roofs and ferrying them to places like the army camp, which housed around 300 evacuees.

Lieutenant-Colonel James Hodgson OAM was based at Cessnock at the time, with C Company 2nd Infantry City of Newcastle Battalion.

In an interview with the Maitland Mercury in 2013, Mr Hodgson recalled that he, along with many other troops, had been attending the Annual Compulsory Military Camp at Singleton when the call for help came. He and his men rescued women and children, taking them to the train station where they were greeted by Clive Bourke, Singleton’s mayor.

In the days after, Mr Hodgson was tasked with establishing a distribution centre for clothing, blankets and other essentials for those who’d lost everything.

After the flood

A total of 14 people died, including five who were tragically electrocuted when working as part of the rescue attempt. The region sustained millions of dollars’ worth of damage and 1800 people were rescued.

Singleton wasn’t the only town affected. It would go down as the most destructive flooding experienced in the Hunter River since European settlement began, and towns across the Hunter like Maitland were also badly damaged.

As a result, today our region, one of the most flood-prone in New South Wales, is covered by the Singleton Floodplain Risk Management Study and Plan, which reviews flood behaviour data and evaluates management options to reduce and control the impact of future flooding.

Back in 1955, Florence’s parents eventually made it home and, like everyone else, they began the massive task of cleaning up. But while carpets were hung out to dry, ruined furniture was thrown out and new clothes donated, anxiety understandably remained.

“For a long time afterwards as a child I was very anxious whenever we got a lot of rain,” she says.

“It was a phenomenal flood, and I’ll remember it all my life.”

Photo credit: Singleton Historical Society & Museum Inc

Article Written By

Subscribe for One Agency Lindy Harris Property News