A daring rescue! : an extract from ‘The Dis-Honourable : a mystery of the Brisbane floods’ by David Hennessey (1895)

To coincide with the Library’s Floodlines exhibition we present a further extract from the 1895 novel ‘The Dis-Honourabe’.  The novel’s author, the Reverend John David Hennessey, had what was described in his obituary as a varied career.  He came to Queensland in 1875 as minister to a Methodist church in Stanthorp.  After stints in churches in Tenterfield, Toowoomba and Brisbane he switched to the Congregational ministry in 1884 and started a paper called the Christian Messenger.  This paper prospered, and as The Australian Christian World after 1886, became one of the most widely read religious papers in Australia.  His career as a writer and publisher continued in parallel with his work as a minister and eventually led to the publication of twelve novels.  ‘The Dis-Honourable’ was written while Hennessey and his family were living in Wynnum attempting to grow pineapples and the colourful descriptions of the floods of 1893 that form the background to the novel are based on his own experiences.

The hero of the novel, George Jackson had travelled by train to the Melbourne Street terminus which “had been transformed into a pier head, surrounded on every side by over twenty feet of water.”  Jackson crosses the river in the dead of night on a mysterious mission with an old boatman named Joe Stunner.  Next morning the two men attempt the rescue of a young man trapped by the rising water.  After they row across the flooded river Stunner tosses a rope to the young Golliker and uses the rope to turn the boat into calmer waters.

Raging flood waters in the Brisbane River in 1893

Brisbane River in flood 1893

Joe now hauled the boat back with the rope. The “Mary Jane,” however, swayed about as she was caught again by the violence of the current, and it became clear to Stunner that it would be dangerous to go nearer, and that Golliker would have to scramble somehow down the rope, in imitation of the wrecked seamen on the Goodwin Sands. The youngster was not deficient in pluck, and soon swung himself on to the rope over the boiling tide. The rope, however, failed to bear the additional strain (either it broke or had not been strongly enough fastened), and in a moment the boat was swept adrift, and Golliker was sinking in the flood. A heart-rending, blood-curdling scream, was heard on the other shore.
It was the young man’s mother. Jackson’s boots, coat, and hat, were off in a moment, and he had sprung into the current in the direction of the drowning man.
Jackson saved him—how, he never could explain; like many another daring and heroic deed, it baffled description. Stunner took in the situation at a glance, and catching hold of the oars, pulled with a will toward where the forms of the two men were visible. Jackson had managed to catch hold of Golliker’s hair, and was keeping his head above the water. Within three minutes, by some means or the other, Joe had helped the two men into the boat. As he did so, however, it was caught in an eddy and whirled round like a straw.
To his dismay, as Jackson wiped the water out of his eyes, he saw the oars slip from the rowlocks into the river. The crowd saw it too, and a groan involuntarily escaped from scores of lips.
Like a bubble on the mighty torrent, the boat now swept toward Victoria Bridge, and for a moment the three men sat in the boat—oarless, helpless, and hopeless; seemingly on their way to certain death.

Spectators crowd on the shore to watch the endangered Victoria Bridge

Victoria Bridge threatened by flood 1893

The water was level with the flooring of the bridge, and a great mass of wreckage stretched like a barrier on the north side—in some places heaped high in the air—against which the river foamed, and ever and anon flung up its waters in great showers of spray. The people followed the boat, running along the North Quay, mingling with horsemen; all hurrying to see the end. Escape seemed impossible. The hearts of the beholders sank within them—paralysed! The boat would be crushed like an egg-shell, against the iron sides and girders of the bridge!
Jackson recovered himself in a few moments. He measured with his eye the distance between them and the bridge, pulled his hat on to his dripping head, put on his boots, picked up his coat, shook it, and put it on. He had a large sum of money in notes in the breast pocket, and he put in his hand to feel that it was right. He had formed a plan of escape.
“Cut off a long end of rope Joe, and lash it round your waist.”
“Aye, aye, sur.”
Allowing a yard or two over Jackson wrapped and tied the middle of it under Golliker’s arms, who sat in the middle of the boat half insensible, then he fastened it firmly round his own waist. The boat was hurrying along with the current broadside on, toward a part of the bridge less blocked with wreckage. In another half-minute it would strike and their fate would be decided.
“Now, Golliker, old fellow,” said Jackson, kindly, “stir yourself up and we’ll save you yet.”
“Be ready to jump Joe” he said in the same breath.
“Aye, aye”—but Stunner never finished it. A crack like a pistol-shot was heard above the hoarse roar of the flood—the Mary Jane was smashed into fragments, and two men, bruised and battered, were clinging with bleeding fingers to the iron lattice-work of the bridge, and between them was suspended the inanimate body of a seemingly dead man. …

Victoria Bridge threatened by flood 1893

Victoria Bridge threatened by flood 1893

The following morning at four o’clock the massive bridge, which for days had gallantly resisted the enormous weight of flood water and accumulated wreckage, at last gave way. The rain had ceased, and bright moonlight gleamed upon the seething waters, which still roared and foamed as though eager to devour their prey. The middle span of the great thoroughfare, built at a cost of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds, gave way first, with a crash that shook the earth, and made the buildings on the banks tremble to their foundations. Another crash followed, and another; and another, as span after span collapsed, while the waters heaved convulsively, and spouted upward in great floods of moonlit foam-capped water. On the north side not a single vestige of the bridge remained.

Having completed its work of destruction, the remorseless river swept on again, unstemmed by barrier, as with the irresistible march of a triumphant army, bearing upon its bosom destruction, woe, and death. And yet, let it be said as we close this chapter, not without a blessing scattered upon its awful and desolating pathway. For it is out of the fires of trial and disappointment that there comes the gold of a nation’s purity; and out of the flood and earthquake the still small voice of a nation’s strength.

View of West End under the floodwaters in 1893

West End inundated 1893

Floodlines: 19th Century Brisbane continues in the Philip Bacon Heritage Gallery on level 4 of the State Library until 19 August.  The 1895 edition of ‘The Dis-Honourable’ is on display where you can read another of Hennessey’s evocative descriptions of the flooded Brisbane.  More information on the destruction of the Victoria Bridge in the 1893 floods can be found here and about the 1893 floods in general here.

Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland