The Great Blenheim Flood of 1923
Blenheim was built at the junction of two rivers as a river port, close to sea level.1 Blenheim's early history was one of frequent flooding until extensive river works and diversions managed to tame the Wairau River and its tributaries.
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One major flood occurred in 1923, when 3.24 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The alarm went out on the morning of Monday 7 May that flooding was likely, however most preparations were ineffective. Shop windows were smashed by debris, thousands of pounds worth of shop stock was destroyed; twenty tons of sugar were reported to have just ‘melted away'. Timber yards and firewood merchants found their stock carried away and dispersed by the swirling muddy water.
The flood peaked at around 5 p.m, with the whole of the business area covered in about four feet of water:
The centre of town during this period presented a remarkable appearance, the water extending deeply right across the streets from building to building and giving the impression of Venetian splendor which was very striking, though in the absence of gondolas, one had either to wade, waist deep and more, in swirling flood or charter a cart to get from point to point. Motor-car transit was entirely out of the question and it was noticeable that all the cars which the town boasts were quickly withdrawn to higher levels.
It was a ludicrous sight to all but those who were personally concerned, to see worthy business men of the town casting dignity to the winds and buckling to with broom and bucket ...2
The worst-affected residents in the town lived in the Grove Road and Waterlea areas. The water was reported to have been up to four feet deep in some homes that night - people could not light their fires or prepare meals. Trapped in their houses, not knowing whether the flooding was going to become worse, they spent many hours perched on furniture in the darkness.
One resident put his wife and two children on the back of the family horse, which was brought into the kitchen for the night ...3
However, many were able to escape to safety. The Walker family, who lived in Auckland Street, was rescued on Tuesday morning after spending the night huddled on top of a chest of drawers. During the night, their friends feared the worst, and kept trying to contact them on the telephone. As the water was waist deep, the telephone remained unanswered.
Mr and Mrs Fane of St Andrews Street, found safety with their sick child by going through a trap door in their ceiling and spending the night in the roof.
Many refugees spent the night in the homes of the lucky ones who were less affected. More than 50 people spent the night in the upstairs of Mr Millsom's house in Nelson Street west.
Flood claims two lives
Mr Ernest Edward Robinson, of Lower Wairau, secretary of the Spring Creek Road Board, and a youth of a round 16 named Jack Gledhill, were lost in the flood:
Mr Robinson and a farm boy left Robinson's farm at Lower Wairau on Tuesday night in a dray for Blenheim. A search party discovered the dray on the roadside in deep water, and the horses roaming free with broken harnesses. Subsequently a vest, presumably worn by Robinson's companion, was found, but no signs of the missing ones were discovered. 4
This story is an edited version of an article written by Steve Austin, Chief Executive of the Marlborough Museum and published in Wild Tomato, 2009
Updated May 7, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Cowie, C.A (compiler) (1957). Floods in New Zealand 1920-53 : with notes on some earlier floods. (1957). Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council. p. 144.
- Historic flood (1923, May 9). The Marlborough Express p. 5.
- Beverley. A (1969). The first hundred : the story of the Borough of Blenheim 1869-1969. Blenheim Borough Council. p. 103
- The flood (1923, May 10). The Nelson Evening Mail. p. 5.
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Further sources - The Great Blenheim Flood of 1923
Beverley. A. (1969). The first hundred : the story of the Borough of Blenheim 1869-1969. Blenheim Borough Council.http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/112792
Cowie, C.A. (compiler) (1957). Floods in New Zealand 1920-53 : with notes on some earlier floods. (1957). Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council.http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/221604810
McIntosh, A.D. (Ed.) (1977). Marlborough : a provincial history. Marlborough Provincial Historical Committee.http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/154763562
Mosley. P.M. & Pearson, C.P. (Eds.) (1997). Floods and droughts : the New Zealand experience. New Zealand Hydrological Society.
The flood: Position at Blenheim. (1923, May 8). The Nelson Evening Mail p. 5.
- Blenheim's terrible experience. (1923, May 9). The Nelson Evening Mail. p.5.
A terrible night. (1923, May 8). The Nelson Evening Mail p. 5.
- Lensen, G. J. (1966). Wairau River. In A. H. McLintock (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. (1966 ed.). Government Printer.
NIWA. (2018). NZ Historic events catalogue. May 1923 Upper South Island Flooding.