Creek Street is Flooded

Men ran through the dark night along the banks of the Burra Creek in early June 1851 and shouted their frantic warning, “The bridge is gone; turn out, turn out.”[1] The bridge over the creek leading to the copper smelting works could hold back the dammed debris no longer, and it came away with a watery gush of fences, drowned livestock and vegetation. A flood of the Burra Creek threatened the lives of the people such as Richard Grenfell and his family who lived not on, but in, the creek. [2]
On arrival at the township to work in the Burra mine, one of the first things many miners did was to excavate a home for themselves and their families in the clay banks of the Burra Creek. It is likely that the four other Cornish families of Henry and William Grenfell (Richards brothers), Martin Warren (Henry’s brother-in-law) and William Henry Nicholls (Richard’s brother-in-law) lived in Burra Creek as well.

They all arrived in South Australia in 1849 when the ‘Monster Mine,’ as the Burra mine later became known, had been in operation for less than four years. A shepherd, Thomas Pickett, discovered copper in the Burra Burra Creek in 1845. By 1849 there were 4000 people living in the area, which, at this time, officially consisted of Kooringa, the first company town in Australia. Later that year, Redruth, surveyed by the government, and Aberdeen, a private enterprise, would with Kooringa and the dugouts become what became collectively known as ‘the Burra.’ In time, other townships would join them so that Burra was Australia’s largest inland centre until gold was discovered in the east.

The dugouts in the creek provided the miners with rent-free accommodation and eased the South Australian Mining Company (SAMA, known as “Sammy” to the miners) of some of their responsibility, so that they only had to provide accommodation for their more skilled employees such as mechanics and mine officials. Also, with the rapid growth of the mine, it was difficult to get enough builders in the area to provide houses for the expanding workforce. In 1850 there were approximately 1500 people living in ‘Creek Street’, as it became known. When the census was conducted the following year, just before the fateful flood, the number had climbed to 1800 – over 40% of the total population.

Thunder, lightning and torrential rain that June afternoon preceded the bridge washout. The surrounding hills formed a perfect funnel to direct the water to Burra, lying as it did in the valley. A torrent rushed down Commercial Street, and houses in low lying areas were soon a foot deep in water. A flood three weeks before washed out about 70 of the dugouts, so thoughts for those in the creek occupied the minds of the townspeople.

Kooringa, the Burra Burra Township - S T GillKooringa, the Burra Burra Township in 1847 – S T Gill
Art Gallery of South Australia

Some of the creek dwellers had already been to the mine to plead for carts and horses so they could remove people and the contents of their huts. Every spare shed, stable or other roofed structure became their sanctuary while they waited out the storm, surrounded by what belongings they were able to retrieve. About the time of the bridge collapse, the storm abated, moving away to the north-west, and the night became almost tranquil. However, the rain persisted.

Other creek dwellers, oblivious of the impending disaster, were asleep in their homes. As the warning spread rapidly downstream, people emerged from their burrows in a confused panic, some in their nightclothes. Frantic calls were made to children as they waded through water, sometimes 3 and 4 feet deep, eager for the safety of the creek bank. Those on the opposite bank to the township were stranded, cold and wet, with no shelter.

Widower William Box had been woken earlier by his housekeeper, who had been kept awake by a fussing baby and worry about the incessant rain. Box took her and his three small children to safety in a house above the creek bank, and then helped his neighbour shift belongings. They had just returned to empty his own home when the wall of water hit. The roof caved in, and his three motherless children became orphans.

The following day dawned on a pitiful sight of destruction. Havoc greeted those who returned to the creek and found that most of the huts had collapsed, unable to withstand the inundation. Not only had a lot of their possessions washed away, but savings as well, there being no bank in the town to secure their money. The town had fared a little better, but many of the shops, only just recovering from the previous flood, had been swamped again. A depression hung over the place.

The winter of 1851 was the wettest on record after a long drought, and the Burra Creek flooded three times. The results of the inquest into the death of William Box documented the danger and insecurity of the huts in Burra Creek and recommended that the directors of the mining company provide suitable cottages for their employees.

Construction of the 33 Paxton Square Cottages for the South Australian Mining Company, begun in 1849, were completed by the end of 1851.

Richard Grenfell “and others” bought a 40 perch block in Redruth for £27 in the month following the destructive flood. [3]  Details of Land Sales in Redruth July 1851Details of Land Sales in Redruth, July 1851


1. Further Particulars of the Great Flood at the Burra Burra. (1851, June 12). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), , p. 2. Retrieved from [back]
2. As cited in Auhl, 1986. In September 1849 William Richards, a school teacher at Kooringa, sent a letter to the Colonial Secretary seeking a subsidy for his school. The letter was accompanied by a petition of parents, more than half of which listed their residence as Burra Creek. Richard Grenfell was among the petitioners who lived in the creek.
3. The Government Land Sale. (1851, July 19). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), , p. 2. Retrieved   from [back]


Auhl, Ian. The Story of the “Monster Mine”: The Burra Burra Mine and Its Townships, 1845-1877. Hawthorndene, S. Aust.: Investigator Press, 1986
Further Particulars of the Great Flood at the Burra Burra. (1851, June 12). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), , p. 2. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from
Kooringa. (1851, May 28). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), , p. 3. Retrieved from
The Burra Burra Mines. (1848, January 3). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from
Thomas, James, and Fidock, Colin J. History of the Burra Burra Mine and Its People. Burra, S. Aust.: Burra Community Library Board, 1983.
Two More Great Floods at the Burra Burra. (1851, June 14). Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 – 1904), , p. 2. Retrieved from

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Richard Grenfell (1808-1866)
Parents:  Richard Grenfell and Catherine Harry
Spouse: Ann Warren Nicholls (1815-1897)
Spouse’s Parents: Cyprian Nicholls (1782-1839) and Ann Warren (1792-1842)
Surnames: Grenfell, Nicholls, Harry, Warren
Relationship to Shelley: great, great, great, grandfather (3x great grandfather) Richard is Shelley’s 3x great grandfather

  1. Richard Grenfell (1809-1856) great, great, great, grandfather (3x great grandfather)
  2. Richard Grenfell (1839-1909) great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather)
  3. Emmeline Dulcinea Ann Grenfell (1874-1956) (great grandmother)
  4. Olive Ann Willis (1896-1970) (grandmother)
  5. Father
  6. Shelley
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5 Responses to Creek Street is Flooded

  1. sylviabeck says:

    Shelly, awful tragedy for the poor people, but a great story for us. I really enjoyed reading this. The land sale is interesting, I wonder who the others where. I noticed William Paxton bought a lot of the land. I look forward to the next post.
    Sylvia uk

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shelley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sylvia. I imagine the “others” we’re Richard Grenfells relatives – the ones I mention. Most of them all came in the same ship – the William Money – in 1849. One brother, William Grenfell came later that year. They seem to have been involved in everything together as they worked at the mine as tributers i.e. they bargained for the price they would get for the ore, depending on their impression of the quality of the ore at the time. The group was referred to as “Grenfells” group, or words to that effect, in the mine correspondence.


  2. crgalvin says:

    An excellent retelling of that fateful event, well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Pryors from Gwennap | Shelley's Family Histories and Mysteries

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