On 4th February 1868, a severe storm hit Canterbury causing wide spread damage across the region.
The storm, which began on 3rd February, continued over night, wrecking many ships at anchor in Lyttelton. The first alarm for Christchurch was raised by a Fendall Town (Fendalton) resident who reported that the Waimakariri River had flooded and broken through its banks. This, in turn, sent a surge of water towards Christchurch via the Avon.
Just an hour later at 1pm, the Avon had raised so much that water had begun to trickle across the Madras Street Bridge. Those unfortunate enough to live near the Avon and its streams were now under water – in some places 4 feet deep. Tearing away at its own banks, knocking down fences and drowning hundreds of hoof stock, quite a grand pile of debris rolled into the city with the torrent.
Police and workmen from the C.C.C were dispatched out into the affected areas, helping people to evacuate their homes and to clear away any dangerous debris from the waters. Victoria Street was even dug up to form a stop bank in the hope this would halt the flood – it didn’t.
By nightfall, Market Place (Victoria Square) was knee deep in water, wrecking the businesses that called the place home. One man had to be rescued when he attempted to make his way through the flood. He fell into a hole that had been dug away by the water and almost drowned.
Throughout the night, cabbies drove people back and forth in their hansom cabs for six dimes per head. For years, many remembered the cab’s lanterns flickering over the eerie black waters.
Christchurch was not the only town affected. Kaiapoi was completely under water and many bridges, roads and railways, had been swept away from the Waimakariri and Selwyn Rivers. Communication by telegraph had kept Canterbury in touch with the rest of the country but by the time the flood waters began to drop back, only the line between Christchurch and Lyttelton remained.
An Engineer who predicted that the Waimakariri would flood eventually was William Bray (his farm is now the suburb of Avonhead). His warnings were not taken seriously though.
The following poem was written by Crosbie Ward of The Lyttelton Times:
At Avonhead lives Mr Bray,
Who every morning used to say,
“I should not be much surprised today
If Christchurch city were swept away
By the rushing, crushing, flushing, gushing Waimakariri River”
He told his tale and he showed his plan,
How the levels lay and the river ran;
The neighbours thought him a learned man,
But wished him further than Isfahan,
With his wearing, tearing, flaring, scaring Waimakariri River
Curious about William Bray: http://www.peelingbackhistory.co.nz/avonhead-william-bayley-bray-1812-1885/
* Image courtesy of the NZETC – http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz