Up to 300 millimetres of rain – around a third of an entire average year’s fall – dumped on far south-west Victoria in three days. Aged people in the district still fix it as a critical moment in their lives, along with the calamitous Black Friday bushfires of 1939 – bookends to World War II.
South of Macarthur – an old town of 500 hunkered beneath the dormant volcano known then as Mount Eccles and now as Budj Bim – a family by the name of Sparrow went to bed on the night of March 16, 1946, perhaps imagining their farmhouse would keep them safe.
Their home sat on the edge of what is known locally as a stone barrier – a run of lava from the Budj Bim volcano. The farm spread over swampland not far from an ancient Aboriginal camping place known as Lake Gorrie, and close to the Eumeralla River.
It is a haunted area, site of massacres during the Eumeralla Wars from the 1830s to the 1850s, when white squatters stole the Gunditjmara’s hunting lands. The Gunditjmara’s guerrilla raids on the squatters’ sheep and cattle were so effective the authorities sent the merciless Henry Dana and his Native Police Corps of Indigenous troopers to the area to “pacify” the people of the Budj Bim stones.
More than half a century later, a new haunting was to visit when George and Lillian Sparrow moved to their farm after marrying in 1916. Their first child, Charles, died in 1920, aged two, when he fell on a piece of wire that pierced his brain.
Twenty-six years later, on the soaked night of March 16, 1946, the Sparrow parents were at home with a daughter, 25-year-old Mavis, and three sons. Roy Sparrow – a corporal in the 63rd Australian Infantry Battalion – was back from the war which had ended just six months before. He and two brothers, Bruce, 22, and Ronald, 15, settled to sleep beneath the drumming of rain.
But the family awoke in the early hours of March 17 to water lapping at their beds.
A few kilometres away, floodwater had banked up in a valley behind a stone-and-concrete bridge and culvert on Deep Creek. During the night, the structure gave way and a massive wave of water crashed out. Blocks of basalt and concrete were tossed 300 metres down the valley and water sluiced across the swampland.
George Sparrow decided he had to get his family out.
Soldier Roy set out alone for the nearby village of Bessiebelle and somehow survived, while father George hitched up a horse to a jinker – a two-wheeled cart with a trailer behind – and loaded up his Lillian, Mavis, Bruce and Ronald.
A narrow raised pathway led from the farmhouse to the nearby Lake Gorrie Road, which runs across low-lying land between Bessiebelle and Macarthur. But the pathway, like everything around, was beneath swirling water in the early morning gloom.
A wheel of the cart dropped into a hole beside the path. The jinker overturned. The family aboard spilled into deep water, the trailer on top of them.
Despite all his desperate efforts, George Sparrow couldn’t save his wife, daughter and two sons.
The flood wasn’t finished with the Sparrows, however. George battled on for nine hours to reach a neighbour’s farm less than three kilometres away. And there, exhausted and stricken with grief, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The entire district was left aghast.
Searchers found Lillian Sparrow’s body snagged in a fence three kilometres from the scene of the disaster. Mavis, Bruce and Ronald Sparrow were found drowned in deep water near the overturned jinker and trailer.
Critics muttered that George Sparrow shouldn’t have taken his family from the house into the flood … until a search party discovered a rim on sodden wallpaper showing the water level had reached higher than a human could stand.
The five Sparrows were buried together beneath a single slab in the Macarthur cemetery. More than 400 people attended the funeral. No one knows how many might have come if the bridges across south-west Victoria hadn’t been destroyed, and if so many people weren’t still trying to survive as the government sent Army “ducks” – amphibious vehicles – to save them.
Time moves and new horrors assault us, forcing us to forget the last as if the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were forever galloping, bringing war, death, famine … and now pestilence.
But a little district in south-west Victoria refuses to forget.\
These 74 years later, the Macarthur and District Historical Society has decided it is time to permanently remind travellers of the lost Sparrow family.
Next Sunday, March 15, at 2pm, a ceremony will be held at the entrance to the old Sparrow farm on Lake Gorrie Road, south of Macarthur, to unveil a bluestone plaque to mark the day when the Big Flood took a family.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.