This month’s featured artwork from the RHSQ’s collection is a framed certificate and bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, awarded to William Russell of Lowood on 19 May 1893 for his bravery. On 4 February 1893, Russell and three Queensland Defence Force personnel risked their lives to rescue the Vernor family from flood waters in Cluen, near Lowood. This story and the artefact are on display at the Commissariat Store reception area for the month of March.
Story of William Russell
During early February 1893, floods occurred in Queensland after a continuous downpour for 14 days which was worsened by tropical cyclone, Bundinyong. During this flood which is referred to as the Black February Floods, 35 deaths were recorded, 300 people injured and 5000 people lost their homes.
On the 4th February 1893 a resident of Lowood, Mr William Russell, along with three Queensland Defence Force members risked their lives to gallantly rescue the Vernor family, residents of Cluen, who were stranded in the flood.
Captain Robert Vernor and his family were attempting to escape their flooded home in a boat when their vessel capsized in the dangerous floodwater after striking a tree. The Vernor family sought refuge in the top of a gum tree.
Mr William Russell, who had considerable experience with the Brisbane River from his younger days, was residing in Lowood as a result of floodwater threatening his family home. He immediately volunteered to rescue the Vernor family after receiving word. Major J. Flewell-Smith and his brother Malcolm also volunteered to help the family.
Mr Arthur Nunn and Mr E.C Nunn travelled three miles up the river and obtained two dinghies which were owned by Mr G. F Chapman and Arthur Nunn. The dinghies were taken back down the river to Lowood in which Major Flewell-Smith and his brother manned one dinghy, and Mr William Russell and Mr E Nunn manned the other. The dinghies left from below the Lowood sawmills and had to dodge the tops of trees and debris on the Vernor property. They passed the Vernor house in which only 3ft of the roof was showing above the floodwaters.
The party proceeded to travel further down the river in which they found eight people perched up in trees. Seven members of the Vernor family and an orphaned boy had been stuck there for the previous 24 hours. The Vernor family had tied themselves to the tree using whatever clothing they could, as the floodwater continued to rise.
Mr Russell manoeuvred the dinghy next to the other dinghy and close enough for the Vernor family to flee into the vessel. A rope was passed to Mr Jim Vernor who was stuck on an outer limb of the tree, who was hauled through the floodwater to the safety of the dinghy.
The two vessels separated to travel back up the river full of debris and whirlpools. They arrived on land about three miles from where the party had left from.
On the 19th May 1893 the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Wylie Norman visited Lowood and presented the rescuers with certificates from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia and bronze medals for their bravery.
A Flood Incident. (1893, March 10). The Week, p. 14. Allen, W. (1895, July 23).
The Droughts and Floods of Australia. Morning Bulletin, p. 3. Australian Emergency Management Knowledge Hub. (n.d.). Flood-Brisbane, Ipswich and Maryborough, Queensland 1893. Retrieved from www.emknowledge.gov.au
Brave Soldiers: Saving the Vernor Family. (1893, March 6). The Telegraph, p. 6.
Postal Arrangements. (1893, March 6). The Brisbane Courier, p. 4.
Royal Humane Society of Australasia. (1893, May 19). The Argus, p. 3.
1893 Flood Rescue at Lowood Recalled. (1950, March 3). Queensland Times (Ipswich), p. 2.