Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Brighton Tornados of 2 February 1918

In the afternoon of 2nd February 1918, severe thunderstorm activity associated with a low -pressure trough spawned a tornadic outbreak across Port Phillip Bay.  Two funnels moved from the water across the shoreline around Brighton Beach at around 4.45 pm and moved inland, producing widespread devastation across the surrounding area.

There were also reports of a third funnel, although eyewitness accounts were somewhat confusing because of the speed and complexity of the event.

Upon reaching the shoreline, the tornados unleashed their full fury across Brighton, where according to “The Age”, “hundreds of houses were unroofed, thousands of trees snapped or twisted in two, and fences levelled to the ground…. The damage done to property is computed at upwards of £100,000, and the “risk” was one of those not covered by insurance”.

The Methodist Church, 741 Hawthorn Road was largely wrecked in the storm.

“The Argus” reported that :
The moment it struck the mainland the air became thick with flying tiles, sheets
of galvanised iron, branches of trees, and pieces of wood. The wonder of it is that more people were not injured. Sheets of iron were flying through the air like birds, and there are authenticated cases of heavy beams being carried more than 100 yards before they fell to earth. Sheds were moved bodily. Chimneys fell through the roofs of houses and in many cases the houses themselves proved unable to stand against the terrific pressure of the wind and collapsed

Tragically, two people also lost their lives. At Point Ormond, three men were fishing from a boat that was capsized, and Gordon McLeod, “a window dresser from Sydney” drowned.

“The Brighton Southern Cross” reported
Young Frank Green, 14, of Chetwynd Street, North Melbourne was killed as a result of
the storm. He was with the ‘Sower’s Band Picnic’ at Brighton Beach and left with a friend
to go for a swim in the baths. They reached a fruit stall on the return journey at the height of the storm and the stall fell on the boy, severing the top of his head.

One of the tornados then continued inland, passing across Ormond, Garden Vale and Oakleigh, before finally weakening. There is little doubt that the death and damage toll would have been much higher in similar circumstances today, but back in 1918, these areas were much more sparsely settled.

The “Daily Weather Chart” for 2nd February 1918 that appeared in “The Age” two days later.

The following explanatory notes accompanied this chart:

“The chief interest, however centres in the shallow cyclonic depression shown immediately west of this State on Saturday morning. As this “low” drifted eastward over the metropolitan area it produced the quiet stagnant condition of the air conducive to the genesis of violent convectional currents and resulted in the formation of waterspouts over Port Phillip, which reached the shore in two points in Brighton, and travelled inland, apparently in violent tornadoes.” 

The Commonwealth Meteorologist, Mr. H. A. Hunt, issued a press statement which noted that “the atmospheric disturbance on Saturday was something in the nature of a tornado. …The disturbance, it was thought, was the a marked intensification of an ordinary Antarctic storm, with the thunder accompaniments and squalls……. The velocity must have been terrific – stronger than ever I have experienced in Victoria or NSW…”.6

A detailed report in “The Argus” on Monday 4th, included a map that depicted two main funnels, and described their movement.

“The starting points are given as Brighton Beach and Wellington Street, joining at Halifax Street, then swinging away to the north-east, so that Landcox and Ormond, to the north, and Jasper road, to the east are shown”.

This description indicated that there were two funnels moving inland from the Bay that appeared to amalgamate close to the intersection of Centre Road and Halifax Street. This article, plus another written in “The Southern Cross”, on 9th February,  indicated at least seven locations where the damage was notable:

* Brighton Beach Baths
* Corner of Albert and Wellington Streets
* Landcox Park
* Brighton Cemetery – Adam Lindsay Gordon’s headstone blown over
* “Billilla” - owned by the Weatherly family, 26 Halifax St
* Brighton Beach Railway station
* Methodist Church, 741 Hawthorn Road

These locations, together with later reports of the damage trail indicate a likely path taken by the funnels as shown here:

It was later estimated that the twisters had produced wind gusts of around 320 kph, and on the modern enhanced Fujita scale, this would correspond to a rating of EF4.

George Johnston, in his semi autobiographical book “My Brother Jack”, described the scene from the nearby shoreline

“….from the little jetty we saw the great storm which was to known as the Brighton Cyclone charging towards us across the bay in a whip of white horses  below a tumult of bruised purplish crepuscular cloud. Coming across the sea, the cloud would tear off in downward strips that would begin to gyrate madly, and scoop the harbour waters high in the air”. 8

A tornado relief fund was instituted soon after and was administered by the Mayor of Brighton, Lieutenant-Colonel J.J. Hanby. Donations were acknowledged publicly with the donors names printed in daily newspapers.

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