Derby’s Dramatic History

In a few days the tranquil town of Derby will be inundated by thousands of mountain bike enthusiasts for Round 2 of the 2017 Enduro World Series.

Derby Tasmania trails birdseye 500px
Derby mountain bike trails*

It won’t be the first time Derby’s peace has been shattered. In 1929 the town was almost obliterated.

A History Worth Exploring


Derby Tailing Touring Tasmania



Derby was settled in 1874, when tin was discovered in the area. The Krushka brothers set up a mine, named The Brothers Mine, giving the town its original name: Brother’s Home.

Derby Tasmania tin pan 500px
Pan relic*


By the 1890s, Derby’s population was over 3,000. Its tin mine (now renamed the Briseis Mine after the winner of the 1876 Melbourne Cup) was one of the richest of its kind in the world, employing hundreds of men and exporting tin to countries around the world.

derby Tasmania mining
Image courtesy of Tasmanian Archives and AMSJ

The mine operators built a race 48 kilometres long, from the headwaters of the Ringarooma River to the mine, and constructed the Briseis Dam on the Cascade River to ensure supplies of water.

While exploring Derby and its surrounds, you can find traces of the mining history. There are directions and descriptions on the Discover Tasmania website. 

derby old bridge tassie rambler


By 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Derby was a thriving little town with a school, a boarding house, a doctor’s residence and hospital, and many businesses including two butchers, two bakeries, three hotels, and a cordial factory.

Derby Tasmania 500 px
Derby today*

In April 1929 there were five days of rain, culminating in a downpour in which 5 inches fell in two hours.

The Briseis Dam held back around 188 million gallons of water. During the days of rain, water had begun flowing over the top and on 4th April the dam burst, releasing a 30 metre wall of water and mud into the Cascade River. It swept away trees and scrubbed away the river soil, down to the bedrock.

flood gorge jackdaws corner

A catastrophic volume of muddy water laden with debris hit Derby, flooding the mine. It destroyed homes, the railway station and every bridge on the river, as far as Cataract Gorge, 94km away.

The flood was the worst in modern Tasmanian history. It lasted several days. It was so enormous that for nearly six hours the river reversed its flow, running uphill for five miles. Among the mountain of debris left behind was a ten-ton granite boulder.

Fourteen lives were lost.

This was the only dam-burst in Australia’s history to have taken human life. Fourteen people were known to have drowned. Some bodies were carried many kilometres downstream and buried in mud and wreckage.


Derby Tasmania memorial cropped 500px
Bronze memorial at the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre*



Hearing of the impending flood, the mine’s assistant manager, William Beamish, ran to the face of the mine, trying to warn his workmates of the approaching disaster. He was swept away and lost his life. Senior Constable W. Taylor braved the rushing waters single-handed in a small boat (possibly a kayak), large enough for only two people. He brought many men to dry land, one at a time. (More about these stories in The Australian Book of Disasters by L. Writer).


The mine re-opened five years after the flood, but it never reached its previous levels of output and it closed in 1948. The Briseis Dam, renamed the Cascade Dam, was rebuilt in 1936, and now holds water covering an area of 49 hectares.

Nature is slowly repairing the damage to the river bed.

Derby Tasmania Cascade River bed 500px
Courtesy of Tourism Tasmania and Rob Burnett*


Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre

You can learn more about Derby’s mining heritage at the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre, where there are interpretive displays and video installations. The story of the flood is told on a 15 metre screen. There is a memorial garden overlooking the valley, where you can contemplate the effects of mining on the landscape.

Derby tin dragon


Or, if you like your history a little gentler, nearby is the Derby Schoolhouse Museum


*Thanks to these people for the images

“Blue Derby Mountain Bike Trails, Sawtooth Lookout” by Flow Mountain Bike

“Derby Tunnel”

“Pan relic at the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre and Cafe” from Tourism Tasmania & Dorset Council

“Lessons from the past: Breaking Briseis”

“Derby Bridge”

“Derby” from Tourism Tasmania, supplied courtesy of Flow Mountain Bike

“Cataract Gorge in flood”

“Bronze memorial at the Tin Dragon Interpretation Centre and Cafe” Tourism Tasmania & Dorset Council

“Blue Derby Mountain Bike Trails” from Tourism Tasmania and Rob Burnett


Writer, L. 2011. Australian Book of Disasters. Murdoch Books Australia, Australia. Pages 51-59,_Tasmania




4 thoughts on “Derby’s Dramatic History

Add yours

  1. I would be very interested to hear more about how all the bridges between Derby and the Cataract Gorge in Launceston were destroyed when … “debris hit Derby, flooding the mine. It destroyed homes, the railway station and every bridge on the river, as far as Cataract Gorge, 94km away.”
    I know it might be cute to have a photo of the Cataract gorge in flood up there but you really must explain some of the hydrology in order for anyone to understand how the Catarct gorge is even remotely connected to a river system over 90 Kms away


    1. Thanks, Peter. I really appreciate your interest and your input. It would be great if anyone knowledgeable felt like going into the hydrology for us. You could email me and I would post about it. As you can see, my posts are pretty light-weight magazine style. But I certainly wasn’t aiming for ‘cute’. Ouch! I could not find a public domain photograph or drawing of the Derby flood and I’m very careful about copyright. If anyone has one they would let me use that would be wonderful. I would love you to contribute more, Peter. Maybe you could follow my blog by email, or like my Facebook page if you are a Facebooker? You can keep me nailed down to the details haha.


  2. As an elderly North Eastern resident I have grown up with the history of Derby & the story of the
    1929 flood having heard many first hand accounts & experiences of that dreadful event.
    The forgoing is a well presented description of early history.


    1. Thanks, Don! First hand accounts sound wonderful. If you had any details from those conversations I would appreciate hearing them by email and I might be able to add them to the post? I greatly appreciate people taking an interest.


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