As it flows gently past the iconic clocktower building, the Water of Leith plays no small part in creating an environment which has seen Otago named one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world (twice!). Recent major landscaping work around the Leith has made it even more attractive and accessible, but its underlying purpose has been to upgrade flood protection, because, like any river, the Leith is not always gently burbling and benign.
The university actually owes much of its site to a major flood of the Leith. The Dunedin Botanic Garden was originally located on the land bounded by Castle, Leith, St David and Albany streets (it can be seen on the right of the old photo in this earlier post). In February 1868 the whole region was swept by floods, and the raging Leith washed away several bridges and about an acre of cultivated land at the gardens, along with the flood defences then under construction. This was the major impetus for the botanic garden to move to their current site in 1869, allowing the university to take over the land in the 1870s.
There have been several major floods of the Leith since the 1870s. The largest recorded by the local authorities was in 1929, but it was a 1923 flood which caused the greatest damage to the university. Alison Breese of the Dunedin City Council archives has recently digitised these wonderful lantern slides, revealing the damage after the 1923 flood.
Late on Saturday 21 April 1923 heavy rain began and it continued until Monday morning, leading to major flooding in all low-lying parts of Dunedin and the Taieri. Many homes were inundated and the hallowed turf of Carisbrook lay 3 feet under water. The Leith became “a seething, foam-wrapt mass of water”, reported the Otago Daily Times. Between Leith Street and Forth Street “the river was a striking sight, the groynes churing the waters into what was a veritable seething cauldron.”
The seething waters caused serious damage to the Union Street bridge, undermining its foundations, scouring out parts of the road and leaving a telegraph pole beside it suspended from its wires. But it was the nearby Dental School building – now the Staff Club – which came off worst. A one-storey addition of galvanised iron which nestled into the back corner of the building was completely washed away by the flood. Parts of the building were found in the harbour as far away as Ravensbourne. Contents of the building, which housed the mechanical room, students’ common room and dark room, were fished out of the Leith and also the harbour: somebody found a dental case with a full set of instruments on the Otago Peninsula side of the harbour. The flood also undercut some of the remaining building, leaving a recently-constructed addition at the back hanging about 2.5 metres over the Leith. The flood made it obvious that the site was not suitable for the expanding Dental School, and in 1926 it moved to its new building (now the Marples Building).
The university buildings escaped major damage from the more severe flood of 1929, but again there was a big impact on the grounds. A memorial walk, planted beside the Leith in 1927, disappeared as the river washed away its banks for a distance of about 150 metres. Nearby, in places that would later become part of the university campus, the wooden bridges at Leith and Clyde streets were washed away, and the Dundas Street bridge was also severely damaged.
The 1929 flood prompted improvements to Leith flood defences, and these have been gradually upgraded over the decades since. Floods have, of course, continued to come and go, but none have caused as much drama as in 1923. Some students, in their inimitable way, have indulged in adventure sports during floods, taking some pretty reckless kayak trips. In 2010, when the Leith ran especially high, a few dare-devils even tried surfing it.