The Sheffield Flood of 1864
Sheffield has always been a city with a shortage of water. As far back as 1630 when the population was comparatively low, a reservoir had to be constructed by a man named Barker at what became known as Barkers Pool, close to the City Hall. To deal with the city's unending thirst, numerous others were built, and by the time the Pool closed in 1793 many more had been constructed, notably at Crookesmoor, with water carried to the city by wooden piping. The lack of water was compounded during the Industrial Revolution by the needs of mass industry, plus the increase of population, and in 1830 the Sheffield Waterworks Company was formed which built three more reservoirs at Redmires, and Rivelin Upper and Lower . But still there was a water shortage so, on 1st. January 1859 the first sod was cut on yet another, this time the ill-fated dam at Dale Dyke, and it was when this dam was nearing completion that the flood occurred.
On 27th. Dec. 1831 H.M.S. Beagle carrying Charles Darwin set sail on a voyage of discovery. By 1864 the captain of that craft, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, was reduced to writing weather forecasts for newspapers, and it was on the morning of the 11th. March 1864 that John Gunson, the Resident Engineer of the Sheffield Water Company, read one of the Admiral's forecasts which told of terrible storms and gales for later that day.
As Resident Engineer one of his jobs was to supervise the building of the Dale Dyke Darn, and after completing his office work he drove to the site of the dam at Bradfield, to make sure it was secure prior to the arrival of the storm. It was 3p.m. when he arrived and the wind was quite blustery. He at once
went to examine the main wall which was faced with stone and 155ft. high. He found that the water was some feet from the top but at times spray was coming over the brim. He then went to the outlet pipes, valve house, and bye-wash, and made an extensive tour of examination of the embankment but found no flaw or the slightest depression in its structure.
At 5:30p.m. the navvies who were putting the finishing touches to the dam's completion left for home and it was at this time too that John Gunson left. As one of these workmen was walking home along the top of the embankment, he stopped, in the gale which was now raging, to look at what
he thought was a crack in the dam wall, and went to find some of his colleagues to verify it.
By 7p.m. quite a group had collected pondering as to what to do about the crack which ran across the outer face of the embankment about 10ft. from the top "barely large enough to get one's finger into", and arguments had broken out as to whether it was serious or not. Among these people was one of the contractors Mr. Fountain who sent his son, Stephenson Fountain, on a fast horse to bring Mr. Gunson and Mr. Craven another of the contractors. As the young boy galloped through the villages he shouted a warning, but when he got to Damflask the girth (strap which holds a saddle onto a horse) broke, and he had to stop at "The Barrel" to get it repaired, telling of his mission. It was due to him that some of the people in the surrounding district had evacuated themselves and their livestock by the time the dam burst.
At the reservoir George Swinden, one of the company overseers, had opened the outlet pipes to lessen the pressure on the embankment, but it had taken him and five others two hours to do so. By this time, besides the gale, it was now raining heavily and water was flying over the top of the dam.
Even though Gunson and Craven drove the horse drawing the gig hard they did not arrive until roughly 10p.m. and at once Gunson gave the order to blow a hole in the bye-wash wall to reduce the pressure of water on the dam. By now there was a storm blowing and the navvies found it impossible to light the gunpowder. Gunson then went to examine the crack and came to the conclusion that because of the storm it had cause slight subsidence resulting in the crack, he also found that there was no leaks and therefore found it unnecessary to send an official warning to the inhabitants of the valley below. After half an hour Gunson and Swinden made another examination of the crack,
but this time from the other side and were shocked to find that water was running down the side of the dam "like a white sheet in the darkness" and running right into the crack. Gunson then went into the valve-house but Swinden seemed to know that there was something dreadfully wrong and called him back, and as Gunson looked up he was horrified to see a gap appear in the middle of the dam and a mass of water gushed through, Gunson scrambled to safety at the top of the embankment, just in time to hear a huge crash, and water began to charge through a hole 300ft. wide and 80ft. deep. Just then the gunpowder exploded but it was too late, as 2 million tons of water gushed through the broken wall of the dam. It was 1 I :30p.m.
Gunson sent fast horsemen down the valley shouting a warning. He himself whipped his horse to reach the village of Lower Bradfield but most of the residents had evacuated themselves and their livestock to higher ground. But the warnings got no further than Damflask as the speed at which the water travelled overtook the horsemen washing away the roads, while in the city, towns, and villages of the Don Valley in the wake of the flood waters, people slept, prepared for bed, or worked on the night shift, unaware of the impending danger. And for nearly 250 it was to be their last day on earth.
The first place to be hit by the deluge of water was Annett House which was reduced to nothing, along with all the barns, outbuildings and a stone bridge, but luckily all the inhabitants got away with their lives. Most of the people close to the dam seem to have lived owing to the warnings given, and the fact that some had been up to the dam earlier on in the day, had seen the crack, and were prepared for a quick getaway.
At this point the water was travelling at 30ft per second, led by a wave twice the height of a house. Part of hillsides disappeared, boulders weighing several tons were thrown into the air, a rock weighing 30 tons was dragged 200 yds. before it sank, trees snapped off, and bridges disintegrated. Everything in the way of the flood waters was swept away including a substantially built three-storey mill.
From the bursting of the dam to reaching Lower Bradfield the flood waters took a little under three minutes. Then on it went to Damflask where as at Lower Bradfield, everything in its wake was razed to the ground. But up to this point because of prior warning there had only been just four fatalities.
It was when the flood reached Little Matlock some 4 miles from the dam that the real fatalities started, as this was the limit that the horsemen had reached, and it was here that the first complete family was wiped out, this being Daniel & Ellen Chapman, their two sons, Alathea Hague their 17 yr old domestic servant and two lodgers John Bower and George Clay. After taking their home the water swept on taking with it Harrison's Tilt Mill and several other factories in which some people were working on the night shift.
To this point the water had gone through rural areas where the population was low, and then it hit Malin Bridge and Hillsborough which had many high-density districts. Here it is believed that in twenty minutes 100 people lost their lives. To give an example of the damage which occurred here, prior to the flood between Malin Bridge and Owerton there were 250 houses occupied by 1,260 people. 30 of these houses were destroyed completely, 57 were left uninhabitable, and the population reduced to only 800. Many hundreds more lost their homes and all their belongings. Not all the bodies here were recovered and many more were mutilated, limbless, and unidentifiable, as the bodies of men, women, and children had been carried along with the timber, iron, bricks, and slates from homes and factories, plus the bodies of horses, cows, and pigs from the farms. The flood waters had by now travelled at least 5 miles from the dam but still it had enough strength to flatten sizeable factories such as the large rolling-mill owned by George Hawksley.
It was here that George Bisby, proprietor of the Malin Bridge Inn, lost his life along with his entire family. His body and that of his eldest daughter Teresa were discovered at Sheffield four days later. Some people have asked if this family was related in some way to the one in Mexborough. To date we have discovered that George is a name prominent in this family. In 1817 a George Bisby was born in Mexborough and he did have a wife born in 1819 named Sarah, the gentleman killed in the flood followed the same trade as those of Mexborough. At the turn of the century a George Bisby is to be found running The Ferry Boat Inn at Mexborough and is described, yet again, as being an Innkeeper and carter.
Within several minutes of the dam bursting, the water hit the unsuspecting residents of Sheffield, covering low lying land to a depth of 20ft. Some of the houses here were in a deplorable state of construction, in particular the comparatively new brick back-to-back homes built to house the workers brought to Sheffield by work in the iron and steel industries. One person wrote "There were 5 in. walls held together by a dab of mortar, floor joists like clothes - props, and boards more like plasterer's laths than flooring'. Another wrote that during the flood "Some homes curled up like soggy cardboard . In too many instances, homes became coffins". The flood waters ripped off the front of houses on Neepsend Lane, funnelled between the embankment of the Sheffield-Manchester railway and destroyed cottages on allotments there. The gasworks was extensively damaged, and another bridge was destroyed. People smashed their way through ceilings onto roofs thinking that here they would be safe, just to have the house swept from under them. In this area alone serious damage was experienced by Neepsend Lane, Mowbray Street, Harvest Lane, Nursery Street, Bacon Island, Kelham Island, Cotton Mill Walk, Long Croft and The Wicker. Many lives were saved that night by the quick thinking of P.C. Thorne who, seeing the flood coming, ran through the streets banging on doors and shouting, sometimes wading chest deep in water. There were many, which we would now consider needless deaths, where people had tried to save animals, but we must not forget that to own a pig or horse could often bring in an income which elevated the family out of poverty. The Sheffield Union Workhouse on Kelham Island came next, and it was here that a simpleton called George gave the alarm so no one was hurt. Kelham Rolling Mill was damaged, where water to a height of 12ft. ran through it, and when the men on the night shift tried to get out through the main gates they found that their path was blocked by the Bow Street Bridge which had lodged itself across the opening. At precisely 1 a.m. an iron bridge constructed in 1795 was swept away. Although now 8 miles from the site of the dam the water still had sufficient strength to cause considerable damage as seen at Naylor & Vickers between Borough Bridge and Lady's Bridge where melting-pots, valuable machinery in both the rolling mill and casting shops were destroyed. The water hitting Lady's Bridge and blocking it with debris, it then flowed down The Wicker, racing under the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Viaduct and into the Midland Station where much of the puddle clay and debris was deposited. It was here that flood waters started to hit level ground and its pace began to subside, to be confined to flood damage. The waters rushed on past Brightside,
Attercliffe, and Tinsley, en route for Rotherham, and from there to large areas of open ground.
Statistics tell us that people who lost their lives consisted of 138 males and 100 females, the youngest being 2 days and the oldest 87yrs. 35 bodies were unidentifiable and 27 were unrecovered, but surely these figures cannot be accurate, as bodies were being found for weeks to come along the course of the River Don. 130 buildings, houses, factories, shops, and inns were destroyed. 500 buildings were partly destroyed or damaged. 5,000 buildings were flooded out. 15 bridges were swept away and 6 badly damaged. 700 animals were drowned including horses, cows, donkeys, pigs, fowls, and rabbits. In all the General Relief Committee established almost immediately after the disaster was reported that nearly 800 houses had been destroyed or abandoned and another 4,357 flooded out. The reasons given for the collapse
of the Dale Dyke Dam were numerous. The water company maintained that it was caused by a landslip, whereas engineers for the Sheffield Corporation told of faults in the construction of the embankment. Whatever the cause it remains to this day the worst dam disaster in this country.
But what of Mexborough? I can only quote from a lady whose parents were witnesses to it. She stated that the River Don and Canal were as one, and the flood waters extended to Ferry Boat Lane on both sides of the river. Dozens of pitiful household items floated by, and the bodies of a man, woman, and child were found after the water subsided. The lasting memory for many was the stench which came not just from the flood waters and the carrion it contained but from the thousands of cart loads of mud thrown into the River Don by the workmen of Sheffield, and it went on for weeks. She told me of the victims found here The man was old and where he was found an oak tree was planted; the woman had red hair so a cherry tree was planted where she was found, and for the little boy a willow tree was planted. When my family moved into the Old Farm in 1968 the previous occupier had removed an oak tree from a position close to the back door, and my father had to remove a cherry tree midway down the garden as it had become old and unsafe. When the canal was changed in the 1980's a substantial willow tree was removed from its banks where the farm yard had been located. Could this have been where those poor souls were found? Their identities were never discovered, but the people of Mexborough ensured that they received a Christian burial and their gravestone stands to this day in the graveyard of St. John The Baptist Parish Church.
A GRAVESTONE TO BE FOUND IN MEXBOROUGH CHURCHYARD ERECTED TO THREE UNIDENTIFIED
PEOPLE FOUND IN MEXBOROUGH WHO DROWNED DURING THE SHEFFIELD FLOOD
The Inscription Reads
Here lie interred the bodies of a Man a Woman and a Male Child who were found drowned in the River Don within the Parish of Mexborough on the morning of Saturday the 12th. March 1864. The three persons who here rest in death were apparently of the respective ages of 60, 45, and 2 years and were of the number of those who perished in the deluge
of water which overwhelmed and devastated the banks of the River Don in its course above and through the Great Reservoir at Lower Bradfield in the vale of the Loxley on the night of the 11th. March 1864. By this terrible occurrence 250 persons lost their lives and the value of the property destroyed has been estimated at £327,000. This memorial stone has been erected by some of the inhabitants of Mexborough as an expression of their sympathy for the deceased. They knew not until the flood came and took them all away. So shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. Therefore be ye also ready for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh. St. Matthew XXIVC. 39V.
Information obtained from The Collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam 1864 by Geoffrey Amey and Personal Memoris of Stella Batty (nee Bisby)