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The Great Sheffield Flood

Lower Matlock Wheel - Malcolm Nunn
Lower Matlock Wheel - Malcolm Nunn

By the mid-1860s, the town of Sheffield was in the midst of rapid urban expansion. Hundreds of houses, mills and factories were springing up both in the town itself and in outlying villages such as Malin Bridge and Owlerton. To service the ever-growing population with clean drinking water, a number of reservoirs were constructed by the Sheffield Water Company.

One such reservoir was Dale Dyke. Situated a mile to the west of the village of Low Bradfield and about eight miles from Sheffield, the reservoir consisted of an earthen dam blocking the path of the River Loxley, allowing a large body of water to form in the valley behind.

In the afternoon of the 11th of March 1864, a workman walking beside the dam noticed a small crack in the embankment. A couple of hours later, the crack had expanded and the decision was taken to send a rider to Sheffield to alert the Sheffield Water Company’s resident engineer, John Gunson.

Gunson arrived at the dam at ten o’clock that night. He examined the crack - which was now wide enough to fit a man’s hand inside - and concluded that the embankment would hold. He was wrong.

As Gunson watched on in horror, the embankment gave way, sending six hundred and ninety-one million gallons of water rushing into the valley below. Many in the nearby village of Lower Bradfield had been alerted to the crack and, despite assurances that the dam would hold, had taken to the hills as a precaution. As the water cascaded through the village, pulverising the blacksmith’s shop, the schoolhouse, the corn mill, a farmhouse and several dwellings, the flood claimed its first victim – a one day old infant who was ripped from the arms of a Mrs. Dawson as she and her husband attempted to flee the destruction.

The flood tore down through the Loxley valley, destroying everything in its path. As it headed towards the little hamlet of Damflask, the village’s residents had received prior warning that a flood might be on the way thanks to the rider sent to fetch John Gunson stopping at the village to have his saddle-girth replaced. Thus it was that all but one of the residents was saved. The unlucky victim was a local character called ‘Sheffield Harry’ who, on hearing of the crack had laughed it off and gone to bed. He was swept away along with the entire village.

From Damflask the flood waters cascaded towards the village of Storrs Bridge, sweeping a wire mill and its workers away on the way. Storrs Bridge, a small settlement of about a half a dozen houses along with a steel forge and a brick kiln was almost entirely destroyed.

As the flood swept down the valley, nothing in its path was safe. Cows and sheep asleep in the fields were gathered up by the raging waters and drowned; farmhouses were obliterated; horses, pigs and chickens were killed in their stables, sties and coups. Mills and factories were smashed to smithereens. At Little Matlock, a picturesque hamlet near the village of Malin Bridge, two steel rolling mills were hit by the full force of the water, ripping iron machinery from its moorings and killing those working inside.

Mills and factories were smashed to smithereens
 

As the waters headed for Malin Bridge, the flood picked up huge quantities of detritus. Stone walls were smashed to pieces; bridges were torn down; trees were uprooted; heavy machinery was tossed about as if it weighed next to nothing. This churning, lethal mass of water and debris smashed into Malin Bridge with a vengeance.

‘The populous village of Malin Bridge experienced the full fury of the flood, and suffered to an extent which is truly appalling,’ wrote Samuel Harrison, who published an exhaustive history of the flood. ‘A bombardment with the newest and most powerful artillery could hardly have proved so destructive, and could not possibly have been nearly so fatal to human life.’

The flood destroyed the village’s bridge, twenty houses, two public houses and many industrial buildings, killing one hundred and two of its inhabitants including eight members of the Armitage family who were asleep in the Stag Inn at the time. After the waters subsided, all that remained of the Stag were its cellars. Opposite the Stag was the Cleakum Inn, which was reduced to not much more than a chimney stack. The photographs and paintings of the battered remains of the Cleakum would become some of the most enduring images of the Great Sheffield Flood.

When the waters subsided, the whole area was strewn with debris and dead bodies.

The waters had now travelled for several miles from their point of origin, yet the flood was far from running out of steam. The steep valley down through which the waters had flowed caused the flood to speed up as it hit Malin Bridge, hence why the damage was so severe and the loss of life so heavy. As the waters approached the village of Owlerton, they showed no signs of slowing down.

Owlerton was a village stretched along the road into Sheffield containing a mixture of residential and industrial buildings. A large section of the village was devastated as the flood barrelled through. After the waters subsided, a layer of mud eight inches thick covered the ground.

After laying waste to Owlerton, the flood arrived at an area of allotments known as Victoria Gardens. Here, a number of lowly, one story cottages nestled among the gardens housing some of Sheffield’s poorest people. The gardens and cottages were torn to shreds as the thunderous mass of water, mud, machinery, trees, hedges, boulders and bodies smashed through the area. The frontages of the cottages were torn away and those sleeping inside were ripped from their beds and carried away to drown. When the waters subsided, the whole area was strewn with debris and dead bodies.

The waters had now hit the town of Sheffield itself. The Neepsend district was then a densely populated area of mixed industry and residential buildings which sustained heavy damage, including the destruction of an important local tannery and the works of the Sheffield Gas Company.

Neepsend was home to John Gannon and his family. Gannon, a local labourer who lived with his wife and their six children in a humble stone cottage on the banks of the River Don in Neepsend, managed to get his wife and children up on to the roof of the cottage after being woken by the waters rising in the family’s shared bedroom. As the Gannons screamed for help, the waters engulfed the roof of the cottage and all eight were swept away and battered to death in the lethal soup of water and churning debris.  Similar scenes were repeated over and over again on that dreadful night.

On the flood waters roared, tearing apart the areas of Hillfoot, Bacon Island and Philadelphia as they crashed towards an industrial area known as Kelham Island. It was here that a Mr. John Eaton met his fate. Eaton occupied a house in a row of three cottages in the area, and when he and his neighbours heard the roar of the water coming towards them, Eaton was determined to save a very valuable pig he kept in a sty in his back yard. Unfortunately, the pig stubbornly refused to move and both the pig and poor Mr. Eaton were swept away and drowned.

The waters rushed onwards towards a densely-packed neighbourhood of houses and industrial buildings known as The Wicker. By now the waters had abated to the point they no longer reached the second storeys of houses, meaning the residents were in much less danger than the poor souls who had faced a twenty-six-foot high wall of water in the Loxley valley. In The Wicker, just two people lost their lives.

As the flood made its way through the mostly-industrialised area of Attercliffe in the Don Valley, it had lost a lot of its power. Many factories and forges were damaged, but no more loss of life was recorded. The flood finally petered out after dumping enormous quantities of wreckage in the nearby town of Rotherham, where many cellars were flooded. By the time it reached Doncaster, the flood was nothing more than a steady stream of timber, dead animals, bedframes, chests of drawers and other detritus floating down the river. It was an extraordinary sight.

Over six hundred buildings were damaged on the night of the Great Sheffield Flood, one hundred and thirty of which were completely destroyed. Tragically, two hundred and thirty-eight people lost their lives, many of them children. It was one of the worst disasters of the Victorian era.