Recent years have seen a number of damaging floods hit the country. Notably, in 2007 over 23,000 homes and more than 3,500 businesses were flooded across Yorkshire with Sheffield particularly hit hard.
As horrible as those events were for many in the city, the recent floods don’t compare with the devastation of the Great Sheffield Flood which claimed more than 240 lives and had its 150th anniversary in 2014.
On Friday 11 March 1864 construction was almost complete on the Dale Dyke Dam high up the Loxley Valley.
Construction of the dam had started in 1859 by the Sheffield Waterworks Company in order to provide drinking water for the expanding village of Bradfield. The reservoir would also provide a running water supply to many local mills.
During a storm on the fateful day engineer William Horsfield took shelter by the dam and happened to notice a crack.
He noted that the crack was only wide enough to slot a penknife into, but that it did run across the embankment for around 50 yards. Horsfield didn’t believe the crack to be particularly dangerous at that time, but he did see fit to report it.
A group from Sheffield Waterworks Company travelled from surrounding areas to the dam to inspect the crack, however they arrived as darkness fell and it was difficult to properly investigate. By this time the crack had widened a little, now about finger’s width.
No water appeared to be leaking through the gap at this time however, so still no danger was anticipated.
Some measures were taken to slightly relieve the pressure on that part of the dam, but with no major risk anticipated many of the inspectors left the site around 10pm.
Soonafter Sheffield Waterworks Company’s resident engineer Mr. Gunson, who was requested to visit from the city centre by the earlier group, arrived at the dam and began his own inspections with the remainder of the workmen.
The inevitability of flooding dawns
Noting that the crack had now grown to the width of a man’s hand the inspectors remarked that “if we don’t relieve the dam of water there will be a blow up in a half an hour.”
Gunpowder was set down to blow a weir and escape the water, but despite attempted lighting of the fuse the train to the powder the explosion didn’t happen. It is thought that either the gunpowder became wet in the storms or the train wasn’t applied correctly in the darkness.
Gunson again inspected the area and as he looked up he saw the first signs of water beginning to flow over the embankment and down the crack.
In the minutes that followed the opening on the embankment widened to around thirty feet and disaster was thought inevitable.
At just before midnight the dam gave way entirely and 140,000,000 cubic feet of water rushed like an avalanche down the Loxley valley.
Although the workers that had left the earlier party had told a few friends about the crack and potential floods on the way home, no warning could be carried fast enough down to the villages at the bottom of the valley once the dam had given way.
A government inspector later commented that “Not even a Derby horse could have carried the warning in time to have saved the people down the valley.”
The only warning for many downstream was the terrific noise of the water itself rushing down the hillsides.
Destruction through Bradfield claims one-day old infant
The only set of people who were successfully warned as the flood was coming was farmer John Empstall, his family and their lodger at Annett House, a little way downwards in the valley.
A labourer for the waterworks company had run down the hill just before midnight and shouted to Empstall: “It’s coming! It’s coming!” The family didn’t even have time to put their clothes on as they were awoken from slumber but did pick some up to put on when safe.
They watched from a hillside as the house and all its outbuildings were swept away not five minutes later. The destructive forces of the torrent were such that afterwards no-one could even tell there were ever any buildings located there in the first place.
In Lower Bradfield the destruction continued. Witnesses reported a wall of water, many yards high, flowing down the valley.
Buildings were swept down, bridges were completely destroyed, trees were uprooted and stone boulders were easily carried away. A school building completed only months earlier disappeared entirely.
The first victim of the floods was an infant just one day old. He was swept out of the hands of his father and mother as they tried their best to get away from the water rush, which inevitably knocked them off their feet.
The father, who had ironically been present during early inspections of the crack, managed to save his wife but not his son. The child’s body was found in a downstream coal cellar three days later.
Houses swept away at Malin Bridge
Making its way through the narrow sweeping valleys carrying almost everything and anyone in its path and increasing its volume by taking the contents of several other dams on the way, the huge body of water quickly made its way to the village of Malin Bridge (now a larger Sheffield suburb), which saw much of the worst devastation.
Along just a few hundred yards more than twenty houses and their occupants were completely consumed. 102 lives were lost in this small area alone.
Huge grinding wheels and their mills were destroyed, rows of housing collapsed like dominoes and two massive stone bridges were easily swept away.
Land where houses stood were almost instantly turned into quagmires of muddy fields that were strewn with random items the body of water had earlier picked up and simply discarded. Human and animal bodies scattered all around, many had been carried some distance away from where first picked up.
Some were found as far away as Doncaster, some 27 miles away from the originating reservoir, having been swept along rivers by the force of the water volume.
Witnesses to the catastrophe said that the water ‘came all at once and went all at once but in between continued at its peak for about a quarter of an hour.’
Through Hillsborough and towards the city
The water made its way unabated through Hillsborough. A row of newly built three-storey houses were submerged to the tops of their bedroom ceilings, marking some eighteen feet above the roadway outside.
Witnesses recalled seeing an entire brick house, complete with all its walls roof and flooring, uprooted from its foundations and swept along as a unit, stopping only at Hillsborough’s strong bridge where it apparently stood for a few hours before eventually collapsing.
Flooding continued apace, following much of the valley routes of the rivers of Sheffield. Owlerton was next on the trail and the industrial locations of Hillfoot through to Green Lane and Kelham Island were hard hit.
Hearing it coming and in the rush to get away from the water, workers who were preparing a night shift break meal inadvertently set fire to one Kelham Island factory. As the staffers climbed the rafters worrying about whether they would now burn to death, the floods burst in and extinguished the flames.
Fortunately many of the large factories were sufficiently built to withstand much of the destruction seen earlier along the flood route, but the flooding still wrecked many businesses and workshops.
Around Nursery Street almost the whole neighbourhood was submerged, water stopping short of taking the nearby railway line.
Lady’s Bridge to Rotherham and Doncaster
Flooding continued along the river path with many buildings on either side being totally destroyed as the wall of water made its way to Lady’s Bridge where spectators said the arch of the bridge was almost completely blocked by debris.
Along The Wicker and past the old Midland Station there, floods continued. Many buildings in Attercliffe and Brightside were damaged, most having around four feet of water deposited within.
Unbelievably the floods continued though Rotherham and Doncaster, although by that time had lost much of the ferocity seen earlier on its destructive path.
The destruction could only be properly appreciated by the daylight of the next morning. Debris lined the muddy tracks of the floods which in part were littered with dead bodies of livestock and even humans who had simply gone to sleep as normal the night before.
It is said that one inhabitant of a hillside cottage awoke as normal the next morning and as he looked down towards the river in the valley he could not believe that everything that had previously stood below his property was completely gone.
The big clean up
Over the following days work set about cleaning up the horrific destruction. Scores of bodies, many mutilated along their journeys and one of which was recovered from the branches of a large tree, were housed in temporary mortuaries in such places as cellars of public houses until they could be moved to Sheffield Workhouse with a view of trying to identify the victims.
Some remains were still being found in various places as long as two months after the event. More than 240 lives were claimed in total with some bodies never being recovered.
Many historians feel the Great Sheffield Flood is not remembered as much as other tragedies. But a series of events took place to mark the 150th anniversary.
A wreath was be laid in a Sheffield City Centre memorial whilst guided walks were arranged along parts of the flood’s route too.
Church services took place in the areas that were affected and primary school children were taught about the floods and learned specially commissioned songs about the events of 11 March 1864.
A version of this article was originally written for and published at Social Sheffield / We Love Sheffield magazine (March 2014).