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The Great Sheffield Flood, 1864

Masthead of the Illustrated London News

Transcripts from
The Illustrated London News
Saturday, March 19, 1864

(No. 1250, Vol. XLIV)

In arguably the greatest tragedy ever to befall Sheffield — indeed one of Britain's worst disasters, in terms of loss of life — almost 250 people perished, possibly more, when a reservoir dam burst in the hills a few miles from the town, shortly before midnight on the night of 11th March 1864. The entire reservoir is said to have emptied in only 47 minutes, as in excess of a hundred million cubic feet of water (between 600 and 700 million gallons, or — as noted in one of the articles — two million tons weight) crashed down the Loxley and lower river valleys, destroying almost everything in its path and inflicting terrible damage to property and livelihoods in its wake. These two articles, written just a week later, describe some of the events that night and in the immediate aftermath.

Note: The second article below contains references to two engravings - both are included with the transcript. On this page they are small to keep loading time down, but both are 'clickable' so that full-size versions can be opened in a separate window.

Article 1


On Friday last, shortly before midnight, Sheffield was suddenly swept by an inundation similar in its origin, but more destructive in its effects, than the great Holmfirth flood of Feb. 5, 1852, by which, it will be remembered, ninety persons lost their lives, property to the extent of from £500,000 to £800,000 was laid waste, and 7000 workpeople were thrown out of employment. In that case the calamity was occasioned by the giving way, after a continuous wet season, of the banks of the Bilbury reservoir, from which the town of Huddersfield drew its supplies of water.

In the present instance, the Bradfield reservoir of the Sheffield Water Company, situated between five and six miles from the town, and at several hundred feet above it, burst the embankment by which it was confined, and, rushing with terrific force down the narrow gorge formed by the Stannington and Loxley hills, carried away everything before it for four or five miles, submerged many of the low-level streets of Sheffield, and destroyed in a few minutes between two and three hundred lives, and an amount of property of which it is difficult at present to form even an approximate estimate.

It is reckoned that the Bradfield reservoir was capable of holding 114,000,000 cubic feet of water, and that at the time of the accident it contained a little over 100,000,000. It covered an area of seventy-six acres, and filled a narrow basin formed by the junction of the two ranges of hills just named, and by an embankment crossing the end of the valley looking towards the town of Sheffield.

This magnificent piece of earthwork, 300 yards in length, 40 ft. in thickness, and 85 ft. in height, was considered quite strong enough to bear any pressure with which the water within the reservoir would ever be likely to test its solidity. From this embankment the gorge slopes rapidly down towards the town, carrying the waters of the Loxley, which unite lower down with the Rivelin, and after their confluence flow into the Don.

There seems to have been but little premonition of the terrible catastrophe. The two engineers in charge had just left, when a farm labourer, taking a short cut to his house across the embankment, noticed a crack in it. He ran down the valley to inform the engineers, whom he succeeded in overtaking, and who returned, but did not attach much importance to the crack.

Other signs of danger, however, presented themselves. They tried to tap the immense body of water by blowing up a weir that crossed the dam at one end. During this operation the two engineers walked again across the embankment, but had scarcely got on the other side of the fissure before it suddenly yawned, and a portion of the embankment, 110 yards in length and 75 ft. in depth, gave way, and the water demon leaped with a voice of thunder from his oozy bed, and rushed with headlong fury down the gorge below.

The destruction of life and property in the gorge itself was less appalling in extent than below the point at which it debouches into a wider valley; but whatever came within reach of the flood — cottiers' huts, with their inmates; stone inclosures and fences, cattle trees, and part even of the soil itself — was borne away with irresistible might, leaving scarcely a vestige behind.

From the confluence of the two little streams down to their junction with the Don, the devastation was more frightful and fatal. Here there were mills and forges, and on each side of the river rows of cottages to accommodate the workpeople. Everything gave way before the roaring torrent. The immense mass of water, filled with debris, razed the ground along its track as easily, and almost as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball makes for itself a lane deep into the ranks of living men. Whole familes — buried in sleep or, perchance, startled from it by the rushing roar — were literally hurled into eternity.

In the morning, the very foundations of their humble and hitherto peaceful abodes were undiscernible, and their bodies were lodged, some of them miles off, in the most unheard-of nooks and corners — here and there singly, elsewhere in heaps of ten, a dozen, or fourteen. Almost all were in their night-dresses — from some even these had been torn off by the violence of the flood. Several were shockingly mangled, and all, of course, covered with slime and mud. Let us draw a veil over this part of the picture; it is too heartrending to allow of our taking more than a general and hasty glance at it. But, as the correspondent of the Times has remarked, "it needs only to be known that at the dead of the night a great dark flood flowed through a densely-populated part of the town, rousing the sleepers from their beds, and only too frequently drowning them like rats in a hole. The horrors of Friday night are known in the hearts of thousands, but can never be told."

The destruction of property, as may readily be imagined, has been immense. Bridges, hotels, mills, farm-premises, factories, houses, stables, have been either swept away entirely or left standing in a state of ruin. Shutters of shops were torn down and the contents of the windows washed away no one knows where. Cellars containing large stocks of goods were flooded. Thousands of acres along the banks of the Don were laid under water, and incalculable injury has been inflicted upon the growing crops. Numerous gardens, upon which the owners had bestowed considerable labour and expense, and in which they took great pride, have been all but obliterated. The inhabitants of the submerged districts have in many instances lost all that they possessed, and there are hundreds of them who can now call nothing their own but the night-dresses in which they were fortunate enough to escape. "At Lady's Bridge," says the Sheffield Telegraph, "fearful heaps of timber mixed with straw and other debris were piled up by the flood against the masonwork of the bridge. The immense quantity of rafters, flooring, joists, planks, and miscellaneous articles heaped to within a few feet of the top of the bridge told a portentous story of buildings destroyed . . . There seemed wood enough to build a village."

Two accidents of the same nature within a dozen years, both of them signalised by frightfully fatal and destructive results, suggest the inquiry whether there may not have been some radically defective principle of computation relied upon by engineers in the construction of our great water reservoirs. It is said, we know not with what truth, that a considerable number of the large manufacturing towns in the north are liable to sudden devastation from precisely the same cause as that to which Sheffield owes the calamity of Friday night. Mr. Ferrand, on Tuesday evening, called the attention of the Home Secretary, for a second time, it seems, in a couple of years, to the leaky condition of the Doe Park reservoir, from which the populous town of Bradford draws its water supplies.

Another catastrophe of this kind will be a disgrace to the public authorities. It is not, perhaps, a fit matter for legislation; but periodical Government inspection is loudly called for. Experience has shown that in two instances erroneous calculations have been made as to the thickness and solidity of embankments built for the purpose of resisting the lateral pressure of an enormous body of water. For aught the public know to the contrary, the same mistake may have been made in regard to all the larger reservoirs of water-work companies in the kingdom. We trust a rigid investigation will be promptly set afoot; that measures will be either voluntarily taken, or sternly enforced, to prevent the possibility of any similar accident in future; and that directors of companies and town authorities will heartily concur in acting, as in so serious a business they are bound to act, upon the common sense maxim that "prevention is better than cure."

Recalling our thoughts from the future to the present, we ask what can be done to mitigate the suffering, the loss, and the anxiety which this inundation has left behind it? Some of its disastrous effects will require years to repair; and for some, alas! there is no remedy whatever. We can only breathe a sight over the dead, recover their bodies, and give them decent sepulture. But there are hundreds who have lost everything but life — all the little property which they had earned by years of honest toil — all the various articles of convenience or ornament which contributed to minister contentment and delectation to their humble lot.

The wealthy in Sheffield have not suffered very severely, and the few who have can take care of themselves. For the most part, this terrible visitation has fallen upon the poor, and upon a most industrious and thriving section of the poor. To restore them to such comfort as they previously enjoyed will, no doubt, be the generous resolution of the British people. It would be mere impertinence to apply any stimulus to their liberality. The heartrending facts have sufficiently moved them. They will give spontaneously, give promptly, give all that is really needed. About this we can feel no mistrust. Their deepest cause of sorrow will be that to give back the lives which have been taken is beyond their power; but their very helplessness in this respect will dispose them, we hope, to insist that such steps shall be taken as will prevent their being ever again exposed by a like cause to this unavailing anguish of heart.

Article 2


Note: original captions for the two images below can be seen by holding your cursor over them. Both scans are also 'clickable' links, opening a larger version in a separate window.

Original ILN caption: 'The Bradfield Reservoir, near Sheffield: the gap in the Dale Dyke embankment. - From a sketch by our special artist.' Click the image to see a larger version.

We have this week to relate the particulars of a terrible disaster which has befallen the town of Sheffield and its neighbourhood, involving the sudden destruction of several hundred human lives. This is the bursting of the Sheffield Water Company's reservoir at Bradfield, seven or eight miles west of that town, in the Loxley Valley, which opens into that of the River Don. The villages or hamlets of Bradfield, Damflask, Little Matlock, and Malin Bridge, with parts of Hillsborough and Owlerton, along that road, as well as the low-lying suburbs of Sheffield itself, were overwhelmed by the flood; and very many dwelling-houses with their inhabitants, at eleven o'clock on Friday evening, were destroyed by its furious coming upon them. We say nothing of the vast damage to public and private property (half a million sterling) which it must have caused in such a busy and thriving manufacturing district, close to a town of nearly 200,000 people.

The calamity is much greater than that of Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, which our readers may recollect, just twelve years ago. It is one, however, of a precisely similar kind. The cause of it may be well understood by a glance at our large Engraving on page 288, which is from a sketch of the Dale Dyke embankment, taken by our own Artist soon after the flood was gone by.

The Bradfield reservoir, which has but lately been completed, was formed by building this dam or embankment across a narrow valley, between the hills of Stannington and Loxley, inclosing a deep basin of seventy-eight acres in extent, nearly a mile and a quarter in length, and about a quarter of a mile broad. This basin, collecting the rainfall and other water shed from the hills around, became an artificial lake, the depth of which was from 60 ft. to 70 ft. in its centre, but on the average about 40 ft.; though it was naturally much deeper close to the embankment, at the lower end of the reservoir. A local reporter sets down its probable depth at from eighty to a hundred feet in this part. The average height of the embankment, however, was 85 ft.; and if we suppose this to have been the actual depth of the water, it is computed that there must have been a pressure of nearly two tons and a half upon each square foot at the base of the embankment. In order to resist such a force as this (we quote an observation of the Times) the embankment, if it were built of the best solid masonry, ought to have had a thickness of 54 ft. at the base, and to have been so carried down to the solid rock, or at least to a great depth in the soil, that it should not be undermined.

It seems, unhappily, that the directors and engineers of the Sheffield Water Company, proceeding with the construction of this reservoir under an Act passed in 1853, the year after the Holmfirth disaster, contented themselves with much slighter work. The thickness of their embankment was only 40 ft. Its internal solidity, and the manner in which it was built, will be ascertained by future inquiry. The event, however, has shown that it was not sufficient for its purpose.

On the other hand, this same company had previously constructed several embankments, at Redmires, in the neighbouring valley of the Rivelin, which have hitherto stood the trial without failure. The engineers were men of skill and experience. The whole concern had some local reputation for prudent and careful management, and there had been no undue haste in the execution of this work, which occupied several years. It may be inferred that there is something wrong in the principle of constructing great water-reservoirs in elevated situations by a mere embankment closing some natural hollow, at a level high above that of the neighbouring country. It will probably be a question for the Legislature whether such expedients should not henceforth be forbidden, and the water companies obliged to store up their water at a safe natural level, from which it may be pumped up and distributed by steam power.

We return to our description of the tremendous accident near Sheffield, and refer once more to our View of the Dale Dyke Embankment. That portion of it which gave way on Friday night, as shown in the Engraving, was 110 yards long and about 70 ft. deep. We see here what a gap was made, clean cut away from the hill on each side.

The resident engineer, Mr. Gunson, with some navvies, had been there as late as six o'clock on Friday, when all seemed right; but the high wind was driving the water in waves against the embankment. An hour or two after they left, a farm labourer, crossing the embankment, found a crack in the centre of it. He immediately ran and gave the alarm to some navvies, after which he hastened to call Mr. Gunson back. The navvies came and looked at the crack, but thought nothing of it.

Mr. Gunson then came and crossed over it; he went to the weir and found that the water was not running over it, which showed that the reservoir was not quite full; but to relieve the pressure on the dam he decided to blow up the weir with gunpowder, and ordered the navvies to do this at once. They made the attempt, but could not succeed, the weir being solidly built. In the meantime Mr. Gunson, with the foreman of the works, each carrying a lantern, went back to the crack to see whether it was enlarged. They had just time to step over it when the embankment gave way, and the water rushed over the top of it, rapidly wearing it down. The engineer and his men thus had a very narrow escape of their lives.

It is impossible either to describe or to imagine the scene which then took place. Looking again at the huge gap displayed in our Engraving, and remembering its width and depth, we may try to conceive the sudden outpouring by this channel of a hundred millions of cubic feet of water — that is, two million tons weight of water all discharged at once into the valleys below! This is the quantity, as near as it can be estimated, the reservoir, when quite full, containing 113,000,000 cubic feet.

To help the reader's fancy, it has been suggested by the Times that the whole quantity of water in this mile-long reservoir, though only from 40 ft. to 85 ft. deep, might have filled a cistern large enough to sink St. Paul's Cathedral in it, with the cross 50 ft. under water. This is probably correct; but we shall get a truer notion of the actual dimensions of the reservoir if we suppose the whole length of Waterloo-place and Regent-street to be filled with water up to the roofs of the houses, and all this water to be suddenly let out by the breaking down of a wall of equal height across the space between the United Service and the Athenaeum Clubs.

This cataract rushed down into the Loxley Valley, and, issuing from the gorge in which it was confined between high steep banks for the first few hundred yards, it spread out over the lowlands and nether valleys, tearing up the bridges of the Loxley and Rivelin streams, overturning everything in its way — factories, workshops, and cottages where people lay quietly in their beds. Laden with fragments of the ruined houses, pieces of furniture, and dead human bodies, the flood poured into the River Don, which rose and submerged a great part of Neepsend, a suburb of Sheffield, where many persons were drowned. From Hillfoot to Corporation Bridge, to the Lady's Bridge, all through those parts of the town which are near the river, the streets were flooded; and in the Wicker, Blonk-street, and Nursery-street, especially, there was a raging torrent, which did a vast amount of mischief.

In these streets, after the flood had subsided, several corpses were found lying; and there, too, in the middle of the town, were trunks of trees and cattle which had been washed down from the land above. The main force of the flood seems to have expended itself at some distance beyond Sheffield, after passing Brightside; but as far as Rotherham, and even Doncaster, it bore the tokens of its devastating fury.

Original ILN caption: 'The village of Bradfield, near Sheffield, scene of the late floods. - From a sketch by our special artist.'  Click the image to see a larger version. In the town of Sheffield the inundation took place about midnight. It had much abated by two o'clock in the morning. The worst effects of it were not, indeed, seen in the town, but from Malin Bridge, and the junction of the road between Hillsborough and Owlerton, to the suburb of Neepsend. The village of Low Bradfield, which is represented in our Engraving, is of course situated much higher up in the Loxley Valley — quite another district. Though it was Low Bradford [sic] which was first reached by the inundation, lying as it does nearest to the Bradfield reservoir, the only loss of life in that village was in the case of a little child, which its mother had caught up, and was carrying from her own house into another, when she stumbled and let the child fall from her arms into the water. One or two houses, a blacksmith's shop, a barn, the Wesleyan schoolhouse, and two bridges in this village of Bradfield were swept away, and a great many cattle were drowned; but it escaped lightly in comparison with the places lower down.

Some of the people about Malin Bridge relate the most touching incidents of that fatal night. Amongst the rows of houses at this place is one called Bowers'-buildings. They are built of stone, and stand parallel with the river. Just above this row stood a number of cottages, which were wholly swept away, as well as the Stag Inn and a farmhouse. In one house in the row lives a woman who washes for the greater number of the people in the district. She and her daughter, a girl of about eighteen, were watching the course of the water from their bed-room window. They knew all the people in the cottages above, and recognised scores as they were carried along in their night-dresses on the top of the flood. These poor people threw their arms about wildly, and shrieked, "Help! save me!" Even well-known voices could be distinguished, and the victims themselves could be seen at the very moment of sinking to rise no more. The roar of the waters and the wind was loud and terrible; but above all came the shrieks from the poor creatures whom the lookers-on were powerless to save.

The young woman says that she recognised a man named Watson as he was borne before their eyes, clasping in one arm his wife, who held an infant to her breast. Some of the cottagers who were safe made frantic efforts to reach them, but all was unavailing. The poor man, still bravely struggling, was borne with his precious burden against a house a little below Bowers'-building, and which stood across the roadway. He was flung against the wall, swept downwards amongst trees and timbers, rose again to the surface, and a second time was hurled against the wall. Then his wife and child slipped from his grasp. Still he struggled for life, and laid hold of a window. Inside was the owner of the house, Mr. Widderson, and in an instant the poor fellow's hand was grasped, and he was dragged into the house. In the morning the body of Mrs. Watson was found on the ground below the window through which her husband escaped. The child, however, had been washed away. The body of Mrs. Watson was laid along with the bodies of five of her husband's sisters, all grown-up women, in the cottage of his mother, a poor old widow living on the hillside near. The poor woman had laid out all her daughters' corpses, and then sat watching beside them.

We might cite from the local narratives a great many anecdotes of this kind, which are no less painful and distressing. On the other hand, they record as many wonderful escapes. There were some houses, for instance, in one of which a man named Thomas Wilkinson lived. He "had been in a flood before," and when he found the house nearly submerged he got on to the roof. A light cart floated near it, and he got into it and held on by the windows until he was rescued. Whilst in that position he kept up a conversation with the persons in the other house, and advised them to "hold on" in the garret in which they had sought refuge.

Near these houses the body of a man was found in a tree, and another was jammed between part of a haystack and the side of a cottage. In one of the small cottage houses lived a family named Dean. In one of the upper rooms two little boys were in bed, and they were awakened by feeling the bed floating about. One of them, by pressing against the ceiling, prevented the bed from touching, and so saved himself from being suffocated; but his brother jumped out and was drowned in the chamber.

There was another house occupied by Robert Graham, his wife, and six children. These were all saved, owing to the presence of mind shown by Graham. He awoke to find the water invading his chamber, and before he could act efficiently he and his wife and children were all knocked down by the fall of a brick wall. By superhuman exertions he got them out of the water and placed them all upon one bed. He could not prevent the bed floating about in the chamber, but when the flood subsided they were rescued.

Opposite to this house lived a man named Whittles, his wife, and five children. The gable of the house was washed away, exposing two bed-rooms. In one of them, resting on the corner of the floor, which was tottering to its fall, being only supported on two sides, was a little stump bedstead. Upon that bed Whittles placed his wife and children, and held them firmly upon it, while he supported himself with one hand on the mantelpiece. They were all saved.

Less fortunate were the inhabitants of a row of brick houses at Malin Bridge. The first house was tenanted by a man named Dyson, his wife and children, and one or two relatives. They were ten in number, but only one of them was saved. The survivor is Dyson's brother, and he escaped in a remarkable manner. He was sleeping in the top bed-room, and being awakened by the rush of the water, and finding escape into the road cut off, he smashed a portion of the lath and plaster partition, made his way to the joists beneath the roof, and then broke the slates and got upon the roof, where he remained for two hours before assistance could be given to him. In the back of the last house of that row two children, named Atkinson, were swept out of their bed-room, along with the bed on which they were lying, and were drowned. In the next two houses resided two families named Turner and one named Taplin. The uncertain statements of the surviving neighbours fix the number in each house at seven or eight, but not a trace of them or their houses is left.

At Owlerton a man, who lived in a three-storey house, found the floor giving way and the bed sliding outwards from under his feet. In the frantic excitement of the moment he tore a hole through the plaster ceiling above, and escaped into the cockloft. Fortunately for him, the house, or rather the upper fragment of it, hung together in a most extraordinary manner. The back of it had fallen, and half the end had been washed away; but the remainder stood upright. The other inmates perished, but this one man, by his desperate device to escape the incoming flood, was saved. The wreck still hangs together, and the hole through which the man escaped may be seen. We might, however, multiply without end these curious or pathetic incidents of Friday night.

On the Saturday and Sunday more than a hundred dead bodies which had been picked up when the flood subsided, or dug out of the mud or the ruins, were exposed to the public view at the Sheffield workhouse, where all day long a crowd of persons assembled for the purpose of recognising, if possible, some missing friend or relative. The scene was one that will not readily be forgotten by any one who witnessed it, for in five of the outbuildings no less than ninety-nine corpses were laid out, the majority of them retaining the position in which they were when death overtook them. The old man of four score years, the infant but a few days old, the powerful vigorous man in the prime of life, the weak, delicate girl — there lay stretched side by side in ghastly rows.

Water alone was not the agent of their destruction; falling houses, trees, and stones had aided in the horrible work. Many of the bodies are terribly crushed and bruised; but, on the whole, the countenance of the sufferers wore a singularly placid expression, not one in any way indicating a violent death. Not more than one in ten exhibited the marked symptoms of asphyxia by drowning, as described by medical authors on the subject — viz., a livid colour of the face, the tongue protruding and generally wounded by the teeth, a frothy discharge from the mouth and nose, the eyelids half closed and the pupils dilated. Quite the reverse seemed to be the case with the majority of these poor sufferers, for the general appearance of the bodies was that of sound sleep — the lips and cheeks retaining still the rosy freshness of life, the mouth slightly opened, and a smile upon the face, as though in a pleasant dream.

In one room lay stretched side by side a man and his wife, lying upon whose breast was their little one, but a few days old. In one room lay an aged couple whose lives were apparently cut short but a very little earlier than if Nature had run her appointed course. In another place were three little children of one family, a most touching sight, lying as though buried in the soundest slumber, clasped in each other's arms. It was, by all accounts, a very miserable spectacle. The number of dead bodies identified, up to Tuesday night, was 131, leaving fifty-six which had not yet been claimed. An inquest was opened by Mr. J. Webster, the Coroner, on Saturday evening, but adjourned to the 23rd inst.

In the mean time, the local authorities and the people of Sheffield are making all possible efforts to provide relief for the distressed survivors of this calamity. Two hundred beds in the Sheffield workhouse have been set apart for the reception of those whom it has left houseless, and a fund is being subscribed for the benefit of the sufferers in general.

At the preliminary meeting for this purpose, convened by Mr. Thomas Jessop, the Mayor, on Monday morning, the subscriptions then and there announced were, in the aggregate, as much as £5000. At the adjourned meeting on Tuesday, which was attended by Earl Fitzwilliam and Lord Wharncliffe, as well as by the principal merchants and manufacturers of Sheffield, it appeared that the amount subscribed was no less than £12,000, including one donation of £1000 from Earl Fitzwilliam, and several of £500 each from different persons in the neighbourhood. Mr. George Hadfield, M.P., by a telegram to the meeting on Monday, promised to send £500 next day from London.

The Lord Mayor of London has undertaken to receive contributions for this object.

The following 'snippet' also appeared in the same issue of the ILN, in the section reporting parliamentary news:

In answer to Mr. Roebuck, Sir G. Grey stated that the Government had sent Mr. Rawlinson, C.E., to Sheffield, to investigate the causes of the recent bursting of the reservoir near that town.


A superb resource, the Sheffield Flood Claims Archive, including Index of Deceased

Sheffield Flood 140th Anniversary website

Michael Armitage's Great Flood at Sheffield, including list of deceased

Great Sheffield Flood
History of Sheffield

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