The Great Sheffield Flood happened in 1864. To understand why it happened it is important to know that between 1801 and 1861 the population of the industrialized city of Sheffield underwent tremendous growth and nearly tripled in size. To fulfill the water needs of the steel industry and the growing population, the Dale Dyke (or Bradfield) Dam was built by the Sheffield Waterworks Company (SWWC). Then, on the evening of 11 March 1864, the dam was being filled for the first time when a heavy south-western gale occurred. Around 5:30pm a crack was discovered in the dam. Proper authorities were notified and they made attempts to solve the problem, but, in the end, the dam failed and the Great Sheffield Flood, also known as the Great Inundation, occurred.
At three minutes before midnight the Great Sheffield Flood hit:
“[O]ne hundred and fourteen millions … cubic feet of water, roll[ed] like an avalanche down the valley, with a noise like thunder, and [swept] before it houses, mills, men, cattle, trees, rocks, and whatever [else] impede[d] its march of destruction and death.”
Witnesses of the flood described the terror and the quickness with which the water moved. One man stated:
“I could hear the roar, and … discern the rushing water up the valley … I ran out of the house down to within fifteen or twenty yards of the flood. Language cannot convey any just description of the awful thundering, crashing roar of the torrent. It was if the earth itself was being rent asunder by the impetuous stream … Trees snapped like pistols, mills and houses stood and staggered for a moment, and then disappeared in the boiling torrent.”
The first and youngest victim was a 2-day-old baby boy, the child of a tailor named Joseph Dawson. They lived in Lower Bradfield. Dawson’s house was located at the end of a row of houses at the bottom of the valley, about 20 yards from the river’s bed. He had personally seen the crack but thought there was no immediate danger. So, he could not believe it would fail. He and his wife went to bed at their usual hour only to be awoken when he heard men shouting “It’s coming! It’s coming!” As his wife was still convalescing from child birth, Dawson searched for help to safe his family, but as no one was available, he carried his wife as she held their newborn tight in her arms.
“[A]bout twenty yards from the door … the flood met us, and knocked us both down … We were both covered by water, and I was obliged to let my wife go … [We returned to the house hoping to make it upstairs when] the flood caught us again, and washed the blankets and my child away, and left my wife naked in my arms … I was obliged to leave the child to its fate, or I could not have saved my wife.”
The tiny body was found a few days later having been carelessly deposited by the flood in someone’s coal cellar.
Throughout the area, people fought to stay alive. In the picturesque Loxley Old Wheel, “situated amid a scene of romantic beauty, the hill sides being crowned with trees,” two brothers, ages 11 and 14 were working with Robert Banner. They had no idea that danger was imminent.
“The flood came upon them without the slightest warning, and … [made] a noise like a rushing wind; it burst open the doors, and knocked them all down.”
Banner climbed through the chimney and made it to safety. The 11-year-old boy grabbed a bobbing shuttle pole “and stuck to it till the flood subsided,” but the 14-year-old boy drowned.
Another victim was Mrs. Ryder of Sheffield. She was carrying her young daughter while her son clung to her nightdress and followed along.
“Mrs. Ryder was almost exhausted, and, in order to rest … clung to a lamp-post which had not yet been washed down. Just at this moment, a sudden rush of water carried the boy off his feet. ‘Oh, mother!’ he screamed … ‘Oh Bob!’ shrieked his little sister in reply. The next moment the torrent bore him away on its surface, and his cries soon died away amid the roar of the flood.”
Other various interesting incidents also occurred during the Great Sheffield Flood. Little Matlock was supposedly one of the most romantic and picturesque areas near Sheffield, “a place to which, it is said, Robin Hood and Little John used frequently to resort.” The area attracted thousands of tourists who enjoyed sequestered walks and who rambled among the rocks and could descend from there into the beautiful valley. But on this day, three families were drowned and one family was washed away in their house. In addition, a 14-year-old boy was sucked out a window and drowned as his father watched. He had loosened his grip on his son when a beam hit him in the abdomen.
In Neepsend, one woman struggled to stay afloat and get to safety, all the while protecting her child in her arms. She “exerted herself to the utmost to hold the child out of the water, … [but she grew so tired the child drowned.]” Another boy living in Neepsend sought refuge in a chimney stack, but while doing so “he heard the cries of his mother piercing the midnight air; … but he dared not come down to her assistance [and she drowned].”
There was also a man who lost his life because of his valuable pig. The man was determined to save the pig and attempted to pull it into the house, but the animal would not move. Friends begged the man to leave the pig and run for his life, but he refused. Instead he tried to coax and entice the pig. “The stubborn animal knew nothing about floods, and did not care … in a few minutes the flood swept down an adjacent wall, … engulphed [sic] the pig, … stye, and owner in one common ruin.”
The major brunt of the flood hit at Malin Bridge. It was reported that “within a distance of only a few hundred yards more than twenty houses were destroyed, and no less than one hundred and two lives were sacrificed.” Among those sacrificed were men, women, children, shoemakers, widows, shopkeepers, servants, and visitors. Witnesses to the approaching flood said the only description they could provide was the following:
“[I]ndescribable; and that the noise resembled a thousand steam engines letting off their steam simultaneously. The flood lifted up the houses, turned them over, and then rolled across the ruins. Houses were falling, trees were cracking, the wind was howling, women and children were shrieking, and all dismal sounds were commingling as though Pandemonium itself were holding its jubilee.”
The following morning, surveyors of the devastation claimed that such a “scene of ruin … has seldom been equaled. A bombardment with the newest and most powerful artillery could hardly have proved so destructive.” Anything in the flood’s path was swept away including two bridges, rows of cottages, grinding wheels, numerous homes, and workshops.
Despite all the death and destruction, there were some extraordinary escapes. Below Bradfield, a William Marsden and his wife heard strange noises while in bed and suddenly the “water crashed in[to] the house with a noise … resembling thunder.” His wife climbed on top of a table and Mr. Marsden “broke a leg off the dressing table … knocked a hole through the ceiling … and … escaped to the roof of the house.” His wife threw him their child, which he took to safety, before returning and pulling his wife through the same hole from which he escaped. Another escape involved a Mr. Titcomb. He also punched a hole in his roof and he, his wife, and two sons escaped through it.
In Damflask, although many inhabitants were warned of the approaching danger, Joseph Walton learned about he danger just before the dam broke. At the time his wife was confined to bed having given birth to a child four or five days earlier. When Walton was warned a flood might occur, he attempted to get help to remove his wife, but as others were saving themselves, he could find no one to help. He got a cart and took his wife and baby to safety and did so just in the nick of time. They “had not been gone more than ten minutes, when the flood came, and swept the house away entirely.”
At the head of Bacon Island a Police-constable named John Thorpe saw the water coming and knew it had no business being there. He ran with all speed knocking on doors and waking residents with a warning to evacuate their homes. By the time he reached one family, the Sharmans, their only escape was through a bedroom window as the lower floors were, by the time of Thorpe’s arrival, filled with water. Unfortunately, the window was covered with an iron bar for security purposes. Several other people soon joined the constable and although they tried to remove the bar, it stubbornly refused to budge. That was when “Sharman, seeing that it was a question of life and death to himself and family, seized hold of the iron bar, and with the strength of desperation wrenched it from its holdfast.” Mrs. Sharman was then told to throw the baby out, “and she did so, though not without some hesitation lest her little one should fall into the flood which was swelling and raging beneath … the watchman caught the baby in his arms as neatly as though he had been an experienced nurse and not a protector of the nocturnal peace.” The remaining residents escaped, with “the last person … hardly … lifted out [before] … the house fell down with a loud crash … [and] was swept away so completely that not a vestige of it remain[ed].”
Some people claimed miracles occurred the night of the Great Sheffield Flood. For instance, an 8-year-old girl who was an overnight guest at a public house, was found the following morning in bed fast asleep, despite her aunt and uncle dying and only a corner of the room remaining on which the child’s bed stood. Another miracle occurred near the junction of the rivers Rivelin and Loxley. A Henry Spooner and Charles Wood were in their respective beds when the flood hit and miraculously both were swept out their bedroom windows on their beds. They traveled across a field and were deposited bed and all on the bank and later found by rescuers.
Another extraordinary survival involves a family named Wells that had six children. A 13-year-old boy and his 3-year-old sister slept downstairs while the four other children slept upstairs. The parents were out when the flood struck, and when Mrs. Wells returned she “was amazed to find the whole district submerged in water.” When she reached her children she learned her son and daughter were missing and had “the worst forebodings. The low room was flooded, her children were in it, and they must have … drowned.” Upon entering the house her missing children could not be located until “looking up into a wide cupboard the two naked bodies were discovered.” Apparently, the boy stood on a chair, lifted his sister into the cupboard, and climbed in himself, and it was “in this narrow receptacle both … children fell asleep.”
The Great Sheffield Flood was one of the worst and most expensive disasters to ever hit England. The morning after inhabitants could not believe their eyes and thought it “must be some optical delusion.” In the end, losses were staggering: 106 factories and shops destroyed, 700 animals drowned, 20 bridges swept away, and 800 homes damaged or destroyed. There were also the human toll, 270 people dead, with 102 of the victims being eighteen or younger, and, of those, 42 were five years and under. But the grimmest part was retrieving the bodies of love ones.
People searched “amongst the dead bodies which lay scattered … to find the lifeless forms of those whom they had loved, but whose corpses were now [commingled] cast out on the streets and meadows, naked and dishonoured.” Some bodies traveled great distances, as far as 27 miles away, some corpses were found in trees, and others embedded in mud with limbs peeking out. Near one populated town it was reported:
“[A] field [was] literally strewn with … mangled remains … men, women, and children, of all ages, most of them entirely naked, and many of them with their limbs fractured and their features gashed by rude collision with the debris.”
Although there were other floods in England, like the London beer flood in the 1830s, the Great Sheffield Flood resulted in one of the largest insurance claims being filed during the Victorian Era. Losses from it were estimated to be almost two million sterling. (For a list of the victims click here mick-armitage.) SWWC denied responsibility, and, ultimately, parliament determine the event was “unforeseeable.” However, because of the devastation engineering reforms were introduced in the building of dams.
-  Harrison, Samuel, A Complete History of the Great Flood at Sheffield on March 11 & 12, 1864, 1864, p. 16.
-  Ibid., p. 18.
-  Ibid., p. 20.
-  Ibid., p. 29.
-  Ibid., p. 30.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 75.
-  Ibid., p. 32.
-  Ibid., p. 60.
-  Ibid., p. 61.
-  Ibid., p. 77.
-  Ibid,. p. 38-39.
-  Ibid., p. 39.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid. p. 25.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 27.
-  Ibid. p. 66.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 79.
-  Ibid., p. 80.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 86.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 88.