‘Biblical disaster’ is brought to book

Outside The Stag Inn and Turner Wheel, Malin Bridge, following the Great Sheffield Flood, 1864
Outside The Stag Inn and Turner Wheel, Malin Bridge, following the Great Sheffield Flood, 1864
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When Mick Drewry was just six years old, his dad took him outside their home in Owlerton and pointed out something that has fascinated him ever since.

There on the side of their house was a marker showing the height of the waters during the 1864 Great Sheffield Flood. It was 18 feet up.

“It seemed like it must have been some kind of Biblical disaster,” says the 61-year-old today. It was unreal to look around and realise everything you saw would have been so far under water.”

It is a fascination which, some five and a half decades on, has resulted in perhaps the most comprehensive book ever produced about the disaster which claimed an astonishing 240 lives.

Inundation, written by Mick over three years, comes in at more than 100,000 words and is based on evidence from some 6,000 insurance claims.

Whatever you thought you knew about the March 11 flood – caused when a burst dam at Dale Dyke Reservoir sent 650 million gallons crashing through Malin Bridge, Hillsborough and Neepsend – there’s a whole lot more to be learned here.

Like, for example, the choice faced by Joseph Dawson, the Bradfield village tailor, who found himself struggling to hold on to both his wife and newborn baby amid the torrent. “I was obliged,” he later recounted, “to leave the child to its fate, or I could not have saved my wife.”

Or the tale of William Jepson, a factory worker who climbed to safety in Kelham Island and then watched as furniture from his house in Malin Bridge floated past. His wife had perished.

Or the irony that two sailors – on leave from the sea – drowned in The Ship Inn.

“It’s when you start getting to those individual stories that the horror of what happened is driven home,” says Mick, a retired Barnsley Council officer and father-of-three. “The heartbreak is in the detail.

“But I don’t think enough Sheffield people know about this. You say flood to them and they think of 2007. But this one was of far more epic proportions. It should be taught in our schools.”

The facts alone remain astonishing, even today. Water travelled at 18mph, destroying 800 homes, 100 factories and 15 bridges. One body was found washed up in Mexborough.

And even that 18ft marker on Mick’s childhood home was relatively low. At some points the torrent reached 24ft.

Among the victims, entire families were wiped out, including the Armitages, a family of 11 who ran the Stag pub in Malin Bridge.

Every one of the 240 unfortunates are listed in the new tome, released through city firm Pickards this week.

“But I didn’t just want to focus on the dead,” says Mick, who lived in Bradfield Road as a child but now lives in Dunford Bridge. “This book is unique in that it looks at the aftermath too. That sets it apart.”

Inundation is available in The Star shop now. A signing is at Malin Bridge Inn, in Holme Lane, 7-9pm tonight.