Looking back on flood that shocked city

Malcolm Nunn with his collection of artefacts from the Sheffield Floods.
Malcolm Nunn with his collection of artefacts from the Sheffield Floods.
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It was one of the worst days in the Steel City’s history – March 11, 1864, the date of the Great Sheffield Flood.

But unlike the floods hitting the headlines today, this one wasn’t a result of chronic rainfall, it was a catastrophic fault in one of Sheffield’s biggest reservoir complexes – the Dale Dyke Dam.

Great Sheffield Flood - ruins at Owlerton

Great Sheffield Flood - ruins at Owlerton

The fault – a crack in one of the dam walls – led to near complete destruction of the Loxley Valley and Malin Bridge villages, killing around 300 people in the process.

Malcolm Nunn, from Bradfield, one of the city’s experts on the disaster, explains what happened that fateful night, 150 years ago.

“It started with a crack in the dam wall. At first the crack was the size of the edge of a knife blade but then it grew bigger and bigger until you could get your fingers in it.”

Malcolm’s interest in the Sheffield Flood of 1864 runs deep.

Indeed, the man who discovered and reported the crack in the embankment was William Horsefield, a distant relative.

And it was a terrifying discovery to make. The Dale Dyke Dam, as it was known, comprised four reservoirs, which contained approximately 600 million gallons of water. The dam was constructed by the privately-owned Sheffield Waterworks Company as a result of the city’s rapidly-expanding population. In 1801 the population was 45,478 and by 1861 it had rocketed to 185,157.

But under the strain of millions of gallons of water, the cracking dam couldn’t cope. When it burst, water gushed through the Loxley Valley, destroying most of what was in its way, as Malcolm explains.

“It travelled at around 18 miles per hour and just tore through the Loxley Valley and Malin Bridge area.”

Travelling at that rate, anything in the water’s path faced destruction. And nowhere is this more evident than the scale of claims put forward afterward.

“There were thousands and thousands of claims,” said Malcolm. “Some of them were for small amounts, others were for much larger amounts of money.”

The list of claims is varied and points to a commercially vibrant Loxley Valley. Among the businesses destroyed were knife makers, electro-plate manufacturers, silversmiths, tanneries, iron founders, brass founders, animal hair specialists, paper makers, tripe and trotter dealers, tobacconists, timber merchants and several public houses.

One business – a basket maker – lost eight tonnes of brown willows at £8 a tonne. Rag and bone men made claims for lost goods including rabbit and hare skins.

The flood affected everyone, from stalwarts of the steel industry to street hawkers, not to mention to huge number of domestic dwellings that were ravaged by the flood, most of which were occupied at the time disaster struck.

“The dam burst at about midnight so most people were in bed. They had no warning that it was going to happen so they were completely helpless. And most of these dwellings would have been two-up, two-down and back-to-back houses.”

The Sheffield Waterworks Company had to pay compensation due to an 1853 Act of Parliament, which stated that owners of property would be ‘recompensed in consequence of the failure or giving way of the reservoirs’.

And there were, in total, 6,619 claims – all of which were recorded in 12 huge volumes, now stored at Sheffield Archives. But of course there were many fraudulent claims too. “People were jumping on the bandwagon and making rogue claims.

“One man claimed £500 for his dead wife but by the time it came to substantiating his claim his wife had reappeared.”

However the money did not do enough to compensate for the hardship, suffering and squalor that followed the disaster.

Thomas Jessop, mayor of Sheffield, established a relief fund to support the homeless.

He raised £4,000 ‘for the purpose of considering and adopting such measures as may be deemed necessary to meet sufferings occasioned by this calamity’.

And then, shortly after, he established another, more drastic, relief project, calling for better-off people to donate one day’s wage to help the needy. His campaign was a huge success and raised £42,000.

The flood was big news – even Queen Victoria responded to the disaster.

A letter from her personal servant reads: “The Queen has commanded me to inform you that it is her Majesty’s intention to contribute £200 towards the objects advocated in your letter.

“Her Majesty has commanded me to add the expression of her deep sympathy for the poor persons thus suddenly overwhelmed with grief and exposed to suffering of every description, in consequence of this unexpected and dire calamity,” the letter adds.

As Queen Victoria stated, it was a dire calamity, but one that has not been forgotten, especially not by Malcolm Nunn.

Events to mark anniversary

Monday, March 3: Illustrated talk by Malcolm Nunn, 7:30pm, Low Bradfield Village Hall.

Thursday, March 6: Free public talk with the institution of Civil Engineers and the British Dam Society, 6:30pm, Sheffield University.

Saturday, March 8: St Nicholas Church, High Bradfield invites visitors to look at the flood plaque, flood graves and church registers dating back to 1864 from 10am-4pm.

Sunday, March 9: special service with memorial prayers with guest preacher the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Dr Steven Crofts, 10.30am, St Nicholas’ Church, High Bradfield.

Tuesday, March 11: Guided walk from Low Bradfield Village car park to Dale Dyke, from 10.30am to 12.30pm, re-commencing at 1.30pm to view flood graves and the Church. The walk returns to Low Bradfield Village car park at around 3:30pm.

Tuesday, March 11th: remembrance evening at St. Polycarp’s Church with welcome drinks, a talk by Malcolm Nunn and a short service at the memorial, from 7pm onwards. Service starts at 8.30pm.