Life and death choices in the Great Flood

Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - remains of Brick Row and Holme Lane, Hillsborough
Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - remains of Brick Row and Holme Lane, Hillsborough
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FOR Joseph Dawson, the Bradfield village tailor, the choice was stark but simple.

As flood waters tore around him he tried carrying both his ill wife and their two-day-old baby to safety.

Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - ruins of Malin Bridge Inn

Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - ruins of Malin Bridge Inn

Battered by the rising current, he had not the strength to keep hold of both.

“I was obliged,” he later recounted, “to leave the child to its fate, or I could not have saved my wife.”

Thus, the still-unnamed baby – whose body was found days later in a coal cellar – became the first of some 240 Sheffielders killed in the city’s largest Victorian tragedy: the Great Flood of March 11, 1864.

The statistics from that stormy Friday night are still astounding.

Great Sheffield Flood - ruins at Owlerton

Great Sheffield Flood - ruins at Owlerton

An estimated 650 million gallons of water – travelling at 18 mph and in some places more than 24 foot high – destroyed or damaged 800 homes, 100 factories and 15 bridges.

It surged down the valley from the newly-built Dale Dyke Reservoir, where a collapsed dam released the torrent, through Hillsborough, into the city centre and on to Attercliffe. One body was found as far away as Mexborough. A witness, Samuel Harrison, declared “a bombardment with the newest and most powerful artillery could hardly have proved so destructive”.

It is against this catastrophic backdrop that a new novel by city writers Maggie Lett and Geoff Rowe is set.

Flood Waters, published by ACM Retro, is a multi-layered love story which tells the tale of a community torn apart by the devastation.

Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - remains of Daniel Chapman's House at Little Matlock, Loxley, household of six people were washed away and drowned

Great Sheffield Flood 1864 - remains of Daniel Chapman's House at Little Matlock, Loxley, household of six people were washed away and drowned

It is a work of fiction but many real people appear, including John Gunson, the reservoir’s engineer who many blamed for the disaster.

“When I first arrived in the city in the 1970s, I stumbled on some plates commemorating the flood in Weston Park Museum, and I’ve been fascinated ever since,” says higher education tutor Maggie, of London Road.

“This was such a huge disaster yet the more I spoke to people about it, the more I realised very few people had any idea about it. There isn’t even a monument.

“I researched it for years – vaguely thinking I might publish a leaflet – but when I found myself unemployed in 2005 I sat down with Geoff and we thought a novel was the best way of telling the story.”

Certainly, there was no lack of harrowing drama during the incident.

Among the victims, entire families were wiped out, including the Armitages, a family of 11 who ran the Stag pub in Malin Bridge, and the Tricketts, a farming family of 10 from Loxley.

Dozens of children were drowned in their beds, including the two sons of the paymaster sergeant at Sheffield Barracks, and 17-year-old Jonathan Turner, in Nursery Lane, city centre, who awoke to find himself trapped in his ground floor bedroom as water poured in through the window.

And yet, if the victims were many and tragic, there were also great tales of heroism and bravery from the flood.

At Damflask, a woman known only as Mrs Kirk refused to leave her home until she found her cat and dog, eventually carrying both pets to safety only seconds before the water washed her house away.

William Watson, meanwhile, had been washed from his bed at Malin Bridge and said later he feared certain death only to be literally plucked from the torrent by a stranger hanging from a first floor window.

“The records of the flood are so complete and so vivid, it made describing the scenes difficult because they are so harrowing,” says one-time Sheffield Telegraph reporter Maggie.

“But I do think this is something to be commemorated more in Sheffield.

“Of course I hope our book is popular but I also hope it can help the city sit up and take notice of its past.”