ON THIS DAY: 1864: 240 die and 600 houses destroyed as Great Sheffield Flood swamps city

It was one of the worst days in the Steel City's history '“ March 11, 1864, the date of the Great Sheffield Flood.

Thursday, 9th March 2017, 11:31 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:11 am
The flood caused widespread destruction in Sheffield.

But unlike floods of recent times in the city, 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.

An artists' impression of the devastation caused by the dam collapse.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

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.

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.

The Dale Dyke Dam 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, travelling at the speed of 18mph.

A wall of water tore through the city.

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.

Thousands of claims were made - 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.

Hundreds of houses were destroyed.

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.

The water swept down the Loxley Valley, through Loxley Village and on to Malin Bridge and Hillsborough, where the River Loxley joins the River Don.

The flood continued south down the Don into Sheffield centre, around the eastward bend of the Don at Lady's Bridge, then to Attercliffe, past the sites of what later became Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield Arena and Meadowhall Centre, and on to Rotherham.

An artists' impression of the devastation caused by the dam collapse.

The centre of the town, situated on the hill to the south, escaped damage, but the densely populated district of the Wicker, around the new railway viaduct (constructed by the Manchester and Sheffield Railway), was completely destroyed.

As for the physical damage in Sheffield and all the nearby areas hit in this short space of time, 238 people died and some 700 animals were drowned; 130 buildings were destroyed and 500 partially damaged; 15 bridges were swept away and six others badly damaged.

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.

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.

A wall of water tore through the city.

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 in Sheffield.

Hundreds of houses were destroyed.