A Complete History of The Great Flood at Sheffield
by Samuel Harrison
Web Page 22


After a long and dismal night, day at length dawned upon the valleys of the Loxley and the Don. Never did the light of morning break upon a scene more changed and desolated in the course of one short night. When the sun went clown on the previous evening all was peaceful and happy. No sign could be seen either in the heavens above or on the earth beneath of the impending calamity. The river rippled over its pebbly bed in a shallow stream which appeared quite harmless for mischief Cottages, farm houses, grinding wheels, and villages studded its banks, and rejoiced in the blessings of fertility and power afforded by its agency. The inhabitants retired to rest in fancied security, little dreaming that midnight would bring such scenes of horror as had never before been witnessed or imagined. But now it is morning; and the cottager on the hill side, who has not yet heard of the flood, gets up and looks out of the window. He gazes down towards the river where the large farm house stood the night before, and sees that it is gone. He can hardly believe his senses; and thinks there must be some optical delusion, or that he has awoke in some strange and distant part of the country. He looks again, with increased bewilderment, to find the well known row of houses in one of which perhaps he spent the days of childhood, and which he has been accustomed to pass every day of his life. The row of houses has vanished, and all that he beholds is a sea of mud, strewed with the wrecks of a ruined and depopulated district. This is no fancy sketch, but it is what actually occurred in several instances, and the amazement and horror of the persons who thus looked in vain for the houses of their neighbours and relatives may be imagined.

In most cases the dwellers on the borders of the river had been roused in the night, and had been anxiously waiting the break of day to ascertain the extent of the calamity and the fate of their friends. Sad were the scenes which presented themselves as groups of men, women, and children, suddenly deprived of their houses, were to be seen wandering about in search of a place of shelter and relief. Still sadder was it to see those who had lost their nearest relatives searching, amongst the dead bodies which lay scattered around, to find the lifeless forms of those whom they had loved, but whose corpses were now cast out on the streets and meadows, naked and dishonoured.

"O then and there were hurryings to and fro,
And gathering tears, and trembling of distress,
And cheeks all pale."

It was not one or two merely who had thus suffered; but the weepers might be counted scores and hundreds. It was a great lamentation, like that in Rama, when the descendants of Rachael were weeping for their children, and refusing to be comforted, or like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon.

How changed is now the aspect of the valley ! There is the reservoir, which last night was nearly full; but now it is almost empty, and in the embankment is a great chasm, as though an earthquake had parted it asunder. Rocks and trees are torn up; houses have utterly disappeared; roads are swept away and impassable; bridges have vanished; and the works of industry have been "blotted out and rased" as completely as though they had never had any existence.

It cannot be wondered at that the people of Sheffield could at first hardly believe or comprehend the extent of the calamity. They had no idea that sleeping up above Bradfield, eight miles away among the hills, was a power of such terrific potency. A fire would have created no surprise; but a flood such as this was deemed an impossibility. An earthquake, a volcano, or a sirocco would have excited no greater astonishment. The news soon spread in the town, and by eight o'clock in the morning thousands of people were astir, and wending their way in the direction of the scene of the catastrophe. The most prominent feature was a thick layer of mud and water which was everywhere present, and which rendered pedestrianism exceedingly difficult This, however, did not arrest the tide of men, women, and children, who thronged the route of the flood. The weather was beautifully clear, though sharp and cold. Everywhere the marks of ruin were observable; in the flooded streets, the partially demolished houses, the lamp posts torn up, and the timber and furniture scattered about, the dead animals lying disregarded in the mud, and lifeless naked forms of human beings which not unfrequently arrested the attention and harrowed the feelings of the passer by.

Here might be seen houses with their fronts knocked down, and the honeycombed arrangement of the rooms exposed to view. On the walls hung clocks, bird-cages, and other domestic objects. On the bedroom floors were the wrecks of furniture in a state of indescribable confusion. But what had become of the inmates Some of them were drowned, and some had gone forth, almost without clothing, without property, without home, and nearly as forlorn as though they had been shipwrecked on some desolate coast.

"The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide."

Some of these poor houseless wanderers sought refuge with their neighbours, who in nearly all cases received them kindly and entertained them hospitably. Others made their way to the Town Hall and there clustered round a fire in a large outer room, where it was pitiable to see their wretched plight and to hear their doleful lamentations over property gone and friends departed. Some few clung to their former abodes with singular tenacity, even though there was no place where they could find shelter, much less anything like comfort. There might be seen an old man crouched up in a corner of a dilapidated cottage, and in the next house an old woman vainly endeavouring to clean away the mud and restore to order the chaos by which she was surrounded.

At first it was supposed that the loss of life was only limited; but by degrees the appalling truth became apparent. Some very enterprising persons had been as far as Hillsbro' and Malin Bridge, and came back with the news that "whole villages were destroyed and the inhabitants swept away." The dead bodies were brought by the score, and fresh relays of policemen were despatched with stretchers and drags on which to convey the mangled corpses of the victims of the flood. To proceed as far as Hillsbro', or even to proceed at all, was a work of no small difficulty. Not only had the pedestrian to wade ankle deep or knee deep in mud and water; but he soon found that the bridges were swept away, so that his further progress was arrested. By noon on the day of the flood it was generally known that a catastrophe of appalling magnitude had visited the district, and that no less than some 240 or 250 lives had been lost. The sensation produced was overwhelming; business was almost suspended; and the only topic of conversation was the sudden and unexpected calamity which had deprived so many persons not only of their houses, but also of their friends and relations.


The most melancholy part of the day's duty after the flood was the recovery of the bodies, which lay scattered about in all directions, and in the most extraordinary places. A field of battle is doubtless a horrible sight, which few can gaze upon without a shudder. But here, close to a large town, was a field literally strewn with the mangled remains not of men slain in warfare, with helmets on their heads and weapons by their sides, but of between one and two hundred 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 with which they were commingled as they were hurried down the stream.

We have already mentioned the particulars of the finding of several of the bodies of the victims of the flood, and it is not necessary to dwell at length on this painful part of the subject. The public houses along the road were made use of as receptacles for the corpses. At one house, fourteen dead bodies were placed in the stable. Several of them were much disfigured, and in some cases it was apparent that there had been a desperate struggle for life. At another public house seven dead bodies were deposited. One of them was the corpse of a beautiful young girl, about two years old, who had lifted up her little arms, as though attempting to shield herself by covering her face with her hands. One dead body was found on the branches of a tree, another was caught between a beam and the wall of a house. Everywhere along the route of the flood were to be seen parties of policemen, each carrying a mantled corpse to some neighbouring receptacle. Many of the bodies had to be literally dug out of the mud and debris in which they were embedded, and many were the painful scenes which were witnessed as first one limb was visible and then another, and at last the whole of the mangled remains of a man or woman which had been completely hidden and buried beneath an accumulation of rubbish. The body of a girl, about twelve years of age, was found cut in two, as though by a heavy piece of timber or machinery. Some of the bodies were swept away to great distances. Thirteen were found at Rotherham, three at Mexbro', seven at Kilnhurst, and several at Doncaster, a distance of 27 miles from the reservoir.

In two days after the occurrence of the flood, no less than 156 bodies had been discovered. After that time they were found separately, or by twos and threes, for a long period. Some were found six weeks and two months after the flood, and even at that time there were supposed to be more than a score bodies still unrecovered.


A large proportion of the dead were conveyed to the Sheffield Workhouse, and there laid out for identification. The total number taken to the Workhouse in a few days was 118, which number was increased from time to time as more were found.

Persons who had lost their friends were invited to the Workhouse to identify the remains of missing relatives and acquaintances. The scene was one which cannot be adequately described. The dead lay in closely packed rows in five rooms. They were laid on straw, and covered by a sheet. The bodies presented every possible appearance. Some were serene and beautiful in death, without a limb torn, or a feature distorted--calm and peaceful, as though they had passed away dreaming that they were borne along on the river of life to the better land. There was the lovely form of an infant, with a smile still playing on its placid face. There was the fair maiden, cold in death, with the long tresses dishevelled over her marble brow. But all were not thus pleasing to behold. Some there were with gaunt and ghastly forms, with clenched fists, closed teeth, and rugged features, as though they had died in a desperate struggle with the foaming waters and uprooted trees by which they were surrounded. The contrasts were in many cases very remarkable. Close together might be seen the little child which had only just entered the world, and the old man who under any circumstances must soon have left it. In one room lay stretched side by side, a man and his wife, and upon the breast of the latter a smiling infant. In another place were three little children of one family, clasped in each others arms, as though in slumber. Some of the bodies were frightfully cut and dislocated, with their limbs twisted in unnatural positions, and with the features torn and disfigured. The general appearance of the bodies was that of sound sleep, the lips and cheeks retaining the rosy freshness of life, and the features wearing a calm and placid appearance. Many were the harrowing scenes which took place during the period when the bodies were awaiting identification. Large numbers of those who had lost their friends and relations visited the Workhouse, and were shown into the rooms where the corpses were laid out previous to interment. First one body was examined and then another in order that the lost ones might be discovered. Here is a bereaved husband who has just found the lifeless form of his wife, and he bends over it in mute agony with tears and sobs break forth to indicate his distress. There is an anxious woman hurrying from bench to bench, and eagerly scanning every little face as she passes along the rows of lifeless corpses. She is a mother, and she has lost her child in the flood. She has found its body, and now she wrings her hands in agony, while the tears gush from her eyes, and fall upon her little one who lies unconscious of its mother's presence, and deaf to her wail of sorrow. Such scenes are repeated over and over again. Wives recognise their lost husbands, and children their parents. Each nearest and dearest tie of life has been snapped rudely asunder, and now the sad survivors are overwhelmed and almost heart broken with sorrow as they identify the corpses of those whom they have loved and lost. In some cases the features were so marred and disfigured that recognition was almost impossible; and in other cases it was easy and instant. Those who had been identified had a label with the name attached; but there were many bodies which were never owned, and which were interred without the presence of either relative or friend.

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