A Complete History of The Great Flood at Sheffield
by Samuel Harrison
Web Page 27

(120)
THE INQUEST.

The inquest on the bodies of the unfortunate persons who met with their deaths by the flood was opened before the Coroner (J. Webster, Esq.) and his deputy (W. W. Woodhead, Esq.) on Saturday, March 12, in the board room, at the Sheffield Union house, where upwards of 96 dead bodies lay.

The following gentlemen were empanelled upon the jury:--

Mr. Henry Pawson, foreman, Mr. Thomas Prideaux, Mr. J. B. Fordham, Mr. J. Walker, Mr. C. J. Porter, Mr. Henry Pearce, Mr. T. Appleyard, Mr. John Howson, Mr. John Bland, Mr. R. Booth, Mr. S. Dawson, Mr. F. W. Coney, Mr. T. Cole, Mr. F. J. Mercer, Mr. Edward Bennett, and Mr. William Marples. The Town Clerk (J. Yeomans, Esq.) was also present to watch the inquiry.

The Coroner, in opening the inquest, said he would proceed to identify a few of the bodies, in order to facilitate their burial, after which he would suggest that the inquest should be adjourned for a week or ten days, so that he and the Chief Constable might have an opportunity of investigating the matter, and of consulting with the Secretary of State, so that he might send down a competent person to examine the present condition of the reservoir at Bradfield. At all events, the Home Secretary would be pressed to tell them whether or not a Government Inspector did not inspect this very reservoir some two or three weeks ago, and on that occasion certify that it was in a safe and sound condition. They would also have to make inquiries whether or not it was known on Friday morning, that this reservoir was in a dangerous state. He (the Coroner) was told, very confidently, that it was so, and that towards evening on Friday, an alarm was raised in the Loxley valley, that the bursting of the Bradfield reservoir was imminent. In that valley, it appeared, there had not been so much loss of life as might have been anticipated, but this might no doubt attributed to the timely warning that was given to the inhabitants. The Jury must go very carefully into those matters, so as to ascertain whether or not any one was to blame, or whether it was an accident which no one could have prevented or controlled, or whether the dreadful loss of life might have been prevented by timely warning. Whether any one was criminally liable or not, they could not say; but it was a question of very serious import in any case. He (the Coroner) understood that nearly 200 bodies had already been discovered, some having been found so far away from the scene of the catastrophe as Conisbro' near Doncaster.

A JURYMAN here remarked that it would be necessary to summon such persons as knew anything of the state of the dams on the previous evening. Several other Jurymen concurred in the propriety of such a course.

Mr. WALKER said he saw a man named Ibbotson who had told him that he had been expecting the flood coming all the previous day. He (Ibbotson) had noticed a crack from which the water leaked, and had named it to the contractors, but they had replied that it was perfectly safe.

Mr. PAWSON (foreman) said the thought struck him that if the Jurymen had the benefit of a plan they would be more familiarised with the spot.

The CORONER observed that it would be necessary to identify a few of the bodies in order that their friends might remove them from the Workhouse, where they had been brought for identification, and decently bury the corpses.

The Jury were then sworn and proceeded to view the bodies. Fifty six bodies lay side by side in one ward, their faces distorted in some instances, and in other cases wearing a calm and placid look, as though the flood had come upon them suddenly while asleep. The whole of the bodies had been cleansed of the mud, which adhered to them when they were first brought to the Workhouse. Some of them were frightfully mutilated. Here was one with a leg broken, and there another with an arm torn off; there was a third with a deep gash on the brow, and by his side was one with his scalp torn off. The bodies of children were very numerous. In another ward, containing thirty or forty bodies, the scene was equally distressing.

On the Jury returning, Mr. PRIDEAUX said he thought it was very desirable that there should be some practical men engaged to inspect the reservoir--men conversant with the system of making such reservoirs. It would be very beneficial to know the amount of pressure the banks of the dam had to bear. He (Mr. Prideaux) had heard that the dam when filled held 1,200,000,000 gallons of water.

The CORONER thought there would not be that amount of pressure.

A JURYMAN had heard that a portion of the bank was a natural formation and part artificial.

The DEPUTY CORONER thought the natural portion of the embankment was the worst part of the dam.

The CORONER said that by a long adjournment more information could be gleaned than if they were to sit at an early date, and he therefore suggested that the Jury should go over to the dam for the purpose of viewing it; but whether they should go separately or in a body he should leave to their own discretion.

Several Jurymen thought it would be far better to go all together, and also expressed a desire to have a plan of the workings. The Coroner promised to have a plan ready.

Mr. APPLEYARD asked whether it would not be better to take a competent engineer along with them, in order that they might have the benefit of his opinion on the condition of the reservoir.

The Coroner replied that it would be best if the Jurymen went by themselves, unaccompanied by any professional man. It was. general to do this, and then if the jury could not do without the assistance of an engineer then to call one in.

The examination of witnesses to identify the bodies was then proceeded with.

HENRY WRAGG said: I am a cutler. I knew the deceased, John Elstone and Elizabeth Elstone. They were man and wife. I am brother in law to John Elstone. I think he was 34 years of age, his wife was 30. They lived in a garden house in Neepsend lane. I saw them both alive yesterday. In consequence of a rumour I went to their house this morning, and found them both drowned in their own house. They were undressed. Their child was also drowned. All had been drowned by the flood of water which came down the valley this morning.

MARY ANN PATON, the wife of Charles Paton, Park Wood Springs, table blade grinder, said: The deceased, Keziah Paton, is my brother in law's wife. Her husband's name is John Paton. She was 50 years of age, and lived in Kelham Island. She has been drowned by the flood. Her husband has not been found. He is supposed to have been drowned.

ANN FAIREST said: The deceased, Thomas Fairest, is my husband. He was furnace-man at Mr. Butcher's works. He was 47 years of age. He was drowned while crossing the stone bridge when he was coming home to save me and my children from the flood.

The Coroner thought it would be unnecessary to identify more of the bodies, as it was certain that they had died from the effects of the flood, and the cause of the catastrophe would be duly inquired into. The inquest was then adjourned to the 23rd of March.

The Jury, after some conversation, agreed to meet at the King's Head Inn, on Monday morning, and go in a body to the reservoir.

THE CORONER AND THE JURY AT THE RESERVOIR.

On Monday, March 14, the Coroner and the Jury proceeded to examine the reservoir and the adjacent works. Some details of the progress of the workings were given by the officials in charge.

CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN THE CORONER AND THE GOVERNMENT.

'The following correspondence took place between the Coroner and the Home Office:--

14, St. James' row, Sheffield, 13th March, 1864.

Sir, --- A fearful accident has occurred at Sheffield by the bursting of a reservoir belonging to the Water Works Company. The destruction of life is terrible--nearly two hundred bodies of men, women, and children have been already collected.

As it is impossible to hold an inquest in each case, as very few will probably be identified, and as the cause of death is the same in all, I have concluded not to hold an inquest, except on two or three bodies identified yesterday, which will be sufficient for a full inquiry into the cause of this most dreadful occurrence.

I trust that the course I have taken will be deemed satisfactory.

The jurors wish me to intimate that a Government Inspector should be sent down to make a careful examination of the works at the reservoir, and to give evidence at the adjourned hearing on the 23rd instant, at the Town Hall, Sheffield. -- I am, Sir, your obedient servant,                                                                          J. WEBSTER, Coroner.

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Whitehall, 14th March, 1864.

Sir, -- I am directed by Secretary Sir G. Grey to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, and to inform you that he has heard with deep concern of the dreadful calamity that has occurred at Sheffield.

Mr. Rawlinson, C.E., has already proceeded, by Sir G. Grey's direction, to Sheffield, with instructions to communicate, immediately on his arrival, with the local authorities, in order to render all possible assistance in the inquiry into the cause of the calamity.

Mr. Rawlinson will be prepared to make a careful examination into the works of the reservoir, and will be instructed to attend at the adjourned inquest, for the purpose of giving evidence.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,                                              
H. WADDINGTON.

P.S. Mr G. Grey quite agrees that it will not be necessary to hold inquests in all, or even in any considerable number of cases, in which the facts are nearly if not identically the same. You will be justified in exercising your discretion in this matter, taking care that the inquiry which is to take place shall be full and complete.

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