A Complete History of The Great Flood at Sheffield
by Samuel Harrison
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History Of The Flood At Sheffield

On Friday, March 11, 1864, exactly at midnight, a calamity, appalling, and almost unparalleled, occurred along the course of the river Loxley, and the banks of the Don, where it passes through the town of Sheffield. An overwhelming flood swept down from an enormous reservoir at Bradfield, carrying away houses, mills, bridges, and manufactories, destroying property estimated at half a million sterling in value, and causing the loss of about two hundred and forty human lives.

We propose to narrate the history of this fearful catastrophe in as intelligible and consecutive a manner as possible. Before commencing the narrative it will, however, be necessary briefly to describe the general features of the country where the calamity occurred.


The small stream or river known as the Loxley rises in a desolate and mountainous waste on the borders of Derbyshire, and about a dozen miles from Sheffield. For some distance, in the early part of its course, it is known as Dale Dyke, and is little more than an insignificant rivulet or brook. Nevertheless, as the hills rise on all sides to a considerable elevation, the quantity of water which flows down into the mountain gorges is very great, and the stream soon assumes the form of a torrent, dashing rapidly along its rocky bed, amid scenery most beautiful and romantic.

The first village the river reaches is Lower Bradfield, which is situated in the bottom of the valley. Here was a good bridge across the stream, a corn mill, a chapel, a school, and a number of houses inhabited by the village trades-people and others. On the top of the hill, far away from the reach of a flood, are the fine old church and the village of Upper Bradfield.

Proceeding down the stream, we meet with scattered hamlets, sylvan nooks of rare loveliness, villages nestled under the shelter of the hills, and so shaded by overhanging woods that the stranger hardly suspects their existence until close upon them. Rather more than a mile below Bradfield is Damflask, where were a corn mill, several cottages, and other buildings. Proceeding further down, we come now and then upon grinding wheels, worked by water power, and which were erected and in operation long before the application of steam to the general purposes of industry.

About a mile below Damflask is Loxley, from which the river takes its name for the rest of its brief course until it falls into the Don. The scenery for the next few miles is exceedingly picturesque and lovely. The river runs through a narrow gorge where ages ago it has scooped out for itself a channel through the rocks, which in some places rise in precipitous crags, which have evidently been laid bare by the force of the current. On the banks of the stream and or the hill sides, groves and woods add a charm to scenes which an artist or poet might delight to portray. Yonder is little Matlock so called from its resemblance to the romantic scenery on the river Derwent, in Derbyshire. Further down are several grinding wheels and then, at Malin Bridge, the valley opens, and widens into a rather extensive plain. Here the Rivelin, another romantic stream celebrated by the poet Ebenezer Elliott, falls into the Loxley, adding to its width and volume of water. Malin Bridge is, or was, a large village, with a population of several hundreds of people. Further down still is Hillsbro', where were two good stone bridges, a number of cottages, and several buildings of some pretensions. We next come to Owlerton, a large and populous village, where the Loxley bends in a very circuitous manner, and then falls into the river Don. The country about Owlerton, and all along the route of the Don through Sheffield, is very flat, and the valley wide and open. We need not in this place describe the course of the river through Sheffield any further than to say that it passes amidst a populous district, and that along its banks many large works have been erected for the sake of the convenience which the water affords. After passing through Sheffield the Don proceeds to Attercliffe, thence to Rotherham and Doncaster, and at last it falls into the river Ouse.


The reservoir which burst its banks on the 11th of March, is situated rather more that a mile to the west of Bradfield, and about eight miles from Sheffield. It is the property of the Sheffield Waterworks Company, and was one of a series of reservoirs from which the company intended to supply the increasing wants of the town.

The Sheffield Waterworks Company has been in existence more than thirty years, and had previously to this disaster conducted its operations with great and uniform success. It had constructed eight or more large reservoirs in different parts of the neighbourhood, and was preparing to form several more, in order to provide for the rapid expansion and increasing demands for water supply of the town of Sheffield.

The Bradfield reservoir was formed by throwing an embankment across the gorge, thereby intercepting the moorland stream which gradually filled up the whole of the valley to nearly the level of the top of the embankment. The "first sod" was turned on New Year's Day, 1859, Mr. Leather, of Leventhorpe, near Leeds, being the consulting engineer, Mr. Gunson the resident engineer, and Messrs. Craven, Cockayne, and Fountain severally undertaking the contracts. The reservoir was intended to provide the compensation water which the Company was bound to supply to the mill owners on the Loxley, and the surplus would have been available to meet the requirements of the town of Sheffield. It was therefore made of vast capacity, and in addition to intercepting the waters of the stream called the Dale Dyke--which becomes what is called the Loxley at Lower Bradfield--it was intended to hold the drainage from a gathering ground of not less than 4,300 acres. The reservoir was of great extent, covering about 76 acres. From the dam head to the embankment, the sheet of water spread out for more than a mile in length, and a quarter of a mile in width. In the centre the depth was between 80 and 90 feet, and the reservoir would contain 114,000,000 cubic feet of water, or 691,000,000 gallons. It was nearly completed, but had never been used for the supply of water to the town of Sheffield. The intention was to have given from this reservoir a supply to the mill owners of ten cubic feet per second, night and day, during the whole year, Sundays excluded; or about 4,500,000 gallons per diem. It was calculated that when filled the reservoir would, without any addition, supply the mills on the Loxley for twenty two weeks, and, with the aid of the surplus, the directors of the Company expected to be able to give the inhabitants of Sheffield a regular supply of twelve hours per day during the summer months. The embankment at its base was 500 feet wide, 100 feet high, and 12 feet wide at the summit. In order to secure a perfectly sound foundation an excavation was made to the depth of 60 feet, This vast work stretched itself across the valley for the space of 400 yards. In the embankment, there were about 400,000 cubic yards of material. The weir that was provided to carry off the overflow was sixty feet wide, and it conducted the water down a stone channel into the Loxley. The Bradfield dam was only one of a series of immense reservoirs which the Company were constructing or intending to construct in that neighbourhood. One of them, the Agden Reservoir, is situated a mile nearer Sheffield. It intercepts the Agden brook, and was intended to contain the drainage of an area of gathering around about equal to that which supplied the Bradfield dam.


Friday, March the 11th, was a very stormy day. Admiral Fitzroy had issued a notice that heavy gales might be expected; and, seeing this in the newspapers, Mr. Gunson, the Sheffield Water Company's resident engineer, proceeded to the Bradfield reservoir, where he arrived at about three o'clock in the afternoon. The water at that time was only from three to six inches from the top of the weir, and the wind was blowing direct down the valley with extraordinary violence. Mr. Gunson examined the dam, and saw the wind driven waves dashing on the embankment, but all appeared quite safe, and he returned to Sheffield at about four o'clock.

At about half past five, William Horsefield, a workman employed by the Water Company, had to cross over the embankment to go to the house where he resided. The wind was so strong that he could not walk on the top of the embankment, where he would have been exposed to its full fury, and therefor he went across the side at some distance down, where he was sheltered by the embankment from the blast. As he was proceeding along, he noticed a crack in the side of the embankment. The crack was at that time only about wide enough to admit a penknife, but it extended along the side of the bank, about twelve feet from the top, for a distance of about fifty yards. Horsefield thought it was a frost crack, such as he had often seen in the earth in winter, and he did not think it indicated danger. Nevertheless, he told another workman named Greaves, and asked him what he thought about it. Greaves told Samuel Hammerton, a farmer, Who lives on the north side of the valley opposite the dam and who had frequently occasion to cross the embankment to go to some land which he occupies on the other side. Hammerton then Went to look at the crack, and without loss of time informed Mr. G. Swinden, one of the Water Company's overlookers. This was at about seven o'clock in the evening, when it was nearly dark.

Mr. Swinden, and a number of the neighbours, then took lanterns and went to examine the crack. Amongst those who went were Mr. Joseph Ibbotson, Mr. Richard Ibbotson, Mr. William Ibbotson, Mr. Nichols, and Mr. Thomas Robinson. There were also several labourers, and Mr. Fountain, one of the contractors for the construction of the dam, came in a short time. There would be altogether perhaps two dozen persons examining the crack.

The scene was one of painful interest and excitement. In the darkness of the night, the surface of the lake shone like a mirror, while its waves dashed against the embankment, tossing the spray hither and thither like snow flakes, with a noise that would have been startling, had it not been almost drowned by the loud howling of the blast as it swept down the valley with a violence which seemed almost irresistible. First one light was blown out, and then another, till all the lanterns were extinguished, and the anxious group of workmen and neighbours were left in total darkness, until a fresh light was struck, and the lanterns again cast their flickering rays on the silvery stream which flowed beneath, and on the deep and ominous crevice which had occasioned all the alarm.

The crack was about wide enough at this time to admit a man's fingers, and it appeared to descend perpendicularly. No water issued from it, nor was any seen to come out of it at any time subsequently.

A conversation now took place amongst those who had come to examine the crack. One of the Mr. Ibbotsons said, "What do you say is the cause of this crack?" Mr. Fountain and Mr. Swinden said that they thought it arose from the inner part of the embankment, between the puddle wall and the water, subsiding a little, owing to the water penetrating it, making the top of the embankment incline over a little to the water. Mr. Ibbotson said, "If this theory be correct there may be no immediate danger." Mr. Fountain and Mr. Swinden both said there was no danger, and they continued to express this opinion almost up to the last.

Mr. Fountain sent his son, Stephenson Fountain, on horseback to Sheffield, to tell Mr. Gunson to come to the reservoir as soon as possible, as there was a crack in the embankment; and off the young man rode as fast as the darkness of the night, the fury of the tempest, and the mountainous nature of the road would permit.

Mr. Fountain and the men under him now set to work to adopt such measures of safety as appeared practicable. The double set of pipes for drawing off the water were both closed, and the water was a few inches below the level of the waste weir. It was a work of great labour to open the valves, which were situated at the bottom of the embankment, of course on the outside. Four or five men were nearly half an hour in opening the pipes, which they did by raising the sluices by means of a screw. The tremendous pressure of the water no doubt rendered the operation very difficult. The noise and tremor of the pipes when the sluices were being lifted are described as being terrific. The ground shook and trembled, and the water roared as it rushed out of the pipes with a noise like the discharge of artillery.

After the pipes were opened, the crack was again examined, and no change in it was noticed; but it was observed by Mr. Joseph Ibbotson, that the water seemed considerably lower on the inner side of the embankment than the crack on the outer side. The darkness, however, would render it very difficult to come to any certain conclusion on such a point. The water could not have been escaping at this time, except through the opened pipes, because the concurrent testimony of all parties goes to show that there was no considerable rise in the river till some two or three hours afterwards.

Between nine and ten o'clock, most of those who had gone to examine the crack returned home, on the assurance of the contractors and workmen that there was no danger.

Meanwhile, young Stephenson Fountain was on his way to Sheffield to fetch the engineer. When he reached Damflask, about two miles from the reservoir, his horse's saddle girth broke, and in order to get it repaired he had to alight at the Barrel Inn, kept by Mr. Jonathan Ibbotson. While waiting at the inn for a few minutes, young Fountain mentioned that there was a crack in the embankment at the reservoir, and that he was going to Sheffield to inform Mr. Gunson. The report was at one time current that young Fountain was specially sent to Damflask, and down the valley to warn the inhabitants of an expected inundation. But from inquiries made upon the spot, the conclusion at which the writer of these pages has arrived is, that neither young Fountain, nor any other person, was sent to Damflask or elsewhere to warn the people, until the embankment was just about to burst, or had actually bursted, as will be hereafter mentioned. At the village of Lower Bradfield, most of the families were aware that there was a crack in the embankment, and that there was more or less danger. They had heard the news not from any special messenger, but from the Ibbotsons, and the other residents at Bradfield who had been up to the dam, and who had afterwards returned home. The few residents between Lower Bradfield and Damflask never received the slightest warning, and had no intimation whatever of any danger. At Damflask the warning was accidental, and arose from the breaking of the saddle girth of young Fountain's horse, as already mentioned. Had that not occurred, it is probable that young Fountain would have passed through Damflask without saying anything about the crack, because at that time neither he, nor the other contractors and workmen had any idea of what was about to occur. However, the news spread at Damflask, and thence for some distance below, and, as will hereafter be related, good use was made by some of the inhabitants of the warning which they had received.

After young Fountain left Damflask, it does not appear that he again stopped, or that he made any communication whatever to the people who lived lower down the valley. For this he is not to be blamed, as his business was to go to Sheffield for Mr. Gunson, and not to raise the cry of danger, which he did not believe was at all imminent.


Between half past eight and nine o'clock on the Friday night, Mr. Gunson received the message, brought by young Fountain, that he and Mr. Craven, the contractor, were to go up to the reservoir immediately, because one of the men had observed a crack in the embankment. Without loss of time a gig was got ready, and Mr. Gunson and Mr. Craven started off with all speed on their eventful night journey to the reservoir.

They are not long driving through the streets of the town, and now they are on the high road leading to the river. As they pass the barracks, the sentry comes out of his box, and looks to see who are they who are travelling in such haste on this stormy March night. Now they cross the bridge over the Loxley at Hillsbro'. They glance hurriedly up the stream, but notice nothing different from what they have observed on some previous occasions. The waters are dashing rapidly over the rocks, and the white foam on the crest of the waves glimmers out through the darkness. The wind comes howling down the valley almost with the force of a tornado and the travellers bend down their heads to escape its full fury and to steady themselves in their vehicle. Now they reach the village of Malin Bridge, which is reposing in quiet, except that the cottager's dog comes out to bark at the travellers whose gig makes such a terrible rattle over the rough and uneven road, and except that a group of jovial bacchanalians may be seen through the windows of the Stag Inn, which, in the course of three short hours, will be swept from the face of the earth.

The travellers now ascend the hills to Loxley and on towards Damflask. Ever and anon they glance upwards to the sky to see if the storm is likely to abate, but all they can notice is the clouds drifting sullenly along, while the young moon, only three days old, is now and then visible, like the thin edge of a burnished scimitar, amid the darkness which its feeble rays are not strong enough to relieve or dissipate. As the travellers proceed they look down into the ravine where the water flows like a silver thread between the hills and woods which rise darkly on each side. All that can be discerned is here and there a flickering light in some of the grinding wheels or rolling mills, where industrious workmen are engaged in their nocturnal labours, heedless of the tempest, and singing catches of song to cheer the dreariness of the scene. Now the gig descends the steep hill to Damflask, and as they pass through the village the travellers notice an unusual commotion. People are seen moving about on the roads, some driving their cattle up the hill sides, and some carrying away in carts those who are unable to walk; for the inhabitants have received warning that a flood might be expected during the night. Very soon Bradfield is reached, and there too lights are seen in some of the windows, and the inhabitants are astir, notwithstanding the coldness of the night and the tempest which blows down the valley.

It is about ten o'clock, and the travellers come within sight of the embankment of the reservoir. They can just trace its dim black outline, and see lights moving about on its outer side. Now they are met by a labourer who is on his way home, and who tells them it is a false alarm, and that the dam is all right and safe. Nevertheless, they proceed onwards, and soon reach the dam, where they find a number of workmen engaged, by the light of lanterns, in inspecting the outer side of the embankment.

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