A Complete History of The Great Flood at Sheffield
by Samuel Harrison
Web Page 4


Mr. Gunson and Mr. Craven, with all speed, hasten to the spot where the flaw had been discovered. They see the crack, which is wide enough to admit a man's hand, but still they do not apprehend danger. Such is their confidence that they walk right across the embankment over the spot where the crack occurs. They are now on the very centre of the bank, and if the dam bursts while they are there, they must inevitably be swept away and carried far down the valley. However, they cross over in safety, and reach the waste weir on the opposite side. The water does not run over, which shows that the dam is not yet filled to its utmost capacity.

Mr. Fountain says to Mr. Gunson, "If we don't relieve the dam of water there'll be a blow up in half an hour." Thereupon, as a measure of precaution, Mr. Gunson decides to diminish the pressure of water by blowing up the weir with gunpowder. The gunpowder is brought, and is deposited in a hole made for the purpose in the masonry of the weir. A train is laid, the match is applied, and all run out of the way of the expected explosion. For some reason the powder does not ignite. Perhaps it is wet, or perhaps the darkness has prevented it being laid in a proper manner.

Before making another attempt, Mr. Gunson and Mr. Swinden go back with lanterns to the crack to see if it shows any symptoms of enlargement. They try to measure from the top of the embankment to the crack to ascertain if it is above or below the surface of the water in the reservoir. Mr. Gunson stoops with a lantern to examine. All seems to be about as before; but when they get to the end of the crack, Mr. Gunson raises his head, and just as he does so he sees that the water is foaming, like a white sheet, over the embankment. It comes down to Mr. Gunson's feet, and drops down the crack. Mr. Gunson still thinks there may be time enough to examine the valve house to see what quantity of water is escaping, and to get there he creeps down the slope of the embankment as cautiously as possible! Mr Swinden, with more foresight, sees that it is dangerous to remain in the valve house a moment longer, and calls upon Mr. Gunson to come out instantly. Mr. Gunson comes out, and no sooner does he cast his eyes upwards than he sees an opening, about thirty feet wide, at the top of the embankment, and the water rushing out in an immense stream . The catastrophe is now inevitable. Mr. Gunson exclaims to his companion, "It's all up, the embankment is going !" In an instant they run across the embankment to escape for their lives. Just at this time they hear a loud explosion, caused by the going off of the charge of powder intended to blow up the waste weir. The water is now gushing forth in a huge volume, and seems to be following so rapidly and fearfully on their track as somewhat to bewilder Mr. Gunson; but his companion, with great presence of mind, seizes hold of his friend, and drags him out of the path of the water. All this occupies but a moment. The chasm extends, the centre of the embankment sinks, and the pent up flood of one hundred and fourteen millions of cubic feet of water, rolls like an avalanche down the valley, with a noise like thunder, and sweeps before it houses, mills, men, cattle, trees, rocks, and whatever impedes its march of destruction and death.

"All in a moment, crash on crash,
    From precipice to precipice
An avalanche's ruins dash
    Down to the nethermost abyss;
Invisible, the ear alone
    Follows the uproar till it dies;
Echo on echo, groan for groan
    From deep to deep replies."

The time when the waters burst the embankment was a few minutes before midnight --

"At midnight, when mankind is wrapped in peace
And worldly fancy feeds on golden dreams."

There does not appear to have been any gradual escape of the waters, but a sudden and overwhelming rush. Some of those who saw the flood say that after the first avalanche, there was a second terrific burst, as though an additional portion of the embankment had been carried away a few minutes after the first breach had taken place. As the gap was at least one hundred and ten yards wide at the top and seventy feet deep, it would not take very long to empty the reservoir. It has since been calculated that the velocity of the flood was eighteen miles per hour, and this rate would empty the reservoir in forty seven minutes. The force of the water was tremendous and almost inconceivable. The velocity of the flood was awful, and, to use the words of Mr. Rawlinson, the Government inspector, after the dam burst, "Not even a Derby horse could have carried the warning in time to have saved the people down the valley."


The flood dashed down the valley for about three quarters of a mile without doing any particular damage, there being for that distance no houses near the bed of the river. nevertheless, the force of the inundation is very apparent even here where it had not acquired the velocity it gained further down the valley. Trees are torn up by their roots, and carried down the stream. The sides of the valley are washed away, and huge rocks torn off and borne down the gorge.

One stone which has been thus dissevered from the mountain side, or torn up from the river bed, is supposed to weigh nearly sixty tons, and of course it still lies in the bed of the stream, where it will probably remain. This stone is 36 feet long, 9 feet broad, and in some parts 3 feet thick. The water has undermined the road, and a considerable portion of it has slipped down into the valley, so as to be quite impassable. Annett Bridge, built of stone, was carried away.

The first human abode which the flood reached was the small farmstead of Mr. John Empsall, called Annett House. It was situated quite in the valley, and near the course of the river. It is swept away so completely that no one could tell that its site had even been occupied by an erection of any description. House, out-buildings, and garden are all entirely gone. The inhabitants happily escaped, in the following manner, as narrated to us by Mr. Empsall himself. The following is his own statement:--

About seven o'clock on Friday evening I went to the dam, as I had been told there was a crack in the bank. The people there said there was no danger--it was only a frost crack, and I came away. My wife, my three boys, and a lodger named William Rose, who works for the Water Company, went to bed. I sat up, because I had promised to wait for another lodger who works for the Company, and he did not come. A little before twelve at night, Thomas Fish, a labourer, who also works for the Company, came running down, and shouted "It's coming ! It's coming !" He said Mr. Gunson had sent him. I called up my wife, my three children, and the lodger, and got them out. 'they had not time to put on their clothes, but they carried them on their heads, and put them on when they got on to the road. The night was dark, very windy, and very cold. I had a cow and two calves, which I got out. The pig would not come out in time, but it and the donkey were found safe the next morning on the bank side, where they had been carried by the flood. We had not been out of the house five minutes when the flood came, and swept everything entirely away. My wife slipped down and hurt her knee. I saw my house going with everything in it. Mr. Gunson came just then, and said: "The house is going ! the house is going."


At Lower Bradfield the destruction of property was very Considerable. A good stone bridge, near the Wesleyan Chapel, was completely carried away, as was also another strong Stone bridge a little lower down, and called the School Bridge. The blacksmith's shop of Mr. Elliott was destroyed. Mr. Joseph Ibbotson's corn mill, a three storied building, built with heavy ashlar stone in the lower part, resisted the flood until it reached the roof, but it was ultimately swept down, not a vestige being left to mark its locality. Its owner saw the water rise around it, and the roof peering just above the top of the flood; but when he looked again just as the water subsided, the mill was gone with all the valuable stock of corn and flour which it contained. A wheelwright's shop, occupied by William Wilson, was much damaged. A large school room, and a new two storied stone-built schoolmaster's house, were swept away entirely from the face of the earth. The school premises had been partly rebuilt only the summer before at a cost of 260 pounds. A farm house, occupied by Martin Hawke, was also completely demolished. The destruction at lower Bradfield is so thorough that the rock is torn up from under the foundation of the buildings.


The following is a description of the Flood as given by Mr. Joseph Ibbotson, of Bradfield. He says: My house stands fifty or sixty yards from the mill, on rocky ground, higher than the roof of the mill, facing across the valley. On hearing a noise and a shout "The flood is coming !" I instantly leaped out of bed, and looked out of the window, from which we have a view of more than a mile of the river's course. I could hear the roar, and just discern the rushing water up the valley. At this moment the water was passing over our mill weir in its ordinary course. The bridges and the buildings adjoining the river were all standing. I ran out of the house down to within fifteen or twenty yards of the flood. Language cannot convey any just description of the awful thundering, crashing roar of the torrent. It was as if the earth itself was being rent asunder by the impetuous stream, which appeared from floating objects to rush along at 3 racehorse speed down the centre of the valley. I fondly imagined and repeatedly exclaimed, "This must be a wild dream; it cannot be reality." It seemed as if the bowels of the earth were being torn up, or as if some unheard of monster were rushing down the valley, lashing the hill sides with his scaly folds, crunching up buildings between his jaws, and filling all the air with his wrathful hiss. Trees snapped like pistols, mills and houses stood and staggered for a moment, and then disappeared in the boiling torrent. Within the short space of five minutes, the bridge, the triple storied mill, the school house, and the master's house, were standing unharmed, and before the minutes were out they had all vanished. The flood swept by in all its majesty--a mighty wall of water running on a level with the roofs of the three storeyed buildings it demolished, and sweeping away everything in its path so completely that not a trace of the well built bridge remains, and of the large millstones and massive ashlar pillars of the Bradfield mill not one has yet been found.

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