The Great Sheffield Flood - Photo Gallery
Gunson spent a sleepless night at the home of one of the company's overseers,
George Swinden, in Bradfield: the following morning, he made his way home
- picking his way down the desolated valley, and feeling numb with shock
at what he witnessed. People who lived in the area were hanging around
in small groups, staring in disbelief; many were openly weeping over the
loss of their loved ones, or friends, or loss of their homes and possessions.
For many families, there was the added burden of having to face a hopeless
future, having lost their only breadwinner. Women could be seen comforting
the grieving sufferers. Large pools of foul smelling water lingered in
low lying areas, and many people were stranded in homes that were surrounded
by a sea of mud. The two leading Sheffield newspapers: The Sheffield
Daily Telegraph - under the guidance of William Leng (pictured below),
later famed for his part in 'helping to smash
those behind the Sheffield outrages'; and
The Independent, whose owner/editor, Samuel Harrison, spent the
months following the flood producing his wonderful and comprehensively
documented book about the disaster, worked tirelessly through the night.
The massive edition of 54,000 copies were immediately snapped up, and 'could
have been sold six times over', as news-hungry Sheffielders clambered for
what information they could get about what had happened. For their part,
The Telegraph claimed that had they been able to print a quarter
of a million copies it would not have been enough.
(Editor - Sheffield Daily Telegraph)
Before the morning was far advanced, the chief constable, John Jackson, who had been directing police operations throughout the night, sent for the mayor, Thomas Jessop. The two rode down to the Wicker and along Nursery Street (close to the town centre). Jessop was particularly shocked by the scenes he witnessed. 'The two men approached the front of The Manchester Railway Hotel [this pub still exists - approx. 300 yards along Nursery Street from the Wicker]. From a ragged hole torn through the front of the building a small group of policemen and helpers were emerging carrying the limp, muddy form of a girl. They carefully laid the body onto the back of a cart, to join several others which had already been collected. The Mayor removed his hat as the cart was led away towards the Workhouse [situated on Kelham Street - directly opposite the entrance to Kelham Island - some parts of this building still remain], where many of the bodies were being laid awaiting identification. At this establishment the human cost of the night's proceedings was already being counted as Mr. Wescoe directed the parties of police and helpers to the straw covered rooms which were being set aside for this grim purpose. He could not know that within the next few days no less than one hundred and eighteen bodies of men and women, boys, girls and babies would be brought in. All along the route of the flood similar scenes were re-enacted as bodies were pulled from the mud or uncovered from piles of debris and taken to the nearest public house, school, or police station.' 8
As the pair returned to the Town Hall - a little way up the hill from Lady's Bridge (the building remains today - on Castle Street - and now serves as the Crown Courts), they were joined by the coroner, John Webster, and the Town Clerk, John Yeomans, who anxiously enquired "Are things really as bad as The Telegraph is reporting?" "Worse, far worse. I have been out with the Chief Constable and some of the things were unimaginable". Webster arranged to visit the Workhouse in order to make arrangements for identification of the victims, and to open the inquest. Arrangements were made for the supply of quicklime, which was needed to prevent the spread of disease as there were the dead carcasses of animals strewn all over. A number of the survivors, who had lost everything, were gathering outside - cold and wet: they were invited into the Town Hall so they could at least get warm by the fire. Overseers were appointed to arrange for the needs of all those who were destitute: and a meeting of the Council and prominent townspeople was arranged for the Monday.
Later in the day the Town Clerk set about writing to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, to inform him of what had happened, and to request that he dispatch a Government Inspector to investigate the cause of the failure of the Dam:
|Sir, I am directed by the Mayor to inform you
that a dreadful calamity has just happened to Sheffield by the bursting
of a dam belonging to the Water Works Company. The dam, which contained
95 acres of water, burst about midnight, and rushing with fearful velocity
down the deep valley below, swept everything before it--causing awful destruction
to life and property. One hundred bodies of men, women and children now
lie at the Sheffield Union House, but few of them have been identified,
for whole families have perished. Many other bodies have been taken elsewhere
and some found as far as Rotherham and even Doncaster, so that at present
the number of lives sacrificed is not ascertained. The Mayor requests me
to ask that a Government Inspector be sent down to enquire into the cause
of this dreadful catastrophe. I send you two of the Sheffield papers, which
contain other particulars.
Meanwhile, dozens of people from the surrounding areas were gathering all along the path of the flood, marvelling at the scenes before them. Also were many homeless victims huddling around gloomy campfires. The ruins of the Malin Bridge Inn, then better known as 'The Cleakum', were particularly striking, 'for the central chimney stack still stood with ragged remnants of the floors hanging from it. From this building George and Sarah Bisby and five of their children had been plucked to their deaths. Seventeen year old Mary, who had been away for the night, had hurried home to find out what had become of her family. She stood now, sobbing and weeping, in front of the wrecked building, the only surviving member of the family. Frantically she searched here and there amongst the mud and ruins to salvage what pathetic bits and pieces she could, but there was precious little left. Concerned neighbours tried to console her terrible distress as best they could, by helping her to retrieve items and to offer her a few shillings. There was no sign of the bodies of her family for they, like most of the hundred people lost here, had been washed far down the river. Mary was to identify the bodies of her father and fourteen year old sister, Tessa, in the Workhouse the following Wednesday. Those of her mother, brothers and sisters were never to be identified.' 9
John Webster spent most of the day at the Workhouse receiving the bodies. He opened the inquest that afternoon. Realising that it would be an impossible task to hold separate inquests on all the bodies, and even an attempt would take weeks - resulting in a high risk of the spread of disease from the decaying corpses - he decided, particularly as it was obvious that they had all met their deaths in the same manner, to hold an inquest on just a few, and let these represent all the victims. Four were chosen and these were: Thomas Elston and his wife Elizabeth, from Neepsend Lane, Keziah Easton, who died after following her husband in his vain attempt to save the pig, and Henry Fairhurst, a steel roller who died on the night shift at the Philadelphia Steel Works.10 Immediately following the inquest, Webster arranged for notices to be published inviting relatives to arrange for the burial of their family members:
I am instructed by JOHN WEBSTER ESQ, CORONER, to give PUBLIC NOTICE
that it is not his intention to hold INQUESTS on any of the bodies of persons
lying in his DISTRICT who lost their lives in the GREAT FLOOD this Morning,
with the exception of those viewed by the Jury at the Sheffield Union House
this Afternoon, and their Relatives and Friends will be permitted to move
them and make the necessary arrangements for their interment without delay.
'The following day, Sunday, John Webster went to his office at 14, St James's Row--overlooking St Peter's Church' (now Sheffield Cathedral) -- and wrote to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, informing him of the terrible tragedy that had occurred in Sheffield:
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 Waterworks Company. The destruction of life is terrible--nearly
two hundred bodies of men, women and children have already been collected.
The full inquest - into the ultimate cause of the disaster - was delayed until the 23rd. March (as stated in the letter, above), as Webster thought it necessary for himself and the selected Inquest Jury, accompanied by the Waterworks Engineer, to pay a visit to the site of the collapsed dam so as to familiarise themselves with the details of the dam's construction, and this was arranged for the Monday morning (14th March).
Webster gave Gunson a very cool reception when they met at The Kings Head on that morning. Due to the damaged roads and bridges along the normal route to the Dale Dyke Dam, the horse drawn bus had to take the much longer route - along Manchester Road, and climbing the upper Rivelin Valley, then crossing the moors towards Strines, then descending the valley from there - towards the stricken dam. On arrival, they found they were not alone. There were 'dozens of carriages and carts, all hired out by the more enterprising citizens of Hillsborough, who were doing brisk trade transporting the hoards of visitors along the course of the flood. Many of the sightseers had travelled from far afield, taking advantage of the 'Excursion Specials' put on by the railway companies and were being given tours by self-appointed guides.' Over 150,000 people visited the site over the first few days following the flood.
While Gunson, Webster and the Jury examined the embankment, twenty three year old Selina Marsden and her husband were just returning to their partially damaged home a little way below the dam. They had just been down to Malin Bridge School to help in the grim task of identifying the bodies. Many years later, as an old lady, Selina gave an interview for The Independent when she vividly recalled the occasion: 'The bodies were all laid on benches and looked like beautiful waxworks. They lay side by side, an aged man beside a little child, perhaps his grandson. In other cases husband and wife lay together, and in some instances, whole families. When I saw the sight I turned to my husband and we gave thanks to God for our providential escape.' 11
Over the following weeks, flood survivors and relatives were scanning the descriptions of the victims, which were being published in the local newspapers, desperately hoping they might recognise their loved ones. Unfortunately, the descriptions were brief and vague, and many people had the added burden of touring round the many public houses and schools, observing dozens of bodies before finding their family members, and in some cases, never doing so. John Appleby from Hillsborough, had made trips to Kilnhurst, Wath, Mexbrough and Doncaster before discovering the body of his wife, Mary, in Rotherham.
One of the published 'descriptions' read as follows:
I hereby give Public Notice, that the REMAINS OF ALL THE PERSONS
found Drowned will be interred THIS DAY (Monday, the 14th March),
unless, in the meantime, they are identified and removed by their Friends.
THOMAS JESSOP, Mayor.
Sheffield, 12th, March 1864.
identified IF POSSIBLE before noon on TUESDAY NEXT, after which time
the Police will direct their Internment.
Years of Age.
about 40, Girl about 10 Years of Age.
other about 40 Years of Age.
KILNHURST, Man aged about 45, Boy 16, Women 40, 28 and 47.
MONTAGU ARMS, MEXBRO'.
It was almost 2 months later, when the body of nine year old Jonathan Ibbotson (he had been washed out of the Damflask Wire Mill along with three of his work colleagues - his body was found in Loxley) was identified on May 5th, that the last of the dead could finally be laid to rest, although even then there were some twenty individuals who were still not accounted for.12
THE EMERGENCY RELIEF MEETING
While Webster and the Jury were at the dam, the Mayor, Thomas Jessop, was conducting the emergency meeting, set up to find urgent relief for the sufferers, at the Town Hall. The meeting comprised many prominent Sheffield citizens; namely the leading steelmakers, cutlers and silversmiths - the very people who would come to make Sheffield the 'steel capital' of the world: Mark Firth, of The Norfolk Works; Edward Vickers, of the River Don Works; John Brown, of the Atlas Steel Works; George Wosternholm, from the giant Washington cutlery works; and James Dixon and Frederick Mappin - the leading silversmiths were in attendance.
Jessop opened: "Gentlemen, I have called this meeting so that we may consider what measures might be adopted to alleviate the sufferings caused by this terrible flood'. I think that by now we are all only too well aware of what has happened. I would like to suggest that a Public Meeting be held here tomorrow in order to establish a relief fund for the sufferers. All those who have travelled up the valley will be aware of the vast amount of distress which has been caused, not just the mental distress brought about from the loss of family or friends, but real bodily suffering from loss of property and want of food and clothing." John Brown followed in his usual blunt style: "I feel persuaded that, as Sheffield men, we shall deal with this matter in a practical manner. We have before us substantial marks of wreck distress and loss of life, and our first duty and desire will be, as in times past, to meet and relieve, in a practical and warm hearted manner, the sad consequences now before us, without stopping to investigate the cause of the calamity or who is to blame for it. Let us put our names down for something at once, and not let that which is already bad be made worse by delay." 13
Lord Wharncliffe, from Wortley Hall was next: "About a year ago I addressed you in this hall on the distress in Manchester and we contributed, I may say, handsomely. But now our feelings must be warmer and more sincere as our fellow townsmen and neighbours need assistance. We must lay aside every thought of niggardliness and avarice, and come down handsomely for the credit of the town. The town of Sheffield has not occupied the position in the eyes of England in this particular as it ought to have done. I don't think we are held in equal estimation with some towns of smaller populations and less prosperous trade, but events like this, which call us together, give us opportunities to raise ourselves in this matter. Don't pinch your contributions!".14
Everyone was in strong agreement with all that had been said, and by the end of the meeting, the mammoth sum of £4,775 had been subscribed.
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