The Great Sheffield Flood  -  Photo Gallery

-  The Aftermath  -

The meeting re-opened the following day to a packed Town Hall. Earl Fitzwilliam was the first to speak, being greeted with loud cheering.John Towlerton Leather (Consulting Engineer to the Sheffield Waterworks Comapany) "This fearful inundation, which has caused such immense destruction of property and such widespread misery and desolation calls upon the inhabitants of this Borough at once to subscribe to a fund to alleviate the great distress. Our first priority must be to assist those who have lost everything and, in particular, those families who have suffered the loss of the breadwinner. I am pleased to report that large sums have already been pledged and my family and I wish to donate £1,000." Loud cheering ensued. The response was astounding, donations came flooding in, and not only from the attenders at the meeting, but from all quarters of Sheffield. 'During the ensuing weeks, sums ranging from a few shillings to a thousand pounds poured in from city, town and village.Florence Nightingale (photo of 1856) Each of the major steel manufacturers in Sheffield gave £200, George Hadfield (one of the town's two M.P.s and a substantial shareholder of the waterworks company) donated £500, Queen Victoria £200 [including a letter giving her commiserations, and for which the committee felt honoured], the Home Secretary £50, the Duke of Norfolk and Earl Fitzwilliam £1,000 each, and Lord Wharncliffe and the Mayor £200 each. The dam's consulting engineer, J. T. Leather, sent £100. From rich and poor, from affluent businessmen to schoolchildren, from the Archbishop of York, the Prince of Wales and Florence Nightingale--the money flowed in. The mayors of other towns organised similar relief funds, church dignitaries preached on Sheffield's need of succour, and the newspapers allowed no one to forget'. (CDDD)  'His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales so early as March 15, authorised Mr. Roebuck, [Sheffield] M.P., to say that he would head the subscription. The Princess of Wales and other members of the Royal Family also gave liberal donations.' (GFAS)

A committee was appointed to collect and distribute the donations as promptly and efficiently as possible.


Queen Victoria (Seen here in 1865)Victoria is seen here in a portrait of 1865 - the year after the flood. She was forty-six years old and still in deep mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, who had died of typhoid three years earlier at the age of only forty-two - a situation from which she never fully recovered.

Samuel Harrison writes:
'Her Majesty the Queen from the first took a deep interest in the case of the sufferers from the flood, and nobly came forward to set an example to her subjects in all parts of the country. The following is the correspondence which took place with reference to Her Majesty's contribution to the relief fund.'

Queen Victoria had already been made aware of the catastrophe that had taken place at Sheffield; however, on 16 March, Sheffield M.P. John Arthur Roebuck wrote to C. B. Phipps (assistant to the Queen) at Windsor Castle requesting that the Queen be made aware of further details of what was taking place in Sheffield in relation to the flood. C. B. Phipps replied:


Windsor Castle, March 16, 1864.

J. A. Roebuck, Esq., M.P.

          Sir,--I have had the honour to submit to her Majesty the Queen your letter received last night.
          Her Majesty had already directed me to make inquiry whether any subscription had been commenced for the relief of the sufferers by the fearful accident which has occurred near Sheffield.
          The Queen has commanded me to inform you that it is her Majesty's intention to contribute £200 towards the objects advocated in your letter.
          Her Majesty has commanded me to add the expression of her deep sympathy for the poor persons thus suddenly overwhelmed with grief and exposed to suffering of every description, in consequence of this unexpected and dire calamity.
          As I am not aware of the name of the treasurer, I shall be very much obliged to you if you will take the trouble to forward the enclosed cheque to the proper quarter.
          I have the honour to be, Sir,
                    Your most obedient humble servant,


J.A. Roebuck forwarded the above letter and the Queen's cheque, along with the accompanying note, below, to the Sheffield Mayor, Thomas Jessop:

March 17, 1864.

Thomas Jessop, Esq., the Mayor.

          My dear Sir,--I send you enclosed the letter I received last night from Col Sir C. B. Phipps, and also its enclosure--viz., a cheque for £200 from Her Majesty. I answered his letter, begging him to express to her Majesty my gratitude and thanks, which I presumed to over in my own name, and in that of my constituents, to her Majesty, for her kind sympathy and benevolence in this our dread hour of suffering.
          I am much obliged for your appreciation of my efforts, and beg you to believe me, yours very truly,



Robert Rawlinson (Government Engineer)Late on Monday night 14th March, a government official in the form of one Robert Rawlinson, who had been sent by the Home Secretary to investigate the cause of the disaster, arrived at the Midland Station (then at the junction of Spital Hill and Saville Street). Rawlinson was one of the country's foremost civil engineers, and had acted as inspector for the government on a number of occasions. For the duration of his stay, he resided at the Royal Victoria Hotel (by the old Victoria Station - this hotel remains today). The following day, John Webster escorted Rawlinson along the route of the flood, and up to the failed dam so that he could make a preliminary inspection of the structure. Rawlinson was shocked at what he saw, declaring: 'I know that the flood had caused a great deal of damage, but I had no idea that it was as extensive as this'. After inspecting the dam, Rawlinson wrote an initial report to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, and intimated that in his opinion, the dam had, in a number of ways, been poorly constructed. He became worried about what the legal consequences might be, of his final report to the inquest and requested that the government send him assistance in the form of a legal expert. The government responded, but felt that the help need not be a legal authority, and sent another leading civil engineer, Nathaniel Beardmore, to assist Rawlinson.

Over the following few weeks, the two 'government' engineers met directors of the Waterworks Company, attended a meeting of the General Relief Committee, and conducted an extensive examination of both the Dale Dyke and the Agden embankments, along with a range of plans, witnesses, and relevant information regarding these structures.


As arranged, the inquest resumed on Wednesday, 23rd March in the Town Hall.15  All the leading characters were present: the coroner, John Webster; Mayor, Thomas Jessop; The Chief Constable, John Jackson; John Gunson, John Towlerton Leather, the contractors, Craven and Fountain; the government engineers, Robert Rawlinson and Nathaniel Beardmore; and Mathew B. Jackson - an eminent civil engineer with considerable experience of constructing reservoirs in Melbourne, Australia. At the side were the reporters William Leng and Samuel Harrison ready to take down their notes.

Webster conducted the inquiry, which lasted for two days. Curiously, only five 'witnesses' were called to give evidence - all were professional engineers, and only one - Gunson - was at the site on the night that the dam collapsed.

The following paragraphs present the 'evidence' that was given by John Gunson relating to the hours leading up to the dam's collapse:


Early on the 11th March, there had been a gale warning, and Gunson visited the dam in order to observe the effect of the heavy waves on the embankment. He informed the inquest that, 'although he stood watching the embankment all the afternoon, he did not observe the least sinking. He stated that he was in a direct line, and level with the top of the embankment, and if there had been anything at the top he would have seen it if it had been out of the true line. There was no wave wall on the embankment and because of the spray that was blowing over it he did not cross it. Being convinced that all was well, he then went home.' 16

Around 5.30 p.m. William Horsefield, a workman employed by the Waterworks Company, was making his way back to his residence, and had to cross the embankment; 'the wind still being strong, he walked along at some distance below the crest where he was protected from the full force of the gale', and while so doing noticed the horizontal crack in the side of the embankment. Gunson was sent for, and he eventually arrived back at the dam around 10 p.m.

'. . . Gunson stated that when he arrived he could just get his fingers into the crack edgeways.' He stated that his 'first impressions on the cause of the crack were as follows:

'I thought it was the action of the wind and the waves that had been beating against it all the afternoon, and that it might have loosened the material that the inner slope of the top of the embankment is composed of, above the water mark: and if that had been the case, I thought it would be like taking the inner slope of the puddle wall from it, and cause a slight crack outside.'

Gunson decided to relieve the water pressure against the crest of the embankment by blowing up the top stones of the weir. He described what happened next:

'After putting the shot in, I said to the workmen, "We will go carefully back and examine it again", and I thought of measuring from the top to the crack to see whether it was above or below the surface water of the reservoir. We walked over the crack and all seemed perfectly right just as it did when we had passed over before, all the men and the rest of us, perhaps half an hour before. I had a lantern in my hand, and when I got to the end and saw what was there, I said to Swindon [the contractor] "George, good God, the water is over the embankment". It came right under my feet and dropped down the crack.' 17

Gunson went down the slope to the valve house to see if he could get some idea of the quantity of water passing over, which initially was 'no great current'. He continued his evidence:

'After I had been at the bottom a short time, I turned me round to go out, and cast my eye up the embankment, and could see an opening about 30 yards wide, perhaps, just as though we had blasted a way in the middle of the embankment, and in another moment one tremendous rush came and shook the ground under my feet.' 18

(It was at this point that the whole central section of the dam suddenly collapsed, and Gunson only just escaped with his life - scurrying up the side of the embankment.)


Webster launched a savage and sustained attack on John Gunson and John Towlerton Leather, determined to establish that responsibility for the disaster lay clearly with them. Presenting forceful arguments was one of his strengths, however, as Geoffrey Amey states:

'In that strength lay also his weakness: by blurting out his personal feelings, the emotional Mr Webster had managed to produce the opposite effect to that he had intended and his indiscretions had sparked off a wave of sympathy for the company's engineers.'

At one point Webster was becoming so agitated as he tried to hammer home that the engineers had made a number of errors, both in the construction, and in the design of the dam, that 'one of the jurymen, dismayed at the unorthodox manner of the proceedings, felt impelled to reproach him. "I think you should take it more deliberately, Mr. Coroner." - "It is very hard to do so when the work has killed nearly three hundred of our fellow citizens," replied Webster'.19

The crux of it all was that Leather and Gunson conjectured that the collapse must have been caused by a 'natural slip of the ground outside the bank'. The Government engineer, Robert Rawlinson, had formed the opinion that, in essence, the Dale Dyke embankment had been faultily constructed: that the outlet pipes and bye wash were too small, the laying of the pipes in channels beneath the embankments was bad practice; that the material, of which a great proportion of the embankment is made, has been improperly put together - the depth of 'tips' were too great, and that building materials ought not to have been taken from inside the reservoir: he cited the mode of laying the outlet pipes as being the most probable cause of the disaster. 'Nathaniel Beardmore told the inquest he agreed substantially with what Rawlinson had said, which surprised nobody. Nevertheless, he thought the puddle wall reflected 'most excellent workmanship and I think that the immense depth excavated must have removed danger from springs'. He was also inclined to the view that the method of laying the pipes was the most likely source of the trouble.' 20

Rawlinson made much play on the possibility of fractured pipes - leading to leakage and erosion of the embankment - being the reason for the disaster, and had put forward a convincing case but, at best, it was only professional guesswork (indeed, several months later, the pipes were excavated and thoroughly tested - they were found to be in perfect condition - and the excavating engineers claimed that 'This is a state of perfection we never anticipated and speaks well not only for the mode of construction adopted by the engineers, but also for the excellent character of the workmanship' - see later). However, he did conclude by saying that it was 'humanly impossible' to come to any positive conclusion as to the cause of the failure. Rawlinson also impressed on the jury that the primary purpose for the inquiry was to obtain facts so as to arrive at reliable conclusions for future use, and that it would serve no good or useful purpose to find the engineers or the company criminally responsible - this virtually guaranteeing there would be no prosecutions.

Towards the end of the second day, the jury retired to consider their verdict - it took them only 20 minutes: when they returned, the forman, Henry Pawson, stood, and read from a piece of paper:

We find that Thomas Elston came to his death by drowning in the inundation caused by the bursting of the Bradfield dam on the morning of the 12th instant. That in our opinion there has not been that engineering skill and attention in the construction of the works, which their magnitude and importance demanded. That in our opinion the Legislature ought to take such action as will result in governmental inspection of all works of this character, and that such inspections should be frequent, and sufficient, and regular. That we cannot separate without expressing our deep regret at the fearful loss of life which has occurred from the disruption of the Bradfield Reservoir.

Blakelock Smith - representative of the Waterworks Company then announced: " . . . I must say, on behalf of the Water Company that they will continue to make every inquiry possible into the cause of the accident, and more maturely than we have seen here!" The proceedings then terminated.

'Almost the only common factor to emerge from the proceedings at the inquest was one of dissatisfaction. The verdict was considered vague, the hearing limited in approach and much of the evidence not really evidence at all. Most people already accepted that constructional defects existed at Dale Dyke, but there was regret that no specific reason for the dam's collapse had been proved. . . .' (CDDD)


In the months following the inquest, the Sheffield Corporation, who had been wanting for some time to take over the Sheffield Waterworks Company, enlisted no fewer than nine top ranking engineers to investigate, and report individually on the Dale Dyke Dam. No doubt, their prime motive was to accumulate as much damning evidence as possible against the Water Company to aid their bid for compulsory purchase.

James Leslie (Engineer engaged by the Sheffield Corporation)The engineers investigating on behalf of the Corporation represented a glittering array of talent: they were Sir John Rennie, Charles B. Vignoles, David Stevenson, Peter Barlow, William Lee, John Murray, Henry Coneybeare, James Leslie and Mathew B. Jackson. In essence, these engineers agreed with Rawlinson and Beardmore that the Dale Dyke embankment had been faultily constructed, that the depths of the tips were too great, that building material ought not to have been taken from inside the reservoir and that the burying of pipelines beneath embankments was bad practice. Jackson was not as damning of the work as the other engineers, but was of the opinion that '"the site of the embankment was not judiciously chosen as it appears to have been placed in the immediate neighbourhood of ancient slides, of strong springs and of suspicious indications of faults in the strata" and it did not appear to him that sufficient examination of the site had been made before commencing work.' 21

The Corporation stated 'that the engineers reached their conclusions quite independently of each other, in which case their remarkably similar views add up to a powerful indictment of the dam's construction.'

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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