The Great Sheffield Flood  -  Photo Gallery

-  The Aftermath  -

Sir John Fowler Thomas Hawksley John Fredrick Bateman James Simpson

The Sheffield Waterworks Company accepted no more than general liability, and were not to take the attacks by the Government engineers and the Corporation appointed engineers lying down: in April, they employed five of the country's civil engineering giants to undertake their own investigation into the dam's failure. These engineers were, without question, some of the most eminent in the country: The first three were Thomas Hawksley, and John Fredrick Bateman - probably the two most prolific and successful dam-builders of the Victorian era; and Sheffield's own John Fowler who was born and raised in Wadsley Hall. At the age of 16 Fowler had been apprenticed to John Towlerton Leather,22 and later became famed for his part in the design and construction of the Forth Bridge, a feat for which he was ultimately knighted. James Simpson, a foremost specialist in hydraulics, and Thomas Elliott Harrison (no picture), made up the quintet. Geoffrey Amey writes: 'The views of any one of the five engineers merited consideration; in concert, their opinions deserved the closest attention.'  Soon after commencing their investigations, they began to disagree with Rawlinson and Beardmore on the quality of the workmanship in the dam, and the likely cause of its failure.

By the time the Rawlinson-Beardmore 'official' report appeared on 20th. May, Thomas Hawksley and his colleagues felt they had investigated sufficiently to express an interim opinion that the Dale Dyke failure resulted from a landslip (in essence, agreeing with Gunson and Leather's conclusions) and was an unavoidable accident; and their final report read as follows:

... we are unanimously of opinion that the accident was occasioned by a landslip which occurred in the ground immediately on the east side of the embankment and which extended beneath a portion of the outer slope, involving in its consequence the ruin of that portion of the bank and producing the catastrophe which followed. [The engineers had stated that not only were tears and fractures to be seen in the lower part of the mass, but also that two cottages, 'both remote from the bank, give unmistakable proofs of the recent movement of the ground on which they stand. From the testimony of the occupiers of these cottages, this movement must have immediately preceded or been concurrent with the bursting of the reservoir'].
          To this conclusion we severally came on our first examination, and every subsequent investigation, and the more intimate acquaintance we have since acquired with all the evidence and facts connected with the subject, have only the more firmly convinced us that to no other cause can the destruction of the reservoir be rightly attributed. We are moreover of the opinion that all the arrangements made by your engineers were such as might have been reasonably expected to have proved sufficient for the purposes for which they were intended and that, if the ground beneath the bank had not moved, this work would have been as safe and as perfect as the other five or six large reservoirs of the company which have been constructed in a similar manner and which have so long supplied the town of Sheffield and the rivers Rivelin, Loxley and Don with water.
          We may add that, since the accident, the discharging pipes, the outer ends of which had been buried beneath the rubbish deposited by the flood, have been reached and carefully examined. They have been tested under a hydraulic pressure far exceeding that which they would have had to sustain in use. They have been inspected internally by a man passing through them and their lines and levels have been observed from without by means of candles of equal lengths placed centrally within them. In these several manners, the pipes have been proved to be accurate in their position, not having even bent under the pressure of the embankment, and perfectly sound and watertight. 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.

Mathew B. Jackson (engineer for the Corporation) had told the jury at the hearing the he had visited the dam on four occasions since it had burst, and that in his opinion, he thought the workmanship and design of the dam was generally very good ('thought the quantity of material in the embankment ample, the slope sufficient and the puddle 'decidedly good'; neither did he have any fault to find with the byewash.' CDDD), but he did criticise the method by which the 'fill' had been layered, and the citing of the dam [the outer toe founded on the site of an old land-slip], but his chief criticism was that of the pipes being laid beneath the embankment, and it was his opinion that there had taken place a 'springing' at the pipe joints - and this was almost certainly the cause of the catastrophe; however, after the pipes had been excavated and tested by the engineers appointed by the Waterworks Company (as detailed in their report above) Jackson changed his opinion regarding them. 'In answer to a question on them, he said: "the pipes are not broken. . . . I think there cannot be any very serious leakage from the joints themselves, or otherwise it would have been detected during the test that was applied."  The other engineers maintained the opinions that each of them had previously expressed.' 23

The Waterworks appointed engineers began to get support from other quarters: 'The newspaper was in agreement on one point: "In the matter of the pipes, these engineers are probably right. We have always thought that Mr Rawlinson committed an error in placing too much emphasis on the pipes."' (CDDD) 


Massive claims soon began to mount against the Water Company, and at the end of April the company made it known about the way they intended to proceed with respect to the ever increasing claims. They continued to argue that the dam's failure was caused by circumstances beyond their control, but had no option in accepting general liability. They did not have the funds to meet the claims, and so indicated their intention to seek Parliamentary permission to raise extra capital by applying a 'moderate' increase in the water rates. However, in return, they pledged to provide a constant supply of water to the town within five years. This seemed reasonable and even the Town Council were in approval - that was until it became known that the 'modest' increase was a staggering twenty-five percent! The people of Sheffield were infuriated at having to pay the debts the Company had incurred as a result of the failure of its own dam. The council was appalled and set about preparing it's opposition to this outrageous proposal. 'William Leng, in the pages of The Sheffield Telegraph, argued that the Waterworks should be taken over by the Sheffield Corporation: this sort of action had occurred, with excellent results, in other towns.' 'The Company's Bill appeared to have little chance of success, and the Corporation made fierce representations when the matter came before a Commons Select Committee.' There was much shock when, in fact, the Act was passed, and the twenty-five percent approved.


The Act (25% increase - see above), which came into force at the end of July, also stipulated the framework for the hearing and settlement of the many claims for compensation which were continuing to mount against the Company.William Overend (Head of Inundation Commission) It was not until the beginning of October, however, that the three man commission, under William Overend QC, took their places in the Sheffield Town Hall (the building which is currently the 'Law Courts' on Castle Street), and began to work their way through the six and a half thousand claims for destroyed and damaged property, and the several hundred for death and injury. Over the following six months the commissioners were presented with a daily succession of claimants representing a remarkable cross section of the town's population, from the poorest and most lowly to the wealthy and enterprising. Their stories were frequently distressing and tragic in the extreme: stories told by sole survivors of large families, by the permanently crippled and by the orphaned and widowed. Sometimes the stories were 'dishonest and occasionally ludicrous, but the whole proceedings were painstakingly recorded in copperplate handwriting in twelve great black ledgers, now one of the greatest treasures of the Sheffield City Archives.' 24

One of the most unjust and harsh aspects of the claims settlement process was that while property could be valued, human life was judged to have a value only in terms of the loss of earning power. Companies tended to be fully reimbursed for their losses, but little compensation was awarded for the loss of relatives, unless they were the breadwinner. The case of William Coggin, who had returned with his wife from a funeral in Wakefield to find their children had been drowned in their Neepsend cottage, was typical of many: Coggin stated that he had been advised to claim 'a total of £350 for the loss of his three children, Alfred (aged 13), Eliza (aged 9), and William (aged 6). The elder boy, it was stated, earned eight shillings a week working for a skinner and a little more money for doing casual jobs. When the commissioners awarded only £25, the overwrought mother shouted: 'If that is all I have for my three children, I'll have life for it.' (CDDD) 

Another pitiful story was that of Selina Dyson, the only surviving member of the large family drowned at Hillsborough. She had been living with her grandmother at the time of the flood, and had lost seven members of her family - including her parents: she claimed £500, but received only £60.

William Overend said that he and his colleagues were deeply moved by the wretchedness of such cases and explained that, much as they sympathised with the bereaved, they were empowered to award only the pecuniary loss sustained. If, for example, a father claimed for the death of a son, it was necessary to ascertain how much that son had been earning and how much financially he had benefited the father. In the case of Miss Dyson, who had lost her father, mother, three sisters and two brothers, the commissioners would have been 'very gratified, indeed, if we could have given her something for the anguish she has sustained, but the Act of Parliament prohibits us'. (CDDD) 

There was the sorrowful story of Mrs Ryder whose son, Robert, was torn from her skirts while she clung to a lamp post and to her small daughter: Patrick Ryder, the father, said eleven year old Robert was earning 4s. 6d. (22·5p) weekly and was described by his employer as 'a sharp, intelligent lad'; he claimed £200 for the loss of his son, but was awarded only £20. George Varney originally sought £2,000 for the death of his son, Sidney, whose horse had thrown him into the flood, but, on counsel's advice, agreed to take the company's offer of £150. It is reported that Paul Spooner, a bootmaker from Neepsend Lane, was satisfied with the £5 which he received for the loss of his fox terrier - the life of a pet (presumably being regarded as a 'possession') had value, while that of a relative did not! 'William Howe, of Bacon Island, was granted a handsome £110 for the loss of furnishings which included the piano and music, wax fruit and flowers, 'The History of England' in four volumes and a mahogany card table.' (DSSF) 

By April of 1865, the proceedings were drawing to a close. The Inundation Commission, under Overend, had awarded around £275, 000 in 'official' compensation - which would have bankrupted the Waterworks Company had parliament not empowered them to raise extra capital by increasing the water rates by a massive twenty-five percent.

What adds even more to the tragedy of this whole situation, is that the Relief Committee - which had done so much dedicated work in the early days following the disaster, collecting and distributing contributions to the most needy - found themselves in the embarrassing position of having around £32,000 of the original £55,000 left over. In the event, £24,000 was returned to the donors, and £8,000 given to local hospitals: clearly, the committee could have been far less miserly towards those whose lives had been devastated on that terrible night of March 11th, 1864.

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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