The Great Sheffield Flood  -  Photo Gallery

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Thomas Jessop (Mayor of Sheffield)In the early hours of the morning following the flood, Chief constable John Jackson called on the mayor, and together the pair toured some of the worst hit districts. Geoffrey Amey writes:

'Jessop, normally a jovial man with a dry sense of humour, was so moved by the experience that he could scarcely refrain from bursting into tears. He was in his sixty-first year and a wealthy steel manufacturer, now heading the business founded by his father, William, in about 1830. Despite his financial and social position (he was also a magistrate and, currently, Master Cutler), Jessop had never lost the common touch. Success had not swollen his head and he was, they said, still the same good old Tommy Jessop he had always been in less prosperous times. He felt a genuine sympathy for the flood sufferers, most of whom were in the artisan and poorest classes: the ones who could least afford the slightest setback.' (CDDD) (Jessop himself contributed £200 to the relief fund for the sufferers.)

' . . . Jessop lost no time in keeping his promise to help those in distress. He presided at a meeting of the town's most influential manufacturers, merchants, bankers and 'gentlemen' and at once had their wholehearted support.'

'Few people emerged with more credit in those early, critical days than Thomas Jessop. As Mayor, he devoted countless hours to the urgent task of relieving the most distressing cases and spent much of his day at the Town Hall, where he presided at meetings, listened to wretched souls seeking subsistence and generally organised arrangements to deal with the aftermath of the Great Flood. He was unable to direct much energy or time to his own business, although William Jessop and Sons had sustained appreciable damage from the waters. In fact, such were the pressures upon him, Tommy Jessop was close to having a breakdown in health.' (CDDD)

Thomas Jessop was sixty years old at the time of the flood, he died on 30 November, 1887, aged eighty-three, leaving a personal estate worth more than £663,000.

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.
Sheffield, 12th, March 1864.
THE REGISTRARS of DEATHS have been Requested by the Coroner to
give CERTIFICATES for the BURIAL of the DEAD, in all Cases where it is clearly
ascertained that DEATHS have been caused by the disastrous INUNDATION
throughout the VALLEY of the DON, on the Morning of the 12th of March instant.
TO THE PUBLIC. -- It is requested that the following BODIES MAY BE
identified IF POSSIBLE before noon on TUESDAY NEXT, after which time
the Police will direct their Internment.
A Man, unknown, lying at the PLUMPERS INN, TINSLEY, about 42 Years of Age.
A Man, unknown, lying at Joseph Taylor's, DON CLOSE, GREASBRO', about 25
Years of Age.
A Man and Girl, unknown, at the HOLMES TAVERN, KIMBERWORTH, Man
about 40, Girl about 10 Years of Age.
Two Women unkown, at the ANGEL INN, ROTHERRHAM, one about 50, the
other about 40 Years of Age.
One Man, one Boy, and three Women, unknown, now lying at the SHIP INN,
, Man aged about 45, Boy 16, Women 40, 28 and 47.
A Man from 45 to 50, a Woman about 45, and a Child about 3, at the
    J. WEBSTER, Coroner.
Sheffield, March 12th. 1864.


John Webster (Sheffield Coroner)'John Webster [who resided at Broomhall Park] had been coroner for two years. He was a leading public figure in the town, where he had been in practice as a solicitor for nearly thirty years, and was renowned for his straight talking. Indeed, his sharp tongue sometimes ran away with him and his acid comments at the resumed inquest were to provoke a storm of criticism. His honest intentions were never in doubt although the manner in which he sometimes expressed them was not always appreciated. Mr Webster was dogmatic. There was hardly a subject upon which he did not have an emphatic view. 'Even when he was not found engaged in the duties of his profession,' a contemporary reflected, 'he could be found expressing his opinions--always clearly, sometimes tartly and generally positively--on various questions of public interest.' (CDDD)

'On the day following the flood, John Webster opened the inquest. It was held at the Union Workhouse, part of which (as indicated in the Town Clerk's letter) was being used as a makeshift mortuary (some parts of this building still remain - on Alma Street - directly opposite the entrance road to Kelham Island - parts of the building being incorporated into a steel works), . . .' and on the following day, Sunday, he '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 which had occured at 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.
          As it is impossible to hold an inquest in each case, as very few will probably be identified and the cause of death is the same in all, I have concluded not to hold an inquest, except on two or three bodies identified yesterday, which will be sufficient for a full inquiry into the cause of this most dreadful occurrence. I trust that the course I have taken will be deemed satisfactory.
          The jurors wish me to intimate that a Government Inspector should be sent down to make a careful examination of the works at the reservoir, and to give evidence at the adjourned hearing on the 23rd instant, at the Town Hall, Sheffield.
-- I am, Sir, your obedient servant,           J. WEBSTER, Coroner.

At the resumed inquest on 23rd. March, 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.'

'Webster, who was fifty-four, had been a bright young man in his mid twenties when he settled in Sheffield to start legal practice, having served his articles with a firm from York. He was regarded so highly for his straight dealing that he soon became known as 'the honest lawyer'. He established himself as a respected member of the community, was elected to the Town Council in 1858 and was now an alderman. Webster was a no nonsense debater, he was condemnatory about the poor sanitation existing in the town and his forthright views and enthusiasm had much to do with the council's adoption of the Local Government Act. He was to be Sheffield's Mayor in 1866 and 1867. In later years, Webster was handicapped by heart trouble; he relinquished the office of coroner in May 1873, and retired from the council the following year. Then, in May 1876, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding.' He died on 28 June, 1878, when he was in his sixty-ninth year. (CDDD)


These two men played a leading role in making Sheffield the steel capital of the world. . .

Mark Firth (Steel Magnate - Norfolk Works) John Brown (Steel Magnate - Atlas Steel Works)

Mark Firth, rose from relatively humble beginnings to build up one of the largest steel manufacturing organisations in the world. His father was once head melter at Sandersons and a steel maker of some skill, the firm of Thomas Firth and Sons being formed in 1842, when Mark was twenty-three. The father died six years later and, from that point, Mark Firth was virtually the right arm of the organisation, which was moved to the Norfolk Works in Saville Street in 1849. There was an element of business rivalry between himself and his arch rival, John Brown whose equally massive and impressive steel company's premises were the Queen's Works in Saville Street - later renamed the Atlas Works. In March, 1864, the square shouldered Firth, resolute and looking 'wilful enough to win his way in any company', lived in an impressive mansion known as Oakwood, at Ranmoor. Following the flood, Mark Firth attended several of the meetings at the Town Hall that were staged to arrange relief for the sufferers. Through his company, Firth and sons, he donated a handsome £200 to the relief fund. Later, in 1875, he became Mayor of his home town, and proved to be one of its most generous benefactors. Mark Firth, aged forty-five at the time of the flood, died on 28 November 1880, at the age of sixty-one, leaving around £600,000. (CDDD)

John Brown was born the son of a Sheffield slater in 1816, and went to school in a garret where he sat opposite little Mary Schofield who was to become his wife.  . . . Before he was thirty, Brown was making his own cutlery steel in a small factory in Orchard Street, in the middle of the town, and it was not long before he moved to larger premises where he concentrated on manufacturing steel, railway springs and files. Business flourished and in 1856, the firm moved to Queen's Works in Saville Street. As already mentioned, the premises were renamed the Atlas Works and it was there, with a fast growing work force, and his production of armour plate, that Brown was to win a considerable fortune and an international reputation. (CDDD)

In March 1864, John Brown lived at Shirle Hall, but, later that year, moved into Endcliffe Hall, described as 'a Chatsworth in miniature' and on which he had spent a great deal of money building.

John Brown was a director of the Waterworks Company but also a member of the Relief Committee and at a preliminary meeting to discuss aid for the sufferers - the day after the flood - he made a speech, which clearly highlights his concern for the poor sufferers. Through his company, John Brown and Co., he donated £200 to the relief fund.

The preliminary meeting to discuss aid for the sufferers began with the announcement: '"That the persons present in this meeting, being inhabitants of the borough of Sheffield, respectfully request the Mayor to call a public meeting, to be held at the Town Hall, for the purpose of considering and adopting such measures as may be deemed necessary for the relief of the distress and suffering occasioned by the late great calamity." The resolution was confined altogether to the raising of subscriptions to relieve the distress. (Hear hear.) All who had been up the valley along which this calamity has occurred would be aware at once of the vast amount of distress that must have been caused, not mental distress merely from the loss of friends and relatives, but real bodily suffering from loss of property and want of food and clothing.' (GFAS)

John Brown immediately rose and spoke: 'I regret very much it is a duty incumbent upon me this morning to second this resolution. I am sure that the inhabitants of this town and neighbourhood have but one feeling with reference to the sad calamity which has befallen us. I feel persuaded that, as Sheffield men, we shall deal with this question in a practical manner. (Hear, hear.) We have, unfortunately, before us substantial marks of wreck, distress, and loss of life, and our first duty and desire will be, as in times past--without stopping to investigate the cause of the calamity, or who is to blame for it--to meet, and relieve in a practical and warm hearted manner the sad consequences which are now before us. (Applause.) We have now in Sheffield an amount of distress unparalleled--certainly unparalleled in my time--and that distress must be relieved as quickly as possible. (Hear, hear, and applause.) We are not to stop to say, "Let the parties who are responsible meet the calamity; let us wait until circumstances show whose duty it is to relieve this suffering;" but we have a practical matter before us, and it must be met in a practical way. I quite concur in this being a preliminary meeting, but let us put our names down for something at once, and do not let that which is already bad be made much worse by delay. (Applause.)' (GFAS)

Sir John Brown, the steel magnate, who was forty-eight when the great Sheffield flood occured, died in Kent on 27 December, 1896, at the age of eighty.

'Brown and Firth were among the most influential men in Sheffield, each serving as Mayor and as Master Cutler and playing a prominent part in public affairs generally. Like many self made men, they could be as tough as the steel they produced; on the other hand, they retained a homely touch . . .'. (CDDD)


Nathaniel Beardmore (Government Engineer)Robert Rawlinson (Government Engineer)Robert Rawlinson and Nathaniel Beardmore were the government appointed engineers sent to Sheffield to investigate the cause of the disaster.

Rawlinson initially came alone: he arrived at Sheffield's Midland Station (then at the junction of Saville Street and Spital Hill - near the Wicker Arches) on the evening of Monday, March 14th., and was met by he Mayor, the Town Clerk and the Deputy Coroner. 'At fifty-four, Robert Rawlinson was among the country's foremost civil engineers. He had cut his early professional teeth on dock projects at Liverpool, had served under Robert Stephenson in supervising the construction of part of the London Birmingham Railway and was thoroughly conversant with water supplies, reservoirs, sewerage and public health.

Rawlinson became chief engineering inspector at the Local Government Act Office. Only the previous April he had been sent by the Prime Minister, Palmerston, to Lancashire to organise relief employment for thousands of redundant operatives following the interruption of cotton supplies from America because of the Civil War.' (CDDD)  He was described as being 'thorough, persistent, charming, dedicated and humane', and attained a knighthood in 1883. Shortly after arriving in Sheffield, he booked in at the Royal Victoria Station Hotel (this building remains today - standing beside the old Victoria Station).

Rawlinson soon became engaged in a busy programme. 'He met directors of the waterworks company, to whom he explained what he required in the way of plans, witnesses and relevant information, and also attended a meeting of the General Relief Committee. He suggested to them that, for reasons of health, families in badly damaged houses should be removed by the authorities until proper repairs could be made. He warned: 'If typhus fever is allowed to break out, it may be more destructive to life than the flood.' Rawlinson was taking more than just an engineering interest in the disaster, forming the opinion that 'the whole town is working as one man and the worthy Mayor is untiring'. He dutifully kept the Home Secretary well in the picture and, in a letter dated 16 March, he explained that 'if there had been an open, flat expanse of country immediately below the embankment, the flood waters would have opened out so as to reduce the head and, in proportion, the velocity and power. But it has been pent in and so has traversed the intervening seven miles to Sheffield with the power of a battering ram.... It is in every way a sad, but professionally interesting, inquiry.' (CDDD)

He soon 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 consequently sent another leading civil engineer, Nathaniel Beardmore [no photograph], to assist Rawlinson.

Nathaniel Beardmore came down to Sheffield on the 21st of March, and like Mr. Rawlinson, booked himself in at the Royal Victoria Station Hotel. Beardmore 'was forty-eight and dedicated to his profession, which he had entered as an apprentice when he was only fifteen. Described by his colleagues as 'high minded, generous and genial', Beardmore possessed a 'ready humour' and an original turn of mind which ensured his popularity in society.' (CDDD)

After extensive examination of both the Dale Dyke and the Agden embankments, and a range of plans, witnesses, and relevant information regarding these structures, Robert Rawlinson 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. (CDDD)

'Nathaniel Beardmore agreed substantially with Rawlinson's conclusions. Nevertheless, he thought the puddle wall reflected 'most excellent workmanship. . . ' and he believed 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.25

'Rawlinson made much play on the possibility of fractured pipes [leading to leakage, and consequential 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. The pipes remained buried under tons of embankment. They could have been damaged in the collapse, in which event it would be difficult to prove the point one way or the other.'  Much to the relief of John Gunson and John Towlerton Leather, Rawlinson also thought 'it can serve no good or useful purpose to attempt to criminate the engineers or the company, but to obtain facts so as to arrive at reliable conclusions for future use'. This remark virtually guaranteed that there would be no personal prosecutions taking place. Geoffrey Amey writes: 'If it had been left to the coroner and jury to frame a verdict according to their own notions, it would evidently have been one of manslaughter'. Rawlinson ended by saying it was 'humanly impossible' to come to any positive conclusion as to the cause of the failure. (CDDD)

Rawlinson and Beardmore presented their conclusions to the jury at the Inquest, which took place on Wednesday/Thursday, 23/24 March; and produced their completed, official, report on the failure of the Dale Dyke Dam, dated 20 May, which was 'presented to Parliament by Her Majesty's Command'.

Interestingly, during his lifetime, Rawlinson built only two dams - both were disasters - for details, follow the link 'The Last Word' - from 'main page'.

Sir Robert Rawlinson died at the age of eighty-eight in 1898: Nathaniel Beardmore departed in 1872 at the age of fifty-six. At the time of the flood, Rawlinson was fifty-four, and Beardmore was forty-eight.


James Leslie (Engineer engaged by Sheffield Corporation)In the months following the inquest, the Sheffield Corporation enlisted no fewer than nine top ranking engineers to investigate 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.

'The engineers behind the corporation-held dossiers represented a glittering array of talent. James Leslie, at sixty-two, was currently engineer to the Edinburgh Water Company and among the top hydrologists in Britain. A fellow Scot, David Stevenson (1815-86), was an authority on marine engineering, rivers, docks and lighthouses; he came from a distinguished family of engineers and was an uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson. There was Henry Conybeare, noted engineer to the Bombay Waterworks and now of London. Peter William Barlow, the Woolwich born son of a mathematics professor, had surveyed a number of railway routes in the Home Counties, was a Telford medallist, and, only recently had been engineer in charge of building Lambeth Bridge, opened in 1862. John Murray, who hailed from Kelso, was fifty-nine, and, as a young man, had been engineer to the River Wear Commissioners at Sunderland; he was a specialist in marine engineering and also in sanitation matters. William Lee, experienced geologist and expert designer of hydraulic works, was a native of Sheffield and thus well acquainted with the waterworks in the area and also with the terrain around Dale Dyke; in 1848 while employed by the corporation, Lee collaborated with James Haywood in producing a condemnatory report on sanitary conditions in the borough. Then there was Matthew Bullock Jackson of Sheffield, who had given evidence at the inquest; he was formerly chief engineer of Melbourne Waterworks and responsible for other similar projects in Australia. Perhaps the two most famous of the nine were Sir John Rennie and Charles Blacker Vignoles. Rennie, in his seventieth year, was the renowned son of a famous engineering father, John (1761-1821), and younger brother of George (1791-1866), a celebrated mechanical engineer. Sir John is remembered chiefly for building London Bridge (designed and started by his father) and was knighted on the spot when it was officially opened by William IV in 1831. (That fine bridge was dismantled and shipped, stone by stone, to the United States where it was set up again in 1971.) There was not much Rennie did not know about bridges, railways and drainage. Less than a year after becoming a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, he was president for three successive terms (1845, 1846 and 1847). He retired from business in 1862, but his views were still much respected. Vignoles was a name almost synonymous with railways and his work was to be seen in many parts of Britain as well as in a number of European countries, including Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain and Poland, so that he was well qualified to give opinions on building embankments. Between 1847 and 1853 (the year before the outbreak of the Crimea War), he was a frequent visitor to Russia where his outstanding contribution was the suspension bridge over the Dnieper at Kiev--then the longest of its kind in the world. Vignoles, who was born in County Wexford, was descended from a Huguenot family. He was employed by the Rennie brothers for a short while when he was in his mid-thirties. At this time he was seventy-one.' (CDDD)

The documents produced by these engineers following their investigations ran to thousands of words, and we are assured that they reached their conclusions quite independently of each other, in which case their remarkably similar views added up to a powerful indictment of the dam's construction.

'In essence, the engineers agreed with Rawlinson and Beardmore that the Dale Dyke embankment had been faultily constructed, that the outlet pipes and bye wash were too small, the depth of 'tips' too great, that building materials ought not to have been taken from inside the reservoir and that the principle of laying the pipes in trenches beneath the embankment was bad practice. A number of them believed that waterworks serving towns the size of Sheffield should be under public ownership, but that cannot be regarded as too surprising when the Town Council had engaged them to prepare reports. Even so, there was no ducking the fact that nine highly qualified professionals considered the dam a poor piece of work.' (CDDD)

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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