The Great Sheffield Flood  -  Photo Gallery

-  The Cast (3)  -
Sir John Fowler Thomas Hawksley John Fredrick Bateman James Simpson

The Sheffield Waterworks Company was not to take the attacks by the Government engineers, and the Corporation appointed engineers, lying down: they appointed their own 'gang' of pre-eminent engineers to investigate.

'It was a highly talented team which had examined the Dale Dyke embankment and the unfinished dam at Agden, about both of which structures Rawlinson and Beardmore had been so disparaging. The five men who now came up with different answers were James Simpson, Thomas Hawksley, John Frederick Latrobe Bateman, John Fowler and Thomas Elliott Harrison. In the first three, the company had secured foremost specialists in hydraulics.' (CDDD)

James Simpson: As long before as 1829 Simpson, then the thirty year old engineer to Chelsea Waterworks, had developed a technique for ridding water of solid impurities by filtering it through sand--a vital piece of pioneering which led to more advanced methods of water purification. Since then, he had constructed waterworks at Windsor Castle, designed and built the long pier at Southend on Sea and planned waterworks at Bristol.

Thomas Hawksley, now fifty-seven, had no peer in the design and building of waterworks and gasworks, and examples of his achievements were to be seen in many major towns.

John Frederick Bateman was a Yorkshireman. He was born just outside Halifax in 1810, was apprenticed at fifteen, and was only twenty-three when he set up as an engineer on his own account; since then, he had been employed almost non stop in the construction of waterworks and reservoirs for important towns all over Britain [and particularly on the west side of the country]. He was much respected by his fellows and in 1867, in a paper written in conjunction with Julian John Revy, he proposed the building of a submarine railway, in a cast iron tube, between England and France.

Sir John Fowler was born, and spent a 'happy childhood' in Wadsley Hall, Sheffield. At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to John Towlerton Leather.26  In later years, he gained much experience in railway engineering, and hence acquired a considerable knowledge of embankments. He was ultimately to gain fame, and a knighthood, for his part in the design and construction of the Forth Bridge, but was currently engaged in the building of parts of London's Metropolitan Railway.

Thomas Elliott Harrison (no photograph) hailed from Sunderland, and like Fowler, had gained much experience in railway engineering, and was consequently also very knowledgeable on the subject of embankments. At fifty-six, he was almost ten years Fowler's senior. He had assisted Robert Stephenson on a number of projects, including the London-Birmingham Railway and the high level bridge over the Tyne to link Gateshead and Newcastle. . . . (all above: CDDD) 

'The views of any one of the five engineers merited consideration; in concert, their opinions deserved the closest attention. . . . Their 'findings' were, in effect, contained in these paragraphs of the report:' (CDDD)

... 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.

These engineers soon 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)

The company had their case presented at a hearing before the Lords Committee which began on 18 July. 'Much of the evidence was a repeat of that given before the Commons Select Committee just over a month previously. Counsel for the company admitted his clients had had 'severe censures' passed on them by the coroner's jury and by Rawlinson and Beardmore, but there was the 'best reason' to believe that the report of the Government inspectors was 'extremely erroneous'.' (CDDD) 

'The company, he said, had engaged Messrs Simpson, Hawksley and Bateman--'the first hydraulic engineers' in the country--as well as John Fowler and T. E. Harrison; the five had 'unanimously acquitted the company as regards the alleged deficiency in the employment of proper engineering skill', concluding that the accident had resulted from a landslip and 'not by any cause that could have been guarded against by human foresight'. Counsel also alluded to that telegram sent by the Mayor, remarking that the plain fact was the Sheffield Corporation had been for a long time 'greedy' for possession of the company's works and wanted to take advantage of a difficult situation to buy the property cheaply.' (CDDD) 

'Robert Rawlinson may well have been displeased. His professional judgement, published by order of Her Majesty's Government, had been called into question. He was used to being challenged, of course, but somehow the manner in which the five engineers engaged by the Sheffield Waterworks Company had come out so blatantly against his considered opinions on the Dale Dyke disaster was irritating. He cannot have expected agreement, but the statement made by counsel to the House of Lords Committee that the report (prepared by him, with Beardmore's assistance) was 'extremely erroneous' was too much. Rawlinson, who prided him self upon his thoroughness, believed his opponents' conclusions to be based on the most tenuous of evidence. Although their findings had yet to be issued in detail publicly, those engineers were on record as saying that the failure was due to an unforeseen landslip and, what must have been even more unpalatable to Rawlinson, that the methods of constructing the embankment and laying the pipes underneath were perfectly sound. The engineers--and there was no denying their renown--had further intimated that the unfinished Agden dam was in good shape.' (CDDD)

In addition to their investigation into the Dale Dyke Dam, the 'directors also made it known they were anxious to dispel any uneasiness that might exist about the condition of the company's other reservoirs and had appointed Thomas Hawksley and J. F. Bateman to investigate. The two men, from the nation's top drawer of civil engineers, reported the Rivelin reservoirs to be in "a most perfect and satisfactory state". The reservoirs at Redmires, they observed, were "generally speaking, in good condition, but a few ordinary repairs are needed". (Gunson was straightway sent to arrange for the 'ordinary' repairs to be carried out. A town councillor, Isaac Ironside, who visited Redmires five months later, said he saw the largest reservoir had been emptied to allow repairs to the embankment, part of which had 'given way'). Hawksley and Bateman concluded that the company's reservoirs had stood the test of "many years, during which they have undergone no important alteration" and there "ought not to be the occasion for any doubt or apprehension"'.

'Not long after the report of the five engineers had been published, it was announced that Thomas Hawksley had been appointed the company's engineer in chief,' after the resignation of this position by John Towlerton Leather. 'It was a valuable capture because Hawksley, of Great George Street, London, had been long regarded as a top man in his profession. . . . As a young engineer, he had been much impressed by the determined campaigning of Chadwick who believed fever was often directly attributable to bad water supplies and poor sanitary conditions. Hawksley pioneered a water scheme in Nottingham and, in 1843, confirmed that it had brought about a marked improvement in personal hygiene, cleaner streets and homes and, consequently, a noticeable falling off of disease. Now, more than twenty years later at Sheffield, he succeeded John Towlerton Leather who had resigned, it was reported, 'owing to his numerous engagements'. (CDDD)  It was reported from other sources that Leather had vowed he would have nothing more to do with the design and construction of dams: in the event, he never did.

Hawksley went on to oversee the completion of the Agden Dam, the re-building (10 years later) of the Dale Dyke Dam, the Strines Dam, and the early stages of the Damflask reservoir.

'The new Dale Dyke reservoir had a capacity of 486 million gallons (compared with the 712 million of its disastrous predecessor), the embankment was 80 feet high and measured over 900 feet across; this time, the bye wash was 130 feet wide. Water was not drawn through pipes set underneath the embankment, but via a tunnel through rock at the southern end. Although completed in 1875, the reservoir was not brought into full use until the 'exceptionally dry year' of 1887. The Agden, which Hawksley claimed was among the safest and strongest dams yet built, contained 629 million gallons, impounded by an embankment about 1,500 feet across and more than 90 feet high. It was completed in 1869, the Strines (513 million gallons) in 1871; but the Damflask, by far the largest with a capacity of 1,158 million gallons, though built by the late 1870s, was not in constant use until 1896; the reason was that water, when it rose to above 30 feet, escaped through the natural strata at one end of the embankment and it was not until after the corporation assumed control that the problem was solved by the construction of a large, impervious wing trench.' (CDDD)

Thomas Hawksley died in 1893; John F. Bateman in1889 and Sir John Fowler (aged eighty-one) in 1898.


William Overend (Head of the Inundation Commission)The Inundation Commission was formed to asses how much compensation was to be paid, and to who.

On Tuesday, 4 October - 207 days after the water had burst through the Dale Dyke Dam--the three Inundation Commissioners took their places in a crowded room at Sheffield Town Hall to begin their unenviable duty of assessing damages. About 7,300 claims for compensation, ranging from small sums to thousands of pounds, and representing a total of more than £455,000, had been lodged with the Waterworks Company. All but around 650 were settled without recourse to arbitration. Nevertheless, the hearings of disputed cases occupied 51 days spread over a period of six months, during which time the commissioners listened to an incredibly wide variety of applications involving extreme hardship, drama, humour, dishonesty and downright stupidity.

'The commission was headed by William Overend, Q.C., a shrewd and alert individual, whose incisive questions were to leave more than a few witnesses and claimants stuttering and at least one legal representative floundering. Sheffield born and now fifty-four, Overend had been educated at the local grammar school before being called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1837. He had aspirations to politics, having stood twice (in 1852 and 1857) as Conservative candidate in Sheffield, but on neither occasion was he able to defeat Roebuck and Hadfield. He was returned as M.P. for Pontefract in April 1859, but resigned less than a year afterwards. Overend's colleagues on the commission were John Jobson Smith, a stove grate manufacturer and a local Justice of the Peace, and Mansfield Foster Mills, a Chesterfield estate agent. Overend was the dominant member, however, and he soon made his presence felt.' (CDDD)

The most saddening fact about the awards made, was that while property could be valued, human life was judged to have no value, other than the loss of earning power. Many people claiming for lost family members, or relatives, received nothing - or at best, very small amounts.

What adds even more to the tragedy of this situation, is that the town's Relief Committee had received over £55,000 in donations from all corners of the UK, and after distributing relief to many poor sufferers, the Committee were left with a surplus of around £32,000. Of this, £24,000 was returned to the donors, and £8,000 given to local hospitals.

The Inundation Commission, under Overend, finished up awarding around £275,000 'official' compensation - which would have bankrupted the Waterworks Company had Parliament not empowered them to raise extra capital by increasing the water rates! In the event, they were increased by 25% - which created much furore amongst the townspeople.

William Overend, who was fifty-five years old when he headed the Inundation Commission, died on December 24th 1884 at the age of seventy-five.


The legendary nurse - Florence Nightingale (1820 - 1910) - became known as 'the Lady with the Lamp'. She is most famed for her work during the Crimean War, helping to raise the status and quality of the nursing profession, and founding a training school for nurses in London (1860). She is pictured here in 1856 - nine years before the flood. Shortly after the flood, she made her own personal contribution to the relief fund. Florence Nightingale (1856)


Queen Victoria (portrait of 1865)Victoria (1819 - 1901) 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.

On her interest in, and reaction to, the Sheffield disaster, 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.' She arranged for her Personal Assistant, Col Sir C. B. Phipps, to forward £200, on her behalf, for the relief fund, and to express her deep sympathy for the victims of the flood. The letter that Phipps sent to the Sheffield M.P. J. A. Roebuck, read:


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.   . . .
          I have the honour to be, Sir,
                    Your most obedient humble servant,


(For more of the correspondence which took place - see in 'Aftermath' section.)

'His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales so early as March 15, authorised Mr. Roebuck, 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)

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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