The Great Sheffield Flood  -  Photo Gallery

-  The Cast (1)  -
This section gives additional details of the main characters who were connected - in various ways - to the Sheffield flood.
John Gunson
John Towlerton Leather
Chief Engineer of the Sheffield Waterworks Company. He directed and supervised the construction of the Dale Dyke Dam. The Leeds based Consulting Engineer; engaged by the Sheffield Waterworks Company. He designed the dam and oversaw its construction.

John Towlerton Leather (1804 - 1885)

The Sheffield Waterworks Company came into existence in 1830 - having taken over an earlier company's assets. Leather was appointed to be the first Managing Clerk, Resident Engineer and Surveyor of the Company at a salary of £300 per annum. Originally form Leventhorpe, near Leeds, Leather served his apprenticeship under his uncle George Leather (see 'The collapse of the Bilberry Dam - The Unlucky Leathers' - link on 'main page'). He was responsible for design and construction of the three reservoirs at Redmires, several at Crookes Moor, and the two at Rivelin; although, by the time the Rivelin dams were built, Leather had given up his position as resident engineer and manager. In the early 1840s Leather left the company as he wished to undertake contracting - a business in which he was very successful. He continued, however, to act as the Company's consulting engineer; and the works were executed by John Gunson. At the time of the Sheffield flood, John Towlerton Leather was fifty-nine years old. Soon after the disaster, he resigned as consulting engineer to the Company 'owing to his numerous engagements', it was reported; however, it became known that he had vowed he would have nothing more to do with the design and construction of dams. Immediately following the flood, he made the substantial, personal, contribution of £100 to the relief fund for the sufferers. The rest of his career was engaged on supervising the construction of sea forts in Spithead to protect the naval dockyards at Portsmouth; and various other commercial projects, before he retired in the latter half of the 1870s. 'John Towlerton Leather, wealthy contractor, consulting engineer and landowner, was in his eighty-first year when he departed on 6 June, 1885.'

John Gunson (1809 - 1886)

It was as a young man of twenty-two that Gunson, a native of Hunslet, joined the recently established Sheffield Waterworks Company in 1831. Over the many years he worked for the company, he supervised the building of the Rivelin, Dale Dyke (original and current), Agden, Strines, and Dam Flask reservoirs; and was almost certainly involved with the Redmires dams. At the time of the flood, he dwelt in comparative comfort, residing in Division Street, at its junction with Carver Lane, just above where the City Hall now stands. He was a man of some means, married to Charlotte, and the father of three grown up sons and a daughter. Gunson was the company's resident engineer. He could have been hardly more 'resident', for his house was next door to their premises: No. 14, Division Street.

Gunson, who was fifty-four years old at the time of the flood, was never to forget that horrific night on the storm-swept moors, nor the sight and plight of the sufferers. For all practical purposes, he was the one upon whom much of the official blame appeared to have settled. To their credit, the Sheffield Waterworks Company stood by Gunson and he remained in their employ for the remainder of his days. A cynic might say that to have released him from his duties would have been interpreted as an admission of guilt by the company, but that seems unfair. Indeed, the company never conceded the collapse of the dam to be any more than a pure accident beyond anyone's control. There were a number of examples of Gunson's being singled out for praise by his seniors, both before and after the disaster, and it is doubtful if the company had a more devoted and conscientious servant during the whole of their fifty-seven year history. Nevertheless, there had been errors in the building of the Dale Dyke Dam. A jury had said so.

The eventual, 'little lamented demise of the Sheffield Waterworks Company was not witnessed by John Gunson, their most loyal of servants. He had died at his home--7, Clarkson Street--late on Sunday, 10 October, 1886, aged seventy-seven. This man, whose placid nature had been shattered by that living nightmare on 11 March, 1864 had been with the company for fifty-five years. Even when the infirmities of age prevented his regular attendance at the office, he did what work he could at home; colleagues frequently sought his advice and used his vast knowledge of the company's affairs. He had supervised the building of a number of the reservoirs in and around Sheffield, and Hawksley [who had taken over from John Towlerton Leather], in particular, had a high regard for his ability. An accolade from one so eminent was worth treasuring. When Gunson was forced, by age and health, to play a diminishing role in the company's activities, the directors might justifiably have bid him farewell, but they remained loyal to the man who had been faithful throughout a difficult period and whose principal interest in life was his work. One of Gunson's sons, Frederick, had become the company's distribution engineer; two others, Thomas and Charles, were mechanical engineers. That must have given pleasure to their father. For 22 years Gunson, a person of a 'singularly retiring disposition', had carried with him the massive memory of the collapse of the Dale Dyke dam--an event which caused widespread death, destruction and misery, as well as financially crippling the company which owned it. 'The perils of that night and the terrible results of the catastrophe,' reported The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 'were ever vividly remembered by him.' Was that disaster caused by unsound engineering or was it just wretched misfortune? Human error or act of Nature? The chances are that John Gunson died without even being absolutely certain of the real answer. At the company's offices the next day, the blinds were drawn.' (CDDD)

It was another 2 years - in 1888 - before the Sheffield Corporation finally got their way and took control of the Sheffield Waterworks.


David Craven - The Contractor

The contractors who worked on the Dale Dyke Dam were Messrs. Craven, Cockayne and Fountain. David Craven lived quite close to John Gunson in the centre of Sheffield. He was the man who accompanied Gunson on the journey to the dam on that fateful night.



John Jackson (Chief Constable of Sheffield)Geoffrey Amey writes:

Hailing from the Lake District, John Jackson joined the Lancashire County Constabulary when he was just twenty-three. Over the following 14 years, which he served in the constabulary, much of it as a Chief Constable, 'he revealed outstanding qualities of leadership, tenacity and courage, and was odds on favourite to fill the vacant position of Chief Constable of Sheffield. He took up his new, onerous duties on 1 January 1859. By coincidence, it was the same day on which work began on the Dale Dyke dam. Jackson was always remembered for his bravery during the night of the Great Flood and became a minor legend in his own lifetime. He was recalled as having a 'tall, rather gaunt figure, a firm rather stern face, though with kindly eyes, and a profile not altogether unlike that of the Great Duke'.  John Jackson was only thirty-six when he became head of the Sheffield Police Force which, by 1864, comprised about 30 officers and about 180 constables. He was then paid about £400 annually, out of which he was 'required to purchase and keep a horse'. (CDDD)

Samuel Harrison writes:

The exertions of the police in connection with the flood were most arduous and praiseworthy. Especially was the conduct Jackson (aged forty-two at that time), 'in the highest degree commendable. As soon as information of the calamity reached him he mounted his horse, and rode into the inundated districts at great personal risk to render assistance, and to give directions to the police and others. The exertions of the county policemen stationed in the district between Owlerton and Bradfield also deserve warm commendation. Under the active leadership of Mr. Inspector Smalley, and of Mr. Superintendent Gillott, they exerted themselves strenuously, and rescued many persons from the partly submerged houses. Inspector Smalley has since fallen a victim to his exertions. His house at Hillsborough was flooded, and this, together with his extraordinary labours in the flood, brought on fever, from which he died about two months afterwards.' (GFAS)

Three years after the flood, John Jackson played a leading role, along with the editor of the Sheffield Telegraph, William Leng, in smashing those behind the 'Sheffield Outrages'. (See details with 'William Leng' - below). He went on to build the Sheffield police force 'into one of the most efficient in the land and remained at the helm until death removed him from it on 30 September 1898.' He was seventy-six years old.


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.
It will however be necessary to furnish the Police with the names and ages of all Bodies prior to their removal, and the Persons removing them must give their own names and addresses to the Constables on duty at the places from whence they are taken.
A number of Bodies are at the undermentioned places awaiting identification and removal, viz:
THE QUEEN'S HOTEL, Langsett Road
THE ROSE INN, near Bottom Barracks Gate
THE YEW TREE INN, Malin Bridge
Town Hall,
March 12, 1864
JOHN JACKSON Chief Constable.


William Leng  (Co-owner/Editor of the 'Sheffield Daily Telegraph')'In March 1864, Leng was an unknown quantity in Sheffield: after he had written about the flood and its repercussions, he was not. A rare talent was at work. Three years later, he was to achieve a triumph by helping to smash those behind the 'Sheffield Outrages'. For years, rattening (damaging machines or depriving workmen of equipment) had been practised in the town by persons whose identity was hidden by a screen of fear and secrecy, to induce non members to join a trade union. Coercion and terror were used to get operatives (particularly those in tool grinding) to toe the line; failure to comply often meant the stealthy removal of some vital item (a wheelband or set of tools) which prevented a defaulter from earning his living. Once the victim had seen 'reason', the article was replaced as mysteriously as it had vanished. Then things got out of hand. In extreme cases, workshops were blown up, there were shootings, at least one murder, injuries and the hamstringing of a horse; in addition, threatening letters were sent to leading industrialists. With patient probing and scathing editorials, William Leng (in some personal danger himself) traced the trail of silence back to William Broadhead, secretary of the Saw Grinders' Union. Eventually, the Government were persuaded to appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry into union affairs. It was only by the promise of indemnity against criminal proceedings and punishment that some of Broadhead's henchmen were induced to give evidence against him. Finally Broadhead, also legally safeguarded by a certificate of indemnity, had little option but to confess to a number of 'outrages'. Although he remained a free man by law, it did not prevent the local magistrates from revoking his publican's licence--for Broadhead was landlord of the Royal George, Carver Street [interestingly, the same street on which stood the Sheffield Waterworks Company, and John Gunson's home at the time of the flood], which also served as union headquarters. Other disclosures of rattening, in which Broadhead was not implicated, were made to the commission and 12 of the 60 unions in Sheffield were involved. As for Broadhead, friends raised enough money for him to go to the United States, but he returned to Sheffield where, in 1879, he died a 'broken spirited man'. For that, he had largely to thank Leng and Chief Constable Jackson who, between them, amassed some damning evidence. By no means everyone agreed with the 'trial' of Broadhead who, it was held in some quarters, was an over zealous trade unionist anxious to strengthen the movement and who had done much to better the lot of the working man. One view was that he was more misguided than criminal.' (CDDD)

'If Sheffield had reason to respect John Jackson, it was no more than he deserved. The same went for William Leng. Had he not been in his office in Aldine Court, just off the High Street, when the disaster news broke, Leng would have been summoned (if, indeed, he ever allowed himself to be summoned) from his home in Victoria Road, Broomhall Park, nearly a mile away. This man, who once declared that 'I carry the whole journal in my head,' would want to be supervising the biggest on the spot story to come his way. He normally worked a fourteen hour day (often longer) and seemed to possess inexhaustible reserves of energy. By nature, Leng was a kindly man, but he never allowed sentiment to cloud what he saw as his duty nor did he permit it to influence his professional judgement. He expected, and usually got, an all out effort from his staff and he was not above expressing his appreciation (frequently in tangible form) of competent and loyal service. A journalist who worked under Leng in the mid 1860s recalled: 'He inspired those about him with a sense of comradeship and zeal for the success of his enterprise.... Servility he could not tolerate. There was an air of freedom about the place which made service under such a man singularly pleasurable.' (CDDD)

'Despite illness [during the latter years of the nineteenth century], Sir William Leng, editor and part proprietor of The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, laboured on and, when he became too feeble to hold a pen, he continued to dictate his articles in the comfortable privacy of his home. His death on 20 February, 1902 occurred about three weeks after his seventy-seventh birthday.' (CDDD)  He was thirty-nine years old at the time of the flood.


It would seem only right, at this point, to mention Leng's contemporary, and corresponding editor-proprietor with the Sheffield Times - Samuel Harrison; of whom, sadly, I have not been able to find a photograph. It is to Harrison that we owe much of our knowledge of the individual experiences, pain, and suffering of the victims and survivors of the Sheffield flood. He was thirty-seven years old at the time of the inundation: Geoffrey Amey writes:

'Samuel Harrison was industry personified, for he seldom stopped working at his business pursuits, although he did find time to beget a large family after his marriage in 1853, six sons and four daughters surviving him. With all those mouths to feed, it is little wonder he rarely rested. He had only one illness in his life and died of it in February 1871 when he was only forty-four.' (CDDD) 

Recently hailed 'Sheffield's favourite book', his timeless masterpiece, A Complete History of the Great Flood at Sheffield [the full e-text of which is presented on this site] will be treasured by Sheffielders for generations to come.

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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