The Collapse of the Bilberry Dam (Holmfirth - 1852)
- The Unlucky Leathers

(Information source: Early Victorian Water Engineers: (1981) G. M. Binnie)

John Towlerton Leather (Designer of the Dale Dyke Dam)John Towlerton Leather (pictured right) - the Leeds based engineer who designed and oversaw the construction of the ill-fated Dale Dyke Dam at Sheffield - served his apprenticeship under his uncle, George Leather - one of the country's leading civil engineers. Although much of the evidence we now have largely exonerates John Towlerton's design work from playing any part in the Sheffield disaster; in the months following the catastrophe, many an accusing finger was pointed in his direction. Several months after the flood, Leather resigned as designer and consulting engineer to the Sheffield Waterworks Company - 'owing', it was stated, 'to his numerous engagements.' However, it was reported that he had vowed he would have nothing more to do with the design or construction of dams. A similar fate to the Sheffield catastrophe befell his uncle some 12 years earlier, though it had far more disastrous consequences on his career.

In 1838, commissioners for the Holmfirth region approached George Leather with a view to designing and building a dam (to become known as the 'Bilberry Dam') in the Digley valley - situated in the hills above Holmfirth (West Yorkshire. N.B: Holmfirth is the village in which the current UK sit-com program, 'The Last of the Summer Wine', is filmed). George Leather had been 'one of the most outstanding engineers in the country', remarks Binnie, - building some impressive bridges and other remarkable works. The whole arrangement for the Bilberry Dam construction was rushed through, and it was very vague as to what Leather's appointment was to do, i.e. just to design, or design and oversee the work; also what payments he would receive. The commissioners proposed accepting the contractor's bid of Messrs. Sharp, but Leather advised them against it, as the bid was too low: however, they ignored him and went ahead. Construction work commenced in early 1839, and because of the vagueness of his appointment, Leather did not visit the dam during the first two years of construction - which was the critical period - while the clay-filled cut-off trench (the dam's foundations) were being built. Fearing for the possible consequences of a poorly constructed dam, after the first two years, Leather began attending the dam on his own account (without specific payments being made to him for this work), but the damage had already been done. The dam was completed in 1843, and was found to leak badly. Sharp's contract was immediately terminated, and the commissioners set on Messrs. Porter, who, between 1843 and 1845, unsuccessfully attempted to repair the embankment. In 1845, Leather once again advised the commissioners on the work that was required to successfully repair the structure, but at a meeting, they rejected his suggestions, and George Leather assumed his connections with the dam were at an end. In the years that followed, the commissioners allowed the dam to be used in the very dangerous state in which it had been left, and on the 5th February 1852, shortly before 1 a.m. - 7 years after ignoring Leather's advice - the dam collapsed. It caused massive destruction in the Digley valley and at Holmfirth, and resulted in the deaths of 81 people. At the inquest, Leather was called to give evidence, and ultimately he, and the commissioners, and the contractors, were jointly blamed for allowing the dam to be used in a dangerous condition. The jury declared that, had it not been for the fact that the commission were a government body, there would have been prosecutions for manslaughter. Whatever, it left George Leather's reputation in tatters, and he retired from work three years later: 'thus a brilliant career came to a tragic end in obscurity', remarks Binnie.

For a time following the Sheffield disaster, it was believed that the 'Leathers' who had designed the Bilberry Dam, and the Sheffield Dale Dyke Dam, were in fact one and the same person. Indeed this error was made by William Leng in a 'flood' related article which he presented in his own newspaper The Sheffield Daily Telegraph.

Interestingly, six of the current thirteen dams surrounding Sheffield were designed by John Towlerton Leather,46 and these have proven to be some of the most successful dams built in Victorian England.

Copyright © 2001 Michael Armitage

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