The Great Sheffield Flood of 1864.
At about 5.30 in the afternoon of 11th March, quarryman William Horsefield noticed a crack in the embankment of the Dale Dyke Dam, part of a recently built reservoir near Sheffield in Yorkshire.
It was only a small crack, he reckoned that he’d be able to slip the blade of a penknife into it and that’s all but nevertheless, he alerted some of the men who worked at the dam.
Just over an hour later, the crack had increased to the width of a man’s finger. Beginning to be alarmed, the workmen sent for the local engineer, John Gunson. Gunson lived the seven or eight miles away in the city of Sheffield so it was about ten in the evening before he arrived at the dam. Yes, he realised, this was serious.
Before midnight, the dam burst.
The water didn’t merely trickle out, this was a major flood as the water torrented out down the valley. Forty five minutes later, the dam was dry. Nearly seven hundred million gallons of water gushed out towards villages and the city.
The huge deluge rushed towards cottages and buildings. People who were sleeping were drowned in their beds and the water gushed forwards. Animals that were grazing in the field or supposedly secure in farm buildings suffered the same fate. Buildings were destroyed and the huge flood of water carried debris – and corpses, both human and animal – towards the city. Entire hamlets and settlements were swept away.
The water continued to make its way to the city and to local towns. Horrified residents saw uprooted trees, broken furniture, shattered household effect and dead bodies go streaming by. Despite Sheffield being several miles from the burst dam, the water was four feet high in some places of the suburbs.
Further down the valley,people fled to the upper storeys or the roofs of their homes and watched the waters flood by. Many of these people saw friends and acquaintances being swept along in the flood – some dead and some screaming for help. One or two people managed to grab the victims as they were swept by, thus saving their lives. Some terrified people floated by clinging onto their beds.
At least two hundred and forty people died – the final count was probably more – and the oldest person who died that night was seventy eight.The youngest victim was a two day old baby. In one village, eleven members of the same family were killed. One woman lost five grown up daughters and a daughter-in-law.
It wasn’t just the water that caused the fatalities. Falling masonry, trees that came crashing down, huge wooden beams, miscellaneous debris – all became missiles that caused death and injury. Many people were drowned as they slept – they never knew what happened, mercifully.
It was the largest land-based disaster of the Victorian era. When a relief fund was set up, Queen Victoria herself sent a personal cheque.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR