Monday, 10 March 2014

The flooding tragedy nobody has ever heard of: 150th anniversary of Sheffield disaster where at least 240 died when a new dam burst

As a gale swept through Sheffield on the night of Friday, March 11, 1864, water engineer William Horsfield was sheltering under the town's new dam when he noticed a crack.

It was only wide enough to take a penknife, but it stretched along the earthen bank for 50 yards, following a jagged line 12 yards from the top.

Just before midnight the dam burst, sending 650 million gallons of water cascading into central Sheffield in a disaster which killed more than 240 people in their beds.

Half of those who died instantly were children, and around 60 more were killed as diseases swept through the stagnant water in the aftermath.

Historians will mark the 150th anniversary of the tragedy on Tuesday - but they say one of Britain's worst disasters has been largely forgotten because the dead were northern and working-class.

For years there was not a full-scale memorial to those who died in Sheffield, with only a small memorial stone near the village of Bradfield where the reservoir stood.

Amateur historian Karen Lightowler, who devotes her spare time to tracing victims' descendants, said: 'I am passionate about the flood. It is this country's worst ever man-made disaster but virtually nobody knows about it.

'It's such a tragedy that so many people died through no fault of their own.

'If it had happened in London there would be an annual memorial for it. Everyone would know about it. But, because it was in the north and because it involved working class people nobody remembers it.'

The dam was built by the Sheffield Waterworks Company near the village of Bradfield from 1859 to provide drinking water for the people of the fast-growing industrial town.

It was also designed to provide a supply of running water for the mills in surrounding villages.

But as it was being completed and filled the structure collapsed, sending water cascading down the Loxley Valley which devastated farms and hamlets devoted to metalworking.

The floodwater then moved down to meet the River Don and laid waste to large areas of the centre of Sheffield.

One body was found at Conisbrough - 18 miles downstream.

Harrowing stories emerged of how many of the victims died. One person who drowned was a new-born baby washed from his mother's arms in Bradfield.

Three children died in a cellar in Sheffield while their parents were away.

Then a village and now a suburb, Malin Bridge was worst hit by the flood with 102 deaths.

A photograph of the shattered remains of the Cleakum Inn, rebuilt later as the Malin Bridge Inn, is one of the many striking images of the disaster.

Sheffield historian Ron Clayton, who lives in Malin Bridge, said it was 'ground-zero. It was devastated, whole families wiped out, buildings just washed away.

'The death toll of the flood was massive. There's nothing else to compare with it in peacetime in terms of man-made disasters.

'We remember pit disasters and other tragedies and I think it's only right this is remembered too.'

Mr Horsfield raised the alarm after he spotted the crack at 5.30pm that day, but he thought it posed no major risk.

It was examined later that evening but by 9pm the contractors had gone home, saying it would not be a danger to the public.

That did not stop the water firm's resident engineer, a Mr Gunson, travelling with a colleague that night to examine the state of the dam.

According to Samuel Harrison, a journalist who was writing at the time, they crossed the dangerously unstable bank before his colleague cried: 'If we don't relieve the dam of water there'll be a blow up in half an hour.'

They tried to blow up a weir to relieve the pressure, but for one reason or another the gunpowder would not ignite. By then it was too late.

As one inspector put it, according to Mr Harrison: 'Not even a Derby horse could have carried the warning in time to have saved the people down the valley.'

Mr Horsfield's great-great-great-grandson, Malcolm Nunn, still lives in Bradfield and is the parish archivist.

This weekend, locals gathered at an exhibition in the village to mark the anniversary, one of a number of events over the next few days to remember the disaster.

The ceremonies will include a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to the tragedy in Sheffield city centre on Tuesday.

Guided walks and church services are also talking place and primary school children will sing songs commissioned especially to remember the disaster.

Mick Drewry, whose book on the disaster is due out later this year, said: 'It's not even very well known about in Sheffield, never mind nationally.

'It was a major historical event and it needs to be remembered properly.'

Sarah Hung has travelled from Hong Kong to attend the memorial as she is descended from some of the victims. She said: 'It's such a massive disaster and it's right it's remembered like this even though it was 150 years ago.'

Monday 10 March 2014


Post a Comment