So ran the headline in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 12 March 1864. Overnight a catastrophe had struck, one of the biggest man-made disasters in British history. The story of the bursting of the Bradfield dam has a particular resonance today, with the memory of events at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire fresh in our minds.
On the Sheffield flood, Samuel Harrison, a local journalist and editor, wrote that:
“On Friday, March 11, 1864 at exactly midnight, a calamity, appalling and almost unparalleled, occurred along the course of the river Loxley, and the banks of the Don, where it passes through the town of Sheffield. An overwhelming flood swept down from an enormous reservoir at Bradfield carrying away houses, mills, bridges, and manufactories, destroying property estimated at half a million sterling in value, and causing the loss of about two hundred and forty human lives.”
A new reservoir constructed in the hills seven miles to the north west of Sheffield had burst when the dam holding the water back failed. A huge volume of water cascaded down the valley of the river Loxley, destroying everything in its path until it joined the waters of the river Don which runs through the centre of Sheffield. Much was written about the flood at the time: it was reported in newspapers around the country, and was the focus of major inquiries – particularly into the culpability of the Bradfield Waterworks Company, which owned the reservoir. But the role of the Workhouse, its inmates and the Master and Matron, in the story of “Great Inundation” is not so well known.
The problem was that Sheffield Workhouse was located close to the banks of the Don and found itself right in the path of the flood. The inmates were completely unaware of impending disaster when they went to bed on the Friday evening: the workhouse was locked up for night and the inmates were already “tucked up”. The Master, James Wescoe, reported to the Board of Guardians several days after the event that the initial alarm was raised by a young inmate who looked after the boiler. (MH 12/15478/10364)
George (who Samuel Harrison later described as an “imbecile” inmate) had been in the boiler house when he first became aware of water rushing in. So frightened was he that he climbed onto the roof of the boiler house as the waters rose. From here, according to Wescoe, he shouted and whistled to raise the alarm. Harrison’s account is not so flattering: in his telling, George got on top of the boiler house for his own personal safety, and lacking the sense to raise the alarm, he sat there “whistling for his own comfort”. Whatever the reason for George’s actions, he awoke the Master and the Matron (Miss Rebecca Day) from their slumbers, and they immediately sprang into action.
On seeing the extent of the flooding, they decided to leave the women inmates where they were on the upper floors (locking them in to avoid confusion and panic, according to Harrison) and selected “a score” of able-bodied men to help evacuate the ground floor rooms. The men were sent across the flooded yards to rooms which housed sick children and women with venereal disease. “In these rooms”, reported Wescoe, “the water had arisen to the beds but happily no lives were lost”. Harrison’s report, though, described a more frantic scene:
The task of these men was one of great peril, as they had to wade through the water, which was not only exceedingly cold, but also a considerable depth. When the men reached the sick wards they found such of the women and children as were able to get up, standing or kneeling on their beds in a state of the greatest alarm. The men carried the women and children, who had nothing on but their night dresses, through water to the upper rooms of the female hospital. There were many narrow escapes; but happily no lives were lost.
Many others in the flood area were not so lucky.
Ball Street Bridge, which was situated just upstream from the Workhouse, was badly hit as the flood waters careered past it, destroying its structure and the sides of houses and factories which lined the river bank.
By 3am, the bodies of the drowned were being brought to the Workhouse and “continued arriving during the whole of the day and every succeeding day during the ensuing week”. In total, 124 bodies were taken there. According to the Sheffield Telegraph (19 March 1864), they presented “a distressingly appalling sight”. One journalist’s description conveys the horror of the scene:
Forms of strong men are there…Their arms were twisted in strange shapes – many of them were fearfully cut and disfigured…We have seen and been familiar with death…under many different circumstances, but anything so fearfully sickening as the long rows of dead bodies lying side by side at the Workhouse we have never seen before, and trust we may never see again.
No workhouse inmates died, thanks to the quick thinking of the Master and Matron, but much damage was done to the buildings, and more particularly to the stores. Wescoe’s report detailed the extent of losses sustained including large quantities of dietary supplies, such as 10 hundredweight of suet, 15 stones of meat and 70 gallons of beer. Clothing and bedding was also lost or damaged beyond repair. In total the Master estimated that goods to the value of £110 8 shillings 8 ½d had been destroyed.
Wescoe concluded his report with high praise for the Matron. The workhouse cellars, yards and ground floor rooms had all been flooded and as the water receded it left behind a stinking slime of mud and sewage: the Workhouse had been doubly inundated, with flood water from the river and by overflowing sewers. But by the time of writing his report (12 days after the event) the Workhouse was habitable again thanks to the efforts of Miss Day, which he acknowledged in no uncertain terms: “I can bear witness generally as to the great energy & cleverness of the excellent matron subsequent to the night of flood”. He also praised the Guardians who assisted him in “some of the saddest and heaviest portion of my duties for 3 or 4 successive days”. He admitted that without their support “I should have been utterly unable to cope with the difficulties of my situation during this trying time”. No mention was made of the impact on the inmates, however.
On 14 March (the Monday after the catastrophe) John Manwaring, Poor Law Inspector at Doncaster, visited the neighbouring unions to see if there was anything they could do to facilitate “proper administration of relief in cases of destitution caused by the calamity, or whether they can afford any assistance…for the purpose of alleviating the distress arising from this lamentable catastrophe” in Sheffield and the surrounding area. (MH 12/15478 9099/A) His first call was on the guardians of the Wortley Union which included the location of the reservoir within its boundaries, and was one of the most badly affected areas. The fact that he reported that the Guardians at Wortley did not think they would be faced with “an excess” of applications in consequence of the flood because work was plentiful and men could earn good weekly wages suggests that was little concern about the distress caused by the flood for many of the poor who had lost everything.
In a similar vein, the Sheffield Guardians reported that “We are now doing nicely as regards applications for relief”, but they worried that they might be subject to criticism by the Poor Law Board, because “On Tuesday and Wednesday last we were threatened with a great pressure and we were obliged to give relief freely and without the usual precaution by enquiries etc.” (MH 12/15478/9766). The clerk sought to allay the Board’s fears that this may get out of control, by reassuring them that trade was good, men generally were in work and the poor people could “look about and help themselves”. Later, the Guardians confirmed that they had given un-sanctioned relief in 221 cases, at a total of £55 and one shilling. The Poor Law Board wrote back briefly, stating that it sanctioned these payments under the circumstances. (MH 12/15478/13268) The Relieving Officers had been tasked with ensuring no-one had been overlooked and were confidant this was the case. “On the whole”, he concluded, “I hope we shall get over the fearful disaster, & as the funds of the Union are affected, pretty well”. (MH 12/15478)
At their meeting of 23 March, the Sheffield Board of Guardians entered into the minutes a note of thanks for the able and efficient manner with which the Master and Matron had carried out their onerous duties in dealing with the recent inundations. (MH 12/15478/11031) The Poor Law Board responded by thanking the Guardians for forwarding their Minute and concurring with the sentiment it expressed – although it appears that this is as far as their close interest went. Although early estimates put the death toll at ca.240, it is probable that over 250 people died as a result of Sheffield’s “Great Inundation”. Nonetheless, the workhouse was cleaned and fit for use again in a matter of days, and it was reported that everything in Sheffield’s Poor Law organisation was back to normal. One suspects, however, that the emotional scars took a lot longer to heal.
- Our thanks to Dr Sue Hawkins, ITOW’s Record Specialist, for this account of the “Sheffield Inundation” of 1864!