Little Bits of History

Great Sheffield Flood

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 11, 2013
Aftermath of the Great Sheffield Flood

Aftermath of the Great Sheffield Flood

March 11, 1864: The Great Sheffield Flood, also known as the Great Inundation, occurs. The steel industry of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England was growing and bringing a vast increase in population with it. Four reservoirs were planned to meet the needs for reliable water sources. About 8 miles northwest of Sheffield, the Bradfield Dam was built near the village of Bradfield. Agden, Damflask, and Strines were the other three reservoirs and all were built between 1859 and 1864.

The River Loxley flows through South Yorkshire with the Dale Dyke being on one tributary. The earthen work dam was 500 feet wide and 100 feet high. The reservoir formed was about 1 mile long and ¼ mile wide. When full, it would have held 114,000,000 cubic feet (more than 15 million gallons) of water. It was almost full and the water covered 76 acres of land. From the newly built dam, the region sloped sharply downward to the town of Loxley and on into Sheffield.

A storm raged. A local farmer noticed a crack in the dam and ran into town to find the two major engineers who were nearby. They came and inspected the dam and felt the crack was not a problem. The engineers were conducting further investigations when suddenly, a fissure appeared. Within moments, a portion of the dam broke open. The water rushed through a breach 110 yards wide and 75 feet deep. The water came through the wall and down into the valley with a thunderous roar.

The village of Loxley listed 4 mills, 17 workshops/warehouses, 3 shops, 39 houses, and 2 beer houses as totally destroyed with 17 mills, 11 workshops/warehouses, 15 shops, 376 houses, and 22 beer houses partially destroyed. More than 4,000 houses were flooded as the waters rose as high as 26 feet in the village. There were 240 deaths as a direct result of the flood. Even as far away as Lady’s Bridge in the center of Sheffield, flood waters reached 6 feet. A special Act of Parliament gave compensation of £273,988 for damages to property, injury to persons, and loss of life, covering around 7,000 individual claims. It was one of the largest awards of the time.

“The works of the Dale Dyke reservoir have been retarded in some degree, in consequence of the difficulties experienced in arriving at a satisfactory foundation in the middle of the valley, for the puddle wall, which difficulties have been enhanced by the severity of the past winter.” – John Towlerton Leather, engineer

“Several weeks, or a month, before the bursting, I observed the pitching inside the bank had settled forming a hollow, as near as I can tell, about the place where the hole was first blown through, just above the surface of the water at that time, I suppose this was bout 10 or 12 feet below the level of the waste weir when I observed this sinking of the pitching.” – a construction worker at the inquest

“I thought it was the action of the wind and the waves that had been beating against it all the afternoon, and that it might have loosened the material that the inner slope of the top of the embankment is composed of, above the water mark: and if that had been the case, I thought it would be like taking the inner slope of the puddle wall from it, and cause a slight crack outside.” – John Gunson, engineer, at the inquest

“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.” – John Gunson’s obituary

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: In the aftermath of the flood, there was great debate as to the cause. The builders maintained that the design was not flawed and the collapse came from a landslide. An inquiry was held and the experts could not agree on the cause of the failure. The engineers found that even with cracks, the entire collapse of the dam wall was unforeseeable and the Sheffield Waterworks Company was not found to have been careless, but rather it was all a terrible accident. The press did not agree with the professionals’ findings and excoriated the builders, calling the dam flawed. After the breach, engineering practices altered and the construction of future dams, including the rebuilding of Dale Dyke Dam, were done with more rigorous standards in place.

Also on this day: Freedom of the Press? – In 1702, England got its first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant.
LAX – In 1882, the Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association was formed.
Roxy Theater – In 1927, the Roxy Theater opened in New York City.