In the 1850s it was deemed necessary as a result in the increase of mills and industrial works across the edge of Derbyshire into South Yorkshire, to expand the water systems, in an effort to provide not just extra energy and means for these works, but extra water for the domestic use of the workers and residents of the area. As a result plans were drawn up to build a new system of reservoirs to provide this water.
South Yorkshire and Derbyshire are home to the Peak district, containing a wealth of barren hills and landscape, including several brooks and rivers, which run down in quite substantial quantities from these remote areas into larger rivers which meander in turn towards the built up towns and cities in the area, notably Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster. The main provision is given by the Dale Dyke, which despite its pretty name is in fact a fast flowing constant of water increased by rainfall from the hills. This dyke in turn feeds into the River Loxley and on to the River Don which winds its way from the outskirts of Sheffield all the way through Rotherham to Doncaster, a distance of approximately 30 miles.
In 1858 one of these new reservoirs, the Bradfield Dam – also known as the Dale Dyke Dam in deference to that brook which formed the majority of its supply – on the hillside outside Sheffield. With a bank wall that measured some 500 feet across at its base, and 100 feet tall, made from a mixture of natural embankment and man-made fortifications, the reservoir was built to generate a lake of approximately a mile in length and half a mile across, reaching a depth in some places of 90ft. Upon its completion and subsequent fill in early 1864, it would hold an estimated 3.25 million cubic metres of water. Struck by the Sheffield Waterworks company, it was one of four giant reservoirs proposed for the area. By March 11th 1864, it was full almost to capacity, the water line being between three and six inches from the top of the embankment wall.
During the afternoon of the 11th, around tea-time whilst crossing the embankment some way down its slope, quarryman William Horsefield noticed a crack running along the embankment some twelve feet down from the top and running along for a distance of around fifty yards. Horsefield had chosen to cross at this point to shield himself from the strong winds blowing across the top of the dam. The crack, he noticed, was wide enough only to fit his penknife into and looked to be nothing more than a frost-crack in the surface. All the same, when reaching the far side, he reported it and local workmen went to the spot to assess the situation. At 7pm, the dam engineer, John Gunson was sent for from his rooms a few miles away, by which time the crack had increased to a width of a man’s fingers.
Further investigation showed a similar crack running along the inside of the dam wall, some way beneath the waterline, although it proved impossible to tell whether the two crack lines were in a similar place, it was felt that the inside crack was higher up than the outside crack. By now darkness was falling and the men were working by lamplight. It was felt that the crack was not serious and did not constitute a potential breech. The cause was felt to be a settling of the dam wall, causing the water-tight clay puddlewall inside the dam to incline slightly towards the water. BY eight o clock, it was felt there was no threat to the integrity of the embankment, however one of the two dozen or so workmen now congregated sent his son, Stephenson Fountain by horse to alert Mr Gunson in Sheffield and request his advice.
At some point during the journey, the girth on Fountain’s horse snapped causing him to stop briefly to effect repair or replacement at the Barrel Inn at Damflask roughly two miles away. He informed the inn-keeper, Mr Ibbotsen of his task, although it was ascertained that there was no cause for alarm at this point. His mention however did alert the patrons, who took heed of the situation and their later spreading of the word and its resulting precautions set by those residents hearing the news, was felt to have saved the lives of many, who chose to prepare or evacuate just in case. Fountain reached and alerted Gunson at around 9pm, the latter calling for a horse and carriage of his own to take him to the reservoir immediately. Even at this point, there was not felt to be any alarm and so no alert was given.
By ten o clock Gunson and his associate Mr Craven reached the embankment and rushed to the site where several men by lamplight were continuing their monitoring of the crack. It was now wide enough to admit a man’s hand. It had been felt that it was pertinent to relieve some of the water pressure by drawing open the weir to the side of the dam and see if that halted the growth of the crack. The screw had been turned to allow the water to be drawn off, but the flow was slower than anticipated and the accompanying tremors were loud and unnerving. The decision was then taken to blow the weir using explosives, for which provision had been built into the construction. Dynamite was laid but failed to ignite, possibly due to the damp. Gunson went back to the crack from his safe point, accompanied by Mr Swinden to see if there had been any further development, and whilst inspecting, looked up to see water foaming over the top of the embankment wall directly above him and dropping into the crack by his feet.
Gunson decided to inspect the valve house to see if anything further could be done and made his way gingerly down the slope, Swinden meanwhile reacting to a gut feeling warns Gunson of the danger he sensed and Gunson took heed leaving the valvehouse. As he did so, he looked up towards the top of the embankment and saw a breech measuring around thirty feet in the embankment, with water now spilling out at an alarming rate. He shouts a warning, that the embankment is about to burst and the men run for their lives. A few seconds after they clear the embankment at around midnight, the dam wall burst, and seven hundred million gallons of water spilled out of the cavern and rained down in the night like a huge torrent on the villages of Sheffield.
Many, thanks to the warning issued by young Fountain, had already made provision for their escape. Others had taken further advice from the workmen who had spread word earlier on that the crack was harmless and no threat was imminent. Some of these however had remained awake, just in case. These actions undoubtedly saved the lives of many who were able to leave their houses before the tragedy hit, or at least effect some kind of escape as it did.
The sound of the rushing wave was described by survivors in the path as like thunder, as it cascaded down the hillside from the broken dam at a rate of approximately 18 miles an hour, devastating everything in its path. Three storey mills, trees and stones weighing several tons were ripped up in the flood, and carried along with the force, leaving nothing in its wake but debris and foundations where large stone buildings had stood for years. Millwheels, livestock, nothing was safe from the torrent. The first fatality was a child of Mr Joseph Dawson, one of the men who had earlier inspected the crack on the embankment. Having left before the arrival of Mr Gunson and been assured of the lack of danger, Dawson had gone home to Lower Bradfield, some twenty yards from the river path, and retired for the night shortly before midnight. He was shaken awake by his wife around 30 minutes later, when she heard the ominous rumble in the distance. Their house occupied one end of a row, and in it resided Dawson, his wife, his brother, his young child and his new baby, born the day before.
At first Dawson felt the noise to be pranksters but was very quickly alerted otherwise. With the help of his brother and two neighbours, he was able to lift his child to safety, who was then borne away to the hillside. The men attempted to rescue Dawson, his wife and the infant but the power of the water was too strong and they were forced to abandon their efforts. Dawson grabbed his wife, and tried to return to the house. Carrying his wife who in turn held onto the baby he tried to get them up the stairs as the water cascaded onto the house. The baby was overcome and Mrs Dawson was forced to let it go. They couple made their way to the top of the house, where they were subsequently rescued by his brother by means of a ladder fashioned as a bridge between an upper window and the hillside by the house. As they made their escape, their house along with the rest of the row was engulfed by several feet of water. The baby was found a few days later in the coal cellar.
The water continued its path, devastating everything along the way, for a distance of several miles, and for a number of hours through the night. By 5am the next morning, most of the force had subsided, and all that remained was to count the cost. By the next day around 250 people had lost their lives, and huge swathes of the small residences around the city, as well as factories, mills, grinding wheels, livestock and bridges had been washed away. Bodies continued to be found for several weeks afterwards, although not all were recovered, many were unidentified due to mutilation caused by the force of the flood and the collision with waterborne debris, and later decomposition. Some entire families were lost, leaving nobody to formally identify the remains, many of which were gathered in the Sheffield Workhouse in five wards. Some had limbs ripped off, and multiple lacerations and fractures, one young girl had been torn in half by the force of some heavy machinery, others looked like they were untouched and sleeping an eternal peace, as though they had been effortlessly plucked from their beds and set carefully down.
One of the biggest losses of life was that effected to the Spooner family. Thomas Spooner, his wife, their seven children, her father, his other daughter and her husband. Twelve members of one family, all washed away and drowned. One other man managed to save his wife and three children by throwing them onto a small bed in one corner of an upstairs room and using his body as a shield for them as the torrent washed away the rest of the house and raged beneath him, he refused to move for several hours, as to do so would have meant letting them go and potentially losing them all. Another, a Mr Wright, his wife and the visiting child of her former employer, one Mr Johnson, were swept to their deaths from a downstairs room. When rescuers entered the house the next day they found the Wright’s young daughter asleep in an upstairs room, seemingly unaware of her loss. After questioning, it transpired that she saw her parents and young friend “go out of the window” and curled up on her bed and went to sleep. The Johnsons upon hearing a child had survived made an application believing it to be their daughter, only to find out she had been lost and it was the child of the Wrights who was saved. They subsequently adopted her. Their own child was recovered, badly decomposed more than two months later, some ten or fifteen miles away at the far side of Rotherham. Identification was only made possible by recognition of a prior amputation of one of the child’s fingers.
In the coroners’ inquest that convened in the days following, the death toll was continuing to rise eventually resting at around 250, including 93 children under the age of 16, three of whom were a matter of days old, and investigations were unable to pinpoint an exact cause of the breach of the wall. Most of the blame for the disaster was laid at the feet of Gunson and the Sheffield Waterworks company, various criticisms including the construction of the embankment from the spoil of the trench dig, the inadequate thickness of the puddle-wall – supposedly an impervious clay wall, designed to provide a layer of protection for the inner defence of the reservoir wall against the outer layer of the embankment, and the insubstantial pipes and valves designed to carry off the water. None of which could actually be proven as most lay buried under the debris of the collapsed dam wall. The Sheffield Waterworks company upheld their faith in Gunson, who remained in their employ until he passed away around 20 years later.
His co-engineer, John Leather was the son of George Leather, whose family were construction engineers involved in the widespread building of similar reservoirs in the previous years, most notably a dam in the Leeds/Bradford area which breached in 1852 with the loss of 81 lives.
The most notable result of the disaster, pegged as one of the worst flooding disasters of its kind, was the changes made in the construction of similar reservoirs as a result of the possible flaws in the construction of the Bradfield dam. In 1875, eleven years after the devastating tragedy, the Bradfield reservoir was rebuilt further up the hill, on a slightly smaller scale. In the area are also her three sisters. To this day, when driving through the industrial part of Sheffield Cheapside, through Newhall, Hillsborough and past the huge presence of Meadowhall shopping centre, you can imagine the catastrophe caused that night in March 1864, by noting the still present tide marks on the old factory buildings that the deluge spared.