Etching floodlines on the valley – tracing the scriptural legacies of the 1864 Great Sheffield Flood
September 6, 2012 2 Comments
This essay is further rumination on the materiality of memory and the ways in which landscape is physically written upon. Recently I’ve written about how people trace out lines onto landscape by their thoughts and actions. Here I extend the analysis to look at an exceptional situation in which people, water, stone, brick and timber all made their orderly and disorderly marks upon a landscape. I consider the extent to which each set of traces can still be read today.
Written by stone onto water, land and timber
My family and I live within walking distance of eight impounding reservoirs, and the same number of covered, hilltop service reservoirs. We live in the flood plain of five of them. But we don’t give them that much thought. We happily accept the water that these colossal water stores – these stonework manifestations of human dominion over valleys and their natural drainage and ecosystems – pump and gravity feed into our home. Water? It’s harmless, it’s the stuff of life.
No whistle or scream
Just smack like a hammer
A black hole
Where the house had been
[an excerpt from Rob Hindle’s (2006) poetry collection, Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864]
Written by water onto stone, land and timber
On a cold Friday night in March 1864, one of these reservoirs gave way and 650 million gallons of water (weighing some 2 million tons) came rushing down the steep sided Loxley Valley inundating the northern Sheffield suburb of Malin Bridge where we now live. Travelling at an estimated speed of 18 miles per hour (that’s 30 feet per second, faster than a man can run) the wall of water destroyed 50 dwellings and claimed 100 lives here and then hurtled on towards central Sheffield leaving devastation in its wake. Over 238 would die across Sheffield that night, over 400 buildings destroyed or seriously damaged and with resultant claims for material damage against the Sheffield Waterworks Company by over 6,000 owners and occupiers, and 20,537 paid destitution claims by the Mayor’s relief committee.
As Joseph Ibbotson, owner of a corn mill in the first village to be struck by the reservoir-wave put it:
“It seemed as if the bowels of the earth were being torn up, or as if some unheard-of monster were rushing down the valley, lashing the hillside with scaly folds, crunching up buildings between his jaws and filing the air with his wrathful hiss.” (Amey 1974: 28).
The inundation scoured its way along the Loxley Valley, erasing hamlets, mills, trees and bridges at great speed (the whole dam had disgorged within 47 minutes of the breach).
“The wave, which according to one eye-witness reached a height of 50 feet in some parts, roared on with unabated fury. More bridges were torn away and flipped aside, mills were erased or ruined and hundreds of trees bobbed along like matchsticks.” (Amey, 1974: 30)
And when the wall of water reached Malin Bridge, the destruction amplified, as depicted in a contemporary account in the London Illustrated News (LIN 1864):
“Here there were mills and forges, and on each side of the river rows of cottages to accommodate the workpeople. Everything gave way before the roaring torrent. The immense mass of water, filled with debris, razed the ground along its track as easily, and almost as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball makes for itself a lane deep into the ranks of living men. Whole families — buried in sleep or, perchance, startled from it by the rushing roar — were literally hurled into eternity.”
In the era of the Hollywood CGI disaster movie we are somewhat blasé about such imagery nowadays. But – remember – this was real. A valley formed by millennia of fluvial erosion, thousands of years of glacial action, and hundreds of years of human settlement was, in a matter of seconds, scoured by a racing wall of escaped reservoir water.
Written by stone and timber onto land and water
Gathering up everything friable in its path the flood waters snatched up and sped onward an assemblage of animal, mineral and vegetable matter until eventually arrested by stronger obstacles or released by subsiding waters many miles downstream. The Sheffield Telegraph, reported accumulated material – once possessions, now dross – entrained against the resolute flanks of Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city:
“fearful heaps of timber mixed with straw and other debris were piled up by the flood against the masonwork of the bridge. The immense quantity of rafters, flooring, joists, planks, and miscellaneous articles heaped to within a few feet of the top of the bridge told a portentous story of buildings destroyed . . . There seemed wood enough to build a village.”
Yet this debris was a reduction, not a multiplication. This was the shattered wood of many villages. These pieces could not be put back together to re-make what had been before. The flood waters passed through, clearing in a matter of minutes. The debris settled out, accumulated and briefly wrote its own story upon the valley.
Eventually this extreme flotsam would be cleared away, ruined possessions and abstract building elements alike. Each put beyond use or salvation by the flood waters, and rendered via the act of their disposal (if the owner remained alive to claim them) grounds for a compensation claim against the Sheffield Waterworks Company, the owner of the collapsed dam.
Written by hand onto pulped timber
Geoffrey Amey’s masterful account of the collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam and its aftermath has been my prompt for writing this piece. With all the depictive and forensic skill that a time served local newspaper reporter could gather, Amey’s account of that night first sets the scene – the appearance of the small crack in the 95 feet high dam wall and the staff stood there, pondering it. Next he emotively follows the path of the water as it floods down the valley, meeting the places and people at the moment of their inundation.
Then his book turns to matters of committees, compensation claims and technical appraisal of dam construction. Each stage of his interpretive journey is well paced, and this trajectory echoes something of the modern way of dealing with disasters – that there must first be a human-interest angle, an experiential scale treatment anchored in a tangible narrative of human experience of ‘the event’. But then ‘the event’ must be quantified, aggregated, abstracted and subjected to a dispassionate inquiry – all in order for it to be tamed and become known and understood. And this is primarily achieved via the writing of words, first the accounts of survivors and journalists, thereafter the more remote synoptic processing of the historian or lawyer.
In recent years, the Sheffield Flood of 1864 has attained a (slightly) higher profile within Sheffield via local historians, poets and other memorialists. However, measured in words expended, the inquiry reports, proofs of evidence, subsequent legislation, council minutes and other bureaucratic ‘processing’ of the event still dominates by sheer volume of its flood writing. Yet these texts are largely invisible. They have to be tracked down in the archive by the dogged researcher, dusted off and pulled back into the light of day.
Amey’s book details the ensuing processing of this disaster in thorough detail. Simpson (1996) takes this yet further, situating this dam failure within a jurisprudence of burst reservoirs and consequent litigation and legislating that came to shape the development of what we may here (for convenience) call ‘disaster law’ and the design and regulation of reservoirs across the world. The inquiries, compensation cases, parliamentary debates and forensic technical investigation are important stories, and tell us much of the interplay between ‘events’ and the evolution of law and technology. Events have their human stories, but they also have these structural contributions to expert bodies of knowledge. They run deep, but in a way that quickly decouples such ripples from a clear sense of the origin events that set the evolution in hand in the first place.
One window into this arcane world has been made available by the reproduction of the Sheffield Flood Claims Archive, an on-line search friendly version of the register of over 6000 claims made against the Waterworks Company in the aftermath of the flood (SFCA 2006). The original register, and its itemised ledger of claims for lost possessions, damaged structures, bodily injury and loss of trade has in recent decades provided a fruitful resource for researchers seeking to understand the industrial complextion of the array of small cutlery mills and iron works that inhabited the valley before the flood, and for studying the book-owning patterns and practices of the mid-Victorians. In a manner reminiscent of the ‘sudden’ ruination of Pompeii the archive gives a fascinating insight into the material life of the inhabitants of north western Sheffield, as at the moment of their inundation. Without this disaster no-one would have taken the trouble of surveying the material minutiae of daily life and work that this claims register brought into being. The flood wrote a unique account of possessions and people’s orientation towards (and dependency upon) the objects of their everyday lives.
Written by hand onto land and stone
Amey published his book in 1974 and noted in it that there was a surprising lack of any memorial to the flood and its victims. At the end of his book, he recounts a trip to the now-empty site of the original dam wall. All he found there were:
“Weather beaten marker stones, about four hundred yards apart on either side of the valley. Bear[ing] the inscription ‘CLOB’ (Centre Line Old Bank)” (203)
Amey could find physical testimony to this disaster only in those modest remnants and in the cemetery headstones of the perished. Since 1974 the position has changed somewhat, although this disaster – one of the largest of the nineteenth century – still has a surprisingly low profile even in the city of its affliction.
A modest memorialisation of the flood has been achieved in recent years via the dogged efforts of local academics (in particular Armitage, 2001) and amateurs, who have circulated their findings, accounts and interpretations of the flood via on-line websites, local history presses and ‘home-made’ initiatives such as an interpretative geocache placed near to Malin Bridge.
But the signposting of the flood’s passage through the valley is still a subtle one. A few days ago I set out to find those memorial traces. The photos below show what I found walking the course of the river from Malin Bridge to Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city. Over the course of three miles, this was it: pubs co-opting the history of the flood to add to their ‘authenticity’; a hole where a Victorian plaque recording the water level (10 feet above the pavement) has recently been removed along with the adjacent street sign; cryptic municipal trail symbols probably launched with fanfare on the occasion of an anniversary or the summit of an individual crusade; and most recently a stone memorial, sitting amidst the sleek office buildings of the regenerated ‘riverside’ quarter in the vicinity of Lady’s Bridge.
This disparate medley of markers sits here for the curious. But they are nodal points, dots left for the walker to join, feint approximations to a sheer mass of water that once hurtled down this valley throwing the city into disarray. How do you capture that? How can the ghost of an inundation be held in the city? The water passed through in horrific fashion, but it passed through quickly. In time the destruction was erased – new buildings and new people came and went.
Life went on, water and all.
Amey, G. (1974) The Collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam, Cassell: London
Armitage, M. (2001) Sheffield Flood website:
Hindle, R. (2006) Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864, Templar Poetry: www.templarpoetry.com
Simpson, A.W.B. (1996) “Bursting Reservoirs and Victorian Tort Law: Rylands and Horrocks –v- Fletcher (1868)” in Leading Cases in the Common Law, Oxford University Press: Oxford
SFCA (2006): Sheffield Flood Claims Archive at http://www2.shu.ac.uk/sfca/aboutFlood.cfm