The weather was grey but dry, so we decided to walk up to Dale Dyke Reservoir. We followed muddy footpaths around Agden Reservoir (this area has a LOT of reservoirs—it’s a good place for water birds). The track rose over a grassy hill, with sheep begrudgingly moving out of our path, and then we saw it—first the steps of rushing water from the overflow channel, and then the reservoir itself, glinting under the grey sky, stretching across the valley.
As we drew near, we saw a strange stone, like a mini gravestone, marked with CLOB, and I wondered whether it was the grave for a dog with a strange name. But then I read the board next to the path, and it took on a new significance. Dale Dyke Reservoir was built to replace another, larger reservoir—which in 1864 burst through the dam, rushed into the valley below, swelled the rivers to Sheffield and killed hundreds of people. We read the story.
Accounts of the incident vary slightly, but it seems that on 11th March, 1864, after several days of stormy rain, a local man, William Horsfield, crossed the dam on his way home from work, and noticed a crack. It was fairly small, but big enough for him to notice, and the dam was new—only recently finished. I wonder what he thought at that point. Did he have a sense of fear, knowing the reservoir was new, it hadn’t been there for years, it wasn’t yet something familiar, something he assumed was permanent. Was he frightened, or merely interested? Did he assume all would be okay? Maybe not, in an age when bad things happened more often, perhaps he was instantly concerned.
One of the dam builders, Mr. Fountain, was still in the area, so William told him, and they both examined the crack. Mr. Fountain thought it was probably nothing to worry about, but just to be cautious, he sent for the main engineer, Mr, Gunson, who lived in Sheffield. (To be accurate, he sent his son—sons have always been useful.)
By the time Mr. Gunson arrived (Sheffield is about 8 miles away, and I am guessing they travelled by horseback) the crack was bigger. Water was beginning to spill over the embankment.
Suddenly, a huge gap opened—30 feet wide—and the water began to gush into the valley. At this point, there was nothing anyone could do to prevent tragedy. The men scrambled to safety as the dam gave way, and 700 million gallons of water swept towards Sheffield. There was no time to warn anyone, no telephones to contact people, nothing they could do but watch in horror.
The water raced along the valley, swelling the rivers Loxley and Don. The River Don ran through Sheffield, and an area called The Wicker was badly flooded. The bridges were choked with fallen trees, destroyed mill wheels, carts and debris. People stood on bridges to watch, unable to stop the flow, helpless. About 250 people were killed.
After walking to the reservoir—which looked placid and innocent when we were there, we decided to visit Sheffield. Great-Grandpa Todd was a vicar in a church there, about a hundred years ago, and we were interested to see his church. It just so happened, that his church was in Wicker, next to the river Don, right where the flood water had been worst. We saw the church, and the river, and on the opposite bank, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives. Some of them are unnamed, just ‘servant, male, aged 27’, or ‘infant, 2 days old’. Some names were of people later found alive. Some people died later of their injuries.
It’s thought to be one of the worst man-made disasters in the UK. It reminded me of Aberfan, the mining town where the slag-heap slid over the school and killed the town’s children in 1966. Except I had never heard of the Dale Dyke disaster—perhaps because it was so much earlier. But the local people have not forgotten. In 2014, on the 150th anniversary, they commemorated the occasion. There were talks by historians and civil engineers, and the local brewery produced a beer named ‘Dam It,’ and they produced a CD of ‘flood songs.’
It is difficult to understand who was to blame for the disaster. Locals blamed the Sheffield Waterworks Company, who commissioned the dam in an attempt to provide clean water to the city. They were not held accountable at the later inquiry. Nor was Mr. Leather, their engineer (though interestingly, his uncle George Leather was the engineer for another reservoir that collapsed, near Leeds, killing 81 people). Maybe the reservoir was too large for the engineering of the times. Maybe (as claimed by the company) there had been unexpected earth movements (though I would’ve thought that their engineers/geologists should have checked for earth stability before building it—but maybe these things couldn’t be predicted in those days). Hard to know. I don’t know whether having someone to blame would help the grieving survivors.
I do wonder though, how William Horsfield felt afterwards. Although he took immediate action, although it was in no way his fault, did he torture himself with regret? There was time to fetch the engineer from Sheffield, which means there was time to bang on doors, to try and warn people—even though at that point, they didn’t think it would breech. But should they have warned people anyway? Should they have risked looking stupid, of raising a false alarm, of causing unnecessary panic? What would we do? Remember, no one knew what would happen, it remained an unlikely possibility, right up until the time it happened—but would that have been a comfort to poor William? I suspect not.
Today, there are several, smaller reservoirs in the area, feeding water to the city. They look peaceful, places to walk to when on holiday. But water camouflages danger with gentle ripples and inviting cool blue calm. Once the restraints fall, the chaos can begin.
Thank for reading. Have a safe week.
Love, Anne x
Photos a mixture of my own, from information boards, and the Daily Mail website.
Such an interesting blog. . ..
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