The Great Sheffield Flood

The 11th of March sees the anniversary of the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864 an event which still echoes down the years to Sheffield Families whose relatives were involved or tragically lost their lives in the disaster. It was a city-wide episode in the history of Sheffield. The flood swept through Bradfield, the Loxley Valley, Malin Bridge, Hillsborough, the Wicker and the City Centre destroying houses, workshops and lives. Several local churches and cemeteries including Wardsend Cemetery, Bradfield Church, Loxley Cemetery, Wadsley Church and Sheffield General Cemetery amongst others, are sharing stories about the lives of some of the victims and memorialising this tragic moment in Sheffield’s history. The flood victims – some known -some unknown – many tragically young or entire families, lie in cemeteries across South Yorkshire, many of which have active Friends and Groups who treasure these green repositories of human experience and rich biodiversity. The grave in Sheffield General Cemetery of John Gunson, the engineer who built the ill-fated Dale Dyke Dam which broke and caused the flood, is pictured here (Photograph credit Andrew Littlewood Sheffield General Cemetery Trust 2020). The General Cemetery also contains 77 flood victims, not all of whom have been named.

An artist's impression of people desperately searching the waters for survivors in the Philadelphia area of Sheffield. PIC: SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH

An artist’s impression of people desperately searching the waters for survivors in the Philadelphia area of Sheffield. PIC: SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH

The Lord Mayor at the wreath laying ceremony at the flood memorial, Sheffield, 11th March 2017. Photo by Glenn Ashley.
The Lord Mayor at the wreath laying ceremony at the flood memorial, Sheffield, 11th March 2017. Photo by Glenn Ashley.

The usual floral commemoration which takes place yearly at the Memorial in Millsands with its comprehensive list of victims (pictured credit Picture Sheffield a01733 ‘150th anniversary of the Sheffield Flood of 1864 – The Lord Mayor, Vickie Priestley, lays a wreath at the Flood Memorial’ 2014) – one of a growing number of acknowledgements of the ‘Great Inundation’- will not be able to take place this year due to the pandemic.

However, efforts are made to make sure that Sheffielders home and abroad still remember the events of that stormy night in March 1864 and its stark aftermath. Follow Sheffield General Cemetery and Wardsend Cemetery on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), check out or sign up for Loxley Cemetery’s newsletter to read some of the stories of the flood victims this month and find out more about the sites where they are buried and what you can find there.

Ron Clayton -One of Many Who Do.

Laura Alston Activities and Events Officer Sheffield General Cemetery NLHF ‘Parks for People’ Project.

The Great Sheffield Flood and Wardsend Cemetery

The following article is from ‘The Great Sheffield Flood’ by Tom Gidlow which can be found at

‘The Great Sheffield Flood’, as it became known, happened overnight between the 11-12th March 1864. Chief Constable John Jackson’s initial official report put the number of victims at 240. Later research records the number as higher, as they consider those who died as a result of injuries obtained in the flood to also be victims. Karen Lightowler’s research puts the death toll at 306.

The flood occurred during a period of rapid industrialisation. Sheffield’s rising population put pressure on the water infrastructure in the city. To overcome this, The Sheffield Waterworks Company (founded 1830) began a project named the ‘Bradfield Scheme’, placing four large reservoirs around the Bradfield Hills.

Construction of one of the larger reservoirs and the associated Dale Dyke Dam began in 1859.

On the evening of 11th March 1864, a local workman named William Horsfield noticed a crack in the dam. Sheffield Waterworks’ Chief Engineer ordered a hole to be blown in the by-wash zone of the reservoir to drain it quickly, but this was prevented by a storm that dampened the gunpowder.

At around 11:30, a large section of the dam collapsed, releasing 650 million gallons of water down onto Sheffield. According to the historian Mick Armitage, the destruction stretched 8 miles. Alongside the huge loss of life, the flood also caused the destruction of 415 houses, 106 factories/shops, 20 bridges, 4478 cottage/market gardens, and 64 other buildings.


Of the over 300 people killed in the flood, with many of them buried at Wardsend Cemetery. Some of these were Joseph Askham, Elizabeth Bulloss (Lake), Mark Cooper, Jonathon Horsfield, Sarah Jackson, William North, Walter Parkin, Harry Pashley, Albert Walther, and James Willis. It is also possible William Horsfield, who first noted the crack in the dam, was related to Jonathon Horsfield, buried at Wardsend.

Sources: Lightowler, K., Sheffield Flood: The Aftermath, 2007. accessed 18/4/2017

Please see the links below for further reading:

The Loxley Cemetery Connection

The following is an excerpt from Grave Issues, Friends of Loxley Cemetery Newsletter, March 2021.

According to reports following the event there were at least twenty-two victims of the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864 buried in Loxley Cemetery. There is likely to be more recorded in the burial records as a number of v i c t i m s w e r e n ’ t immediately identified and may have been interred sometime later. For example, twelve members of the Armitage family of Malin Bridge perished in the Flood but five were listed as unidentified. The other seven were buried at Loxley Cemetery. Later research by Karen Lightowler and Malcolm Nunn indicate twenty-six victims from ten families are buried in Loxley Cemetery.


When the Dale Dyke embankment collapsed close to midnight on 11 March 1864, a huge wall of water careered down the Loxley valley destroying all in its path; buildings on or near the banks of the River Loxley were simply washed away as if built of matchsticks and straw. At Lower Bradfield, just below Dale Dyke, the waters took the first of many human lives; that of a 2 day old baby. A little further down the valley, the people of Damflask had stayed out of their beds and remained vigilant allowing most of them the time to escape the oncoming deluge, but further down river many people were asleep and totally unaware of what was heading their way. The Flood hurtled down the picturesque Loxley Valley destroying bridges, mills, houses and everything else in its path. Huge loss of life was visited upon the village of Malin Bridge and whole families perished in the lethal mass of water, and the debris it had collected along its way. Two of the village inns, The Stag and The Malin Bridge, were amongst the buildings destroyed and their residents perished.

Read more about flood victims buried at Loxley Cemetery in Grave Issues. Click below to open.


Flood Victims Buried in Sheffield General Cemetery

There are 77 flood victims buried in the Cemetery, the majority from the Neepsend area. Some are nameless, injured so badly by some of the formidable debris carried along by the flood that they were unrecognizable. The unidentified were buried at the expense of the Sheffield Union in public graves in the Cemetery, as were those who had no family who could afford to bury them, or no family left at all.

The shocking suddenness of the flood on the night of 12th March 1864 was the result of the catastrophic collapse of the new Dale Dyke or Bradfield dam, built by the Sheffield Water Company in response to the rapidly growing city’s need for water. Villages, farms, bridges, public houses, and work premises were swept away as the water hurtled towards the city, bringing boulders, uprooted trees, bodies, building debris and broken machinery with it. The areas around Neepsend, Hillsborough and Owlerton were affected very badly; for days after the tragedy bodies were still being found during the endless mud clearing. The following seven stories are all about victims of the flood.


The body of Mary Appleby, a widow, aged 62 years, was found in Jordan Meadows. She was the mother of John Cowton Appleby and grandmother of John’s niece, Mary, aged 13, who also died in the flood. John was a grocer, from Hillsborough, and a widower, his wife Ellen having died the previous year. The census records for 1861 for John Appleby are damaged and provide little information, but the entry for his mother, Mary Appleby, shows that she was earning her living as a seamstress, and that Mary aged 10, the daughter of Stephen Cowton Appleby, was living with her in Norwich Street. Stephen Cowton Appleby lived in Altrincham and Mary was the daughter of Stephen’s first marriage. By 1864 he had remarried and had a young family. It looks as if Mary was brought up by her grandmother, following the death of her mother. When John’s wife Ellen died, leaving a two-year-old daughter, Annie Maria, it seems probable that Mary went to live with John to look after her second motherless granddaughter, taking the young Mary with her. Annie Maria Appleby, three years old in 1864, was the only one of the family to survive.

After the disaster, Cowton Appleby, the younger brother of John, applied for letters of administration. He is described as a collector of rents and debts, and the uncle and guardian of Annie Maria Appleby, the only child of the deceased. Later, as the administrator of his mother’s estate, he lodged a claim against the Water Company for lost property, including clothing, furniture, a small library of books, and burial expenses which he valued at £39 13s. He was awarded £24. For loss of stock and property belonging to his brother, he claimed £98 7s 4d and was awarded £65. For the welfare of his brother’s child, he claimed £750 and was awarded £200. He also claimed £100 for the loss of his mother; that claim is listed as ‘withdrawn.’

Stephen Cowton Appleby, the father of Mary, claimed £5 and was awarded 11s 6d.for loss of clothing, time spent in the search and for burial expenses. He claimed £200 for the loss of his daughter but was awarded £12 2s. Annie Maria was brought up by her aunt, Elizabeth Swift, and her husband Charles. They had one daughter two years older than Annie, while Cowton Appleby already had two sons and went on to have several more. Unfortunately, nothing is known of Annie after 1871.John Cowton Appleby, his mother Mary, and his niece Mary are buried in plot B3 175 in the cleared Anglican area. Buried with them is another brother, William Appleby, aged 22, silversmith.


William Bethel is listed in the burial record as being a cold steel roller aged 36 from Masborough. He was married and in 1861 had children aged 2 and three months. William Bethel was employed by Messrs Barker and Johnson of the Limerick Wire and Rolling Mills and was the only man on duty at the Limerick Wheel on the night of the disaster. His body, disfigured and scalded, was found some time later, under debris in the workplace. It is not known whether he drowned or was killed by an explosion of the furnaces. The works premises were so badly damaged that the firm’s losses, including the loss of manufactured goods and goods in the process of manufacture, was estimated by the surviving partner, Mr Johnson, at a cost of £12,000. (Mr Barker lodged at Malin Bridge and had also been swept away in the deluge.)

William’s wife Elizabeth applied for letters of administration after his death. William left less than £50. In these sources he was described as a steel and metal roller and it is confirmed that he died at the Limerick Steel Mills on 12 March 1864. Elizabeth remarried four years later. In the 1871 and 1881 census she was visiting other households, and is described as an ‘accountant’s wife’, although her husband was not with her on either occasion. She was still alive in 1891, by now widowed again, living with her eldest daughter. William Bethel is buried in plot X2 161, a public grave, in the cleared Anglican area.


There are six people with the name of Gannon buried in a public grave in the Cemetery: John, 36, Sarah, 30, Henry, 11, Peter, 5, William, 4, and Margaret, 4 months. There is nothing in the burial records to suggest their relationships, but they are all from Neepsend Gardens. All the bodies were found in Neepsend on 12 March, except for John and Margaret, who were found on 13th March. The Sheffield Flood archive lists two more children John, 9, and Sarah Ann, 2, but they are not recorded in the Cemetery’s burial records. Either their bodies were never found, or they are among the unidentified children buried in the Cemetery. Peter and Henry were listed together as among the dead gathered at Sheffield Workhouse. It is probable that these Gannons are the family whose terrifying experience was described in the Sheffield Independent for 15 March 1864:

“Close to the river was a row of low white- washed cottages, the most eastern of which, standing a little way from the rest, was occupied by John Gannon, a labourer, his wife, and six children. The water rose to a considerable height in the bedrooms, and appalling were the cries for help and mercy of the inmates. The house was so full of water that he and his household climbed upon the roof, and there clung together with desperate tenacity. They had been there but a few minutes, when the house was swept away as if it had been pasteboard. A wild shriek was heard for a moment and they were plunged in the whirl of waters, and the entire family immediately perished.”

The burial records do not give John Gannon’s occupation, but there is a claim listed in the Sheffield Flood archive by John Brown, Marine Store Keeper, ‘Creditor for Money paid to the West Yorkshire Loan Society…..for the said John Gannon or now payable’ for £1 10s. It gives the address of John Gannon as Neills Buildings, Neepsend, and his job as ‘Ostler and Gardener’. The Gannons are buried in plot MM 42, a public grave in the Nonconformist area.


The report in the Independent which featured the Gannon family also wrote:

“A labourer, named Coggan, and his wife, living a short distance beyond Gannon’s, had gone to attend the funeral of a sister of one of them. They had left at home their three children, the eldest of whom was about ten years. The children slept in the same bed on the ground floor, and were drowned as they slept.”

Three children with the surname of Coggin (but spelled Coggan in other sources) are buried in the Cemetery, their address given as Neepsend. They were Alfred, aged 13, Eliza, 8, and William, 6. They were the children of William and Elizabeth Coggan. William is described as a tanner in the 1851 and 1861 Census returns and probably worked at Mr Mill’s Tannery opposite their home. The fate of another child, James, a few months old in 1861, is not known. The Coggins are buried in plot G2 126, a public grave in the Anglican area.


Mrs Albert, of Neepsend Lane, the wife of a skinner who also worked at the same tannery, died with two of her children. Listed as Halbert, she is buried in the Cemetery but unless her children were among the unidentified, they are buried elsewhere. Samuel Harrison, in his account of the Sheffield Flood, described what happened to this family. Thomas Albert had been awoken by the noise of the flood and seeing that the water was rising rapidly up the walls of the ground floor, alerted the family. He picked up his three-year-old son, while his wife clutched to the back of his shirt but before any other move could be made, the water burst in through the door. Mrs Albert was knocked down, her clutch so desperate that her husband’s shirt was torn off his body. He waded through the water and left the little boy on some steps out of reach of the water. However, when he returned to help his wife and other children, he was himself knocked down by falling masonry, and was too late. They were drowned and the house largely destroyed. Thomas Halbert later claimed £300 for the loss of his wife and children. He was awarded £50. Mrs (H)Albert is buried in plot MM 25, a public grave, in the Nonconformist area.


Also buried in the Cemetery are the Peters children, Jane, 10, Julia, 4 and Christopher, 1 year 9 months. They are the children of Thomas, a skinner, and Jane Peters, and lived in Neepsend Lane. Their fate is described in the Sheffield Independent:

“In the next house to Albert, was Mrs. Peters and four children. Her husband was in Lincolnshire, and she was alone with the children. She escaped into a neighbour’s house with one of the children, but the other three were drowned. Several of these houses were so low that the bedrooms were not a refuge, and the inmates had no alternative but to try to reach taller houses, where they could get beyond the reach of the water. “

Mrs Peters had escaped with the fourth child, Mary Alice, who was 4. Thomas Peters claimed £100 for the loss of his children. He was awarded £15. After the tragedy, the family moved south. By 1871 the Peters family were in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, with Alice, and ten years later in Southwark. They had three more children. Thomas Peters claimed £100 for the loss of his children. He was awarded £15. The Peters children are buried in plot E 153, a public grave, in the Nonconformist section.


John Gunson, the resident engineer for the Sheffield Water Company, had overseen the construction of the Dale Dyke reservoir and dam. The cause of the collapse was never conclusively identified. The Water Company always denied there were any problems relating to the structure and design of the dam and maintained that the cause of the crack and collapse must have involved a land slip of some kind.

The Dale Dyke reservoir was eventually rebuilt in 1875, on a much smaller scale and higher in the Peak District hills. The Water Company continued to support and employ John Gunsen but he was haunted by the disaster for the rest of his life. He died in 1886 and is buried in the Nonconformist area of the General Cemetery, in plot H 146, under a chest tomb.

Gunson Andrew Littlewood SGCT 001.jpg Gunson Andrew Littlewood SGCT 003.jpg Gunson Andrew Littlewood SGCT 002.jpg


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