One Victim of the Great Sheffield Flood
11th / 12th March 1864
The Great Sheffield Flood occurred close to Midnight on the 11th March 1864, on a dark, wind-swept Friday night. The dam was recently built, but a crack in the wall opened up to release a tsunami of water onto the unsuspecting people of Sheffield, many of whom were asleep in their beds. The water crashed down towards Low Bradfield, through the Loxley valley, Hillsborough, and on to Sheffield, reaching as far as Rotherham. The story has been told many times before, so I don’t want to cover ground that has already been covered, but this article focuses on just one of its hundreds of victims, a lady called Ann Pearson. As far as I know she was no relation to my own family of Pearsons, who had moved from Bradwell in Derbyshire to Stocksbridge in around 1860, but I cannot be sure, because I have not managed to uncover her identity.
Ann’s story is far from clear, but that was unfortunately the case for many of the victims. The number of those believed to have died varies, with many people remaining unidentified. Some of the dead were taken to public houses, which were pressed into service as make-shift mortuaries. Others were taken to the Sheffield Workhouse, and laid out on straw ready to be identified by grieving relatives and friends. Many bodies were retrieved within a few days, in many locations, sometimes far from home. One body was found in a tree. Thirteen bodies were found at Rotherham, three at Mexborough, seven at Kilnhirst and several at Doncaster, 27 miles from the reservoir. In the two days following the flood, at least 156 bodies were recovered. After that, and for a long time, the bodies were found separately, or in twos and threes. Some people were found six weeks to two months after the flood, and even then, there were supposed to be more than twenty bodies still unrecovered.
Understandably, there was chaos in the days and weeks following the disaster. Some bodies were never found, and some were initially mis-identified, which was often because of the injuries they had sustained. Others who had survived died a short while after, and some who were thought dead were later found alive. The newspapers were not always accurate in their recording of the victims, and the Coroner’s inquest was rather rushed so that bodies could be buried as soon as possible.
And so it is no surprise that finding out more about Ann Pearson has been difficult. There was only one person on the official list with the surname of Pearson, and that was Ann. She had been a lodger in the house of George Barrett [note: spelling varies] and his wife and child. The death certificate notes that she was 60 years old [born c1804]. A list of the dead, compiled by the Chief Constable and printed in Harrison’s book, gives her age as 47 [born c1817]. However, as the entry for Ann is inaccurate, the age given for her may also be wrong.
Her death certificate reads:
Died 12th March 1864, “found exposed in the township of Sheffield,” Ann Pearson, female, 60 years. Cause of death: “and came to her death by downing.” Death certificate issued by the Coroner for Yorkshire, J. Webster, and registered 22nd June 1864, Registrar: Crawshaw [the latter is on my family tree]. “Found exposed” was common wording on the death certificates issued after the flood; it simply meant that the body was literally found exposed after being dumped by the flood waters.
The Coroner had decided that a few of the bodies would be identified in order to facilitate their burial, after which the inquest would be adjourned for a week or ten days, so that he and the Chief Constable could have the opportunity to investigate the matter. He thought that it would not be necessary to hold inquests for all the cases, because the facts would be the same.
Once identified, bodies were passed on to the relatives for interment. The bodies of the poor, and those who remained unidentified, were interred by the Board of Guardians at the expense of the Union in the Sheffield General Cemetery. The bodies were not all buried in one particular part of the cemetery, but in separate graves according to circumstances, with all the decencies and solemnities of private burials.
In 1864, Samuel Harrison wrote an account of the flood. This book was re-published in 1898 as “The Great Sheffield Flood: It’s History Re-told.” Ann’s name appears in the official list of the dead and missing printed in this book, which had been drawn up by Mr. John Jackson, the Chief Constable of Sheffield. The total number of dead shown at that time was 240 people. This list says that Ann was 47 years old, of Hillsborough [sic], and that she was found on the 12th May, in Sheffield (two months later) and was buried at Sheffield.
This information was wrong. Karen Lightowler, who has done a great deal of research into the victims of the flood, has seen the original list compiled by the Chief Constable. Ann Pearson’s body was found on the 12th March, not the 12th May. The previous entry on the list was for Jonathan Ibbotson of Hillsborough, and his body was not found until May. Ann Pearson was then dittoed, but he omitted to add March. There are other errors on the list, one being a victim called John Hawksley, whose name on this list was written as Oakley.
The Sheffield Independent of the 19th March 1864 carried a list of the missing from Malin Bridge which included George Barrett, his wife, child, and their lodger Ann Pearson. According to Harrison’s list of the dead, the bodies of George Barrett (28) and young William (2) were never identified. The body of his wife Emma (26) was found in Sheffield and she was buried at Wardsend cemetery. On the same page there was also a list of the bodies that had been identified, one of whom was a Mrs. Pearson, aged 60. This is the same age as appears on her death certificate.
Ann was buried in the General Cemetery in Sheffield on the 15th March 1864 in grave M3 21 in the consecrated section. No headstones remain in this area. She was merely recorded as “Mrs. Pearson,” and no age was stated. Someone obviously knew her well enough to identify her, but no relative ever claimed compensation for the loss of her life.
Harrison’s book had this paragraph which mentions Ann:
A WHOLE ROW OF HOUSES SWEPT AWAY AT MALIN BRIDGE – EXTRAORDINARY INCIDENTS.
“On the left hand site of the river, facing downwards, stood a row of twelve cottages and two shops, the whole of which were washed away so completely that no one would have imagined the site had ever been occupied by human dwellings. Among the families drowned here were Joseph Crapper, shoemaker, his wife, and a child; Mrs. Etchell, a widow, who kept a school; Joseph Goddard, his wife, and two or three children; William Sellars and wife; Henry Jevisson, his wife, and son; George Barrett, shoemaker, his wife, child, and a lodger named Ann Pearson.”
The Great Sheffield Flood: It’s History Re-told, reprint of the original edition, with original wood engravings, the one shilling edition, published by Sheffield: Independent Press, Limited", in 1898. Page 23.
This row of houses can be found on the 1861 census at Malin Bridge, but The Barrets and Ann Pearson were not in residence then (three years earlier), although some of the householders were – the Crappers, Ann Etchells (infant school teacher) and the Sellars. I have not found Ann Pearson elsewhere in 1861, but George and his wife Emma were living at the Old Barracks Building on Penistone Road. George had married Emma Staniforth in 1860, and their son William was born in 1862 when they were living at Cupola.
Malin Bridge experienced the full fury of the flood and suffered to an appalling extent. Within a distance of only a few hundred yards more than twenty houses were destroyed, and no less than one hundred and two lives were lost. It might at first be supposed that the flood, having travelled some four or five miles, would have lost something of its volume, but the opposite was true. The flood poured down the valley, getting faster and faster, and its volume was actually increased, because it picked up the water from numerous dams along the river (where the water wheels were situated). Those who saw the flood coming said that it was “indescribable” and that the noise resembled “a thousand steam engines letting off their steam simultaneously.” The flood lifted up the houses, turned them over, and then rolled across the ruins. It was truly terrifying.
Harrison wrote: “The two bridges that crossed the rivers were completely swept away; the rocks were torn up; whole rows of cottages were demolished; grinding wheels and workshops were destroyed; and the land on which houses stood was transformed into a vast quagmire of mud, interspersed with stones, trees, wrecks of houses, machinery, furniture, barrels, mattresses, and every conceivable article scattered about in the wildest confusion.”
The row of houses was known as "Bower's Buildings." There was a small corner shop on one end of the row, occupied by a young widow called Ann Mount. On the night of the flood, the nightwatchman was doing was doing his rounds and stopped to have a word with Mrs. Mount. She told him that she was just locking up and going to bed because it had been a long day. “Aye, and it looks like being a long, cold night as well,” joked the watchman. He was just about to wish the shopkeeper good night when he became conscious of a growing thundering noise. He told her to lock her door and he ran up the hill to see what was happening. Water began to swirl around his ankles, and he watched with horror as the tragedy unfolded. A foaming avalanche was advancing on the village, crashing over and over towards the first houses. The watchman could not believe what he was seeing.
“…The wave swept round the bend, breaking over the cornmill and the row of twelve cottages, which the watchman knew as Bower’s Buildings, which stood beside the river, and in which he had so recently been conversing with the shopkeeper, Mrs. Mount. The torrent crashed through the flimsy building tearing it apart, and the heartrending cries and screams of voices well known to him called out to the helpless watchman. The schoolmistress, Mrs. Etchell, the family of Joseph Crapper, the shoemaker, the Goddard family and the Jevissons, the Watsons and the shopkeeper, Edward Price, together with his two day old baby and the rest of the family and their lodgers and relations, and, of course, Ann Mount herself were all now thrown into the swirling flood, crying out helplessly or being dragged down under the blackness. William Watson hung onto his wife and children for a little while until they were swept apart and he was flung against the debris which had collected against the side of the Widdowson’s house. He clung onto the timber, shouting for help, and was relieved to see the bedroom window above him open and strong arms reach down to pull him to pull him to safety.”
From The Dramatic Story of The Sheffield Flood by Peter Machan (1999) pp43-44
So far I have not managed to discover the identity of Ann. Having conflicting ages at death has complicated the search. Her name does not appear in the list of claims for compensation that were lodged after the flood; relatives left behind usually claimed for “loss of life” but perhaps she had no close relatives, either husband or child. I tried to uncover a connection between her and the family she was lodging with, but perhaps there wasn’t one. I found several Ann Pearsons on the 1861 census but managed to find them alive in 1871. So the search continues....
The site of where the bridge crossed the rivers Loxley and Rivelin Photo: Caloe and Sons
H Dudley, Views of the Great Sheffield Flood no. 1
The site of Malin Bridge as seen from the Yew Tree Inn. A whole row of houses here was swept away, and around 100 lives lost Photo: Caloe and Sons
I have managed to find a connection between my Pearson family at Stocksbridge and the Barrott family that Ann Pearson was lodging with. George Barrott had a cousin, also called George Barrott, who was a shoemaker (later a file striker) living at Oughtibridge. Greorge was married to Thirza Gill, and in 1846 they had a daughter called Mary Ann Barrott (known as Ann). In 1869 Ann Barrott married Aaron Pearson of Stocksbridge. By an odd coincidence, Aaron's first wife had been Rachel Crapper, but I have not found connection between Rachel's family and the Crapper family who lived in the same row of houses at Malin Bridge as the Barrotts.
So, my very tenuous link to the Sheffield Flood is:
My great grandfather Harold Pearson's uncle Aaron's second father-in-law George Barrott was the first cousin of George Barrott who was killed at Malin Bridge after the bursting of the Dale Dyke Dam. See below for a very abbreviated family tree.
Ann Pearson's death certificate.
Died 12th March 1864, “found exposed in the township of Sheffield,” Ann Pearson, female, 60 years. Cause of death: “and came to her death by downing.” Death certificate issued by the Coroner for Yorkshire, J. Webster, and registered 22nd June 1864, Registrar: Crawshaw. By strange coincidence, this copy certificate was issued for me on the 11th March 2004.
Harrison, Samuel: The Great Sheffield Flood: It’s History Re-told, reprint of the original edition, with original wood engravings, the one shilling edition, published by Sheffield: Independent Press, Limited, 1898.
Harrison, Samuel: A Complete History of the Great Sheffield Flood, downloadable transcript 1864, republished 1974
Machan, Peter: The Dramatic Story of The Sheffield Flood, 1999. ISBN 1-901587-05-3. This book contains a wonderful fold-out sketch of the route of the flood from Dale Dyke towards Sheffield. Illustrations by Eric Leslie.
Sheffield Flood claims archive
Census, parish registers
Photographs from postcards in my collection. Many more pictures of the aftermath of the flood can be viewed at Picture Sheffield
Burial entry for Ann Pearson courtesy of Karen Lightowler from a copy of the transcriptions on CD for the General Cemetery, Sheffield.
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