“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” – Shakespeare
As we approach the anniversary of the tragic events of the night of 11th March 1864, I’ve been dipping my toe back into the tides and currents of my own family history. My maternal ancestors connect me to Sheffield, and it was with an awareness of the Great Sheffield Flood that I stepped off the beaten track to Wardsend one August morning in 2005.
I’d lost my great great great grandmother, you see. Careless, I hear you say! I’d lost her behind one of those brick walls so notorious to family historians. I’d chased her through history, through census returns, certificates and directories, record offices and repositories. But as to her grave site, I’d lost her completely. Now I’d come to Wardsend, one last hit and hope chance to find her final resting place and run her, quite literally, to ground.
Her name was Elizabeth, born in 1788 into the Davenport dynasty of Sheffield saw makers. Their premises were situated along Rockingham Street, manufacturing ‘circular and all other saws’ as well as those saucy-sounding staples of the nineteenth century lady’s wardrobe, ‘elastic steel busks’ among other specialist steel items.
An incident at the Davenport factory was even reported in the Illustrated London News in 1851, when a horrific steam-engine accident occurred, involving a faulty bolt that gave way and fatally scalded engine tenter Richard Robertshaw and his co-worker Daniel Wilkins, and left a third man, John Crookes, with life-threatening injuries from the blistering hot steam. Bizarrely, Robertshaw’s four-year-old son had also died on the Davenport site, by drowning in a reservoir used for the steam-engine machinery. Just over a decade later, the power of water unleashed, not as steam but as spate, was to prove fatal to at least 240 souls in Sheffield, and the shadow of corporate culpability, amid an outpouring of grief and outrage, would fall more widely across the whole city.
When I came looking for Elizabeth at Wardsend, though, I had no idea that another distant relative had been directly caught up in the fate of the Dale Dyke Dam, and that he too was laid to rest at Wardsend. I was travelling in hope of finding Elizabeth’s grave after sniffing up several blind alleys. Her husband, a cutler called James Wallace, had died young of liver disease in 1840, leaving Elizabeth a widow with eight sons. She can be seen on successive censuses, moving from the family home in Garden Street, first to Wheeldon Street, then to the slum housing of Pea Croft where her eldest son, Joseph, was cutler and publican at “The Barrel.” Later, Elizabeth moved in with another son, Henry, in Edward Street, where she eventually died of ‘old age’ in her early seventies.
I had read somewhere that the overflow of burials from St Philip’s, Shalesmoor, might mean that Elizabeth, who died on the third day of 1862, could be among the earliest burials at Wardsend. Her interment would have been only two short years before the flood surged past the gates of the cemetery itself. It was this haunting image that led me there in search of answers. As with so much that touches us deeply, I found myself with even more questions and some surprising answers I hadn’t been looking for!
Now, as an Owl, I’m no stranger to the Hillsborough side of town, but when I travelled from the far side of Rotherham, by bus, train and Supertram, discovering Wardsend was like coming across a little unsung plot of paradise. It has an atmosphere all its own. Some of the monumental inscriptions seemed so crisp, as if the stonemason’s chisel had not long left off chipping away the lettering of cherished names and the symbols of remembrance. I never did find Elizabeth’s plot, but I was reluctant to leave, wandering up and down the paths, marvelling at the beauty of the spot on the hillside, catching glimpses on every gravestone of the lives of many strangers and neighbours who might have touched fingertips with my own ancestors.
It was only years later, when to my delight I discovered the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery was a ‘thing’ via Facebook, that I finally had proof from the kindly expertise of Howard Bayley that Elizabeth Wallace is indeed buried at Wardsend, in Plot S230, exactly where I’d hoped she’d be. Armed with this knowledge, I hope to make a return trip one day!
Elizabeth’s grandson, my great grandfather James Wallace was, according to those who knew him, ‘a bit of a lad.’ From the merry dance he led me over the decades of playing genealogical hide-and-seek with him, I learned that ‘bit of a lad’ was a polite family euphemism for a bigamist, an incorrigible player and a bloke who was, by any standards, pathologically economical with the truth – a rogue, albeit a loveable one.
James had a colourful childhood, touring the hostelries and music venues of the Victorian North of England with his father Charles, a professional vocalist and sometime cutler, another of Elizabeth’s brood of boys. James was trained, in true Davenport family tradition, as a saw maker. After a stretch in the Army in India, where he seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time in hospital with malaria and the after-effects of being knocked out by a cricket ball, back in Yorkshire he had almost as many jobs as he did extra-marital moments. From engineer’s tool fitter to bicycle maker, from invoice clerk to spade and shovel maker, Lucky Jim Wallace, all six foot something of him, couldn’t or wouldn’t be pinned down.
James kept the law off his scent, not to mention myself as his baffled descendent, by bailing out from Sheffield to Halifax, knocking a few years off his age, naming his uncle Henry as father of the groom and giving himself the middle name “Maitland” on his bigamous marriage certificate in 1924. ‘Maitland’ was a false moniker which stuck with him till his peaceful demise at the age of 92. But it was James’ first and only legal marriage, to my great grandmother Alice Jane Seagrave, that had me shinning back up that parallel branch of my family tree towards the Great Sheffield Flood itself.
Alice Jane’s father was William Seagrave, a circular wood sawyer and earthenware dealer living on Thomas Street and then on Portobello in the shadow of St George’s Church. He had moved from Mansfield as a youngster with his eldest brother Solomon, a seedsman, nurseryman, florist, fruiterer and market gardener who founded the famous Seagrave Nurseries, was a leading light in the Gleadless Land Society, and who has several roads in Gleadless named after him, including the road where he once lived, Seagrave Road.
Alice Jane herself was a shy, long-suffering lady who, it’s said, “wouldn’t say boo to a goose,” – even when that goose was her serial adulterer husband. She was a buffer girl and sang in the choir of the renowned Dr Henry Coward, the pioneer chorus-master, while going home to the house on Gleadless Road she shared with James, their three children (including my grandmother Elsie), James’ mistress Annie, who was also their landlady, Annie’s grandmother, Annie’s best friend and the child James had fathered with Annie right under Alice Jane’s nose. After Annie’s early death from tuberculosis, Alice Jane adopted the child, always fondly loved by his step-sisters, if not by his step-brother, who emigrated to America soon afterwards, following a violent showdown with his father. Alice Jane continued to care for all James’ children even after he disappeared into the sunset to commit bigamy with another unwitting lass, also called Alice. Oh, to have been a fly on their wall!
Alice Jane’s mother was Emma Goddard, born in 1833 to table knife cutler Charles Goddard and Mary Bartholomew. Six days before Emma’s sixth birthday, on the 11th of May 1839 at their home in Green Square on Charles Street, her elder sister Mary, just nine at the time, was helping to make the fire by wafting the flames with her petticoat. As was upsettingly common in the days of open hearths, the material caught fire and Mary was so severely burned that she died shortly afterwards. The inquest brought in a verdict of accidental death. This had a profound effect on Emma and stayed in her mind all her life. I know it did, as although the incident was never spoken of, the tight tucking in of skirts around the calves became a precaution passed down through the maternal line for five generations in our family, to prevent such accidents with naked flames in future. This preventative hem-hitching was passed from Emma to Alice Jane, from Alice Jane to Elsie, and on down to my own mother and to me.
It didn’t always quite do the trick, however. My grandmother Elsie worked as a young woman in a Sheffield corset factory where glue was heated over a fire. Elsie once briefly set her skirt alight, thankfully without the same fatal consequences as befell her great aunt Mary! So, fire brought tragedy to my Goddard ancestors. But it was the force of water that was to claim another member of the clan.
Joseph Goddard, a third great granduncle of mine, was a plumber, glazier and painter who travelled around for work. In 1841 he was in Arundel Lane and ten years later he had moved to the aptly named “Putty Cottage” in Swinton. But by the night of the census in 1861, he was living back in Sheffield with his son Edwin in Howard Hill, before his final fatal move to Malin Bridge. Edwin was a son from Joseph’s first marriage and worked as an engine tenter or stationary engine driver.
Joseph had remarried in 1856 to Sarah Bettany, a widowed pauper potter, as she is described on the census before their marriage. She had previously been married to a man called Samuel Edwards, by whom she had a daughter Mary who was with Joseph and Sarah when the Dale Dyke Dam burst in the bleak darkness above their cottage.
That March night, the sliver of waxing crescent Moon had already set, and the rain was lashing down in a south-westerly gale-force wind, so the darkness was deep indeed when the embankment cracked, and the dam finally breached. Dale Dyke flung its deadly torrent across the countryside, from the broad plains and meadows where the Loxley meets the deeper Don, along valleys, over fields, mills, grinding wheels, inns, gardens, homes containing sleeping families, pets and livestock, licking at the gates of Wardsend Cemetery with its grisly flotsam of masonry and machinery, churning with drowned souls and the corpses of stricken animals, to lap at the walls of Hillsborough Barracks and onward towards the town.
As it approached the row of twelve cottages known locally as Bower’s Buildings in Malin Bridge, Joseph was about to have a rude and terrible awakening. He had been in bed with Sarah, or, judging by what followed, perhaps scrambling to dress in the chaotic darkness. Also caught in the nightmare were Sarah’s daughter Mary, plus Sarah’s infant grandchildren, Mary’s youngest children, Rosina Yeardley, aged three, and John, aged two. All were swept away as the flood raged on, destroying the Stag Inn and ripping open the “The Cleakum” as the Malin Bridge Inn was known to locals.
Just below Hillsborough Bridge, the tide of horror burst through the village of Owlerton, where, as paper mills and public houses dissolved into the seething maelstrom of filthy water, a lodger in a nearby cottage was confronted by Joseph’s naked corpse, his sodden and ragged shirt still attached to his wrist by the cuff, helplessly buffeted at the mercy of the deluge.
In the following days, amid grief, shock and the inevitable recriminations, came the frantic attempts to locate missing loved ones, to identify the deceased, some swept into the debris against Lady’s Bridge or washed away as far as Mexborough in the Dearne Valley. Once the bodies of Joseph and Sarah were identified at Owlerton on the day after the flood, son Edwin had the death mask made from his father’s face and from that a memorial bust, viewable online here on Mick Armitage’s excellent website: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/sheffield/photogal/artefact.html
Joseph and Sarah were buried at Wardsend, a fact I have only recently confirmed through the invaluable knowledge and help of the F.O.W.C. I understand the Yeardley family is buried at Moorgate Cemetery in Rotherham, where Mary’s husband Alfred lived. There is also a memorial stone for some of the flood victims in the churchyard of St John the Baptist’s far downstream at Mexborough, where I took this photo while searching for some of my ancestors from my father’s side, who were blacksmiths, farriers and wharfingers there.
You can take Sheffielders out of Sheffield, but you can never take Sheffield out of their hearts. My maternal ancestors didn’t leave Sheffield by choice, but by necessity. Tragedies and trials were witnessed and weathered until the Great War broke out and left their world unutterably changed.
My mum’s dad, Christopher Mamwell, had married Elsie Wallace, youngest daughter of ‘bit of a lad’ James and Alice Jane, in 1920 after the war ended. Granddad tramped nearly thirty miles northeast, all the way from 143 Derbyshire Lane in the days following the 1926 General Strike, to find work and a home for his growing family in Bolton-upon-Dearne. In the lamp room at Wath Main Pit, the acid used for cleaning damaged his skilled craftsman’s hands and fingertips, and this came to symbolise for him the loss of dignity and hope tied up with all he held dear in his life as a young man around Meersbrook, Heeley and Norton Hammer. Before the move away from Sheffield, he had been an artist and silver chaser who loved to walk out into the Peak District with its stunning views and clear horizons. Chris and Elsie always carried their Sheffield roots in their memory and in their hearts. The endless tributaries, meanderings and torrents of our family history lead us to where we are today.
So where do I fit in? I grew up as a railway child, in the Station Cottages of Bolton-on-Dearne on the LNER line from Sheffield to York at the start of the swinging sixties, a Dearne Valley lass born and bred. I love weaving echoes of the lives of my ancestors into my writing, including my first novel “Goatsucker Harvest” which was inspired by the lives of my dad’s waterway & railway ancestors, canals and Humber keels and the wilderness of lost fenland around Thorne and Hatfield Moors. Not surprisingly, Sheffield features in my second novel, a work in progress set again in the mid nineteenth century when shooting parties travelled from the inland cities to the Yorkshire Coast to bag seabirds and the “climmers” swung from the North Sea cliffs to gather eggs. Not without opposition, of course, or it would be a very short story! Sheffield sings in my blood – even though I’ll not plead that as an excuse for being a die-hard Owl – there are Blades too among my kin and ancestors for balance!
Over the years, I’ve walked most of Sheffield’s highways and byways in search of the places my ancestors lived and loved, mooching round cemeteries and records offices every chance I could snatch on the odd day off from my life as a Methodist minister. Two months after my unforgettable visit to Wardsend, I collapsed with a severe bout of autoimmune illness that left me bedridden and housebound. It abruptly ended that chapter of my gadabout genealogical adventures forever, but as one door closed, another opened, as my life was forced to slow down, on opportunities of sharing my lifelong passion, expressing my love for Yorkshire and its people, history, wildlife and wonders in writing, in poetry, prose, and fiction, and capturing it with my lens.
For those who lost their lives, homes and dreams when the Dale Dyke Dam burst its banks, whose blood runs through our veins, I think it’s so important to share their stories on this anniversary of the Great Sheffield Flood and on into the future. Let’s never stop celebrating them and telling their interconnected tales and tragedies. For as long as we do, they can never be forgotten.