A FEW months after his museum was sunk under water, Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust chief executive John Hamshere set off to a conference in Halifax. But the sky was grey and the rain was bouncing off the road.
“I couldn’t do it. So I turned round and came to stand on Ball Street Bridge, watching the river around the museum. I must have stood there for an hour.”
Five years ago, John was away when the flood struck Kelham Island Industrial Museum but he saw the full effects when he arrived at work early the following morning.
“The museum was basically destroyed. There was mud and silt everywhere, the oil that had been lifted out of the machines was running down the walls, the courtyard was full of detritus and uprooted trees and the river wall was smashed down. The place was devastated. Thirteen years before I’d come in to save the museum from being closed and to see it all swept away was heartbreaking.”
Insurers warned that many of the displays and infrastructure would have to go due to contamination and mould but, thanks to earlier storage provision and quick thinking by staff on the day, only 120 exhibits were lost, out of tens of thousands held by the museum.
One of the early calls on the day after the flood came from the office of the Duke of Gloucester, who’d visited the museum in the past, asking how Kelham had fared. There were further calls and visits from supporters and partners like the city council, Sheffield’s universities, Museums Sheffield, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Forgemasters who sent a team of apprentices down to help with the clean-up. “We had brilliant support. It was a real vote of confidence for us.”
The museum’s insurers were equally helpful, he said, awarding money early to help rebuild in time for September school visits. As a result, Kelham Island was only completely shut for two months, although the full refit and rebuild wasn’t finished until 2009.
John now sees some positive outcomes following the flood.
“There were some silver linings. I never want to go through that again but we were able to start from a clean sheet. We were able to say we wanted a new museum.”
Kelham received around £1.4m from insurance policies and on his office wall John still has a copy of the bank statement where the museum briefly held £1m in its account.
“It also showed that people and organisations do come together in a crisis. It shows that spirit is still there, communities do help each other.”
Visits increased after the restoration, there’s the new Hawley Gallery of tools and plans for a brewing gallery to celebrate Sheffield’s brewing history. Kelham is also better able to offer corporate and private hire facilities.
Work by the Environment Agency and others has drastically improved ‘flood resilience’ in the Kelham area, with 8,000 tons of silt and stones cleared out of the river, an extra span of the Ball Street Bridge opened up and a steel-strengthened flood wall around the island.
“It could happen again,” said John Hamshere, frankly. “But we’re better prepared now. Although when the sky goes slate grey and remains slate grey, it still gives me the heebee-jeebies.”