As we approach the anniversary of the tragic events of March 11 1864, I’ve been dipping my toe back into 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 chased my great-great-great grandmother through history, through census returns, record offices and repositories, and now I’d come to Wardsend in hopes of finding her final resting place. 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.’
What I wasn’t expecting to find, when I came looking for Elizabeth at Wardsend, was another distant relative who had been directly caught up in the fate of the Dale Dyke Dam, which collapsed in 1864, proving fatal to at least 240 souls in Sheffield. I had read somewhere that the overflow of burials from St Philip’s, Shalesmoor, might mean that Elizabeth, who died in 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. I’m no stranger to the Hillsborough side of town, but discovering Wardsend was like coming across an unsung plot of paradise. 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. I didn’t 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, eyeing the gravestones of strangers who may have touched fingertips with my own ancestors. From that visit, I found myself with even more questions and some surprising answers I hadn’t been looking for.
It was only years later, when to my delight I discovered the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery via Facebook, that I finally found proof that Elizabeth Wallace is indeed buried at Wardsend, in Plot S230, exactly where I’d hoped she’d be. I also found much more.
Elizabeth’s grandson, my great grandfather James Wallace was, according to those who knew him, ‘a bit of a lad.’ Through the game of genealogical hide-and-seek I’ve played with him over the years, I’ve since learned this is a polite family euphemism for bigamist, and an incorrigible rogue who was pathologically economical with the truth. James was trained, in true Davenport family tradition, as a saw maker, before serving in the army in India. Back in Yorkshire he had almost as many jobs as he did extra-marital moments. James kept the law off his scent by bailing out from Sheffield to Halifax, knocking a few years off his age, 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 brought me back to the Great Sheffield Flood.
Alice Jane’s father was William Seagrave, whose eldest brother Solomon founded the famous Seagrave Nurseries, 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 lived on Gleadless Road 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, and continued to care for all James’ children even after he disappeared into the sunset to commit bigamy with another unwitting lass.
Alice Jane’s mother was Emma Goddard, born in 1833. Six days before Emma’s sixth birthday, on May 11 1839, at their home on Charles Street, her elder sister Mary, aged nine, was helping make to 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. This had a profound effect on Emma, and the tight tucking in of skirts around the calves became a precaution passed down through the maternal line in our family for five generations - from Emma to Alice Jane, from Alice Jane to Elsie, and on down to my own mother and to me.
Joseph Goddard, a third great granduncle of mine, was living in Sheffield at the time of The Great Sheffield Flood. He was a plumber, glazier and painter who had travelled around for work, but in 1864 was living with his second wife, Sarah, and his stepdaughter, Mary, in Malin Bridge. They were all at home when the Dale Dyke Dam burst in the bleak darkness above their cottage, flinging its deadly torrent across the countryside, from the broad plains and meadows where the Loxley meets the deeper Don, along valleys, over fields, inns, homes containing sleeping families, licking at the gates of Wardsend Cemetery 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. Joseph, Sarah, Mary, and Mary’s two children - aged two and three - were all caught in the nightmare, swept away into the darkness by the flood waters. A lodger in a cottage in Owlerton was eventually confronted by Joseph’s naked corpse, his sodden and ragged shirt still attached to his wrist by the cuff.
In the following days, amid grief, shock and the inevitable recriminations, came the frantic attempts to locate missing loved ones and to identify the deceased, some swept into the debris against Lady’s Bridge or washed away as far as Mexborough in the Dearne Valley. The bodies of Joseph and Sarah were identified at Owlerton the day after the flood, and were buried at Wardsend.
My mum’s dad, Christopher Mamwell, married Elsie Wallace, youngest daughter of James and Alice Jane, in 1920 after the war ended. Granddad tramped nearly thirty miles northeast, 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.
So where do I fit in? I grew up as a railway child, in the Station Cottages of Bolton-on-Dearne. 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. Not surprisingly, Sheffield also features in my second novel, a work in progress set again in the mid nineteenth century. Sheffield sings in my blood and over the years, I’ve walked most of its 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.
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. For as long as we remember them, they can never be forgotten.