The Great Sheffield Flood On 11 March 1864 in Sheffield, the Dale Dyke Dam broke and a great flood surged through parts of Sheffield, causing extensive property damage and killed some 270 people. The enquiry afterwards determined that the dam construction was defective and the resulting claims for damages formed one of the largest insurance claims of the 19th century.

One of the homes in the path of the flood belonged to my three times great-grandfather John Harris.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England), Friday, February 10, 1865; pg. 3; Issue 3226. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

Melancholy Case.

John Harris, file grinder, Penistone road, claimed £500 for bodily injury. Mr. Shepherd was heard for the claimant. The case was very brief, but the accident was of a very singular nature. The claimant was lying asleep on his sofa when the water got into the house. He was awakened by the noise, and in getting up hastily he overturned the sofa, which was partly floating, and it fell upon him, and he received a blow on the back of his head. The evidence of Mr. Lawton, surgeon, showed that an abscess had formed, and had “absorbed” that part of the skull and scalp, and left a portion of the brain very thinly protected. Partial paralysis had ensued, and would grow worse….Dr. J. C. Hall confirmed Mr. Lawton’s evidence….Mr. Pickering left the case in the hands of the Commissioners, and after a short deliberation they awarded the full amount, £500.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England), Thursday, April 13, 1865; pg. 3; Issue 3279. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

The Inundation Commission: A Claim Dismissed for Perjury

The Court was occupied for more than eight hours yesterday in hearing the case of John Harris, who claimed £500 from the company for bodily injury. The case was in some respects the most remarkable that has come before the Commission, and it fortunately stands almost alone as regards the reasons which induced the Court to dismiss it. It was first heard on the 9th of February, when Mr. Shepherd (instructed by Mr. Broadbent) put it before the Court as “a case in which, if even the poor man recovered the whole of the sum he claimed, it would be but poor compensation for the serious injury he had sustained.” The claimant’s wan and ghastly appearance made a great sensation at the time; and as the company had no evidence whatever to rebut his testimony, the Court awarded him the whole of his claim — £500. Immediately afterwards, however, a number of persons came forward with information which was of such a nature as to induce the company to apply for a new trial, on the ground of perjury and fraud, and application was granted. Mr. Shepherd again appeared for the claimant; the Water Company were represented by Mr. Pickering, Q.C., and Mr. Holker.

Mr. Shepherd, in opening the case stated the circumstances as they will be found detailed below, and asserted that he should be able most completely to refute every allegation that Mr. Pickering had made when he obtained the order for a new trial, and to show beyond all question that this was as bona fide a case as was ever brought into a court of justice. He then called:

John Harris, the claimant, who appeared to be in even worse health than at the previous hearing. All the other witnesses (with the exception of the medical men) having been ordered out of court, the examination proceeded. The claimant stated that he was a file grinder and lived in Peniston road. On the night of the flood he was sleeping on a sofa, in the kitchen, and was awoke by the noise of the water, which burst into the room both from the back and front of the house. He wakened by the shaking of the sofa, and felt as though he were swimming. He tried to make his way upstairs, but he was in too great a hurry, and the sofa being unsteady by reason of one of the castors being gone, and the piece of wood that had been put under the leg to steady it being washed away, “it let down, and the sofa tippled over on to him.” The sofa struck him on the head, and he became quite senseless. He believed, from the way in which it fell, that the arm of the sofa struck him on the head. The sofa was a wooden one, very heavy, and the covering had been stripped from the arm, so that the frame was exposed. A piece of wood was produced, and was said to be the part of the sofa which struck him on the head. He did not know how high the water rose in the house, as he was quite insensible. The blow was on the top of the back of his head. The next thing of which he was conscious was that he had got upstairs, and was sick. He was exceedingly frightened, because the shaking made him believe the house was coming down. After he had been perhaps six or seven minutes in the water, his wife came down, and assisted him upstairs….. Mr. Overend and Mr. Mills pressed the claimant as to what position he was in when his wife came down…. He replied that he was lying with his side-face in the water, with the sofa upon his head and shoulders; and his next answer was that the wound he received was exactly in the middle of the back of his head. He was asked how deep the water was in the house, but he could not tell. His wife lifted him up and got him upstairs, but he did not know how she got him up. Asked my Mr. Shepherd if his wife did anything to his head, he replied that she did not at that time; she got his clothes off and put him into bed. The question was repeated, and it will be seen that his answer was in direct contradiction to the following testimony. He repeated that his wife did nothing at all to his head until the following morning, when she washed it, and then found out the place where a bruise had been inflicted. The wound got worse, and a great lump formed over the place. He did nothing at all to the wound, except have it washed with warm water, and at length he went to the Isle of Man, being persuaded that the change of air would be beneficial. He was certain that he took that journey in about eight weeks after the flood. After a short stay there, a gentleman whom he met on the sands advised him to return, and he came by the next boat, and immediately upon his arrival in Sheffield he consulted with Mr. Lawton, surgeon, and he had continued under his treatment more or less up to the present time. He was then asked as to his state of health before the flood, and he stated that he had suffered from rheumatism about a year previous, and was attended by Dr. Bartolomé. The pain was principally in his limbs, but he had a little in his forehead. He asserted very positively that he never was injured at the part of the head where the present injury exists, at any time before the flood. He never had “a scratch or a blemish upon it in any way.” In his occupation as a file grinder he had broken several grindstones, and had been struck by the fragments upon the face and body, and one of them cut his chin, knocked out some of his teeth, and broke his nose, but the back of his head had never been hurt. The last occasion on which he broke a stone was nearly thirty years ago. He was knocked down by the blow on the face, and “lighted on his back,” but the back of his head sustained no injury, and he never had a scratch upon it before the night of the flood. Almost his next answer was an admission that he had been injured by a blow on the back of the head by the bough of a tree. He said that about two years ago, he was coming from Buxton on the top of the coach, and was seated with his back to the driver. The latter cried out to the passengers to beware of an overhanging bough, but he witness did not hear the caution, and was struck by the bough, but it was not a severe blow. The blow took effect just at the bottom of the hair, behind the right ear, and was so slight that he did not believe he had been hurt until happening to put his hand to the place, he found blood issuing from a “scratch.” Some of his hair got into the wound, it became troublesome, and he got the surrounding hair cut off, and had several leeches applied by a woman named Sylvester. He did not consult a surgeon for that injury, and it healed in four or five weeks. He admitted having had a fall at the “Royal Lancers” public-house, in the year before the flood. He stepped upon a piece of tobacco pipe and fell, but the only result was a sprain of the wrist, his head never touching either the floor or any of the furniture of the room. He was then asked if he had ever fallen out of a conveyance of any kind, and he denied it….In cross-examination by Mr. Pickering, the claimant said that he did not regularly sleep upon the sofa, but he very often slept upon it until one or two o’clock in the morning. On the night of the flood he laid down on the sofa about nine o’clock and his children were just then going to bed. He had no doubt as to the time, or that his wife was in the room when he laid down. When the water came in he thought he would make his way upstairs, but in getting up, being rather frightened, he pulled the sofa, which was a very heavy one, upon him. The sofa “weighed him down,” and although he struggled hard, he could not get free, as one end of the sofa had got jammed against the wall. His face was touching the floor, in the water, but he could not say how deep the water was. He lost his senses, but believed that he must have been in that position about six minutes before his wife came down. He came to his senses upstairs, and found that his wife had rescued him. Two of his sons Albert and Henry, came down, but not until after his wife had got him into bed. The boys wanted to go out of the house, but he told them to remain in-doors, as they would be drowned if they went outside. He saw the mark next day which the water had left, but took no particular notice of it. In the morning one of his sons came from his house higher up the road, and asked if they were safe, and his wife told him, through the window, that they had a very bad night. He denied that a neighbour named Swindell called out to him and his family to get out of the house, and that his wife replied to her. Mr. Pickering then asked him when he first told to any person the nature of the injuries he had received, and he replied that he did not tell it to any one….Mr. Overend: Didn’t you tell to any one that you had been thrown under the sofa and had great difficulty in escaping with your life? — Witness: I did not tell any one a word about it. Mr. Lawton was the first man I told how I had been fixed in the flood. That was not until six weeks afterwards, when I was so bad that I was forced to go to him… Mr. Overend: had you felt pain in your head? — Yes, great pain. A lump formed as large as a basin… Why didn’t you mention to any one the accident that had happened to you? — Well, I had my reasons…. Just mention them, will you? — Well, I had a bit of awkwardness with my trade. I actually paid for drink for men, and something to eat for them, and they heard every word I had got to say and then went to the other party and told them all about it, and it cost me such a thing as £100….The witness was pressed to explain how he connected this with the accident, and he went into a long, rambling story, to the effect that he had his bands rattened, that the trade secretary was sent to gaol for a month for the offence, that he appealed, and that he (Harris) was persuaded not to sustain the conviction at the Quarter Sessions, whereupon he was ordered to pay the whole of the costs….Mr. Overend: Was that the reason you did not mention to anybody the dreadful accident which happened to you in the flood? — Well, I didn’t think I should be doing right to let everybody into my business; and you see, as it comes to now, there’s a lot of people been bought up to come and swear against me, that know no more how I as fixed in the flood than you do….The witness went on to state that he and his wife did not associate with their neighbours, who were given to backbiting and sander, and were “huddling one another one day, and the next were falling out and ready to cut each other’s cords.” (Laughter.) He never told his married sons what had happened, and he said they did not know he had to go before the Court until the report of the case appeared. He denied having told Mr. Robert Marsden (Marsden Brothers) “that as soon as he had seen his wife and children safe he went down to the works in Bridge street to see if his mule had been drowned.” His mule was brought home on the Saturday, and he gave him something warm to eat. (Laughter.) A person named Edge (who married a daughter of Mrs. Harris by a former husband) came to the house shortly after the flood, but he never said a word to him about the accident, nor did he ever say to him that his skull had been fractured many years before by the fragment of a grindstone. He was then questioned as to the accident that occurred on his return from Buxton, and he denied, categorically, that the blow caused an abscess on the place where he is now injured, and that he was attended by Mr. Lawton for that injury before the flood. He was not in “capital good health” the year before the flood, but still he could follow his trade, and he worked from two to four hours a day up to March. He employed a barber named Copley to shave his head, after his return from Buxton, in order that leeches might be applied to the part….Mr. Pickering: Was the place at that time soft and tender to the touch? — Witness: Well, they say grinders’ heads always are soft. (Laughter.) The place was tender and softish. (Laughter.)…. Did Mr. Lawton attend you for any injury to your head before the flood? — Never before the flood. I never went about with my head tied up until Mr. Lawton had attended me, and after my return from the Isle of Man. (At this point Mr. Pickering paused for a moment to consult his brief, and Harris said, “You seem to be rather in a fix; if I was you I would cut it short.” He was suitably admonished by the Court for the impertinence.) The examination was prolonged for some time, and the witness answered in the negative nearly the whole of the questions that were put to him as embodying the evidence which afterwards called for the Water Company.

Mrs. Harris was the next witness, and she described the position in which she found her husband. He was lying with his face downwards, and the sofa upon him, and the water was then half-way up the second step of the chamber staircase. She stated that as soon as she got him up she put him upon the sofa, and bathed his head with warm water. He then walked up stairs, “as well as he could,” and she followed him to get him into bed. She fixed the time when he went to the Isle of Man as being in August, and said that before he went she had twice fomented the wound with turpentine and water, and that the smarting was so severe that he refused to allow her to use the lotion again. Before the flood he had never suffered any injury to the back of his head, except the “scratch” inflicted by the bough of a tree….Cross-examined by Mr. Pickering, she stated that her husband had his head tied up when he was being attended by Dr. Bartolomé in December, 1863, for rheumatism. He always had it tied up when he went out at that time, for several months. He complained of a pain somewhere at the back of his head at that time. He had never had an abscess on his head, or undergone any operation, before the flood. The witness was then examined with great minuteness as to what took place after she found her husband in the kitchen. She bathed her husband’s head in the kitchen, and was so engaged for about ten minutes. The boys went up into the front bedroom, and watched the water. Witness put the sofa in its proper position, placed her husband upon it, and he remained there whilst she bathed his head. She had nothing on but her night-dress. She admitted having spoken, through the window, to Mrs. Swindell, but stated that was after her husband had been put into bed. Mr. Overend asked her if she had told anybody of the narrow escape her husband had, and she replied that she never mentioned the matter to any person, not even to her own children. “They kept it to themselves, because it had once cost Harris a deal of money for telling his mind.”….Mr. Overend: Is that you only reason? — Witness: Well, we thought it best to keep it to ourselves… That is the only explanation you can give? — It is, Sir….How long did you keep it yourselves? — Until we told Dr. Lawton in August….Did you tell your boys, who saw you bathing his head, not to tell any one? — No….Then they would talk about it, of course? — I am not answerable for anything they said. Mr. Shepherd sent for the two boys, and the Court adjourned for refreshment. When the members reassembled,

Henry Harris, aged sixteen, was examined. He gave an account which confirmed that given by his mother in almost every particular. Her screaming woke him, and he went into the kitchen, and saw his father sitting upon the sofa, and his mother bathing his head with hot water. He heard his father cry out, “Oh, my head.” The witness said that he and his brother went upstairs, and stood at the top whilst his father and mother came up. He denied that he had spoken to his mother, or had been with her at the Black Rock public-house, during the adjournment of the Court. He was very closely cross-examined by Mr. Pickering, and the first material contradiction elicited was that when he got into the kitchen, the sofa was lying overturned upon the floor, and was not, as his mother had said, in its proper state. Next, he said that his father sat upon a chair, and not upon the sofa, whilst his head was bathed. The sofa lay where the water had “chucked” it. He thought the water had been about a yard deep in the house….Mr. Pickering: How deep was it when you came down? — It had drained away fast, but it was above my knee then….Was your brother Albert in the water? — No, he stood on the stairs, and never came into the kitchen. The water had only got up to the second bar of the fire grate, and there was a good fire untouched above that. My mother used a sponge when she was bathing my father’s head….Did you see your father’s head that night? — yes, and it was very bad indeed….Where was it hurt? — Somewhere at the back…Did it bleed? — Yes….Mr. Overend: Did you ever mention to anybody that your father’s head had been hurt? — No….Were you told not to mention it? — I was not told any way….But you never did mention it to any one? — No….Why did not you mention it? — It was not my place to mention it….Mr. Mills: Did you ever tell anybody that you had the flood in your house? —Yes, when the asked me….Mr. Overend: Did you tell them the sofa had turned over on your father and that he was nearly drowned? – No, I never told them anything of the sort. I told a boy named Parvin that I was up to my knees in water. I told him that as I came down stairs I stepped up to my knees in water….Didn’t you tell him why you went down — because you heard your mother scream? — I didn’t say anything to him about that….The boy was then asked if he had seen his father wear and handkerchief or a bandage round his head before the flood, whilst Dr. Bartolomé was attending him, and he denied with singular pertinacity that he had ever seen him wear on. Mr. Overend then read over to him the statement of his mother, that his father had gone about with his head tied up, and the boy immediately admitted that what he had said was quite false. He explained it by saying that he did not know what he was talking about just then. He was seriously admonished, and dismissed.

Albert Harris, 15 years, was next examined, and he began by stating that he went to bed about ten o’clock, and that his father was in bed at the time of the flood, and that he came downstairs again when the flood came…Mr. Overend: Where was your father when you went to bed? — He was in the front room, going to go to bed. He was laid on the sofa in the front room….Were you awoke in the night? — yes, I went downstairs, and mother was bathing his head. (Laughter.)….How was the sofa in the room? — Laid on the floor….Not standing in its proper position? — No. I went into the kitchen and picked up our jackets, and shoes and stockings…What was your mother doing all that time? — She was bathing father’s head….Where was your father? — On the sofa in the kitchen….You said just now the sofa was on the floor? —That was the sofa in the front room…How had he got into the kitchen? — Mother brought him there….In answer to Mr. Pickering, the boy stated that his father went to rest upon the sofa at six o’clock, and that at about half-past nine he went upstairs, returned, and laid upon the sofa in the front room. He had then only his shirt, trousers, and stockings on. There was no fire in the front room. He saw, on coming down stairs, that the sofa in the front room had been turned over by the water; that in the kitchen was as he had seen it on the previous night. He said that the kitchen fire was out; that his mother bathed his father’s head with a flannel; and he also contradicted in every particular the account his mother had given of the way in which she and her husband went up stairs. He had no idea that anything at all had happened to his father, and never mentioned to any body what he had seen. Asked, immediately afterwards, when he first learned that his father had hurt his head, he replied, “Mother shouted upstairs that night that father was under the sofa.” He had never mentioned to any of his playfellows that his father was injured in the flood. The boy denied, as his brother had one, that his father wore a bandage round his head before the flood, and when his mother’s evidence was read over, he replied, “He didn’t take much notice.”

Theodore Flint, clothier, Westbar, James Ainsworth, spring-knife cutler, Hoyle street, Jeremiah Calpham, grinder, and Alfred Allen, grinder, were called to prove that the claimant had not suffered from injury to the head before the flood. Their evidence was rendered valueless by the admissions they made that they were ignorant of facts which the claimant had admitted were true. Allen caused some amusement, on being asked if the claimant was known as a boxer, by replying that he didn’t know; he had never stood in front of him.

Mr. Lawton, surgeon, stated that he attended the claimant in August last, and found him suffering from an abscess at the back of the head. The bony covering of the brain was absorbed, and the membrane laid bare. It was very likely that the injury which he saw in August might have been produced by a blow from the sofa, as the claimant had described in March. Witness had examined the house, and by the mark he found that the water had risen to a height of 19 inches in the kitchen….In cross-examination, the witness was pressed as to whether he attended the claimant for an injury to his head before the flood, and he said he had not, to the best of his recollection. When he examined the claimant’s head, there was not the slightest appearance of a fracture of the skull. He attended him in Dec., 1863, for a cold and a little rheumatism, but he made no complaint about his head. Witness gave his opinion, and he should not have done so if he had complained of his head.

Dr. Hall was also examined as to the nature of the injury, and its probable cause. He said that a blow would probably cause such an injury. He never saw a case of exfoliation of the bone from rheumatism only. This was the case for the claimant.

Mr. Pickering then called a number of witnesses to show that the account given by the claimant and his witnesses could not be true….Mr. Robert Gascoigne proved that during the adjournment for luncheon he had seen Mrs. Harris and her son Albert talking together in the Black Rock, and afterwards in one of the passages of the court.

Dr. Bartolomé proved that he attended Harris in December, 1863, for rheumatism of the scalp, and treated him successfully….In cross-examination, he said there was then no wound on the claimant’s head. He examined it, and there was no appearance of a fracture. He thought it very unlikely that rheumatism, unaided by any other cause, would have produced such a state of things as Harris was now suffering from….Reexamined, he said that if there had been a previous injury to the head and rheumatism followed, it might have a tendency to produce an abscess of this description under certain circumstances.

Charles Edge, who married the claimant’s step-daughter, went into some explanation to the effect that the claimant went to London to see Mace and Goss fight, a fact which Mr. Holker admitted involved no discredit to him. The witness then spoke of matters more material to the issue, and said that the claimant told him that the blow from the bough had injured the back of his head, on the exact spot where the abscess appeared. The wound grew worse, and Mr. Lawton attended, and said it was abscess. That was in the summer of 1863. On the morning of the flood, witness saw the claimant in his bed, and asked how he had passed the night. He replied that he had been frightened by hearing his wife and other people scream, but he said nothing of any accident to himself….Mr. Shepherd’s cross-examination of this, as of the following witnesses, who spoke to the same facts, was directed to show that the events of which they spoke occurred in the course of the summer of 1864, but it was unsuccessful.

Mr. Robert Marsden proved, amongst other things less material, that on the morning of Saturday, March 12, Harris told him “that after he had seen his wife and children safe he came down to the works in Bridge street to look after his mule.” Harris gave up working about six months before the flood.

Mrs. Charlotte Wainwright said that Harris had told her he had been injured on the head by the breaking of a grindstone. She had seen a “bump” on his head, in the place where the bone is absorbed, long before the flood; and he had told her that he fell down at the “lancers,” and bumped his head on the stone floor. There was a lump forming at the back of his head when he returned from Buxton. The day after the flood, she saw Harris, and he told her he was in bed all the time, and did not see the flood, but that his wife got up to save the cats. (Laughter.) Witness added that her cat was drowned.

Henry Copley, barber, Shalesmoor, proved that in the summer of 1863 he shaved Harris’s head three times. His head was injured at the back, and there was apparently a gathering forming….. The witness was not shaken, by a long cross-examination, from his assertion that this took place in 1863, at least eight months before the flood. He understood that Mr. Lawton was attending Harris at the time. (This was denied by Mr. Lawton.)

Mrs. Ann Sylvester, leech woman, stated that she applied leeches to Harris’s head on several occasions in the summer of 1863, and the injury she then saw was exactly in the place where Harris is now suffering.

Mrs. Swindell, the person previously mentioned, said that she called out to her neighbours immediately on hearing the water. Mrs. Harris opened the window of the bed room and asked what was the matter. Witness replied, “The watchman says we shall all be drowned.” Mrs. Harris turned round, as though to speak to some one in the room, and then said, “Master says we shall be safer in bed.” Witness had not been in bed, and she gave the alarm as soon as the flood came….Witnesses were then called to show that Harris had fallen upon the floor of the Lancers’ public-house, whilst in a tipsy state, but it was not clear that he had injured his head there.

Mr. George Barnsley, the claimant’s master, proved that he had been in a very bad health long previous to the flood, and had complained of pain at the back of his head; and Dr. Law was called to give an opinion as to the probable cause of the injury. He dissented altogether from the theory that such a blow as Harris had spoken of could produce such a wound.

Mr. Pickering, in summing up his case, said there could be no question that the claim had been supported by the grossest and most wicked perjury. It was apparent from the claimant’s own evidence that the accident could not have happened. If her had remained with his face in eighteen inches of water for six minutes, he must have been suffocated. The learned counsel pointed out the numerous contradictions in the evidence, and submitted that the former judgment had been obtained by the foulest fraud that had ever been witnessed in a court of justice.

Mr. Shepherd retorted with the remark that such language ought rather to be addressed to a mob outside. He hurled back with defiance the charge of perjury, and contended that the claim had been shown to be perfectly bona fide.

After a short deliberation the Chief Commissioner said: We have listened to this case with very great anxiety and interest, because we were exceedingly anxious to have supported our former judgment if it would have been consistent with our duty to have done so. We had announced that we would only re-open cases where there was an allegation of fraud, and that being so we were exceedingly anxious to support our former judgment. However, we are drawn to the conclusion, in spite of ourselves, that a great fraud has been committed; and that the allegation as to the way in which this injury was sustained, so far from having been proved, is most certainly disproved upon Harris’s own statement, without taking into account the evidence for the Water Company. We therefore reverse our previous judgment, and the claim for compensation must be dismissed.

Court will sit to-day at ten, to hear the last case.

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