The Floods of 2007 were horrendous. It was a miserable time no one wants a return to that. I was pretty excited by the news that Sheffield was going to get major funding, but then I started reading the Sheffield Flood consultation, and found a lot of questions arising and no answers to be had. Like the clergyman’s wife in the Simpsons who shouts “What about the Children?” I find myself shouting “What about the heritage?”
I’ve been ploughing through flood reports and strategies and know a lot more now about river ecology, hydro morphology and a whole lot of long words I need the spellchecker for. The conclusion I have reached is that flood defense it is a very complex issue, that the Council hasn’t even tried to explain.
It is no accident that one the oldest artifacts we have is a dugout canoe. How significant Sheffield’s waterways were in those days it is difficult to say as exploration of our early history has been undervalued for centuries and is still so in many quarters.
The Sheaf, Shire Brook and the Meersbrook have been the boundary rivers for centuries if not longer. Sheffield was a border town for a great amount of its history and in Roman times was the northern extent of the Roman Empire for about 30 years. In Saxon times the Sheaf and the Meersbrook became significant as the boundary between Mercia and Northumbria, and latter between Derbyshire and Yorkshire.
With the Norman conquest new technology was introduced and Sheffield’s rivers took on a new significance. The monasteries introduced water mills and new metalworking methods. The first known wheels date from the 12th century. In the 16th century the development of water powered bellows created huge changes in the production of iron and steel. Evidence of this can be found in the wills of the Norton scythemakers who went into mass production soon after its introduction on by the Earl of Shrewsbury on the nearby Sheaf in 1560, as the new innovation changed production from 20 tons to 200 tons of processed iron per year.
Grinding wheels dominated the rivers Loxley and Rivelin. These two rivers flowed from the north-west of Sheffield and were accessible to the cutlers of Bradfield parish, especially Stannington, and the cutlers of Nether Hallam in the hamlets of Walkley, Crookes and Malin Bridge. The river Sheaf had the most varied sites, almost equally divided between corn grinding, metalworking (especially lead) and blade grinding. The river Sheaf had the most varied sites, almost equally divided between corn grinding, metalworking (especially lead) and blade grinding. The Blackburn brook provided power for a number of mills along its course Industry started on the Shire Brook at Carr Forge in the mid 16th century and by the 19th century there were five wheels operating sharpening scythes and sickles. The Don is the largest river in Sheffield, collecting the water from the other rivers and flowing from the north before turning northeast at its confluence with the Sheaf near the centre of Sheffield. Like the Sheaf it had more metalworking sites, but unlike the Sheaf they were all concerned with ferrous metals.
No one knows exactly how many wheels dams and weirs there were and it is quite difficult to know how many survive. Many dams were built over when the Railways were built. Others later on when they were no longer needed. Some like the Mayfield Dams are silted and grown over. Some have become water features in parks and gardens. Often when the dams are long gone the weirs still remain as no one saw a reason to remove them. In some cases the weirs have been culveted such as where the Sheaf joins the Don, and rumours speak of at least one dam now underground, though this may be an urban myth. And some Dams and Weirs were lost under the reservoirs. Possibly around 160-200 mills were working off the water wheels in Sheffield. Many wheels shared the weirs.
So what, you may say. Sheffield is now littered with bits of mills, lots of weirs and dams. Times have changed. Many naturalists don’t like the weirs and feel they should be all scrapped and moan that a handful are actually listed. Others feel they are an obstruction on the rivers and if scrapped would stop the flooding. Lastly the owners of the weirs can’t be found so all maintenance has to be tax payers money.
As many weirs are between 200 and 900 years old, if removed the whole riverside would change. The Bio-diversity would change and we have no way of knowing what we could lose due to the changes. Fish ladders have been put into many of the weirs now, but it is unrealistic to think that we can return the rivers to 900 years ago. The bigger blockages problems are trees growing too close to the riversides, culverts and poorly maintained drains that block easily, bridges that are low but made worse by silted rivers, and stupid people who dump an incredible amount of rubbish into the rivers and riversides. As for the maintenance argument no one argues that Venice should be left to sink or Stonehenge to fall down. The history and heritage of Sheffield’s rivers are unique.
Historic England recommends
“ In areas where there are groups of strongly connected heritage assets which are considered to cumulatively have a particularly high value, then designation as a Conservation Area should be considered similar to those often formed for canals. A Conservation Area is an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which is desirable to preserve or enhance (Section 69 of the 1990 Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Area) Act). The main attributes that define the special character of an area are its physical appearance and history, i.e. the form and features of buildings and the spaces between them, their former uses and historical development.
There is considered to be a particularly strong case for this in Sheffield, where designation as a Conservation Area where the survival of a high density of weirs and associated infrastructure are illustrative of the internationally important metal trade that developed there. Such designation would also be of assistance in ensuring a consistent approach to design of fish passes and river channel improvements.”
To qualify as a World Heritage Site the Rivers need only meet one of these criteria.
to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.
to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.
Our dams and weirs have created places of beauty in Sheffield. There is nowhere more beautiful than the Rivelin Valley, or lovelier than the dams and woodlands of the Sheaf and Porter Valleys. But more than that nowhere in the world is there anywhere like Sheffield with the huge number of mills on the rivers and streams. Like much of our heritage in Sheffield it has been ignored and undervalued. So much has been left to rot or survives only because of tenacious groups that refused to let them all turn to rubble. They lost some battles but thankfully some gems last such as Shepherd’s Wheel, Matlock Wheel, Forge Dam, Mousehole Forge, Abbeydale Hamlet, Stanniforth
Works, Mallin Bridge, Mill houses Mill, and Sharrow Snuff Mill. But so much has never been researched properly. Many have yet to be looked at from an archaeological point of view. We don’t know how old many of the weirs and dams are. We don’t have a complete list.
Historic England has voiced concerns that the changes made due to flood defences and fish passages have not taken into account the heritage of the waterways, and feels there is a need for better consultation and better training of the department of environment.
“Within South Yorkshire the catchment partnerships are hosted by the Don Catchment Rivers Trust and The Environment Agency (Don and Rother), and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (Thorne). The core partners within each partnership include wildlife and environmental organisations, water companies, Local Authorities, Government Agencies, landowners, angling clubs, farming groups, academia and local businesses. Amongst the partners, built heritage interests are poorly represented”
South Yorkshire’s Historic Water Management Assets March 2016 by
CULTURE, ECONOMY & SUSTAINABILITY SCRUTINY & POLICY
DEVELOPMENT BOARD – CONDITION OF THE CITY’S DAMS 2007
‘900 years of the Don fishery: Domesday to the dawn of the new millenium‘ by Chris Firth MBE
The Heritage Statement of the Weirs on the River Loxley by The Brigantia Archaeological Service.
Position statement on the Upper Don and Sheaf Catchment Flood Alleviation schemes. http://www.dcrt.org.uk/archives/2431
http://www.floodprotectionsheffield.com/ Sheffield Flood Protection