Doncaster Floods – The joys and perils of living in the Don valley.
By the year 1700 Marshgate was made up of just 4 houses. The river Cheswold dissected a part of it and was said to be ‘as nature had left it’. In 1735 there was an increase of 7 properties, and by the 1760s there was a considerable increase in the number of properties there. Back then, much the same as today, Marshgate was out on a limb. From the recent floods which engulfed town end Bentley, parts of Sprotbrough, together with Marshgate we can see that little much has changed through the centuries regarding its vulnerability given its close proximity to the main water courses in town.
Hatfield writes, in his Historical Notices of Doncaster – 1868, “Now and then the accumulated waters have laid waste the fairest lands and prostrated the works of man”. He recalls with vivid memories “the alarming disaster of February 8th, 1861” where “the tide overflowed the banks of the river with an irresistible force; and, as if impatient of restraint, broke through bridges, snapped asunder gates and palings, threw back the increasing streams from ancient drains and water courses, swept itself in solemn majesty over opposing obstacles, chafed, fretted, and roared through bridge and culvert, stopped water wheels and mill wheels, rushed into cellars of cottages, and crept upstairs to the house apartments, dashed through smaller tenements, out of the way nooks and corners, threw into utter confusion the occupiers of farm homesteads, disturbed beasts in their sheds, alarmed fowls on their perches, filled saw pits, and timber floated about like mere toys, deluged village lanes and byeways, ever pressing onwards in its destructive career; at one fell swoop, game of all kinds, from the timid hare to the bright plumed pheasant were carried away regardless of the preserver; at length, tired and disappointed, the turbulent waters rolled backwards, and places hitherto free were turned upside down; but again returning with another violent effort to escape dashed forward, carrying death and terror in its path, until it found vent in the tidal waters of the Humber”.
Lady Pitts Bridge was constructed by Joseph Lockwood and is a rather grand looking series of arches spanning over 100 yards. It would appear, to the untrained eye, to be a classic case of over-engineering on Lockwood’s part, as the water it bridges is a mere ditch measuring about 3 feet wide. Do not be fooled! The trickle becomes a torrent in times of flood as the Don Navigation overflows at Crimpsall under (and sometimes over) the Sprotbrough road, behind the houses of Northfield road and on towards Morrisons supermarket. On November 20th, 1791, Lady Pitts Bridge successfully resisted the pressure of such a torrent. Part of one of the arches was thrown to the ground but the bridge remained intact. On the low lands around it the waters settled at a depth of 6 feet allowing boats to sail across them with ease. The boats were used to ferry the milkmen, butchers, and bakers from house to house, making their deliveries through the upstairs windows. One Bentley farmer lost “three score of fine sheep” on that fateful day.
In a similar flood in the summer of 1828 the waters of the Cheswold rose rapidly on the morning of Sunday 13th July. Farm workers hurriedly attempted to rescue the hay in Crimpsall. A number of labourers were employed during the whole of that day, in “attempting to hinder the progress of the water, by raising the western bank from the foundry near the Mill Bridge to Newton. It continued to swell, and on Monday, the northern bank of the Mill Dyke gave way. The efforts to remedy this breach were fruitless; and the Ings of Bentley and Arksey became deluged”. The area of Crimpsall where only 3 days before had seen the rescue of the hay, now became a boating marina for the pleasure seekers of the town.
The water in Crimpsall, as viewed from Friar’s Bridge, presented one unbroken, glassy surface. “The reflections of the rays of the glorious sun, the forms of the ever varying clouds, the willows which fringed the southern side and the trees along the line of the Cheswold exhibited a novel spectacle”.
The flood waters in French Gate reached the Brown Cow public house. “At one period of the flood a curious sight was observed in the shape of what appeared to be a floating island drifting slowly with the stream. The water careering along in its unopposed course swept with it, in one compact body, a huge mass of earth, flags, sedges, and rushes from the pool at Arksey, and the moving island had all the appearance of terra firma as it glided down the flood”.
The problems that occurred time after time down in Marshgate were caused, mainly because of the Newton Bank which reinforced the river bank from what is now St Marys Bridge to the Hamlet of Newton itself. It was always the bank on the Marshgate side that the waters breached, forever causing much devastation there, until that is, the flood of Saturday 6th August, 1846. A decision was made to let the banks fail on the Newton side for a change. Hatfield writes, “The Newton Bank, the main cause of the mischief, was cut, at all hazards, opposite the south end of the Black Pond. From thence it ran across Sprotbrough road, past Anchorage Farm, made its way beneath Willow Bridge on the Great North Road, and joined the swollen brook stream of the Boiling Basin at Cusworth Ponds to the south side of Bentley Bank, and so on to the tide-way at Thwaite House. The relief afforded to Marshgate was apparent. Crimpsall had the appearance of a large pool; and the long lines of light from the lamps at the Railway Station, and the public ones elsewhere, reflected from the scarcely rippled surface of the water, had a striking effect, while the distant roar of the river weir, and that of the rushing stream through the bank cutting, produced a picture rarely seen in this part of the country”.
The men that were responsible for making the cut in Newton Bank did so without thought for their own safety. They also cared not for the consequences of such an act as; it was not their place to make such a decision. What was to be their fate?
“They were harassed and charged on the information of Benjamin Mangham, Lock Keeper, that they ‘did, then and there, unlawfully, maliciously, and feloniously, break down, and cut down, a certain bank of a certain river, called the river Don, there situate, by means whereof certain lands were then and there overflowed and damaged, against the form of the statute in that case made and provided’. On Saturday August 28th, at the Town Hall, the case was heard before Richard Heber Wrightson, Esq. John William Sturges, Esq. Wm. Aldam, Esq. James Brown, Esq. Sir Isaac Morley, and Captain Bower, and occupied nine columns of the supplement to the Doncaster Gazette of Sept 1st”.
To cut a long story short, the bench decided that no further action would be taken against the men on the grounds that, the corporation probably should have stepped in themselves but failed to do so, and in addition, the bank was more than likely erected illegally in the first place anyway. The case against the men was dismissed. It was later found that the bank had been constructed higher than the floors of the houses in Marshgate which speaks for itself really; the flood waters would reach the doorstep of the dwellings before it breached Newton Bank.
In June 2007, the waters of the Don once again rose and breached the Newton Bank at Black Pond. The water began to seek out all its ancient ways and dry stream beds came back to life. Ponds appeared where fields should be and rivers flowed where roads should be. The route that the waters took in the middle 19th century was the exact same route that they took in 2007. This highlights to me the fact, that we are guests on this earth, we can try to change nature, we can attempt to re-route water courses and build houses on seemingly safe tracts of land, however, when nature needs an escape route, the best engineers in the land cannot stand in its path.
By Symeon Waller.