The Industrial Revolution
By the time of the industrial revolution, the Don catchment had already suffered centuries of manipulation. The eastern fens were almost fully drained, largely by the efforts of the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden in the 1620s. Vermuyden was also responsible for substantially altering the course of the Don. He decided that the sluggish meanderings of part of the river as it crossed Hatfield Chase were a major cause of the flooding to which the area was prone, and he consequently diverted the water into an artificial, straight channel. However, this scheme led to widespread flooding and Vermuyden was forced to cut a new channel eastwards to the River Aire, which became known as the Dutch River. Despite these changes, the catchment was still predominantly rural well into the 18th century. In 1769 the agriculture and economics writer Arthur Young recorded that “the country between Sheffield and Barnsley is fine; it abounds with the beauties of landscape”. But the outcrops of coal in this area meant it was only a matter of time before the area’s resources were exploited; by the end of the nineteenth century coal pits and their associated villages covered the area.
The catchment’s rivers have always been the key determinants of its patterns of settlement and industry. As the 18th and 19th centuries progressed, this did not change. A key date in the area’s industrial history is 1727 - an Act of Parliament was passed which detailed plans for making the Don navigable all the way up to Sheffield.
Rivers have been more intensively used for power in the Don catchment than almost anywhere else in the country, particularly during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Sheffield is famous for its ‘five rivers’- the Don, Sheaf, Rivelin, Loxley and Porter – and these and their tributaries account for over 30 miles of waterways in and around the city. In their heyday these rivers provided power for hundreds of mills, the majority focused on the metal trade. By about 1790 the rivers were at saturation point - all suitable sites had been developed, with an average of about four mills to the mile, and sometimes with multiple mills occupying the same site. Although the system had reached its limit, the expanding local economy demanded ever more power and steam power gradually began to replace waterwheels. The legacy of this water-driven industry is still obvious today, with weirs, dams, reservoirs and goits still visible. This watery engineering changed the nature of the rivers for ever.
The huge expansion in industry was accompanied by both major urbanization and unprecedented pollution. Towns and cities such as Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster grew dramatically in size and population; Sheffield’s population grew from 90 000 in 1830 to 150 000 by 1854, and 300 000 in 1881. The rivers, meanwhile, suffered from both the abstraction of water and the discharge of industrial effluent. Many were also used as open sewers. Unsurprisingly, aquatic life was almost non-existent and the river became a stinking, barren channel. There were also human tragedies. The Great Sheffield Flood, which occurred on 11 March 1864 following the collapse of the Dale Dike Dam, destroyed over 800 houses, and killed 270 people.
Many thanks to Jenny Chambers, whose research into the history of the catchment informed this section.
Shepherd Wheel, one of the earliest wheels on the river Porter.
Waterwheel on the Don in Sheffield
The polluted Don in central Sheffield