Friday March 11th 1864 was a day much like any other day for Thomas Wilkinson. He and his partner Robert Howden had been working hard at the Ebenezer Steel Works in Sheffield, where they traded under the name of Drabble and Sanderson.
They’d built up quite a reputation for their files and edge tools and in particular their saws, such as this 14” 12TPI backsaw, filed rip.
Thomas locked up for the night and prepared himself for the short walk to his lodgings at a house on the premises of the Neepsend Tannery. The weather that night was atrocious with gale force winds and driving, horizontal rain. Since it showed no sign of letting up, Thomas turned up his collar, lit his cigarette and stepped into the storm. His pace was purposeful as he stepped onto the Iron Bridge spanning the River Don. The water level was high and he found himself reflecting on how important water was to Sheffield.
The reputation of Sheffield steel and the products made from it had meant an increase in demand for Drabble and Sanderson, as well as all of the other steel works and manufactories in the town. However this increased output was putting a strain on the town’s water supplies. To meet the demand, the Sheffield Waterworks Company was in the process of constructing a huge reservoir at Bradfield, approximately 8 miles from the town and several hundred feet above it. The reservoir, called Dale Dyke, was 80 to 90 feet deep in the middle, 1 mile long and a ¼ mile wide.
Now nearing completion, it had been no small feat to construct the embankment which was 500 feet wide at the base, 12 feet wide at the top and consisted of 400,000 cubic yards of material. The weir to carry off the overflow was 60 feet wide. Thomas felt a sense of pride for all the town had achieved and looked forward to receiving a reliable supply of water for his business.
When he arrived home, he dried himself off, ate his supper and retired to bed in his room on the ground floor. As the rain lashed against his window, Thomas drifted off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the events that were soon to unfold.
Earlier that day, at around 5.30pm, a workman at the dam had noticed a small crack in the embankment big enough to admit a penknife and stretching down the embankment for about 50 yards. He thought it was a frost crack, but told another workman about it, who told a farmer, who told Mr Swinden, one of the water company’s overlookers. At 7.00pm, he gathered a party together and they went with lanterns to examine the crack. At this time the crack was wide enough for a man’s fingers. They returned home sometime after 9.00pm, having been assured by the dam’s contractors and workmen that there was no danger. Later, Mr Gunson, the site engineer arrived on the scene and by this time the crack was large enough for a man’s hand. They tried to blow up the weir with gunpowder to relieve the pressure on the dam, but it failed to ignite. The crack continued to worsen and shortly before midnight the dam gave way. 691 million gallons of water rushed down the hillside devastating everything in its path.
The wall of water uprooted trees as it raced down the valley turning them into involuntary battering rams. Houses and cottages closest to the reservoir took the full force and were completely demolished. One man commented that even a Derby horse could not have warned the town’s inhabitants in time.
When the surge hit the Tannery, the buildings next to the river were obliterated and the rest of the premises were flooded to a considerable height. A large tree fell on the press-house reducing it to ruins. Two thousand skins were carried away and the stock and machinery suffered a good deal of damage.
Thomas, awakened by the destructive sound of the water, immediately leapt out of bed to find his room half-filled with water. Fearing for his life, he climbed out the window and jumped onto a cart that was standing nearby in the yard. The cart floated about the yard on the surface of the flood and Wilkinson being dressed in nothing but his nightgown, found the voyage by no means warm or agreeable.
The flood raged on for 30 minutes, leaving a trail of destruction 8 miles long in its wake. Around 250 men, women and children lost their lives and many more were injured. 415 dwelling houses, 106 factories and shops, 64 other buildings, 20 bridges and 4478 cottage/market gardens were either partially or totally destroyed. To this day, the Sheffield Flood of 1864 remains one of the biggest man-made disasters in British history.
The Sheffield Waterworks Company was found to be liable and following a special Act of Parliament, compensation to the tune of £273,988 was paid for damage to property, injury to persons, and loss of life. It was one of the largest insurance awards of its time and included this claim by Drabble and Sanderson.
For those of you who like history, there is a fabulously detailed, well-written account of the Sheffield Flood by a journalist of the time. You can find it here.
All of the claims that were made have been uploaded and made available online along with maps showing their location in the town. The claims give a fascinating insight into Sheffield life in the 1860s. Here’s a link to the site.
Well that was the history lesson (obviously part fiction, part fact), now back to the saw.
This is the first saw I’ve restored that someone else has had a go at first. When I received the saw, the plate had already been de-rusted, probably using electrolysis. The plate was deeply pitted and scratched.
By the look of the split-nuts, they’d obviously tried to undo them (probably with a crow bar :-) ).
I don’t blame them for giving up though, because although the split nuts came off easily enough, the bolts were a very tight fit in the plate and I really had to apply some force to get them out. Consequently, the threads got a bit deformed as they passed through the plate. I had to re-cut the threads, using the split nuts as dies. I just gripped the square shank of the bolt with a pair of pliers and started the nut on the thread. Then, I screwed it on until it became tight, loosened it a bit and then re-tightened it going a bit further than before. I kept loosening and tightening it until the nut had re-established all of the thread.
Just as a point of interest, although there are a few examples of D&S hand saws with medallions, most of their saws did not have one and I’ve never seen one on a backsaw.
Once I got the handle off, it became obvious that it had remained on while the saw was de-rusted.
I think they’d just removed the saw from the bath, dried it off and rubbed some dark wax over the handle so it looked good in the photos.
The handle was pretty worn in places and I could tell it would take quite a bit of work to restore it. Even then, I knew it would never look great.
I haven’t been able to find any documentary evidence to indicate when this saw was made, but there are a number of things that lead me to believe this saw was produced sometime around 1855 to 1865.
First there is the rounded nib. This was a feature on older saw handles. On later saws, the nibs tended to come to a point.
Secondly, notice the elongated cheek. On older English saws the cheeks came down lower, covering more of the saw plate.
Thirdly, this saw has rounded chamfers. Later saws tended to have flat chamfers around the cheeks.
Fourthly, there’s the canted plate which goes from 3 3/16” at the toe to 3 3/8” at the heel. Canted blades were common on older saws.
Fifthly, there’s the wood itself. Its condition and the amount of damage/wear, leads me to think it is old.
Of course none of these things are conclusive and my gut could be way off, but sometimes it is all you have to go on. Anyhow, I went through the pain barrier and here’s the finished saw. It isn’t brilliant, but it’s the best I could do considering what I had to start with.
Well that was the last of the backsaws in my restoration pile. The hand saws will have to wait because as much as I love them, I honestly can’t face restoring another saw at the moment.
In the next episode of this blog series, I’ll move on to sharpening related topics and I’ll start by showing you my design and build for a file holder and a saw vise.
Thanks for watching!
-- Andy -- Old Chinese proverb say: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."