Jonathan Schofield on the day the dead flowed down the River Medlock

This month is the 151st anniversary of the flood that created a sensation that led to a sing-song.

In early July 1872, the River Medlock rose suddenly after two days of torrential rain. The main problem occurred along the river course between Phillips Park and Phillips Park Cemetery (previously known as Bradford Cemetery).  

'Still on the mighty water came, where lay the silent dead. And soon, alas! the coffins were uplifted from their bed.

This is how the Manchester Courier described it at the time.

‘It was about half past twelve when the floods came ... the banks of the Medlock were overflowed to such an alarming extent and the first intimation of the flood was the sweeping away of a footbridge near to Philips Park. 

'(This bridge) must have been very strongly fixed, for it not only bore the rush of the flood for a considerable time, but it resisted it to such an extent that the water backed up for a considerable distance. 

'The flood increased in depth and power, and at a length swept in a fierce torrent over a large portion of ground apportioned to the Roman Catholics at the Bradford Cemetery carrying away not only tombstones but actually washing out of their graves, a large number of dead bodies.

'Indeed, from the first indication of danger, so far as works on the banks of the Medlock were concerned, dead bodies were observed floating down the river, and those watching could easily see that the bodies had been disinterred out of the Bradford cemetery. It is impossible to calculate how many had been swept out of their final resting place but the number is not short of fifty.’

Afterwards there were rumours that as many as five hundred bodies had been swept away, with large numbers lost at sea. 

Philips Park Cemetery  Geograph Org Uk  1294952
Philips Park Cemetery today with the dead where they should be Image: Wikimedia, Geoff Royle

At a Government Enquiry, Manchester's Town Clerk stated that the total number of bodies disinterred by the waters was seventy-six, and that all had been recovered - however the local Roman Catholic Ministers strongly refuted this claim. The bodies were recovered from many places including the low-lying Mayfield streets where they were initially placed in Fairfield Street Police Station on the Mayfield site, close to where the Star and Garter pub still stands. 

The fact it was mainly Roman Catholic corpses tossed into the river led that religious group to push for a specific cemetery for Catholics. Thus, St Joseph's Cemetery, Moston, came into being. 

Aa Mayfield
The packed area around Mayfield (the main picture shows Mayfiels Park now) area now showing densely the streets were Image: Confidentials

The picture above comes from the early 20th century and shows the densely packed streets of terraced houses, workshops and factories around Mayfield Station: the latter still surviving as Mayfield Depot entertainments venue with Freight Island. 

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The Great Flood, ballad Image: Confidentials

Of course, human nature being human nature a ballad was written which for a while was popular around the country. You can hear a contemporary version of the ballad from Manchester reggae band Edward II here.

The best lines are these. 

'Still on the mighty water came,/ where lay the silent dead./ And soon, alas! the coffins were/ uplifted from their bed.

'And ghastly forms were now beheld/ hurrying quickly by;/ Brave men were awestruck at the sight/ and women raised a cry.

'Soon every effort was put forth/ to stop them in their course;/ Men drew the bodies on the bank,/ and then the scene was worse.

'Ghastly forms of old and new/ lay open to our view;/ God grant that such appalling sights/ may never be seen by you.'

I was once asked if I had any ideas for family events in the new Mayfield Park (main picture) by developers. I suggested instead of doing Easter duck races in the river, schoolkids make cute little coffins with tiny corpses inside them to race down the Medlock every July. The kids would love it, I said. So far my suggestion hasn't been taken up. 

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