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Gordon and Enid Minter
ON THE TRAIL OF THE
HOLMFIRTH FLOOD 1852
Gordon and Enid Minter Illustrations by J.R. Beswick
Published by H. Barden & Company 1996
‘In this neighbourhood there are many mountain reservoirs, pray don't look upon them and treat them like mill dams and fish ponds’.
Captain Moody R.E.
ISBN 9524747 4 3
At infrequent intervals over the centuries the Holme Valley has been inundated by flood waters and not so many years ago if something unusual happened the words ‘it only happens once every Holmfirth Flood’ were commonly used to emphasise the rarity of the event - whatever it was. The first flood of which there is any record occurred in 1313, the last on Whit. Monday 29th May, 1944. Naturally, many local people over the age of -say- sixty have vivid memories of the last flood, of the 'cloudburst' that caused it and the death and destruction that resulted from it. Ninety-two years earlier the valley was overwhelmed by an enormous mass of water when, in the early hours of Thursday 5th February, 1852, in the hills above Holmfirth, the embankment of the Bilberry Reservoir collapsed and released the eighty-six million gallons of water it had contained. As a result, eight-one people lost their lives, many more were injured, mills, workshops, houses, barns and stables were swept away, damaged or gutted and thousands of people were left ruined, homeless and without work. This booklet follows, on foot and by car, the route of the 1852 flood from Bilberry to Holmfirth and examines some of the causes and effects of the tragedy. To those who will doubtless point out that there are already many books about the Holmfirth flood we can only ask, where are they? It is true that short accounts of the flood have appeared as part of one or two general histories of the area but, as far as we are aware, there is no modern, detailed account of the events of that calamitous night. For many years the flood remained part of the local consciousness, remembered in newspaper accounts, poetry, drama, radio broadcasts and lectures, but the memory of it is fading and a surprising number of people now know nothing of it. For many years we have waited for someone from Holmfirth to produce a full account of the flood but when a friend - aged thirty-seven - asked if the Holmfirth flood was a pop-group we decided, with some temerity for we are not of Holmfirth, to undertake the task ourselves. The result, we hope, is an easy to follow account that might be of interest to those who know a little about the flood as well as to those who know nothing of it. It will, reasonably, be asked whether the events of more than a hundred and forty years ago have any relevance today. We believe that they have.
Hardly a week went by in the mid-nineteenth century without newspaper reports of incidents in factories, mills, mines and on the roads and railways most of which were avoidable, many of which resulted in fatalities. The study of this one, wholly preventable, event shows that it was caused like so many others by the carelessness, complacency and penny-pinching negligence that were fairly common working practices in Victorian times. And its relevance today lies in the fact that it is a powerful reminder that the safety measures we so often take for granted were, so to speak, put in place on the backs of those people who, in the past, suffered and died through no fault of their own.
Unlike our other books, which deal with a variety of historical themes, this work sticks closely to the story of the Flood and nowhere have we attempted to relate the history of the villages, hamlets, houses, factories, churches and roads you will pass if you undertake the trail. Only in one place, Hoowood, have we diverged from the Flood to briefly tell the story of two of the hamlet's earlier inhabitants - mainly because the story is worth telling and we are fairly sure that in any future book we will not pass that way again. To any of our readers who are wondering what has happened to part three of ‘Discovering Old we can only say that if the fates are kind it will appear but not as soon as we originally hoped.
The trail follows the route of the 1852 flood from Bilberry Reservoir to Holmfirth. It begins with a short (1.2 miles) circular walk around Digley Reservoir which crosses the Bilberry embankment and allows a good view of the small reservoir, the appearance of which has changed little since it was repaired after the flood. As the walk passes a number of defunct settlement sites, which were cleared in the wake of the Digley Reservoir, it allows us to build up a picture of the area as it was at the time of the flood. After the walk we pick up the course of the flood at Holmbridge and follow it down to Holmfirth by car. Although we describe a car route through Holmfirth we suggest that you tackle this very busy section on foot and directions for so doing will be found in the appropriate places in the text.
To reach the car-park at Digley, where the walk starts, take the Woodhead Road (A6024) towards Holmbridge and turn right, just before the Bridge Tavern, into Field End Lane. In about a quarter of a mile fork left into Bank Top Lane. At the Digley embankment continue straight ahead for about 200 yards (182 M) into the car-park. Take the three steps up out of the car-park to join a wide stony path (called Gibriding Lane) and follow this up the hill and then steeply down to a Stile on the right just before a blocking wall.
DIGLEY RESERVOIR Whilst walking the lane notice the changing views of Digley Reservoir on the left. During the second half of the nineteenth century the Huddersfield Corporation Water Works Committee, to cope with an ever increasing demand for piped water, built anumber of large reservoirs at Meltham and Wessenden. However, by the 1930s it was evident that more storage capacity would soon be needed and in a survey made of the area it was found that an impounding reservoir could be conveniently made in the Digley valley by building an embankment across the Digley Brook. The new dam was to be built at the foot of the much smaller Bilberry Reservoir, then owned by the Holme Valley Waterworks Company. The new Huddersfield Corporation Water Bill received Royal Assent on 6th July, 1937 and in December of the following year the
Corporation purchased Bilberry Reservoir along with two other reservoirs in the Holme Valley. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the scheme was put on hold for the duration. If finally went ahead in 1946 and the work, which was completed in 1952, resulted in a reservoir 797 feet above sea-level with a capacity of six hundred million gallons. Its building led not only to the destruction of a great deal of property in the Digley Valley but also to the depopulation of the hills in the catchment area. During the unusually long drought of 1995 much more water was drawn off our reservoirs than was replaced and by autumn Digley was virtually empty. It is, of course, impossible to visualise the amount of water held in a reservoir unless it is empty and a walk round Digley in November 1995 was a remarkable experience. Even in January 1996, although the reservoir was filling again, one or two ruined walls, the remains of Bilberry Mill which had been submerged for some fifty years, were still high and dry. At the bottom of the hill, beyond the blocking wall, notice the original line of Gibriding Lane which dips beneath the margin of the reservoir (when it is full). At this point on the left hand side of the lane, stood a couple of cottages called Clough Top, the foundations of which may still be seen when the water level is low. Just beyond Clough Top a branch road once ran down to Bilberry Mill on the valley floor but all traces of it have now disappeared.
Just before the blocking wall go through the stile on the right hand side of the lane and at the top of the steps follow a path along the side of a small plantation. Descend the flight of twenty-two fairly modern steps and continue on through the iron gate ahead. At this point Gibriding Lane is regained. The map on p.7 will help with locations.
HOOWOOD Before descending the long flight of steps, pause to look over the field below. Silent now, this sheltered hollow must once have seen much coming and going for this is the site of Hoowood which, until it was abandoned earlier this century, had been occupied for at least five hundred years. In 1851, the year before the flood, Hoowood was the home of seven families, fifty one people in all of whom thirty six were children. As might be expected, at that
time most of the folk in this small isolated community, the Lindleys, Tinkers, Waterhouses, Websters and Woods, found their livelihood in textiles or farming. The small building in the top corner of the field is the only one to have survived the wholesale demolition in this area. Ruined now, its roof gone, it is of considerable age but its purpose is far from clear. Inside the building there is a large water trough but this only confuses the issue as it does not seem to have been part of the original design. It could have been built for use as an agricultural shed but its solid construction and the fact that it is lit by a window in the north wall suggests that it was designed for some specific industrial purpose - a brewhouse perhaps or a dyehouse. At the bottom of the steps listen for the sound of water which in places can be heard running underground. The several springs in the area once supplied Hoowood's wells and troughs but today the water runs down unchecked into Digley Reservoir. Once through the iron gate look to the left to see Gibriding Lane emerging from the reservoir. The buildings of Hoowood stood on both sides of the lane (above the gate) and their sites are easy to discover. On the left, part of an original wall remains and much debris, including a large chimney piece, has been left in situ. It is likely that, at the time of demolition, the building here was the oldest surviving part of the settlement as the jambs, quoins, sills and mullions built into the wall are of a style that dates back to the early seventeenth century. The wall on the right which follows the building line of a house and paddock also contains a few shaped stones but of a later date than those on the left. A glance over the wall will reveal that the site has been cleared and very few traces remain of the buildings that once stood there. A bench mark on the wall on the right hand side of the lane is recorded on the 1894 O.S. map at 831.8 feet above sea level, just twenty-five feet above Bilberry Dam. Many people in the Digley Valley, forewarned of the flood, are said to have made’ their way that night to the hills above the dam and no doubt the inhabitants of Hoowood, the nearest settlement, offered shelter and comfort to the fugitives. Many people in the Huddersfield area have heard something of the Bill's o' Jack's murders but what is not so well known is that two of the chief suspects
lived at Hoowood. Although it has nothing to do with the flood their story is of some interest. On the night of 2nd April, 1832 William Bradbury and his son, Tom, were mortally wounded in a vicious attack at the Moorcock Inn near Greenfield. William's father was Jack Bradbury and, as was the custom of the time, William was knownas Bill o' Jack's and his son as Tom o' Bill's. The Moorcock throughout William's tenancy was familiarly known as Bill's o' Jack's and that name, because of the notoriety of the murders, stuck until the inn was demolished in the 1940s. Jamie Bradbury of Hoowood, better known for some reason as Red Tom Bradbury, and his son Joe were notorious poachers and they had come into frequent conflict with Tom o' Bill's who was a gamekeeper on Saddleworth Moor. They were due to appear in court at Pontefract on the morning of 3rd April, 1832 to answer a charge of poaching on information laid by Tom o' Bill's. They duly appeared and immediately demanded an acquittal as Tom Bradbury, they said, would not be coming to give evidence against them. The acquittal was granted by the surprised magistrates who had not then heard of the murders. When the news eventually reached Pontefract the suspicions were aroused and they alerted the authorities in Huddersfield where the two men were taken into custody on Monday 16th April. Although they were known to have been in the vicinity of Bill's o' Jack's on the night of the attack there was no firm evidence against them and when Jamie's daughter stated that there was nothing suspicious about their appearance when they arrived home at the expected time, they were released. It was whispered afterwards that they had been seen washing their clothes in Bilberry Dam on the night of the attack and that two hours before the bodies were discovered Jamie had been heard to say that Tom o' Bill's was in hell. Their subsequent behaviour did little to allay suspicions. From that time they shunned the company of others and, enthusiastic drinkers though they were, they were never known to enter an inn or a beerhouse again. Sober men, like the dead, tell no tales. Jamie and Joe Bradbury were not the only suspects in the case for Tom o' Bill's was a hard man and a bully and like other of his kind he had many enemies. No one was ever apprehended for the murders and the verdict returned at the inquest, held on Saturday 7th April, 1832, of ‘murder against some person or persons unknown’ still stands.
Continue up the lane (which beyond Hoowood becomes Hoowood Lane) and follow it as it contours round the head of a small clough. Soon after passing two stone gateposts on the left the old lane swings right but our route turns left towards Bilberry embankment.
Just beyond the ruins of Hoowood notice a small clough over the wall on the left. This was once the site of atwo tier mill dam which, before Bilberry Reservoir was built, probably supplied water to the wheel of Bilberry Mill. If old rumours are to be believed it would be here, close to home, where Jamie and Joe Bradbury were seen swilling their clothes on the night of the Bill's o' Jack's murders. The lower embankment has now been removed and the valley planted with rhododendrons.
GREEN OWLERS As well as small hamlets like Hoowood, solitary houses, their sites often dating back to the sixteenth century at least, also became victims of waterworks clearance and the entrance to one such house, Green Owlers, may be seen on the right hand side of the lane where it begins to bend round the clough. Behind a short section of modern walling a tree-lined overgrown driveway leads to a levelled site where the house once stood. Its position is easily identified by a stand of trees planted, no doubt, as a wind break, a useful amenity for a house in such an exposed position. At the time of the flood Green Owlers was occupied by Joseph Whiteley, a woollen manufacturer, his four brothers, two sisters, a cousin and two servants. Long after the Whiteleys had left, the name of the house changed to Green Alders but whether this was a deliberate change or an analogical development is not clear. Although it is unlikely that any alder trees grow naturally at this altitude, presumably ‘Alders' sounded more sensible than ‘Owlers'’. Over the wall on the opposite side of the lane the top pound of the two tier mill dam may be seen, its small retaining wall more or less intact. The lower section of the dam was built at the foot of this wall and the whole system was advantageously placed to collect the water from the several springs that rise in the vicinity.
ELLIS POND Just past the entrance to Green Owlers is the site of a row of cottages all traces of which have now virtually disappeared although an old wall built to retain the bank behind them remains. Originally called Hoobram Bottom the cottages were, from the 1860s, alternately called Ellis Pond. It is tempting to think that the name was, in part, influenced by the small 'pond' across the lane but in the terminology of these parts such a feature would surely be called a dam. 'Ellis' too is a mystery as, as far as we can discover, there was no one of that name living in the neighbourhood at the time the name began to appear on maps and in the census. The tenants of the cottages in the 1850s were all occupied in the textile industry, working as woollen weavers and warpers. Interestingly, one of them was a Job Bradbury who might well have had family connections with the notorious Bradburys of Hoowood.
HOOBRAM HILL At the top of the hill notice two stone gateposts on the left. A glance over the wall will reveal the ruins of what was once a substantial house. This was Hoobram Hill, a Georgian or early Victorian mansion built on to a much older cottage. Matching gateposts on the south west side of the site suggest that the house was once partitioned into two dwellings, each with its own entrance. Living here with their families in 1852 were two Joseph Whiteleys, the elder a woollen manufacturer, the younger, probably his son, a woollen weaver. It is likely that they were related to Whiteleys of Green Owlers. When the house was demolished in the 1950s some of the old stones were used to build up the laneside wall. A bench mark on the wall is recorded at 884 feet above mean sea level on the 1894 O.S. map. Being so close to Bilberry Dam the Whiteleys would have been aware of the dangerous state of the embankment and, some eighty feet above, they would have had an unrivalled view of the dramatic events as they unfolded on that moonlit night in February, 1852. It would appear that the disaster had long been expected by Joseph Whiteley the elder. As a Commissioner of the reservoir he was called to give evidence on the fifth day of the Inquest held on Friday 20th February. He told the jury that he remembered the reservoir being made and went on: 'I
saw a Spring at the bottom as thick as a mans arm ...I did not see anyone do anything to the spring ...I have been in the habit of going over the embankment since it was first made. It began to settle soon after. The last time I noticed it was the Sunday before it burst. It has always sunk when there has been a wet time. I said it was in danger from the first but nobody took any notice of what I said.' His concluding words were to be repeated in one form or another over and over again by other witnesses, all of them aided by the benefit of hindsight.
Just beyond Hoobram Hill, where Hoowood Lane swings to the right our route turns left to follow a path down to the Bilberry embankment. Before making the descent you might like to take advantage of the seat overlooking the reservoir which is as good a place as any to consider the events leading up to the flood. The map below will help with locations.
6 Q of . i \ 4 Gibliding
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wy lop Lane
So Dale hs ae
1 Bilberry Mill 5 Bank Top 9 Hoowood 2 Upper Digley Mill 6 Green Alders 10 Clough Top 3 Digley Mill 7 Ellis Pond 2 rem Outline of Digley Res 4 Bilberry Reservoir 8 Hoobram Hill ==>>> New roads
BILBERRY RESERVOIR Throughout the centuries, many of the people of Holmfirth and the surrounding villages have found their livelihood in the textile industry and it is not unreasonable to say that the past success of the industry owed itself, in part, to the abundant supply of soft water that drains through the area from the hills to the west. There, where the elevation ensures high levels of precipitation, frequent springs rise off the impervious shales beneath the surface and the spring water has, over the millennia, cut several deep narrow valleys, called cloughs in these parts. The streams in the cloughs, often swollen by heavy rainfall or snow melt water, tumble down to the valley floor where they empty into the main drainage channel in the area, the River Holme. But even a well drained area like Holmfirth can experience dry seasons and when, in the late eighteenth century, mills and factories began to make their appearance along the river, most of them using water as their motive power, it became necessary to ensure a constant supply to keep the water wheels turning at all times. Initially, small dams, built for the use of individual mills and factories, sufficed but eventually, as mills proliferated, the demand for water grew. Consequently, in the mid 1830s application was made to Parliament for permission to construct several large storage reservoirs in the hills above Holmfirth to provide a better supply of water to the 'many mills, factories and other premises situated near to the line or course of the river Holme ....using water wheels, engines or other machines worked by water'. The required Act of Parliament received Royal Assent on 8th June, 1837. It authorised the construction of eight reservoirs at an estimated cost of £40,000. To carry out the work a committee was appointed under the title of Commissioners of the Holme Reservoirs. The Commissioners, who were manufacturers, mill owners and owners of falls of water in the district, were to build the dams and thereafter be responsible for their management and maintenance. It was very soon realised that the estimated cost was totally inadequate and in the end only three reservoirs, Boshaws, Holme Styes and Bilberry were constructed and these, when completed were to cost a total of £70,000. Looking down at Bilberry Reservoir from the high ground it is clear that its position was well found. It was constructed at the foot of a massive bluff of land called Good Bent and supplied by two streams, Hey Clough
and Marsden Clough, draining off the moor on either side of Good Bent. At the confluence of the streams the land opens out to form an extensive basin between two hills, Hoobrook Hill to the north and Lumbank to the south. The reservoir was created by building an embankment across the valley below the basin thus enclosing some seven acres of surface for water storage. To modern eyes, Bilberry appears to be little more than a tranquil pond but at the time of the flood it was described severally as a great reserve, a vast body and a mighty mass of water. The reservoir was built to the design of Mr. George Leather of Leeds, who recommended to the Commissioners the estimate of £6324 submitted by Messrs. Daniel Sharp of Dewsbury. The initial plan was to build an embankment some three hundred and forty feet long by ninety-eight feet high which would have a central core of puddle clay, tapering from sixteen feet thick at the bottom to eight feet thick at the top. To prevent erosion, the inner face of the embankment would be covered with stone beaching and to avoid the danger of the dam overflowing a bye-wash was to be constructed to take any excess water down though the embankment and away into the valley via a six and a half feet square arched culvert.
98 0” as orininal design
7 ¢ 7
4 diameter bye-wash 7
\ 7 clay gore
Details of the embankment based on information given atthe Inquest
From evidence given at the inquest on Wednesday 18th February, 1852, it would appear that in the end the embankment was built to a height of only sixty-seven feet, just eight feet above the top of the bye-wash. At the same time the original planned water level was reduced by just one foot, from sixty feet to fifty-nine feet. This new scheme which resulted in a tremendous saving in construction costs with little loss of storage capacity would, naturally, find favour with the Commissioners. Soon after work started a spring was found in the trench dug for the foundation of the puddle clay core. This was a problem, but not an overwhelming one, as the spring water could easily have been piped away through the embankment. However, this simple solution was overlooked and Sharps were told to weight the spring down with puddle clay! It is not known who gave this fatuous instruction which, of course, was doomed to failure. At the inquest the likely culprit, Mr. Leather, denied all knowledge of the spring at that early stage, which denial, given his position as engineer in charge of the scheme, is somewhat difficult to believe. What is undeniable is that failure to deal adequately with the spring at the beginning of the enterprise was the first and principle link in a chain of mistakes that caused the embankment to fail fourteen years later. Trouble continued to beset the scheme. A dispute between the Commissioners and the contractor about the unsatisfactory state of the work resulted in Messrs. Sharp being dismissed and the Commissioners becoming involved in a Chancery Suit. The contract was re-let to Messrs. Porter Bros. of Fartown who completed the work. However, throughout its life the embankment leaked and the spring continued to erode the core causing the structure to slowly subside. Between 1842 and 1844 several attempts were made to solve the problem but with little success and by the beginning of 1852 the middle section of the embankment had sunk below the top of the bye-wash which thus became useless. Because the Digley Reservoir has changed the shape of the landscape forever it is difficult now to picture the area as it was at the time of the flood. Below the Bilberry embankment the Digley Valley gradually narrowed to become a steep sided gorge running down to Holmbridge. It was a busy and bustling place with much coming and going to the mills, farms, houses and cottages built on or near the valley floor. Doubtless the people in the valley
were uneasily aware of the eighty six million gallons of water looming above their heads but they were living in progressive times and progress meant prosperity so, for the most part, they were willing to leave their fate in the hands of the Commissioners, overlookers and drawers of the Bilberry Reservoir. That their trust was misplaced became only too clear in February, 1852.
From the high ground turn left to follow a distinct path down the hill to reach the Bilberry embankment. N.B. At this point anyone who has difficulty with steep gradients should retrace his or her steps back to the car-park.
BILBERRY EMBANKMENT During the early weeks of 1852 the perilous state of the embankment was causing great alarm and on several occasions warnings were sent down the valley that a collapse was imminent. Of course, warnings are likely to be ignored if the first two or three prove groundless and the people of Holmfirth came to regard them lightly. Those who lived nearer the reservoir, who knew it and its weaknesses well, were less complacent and they were often to be found keeping an apprehensive watch on the state of the embankment and the level of the water. On Wednesday 4th February, apprehension turned to conviction. The weather during the preceding week had been stormy, for several days the water level had been steadily rising and the combined action of the wind and water on the inner face of the embankment had weakened it to a considerable degree. By that Wednesday the reservoir was filling at the rate of eighteen inches an hour. There was a strong conviction among the people keeping watch from the embankment that, unless the rain stopped, the reservoir would burst. The rain continued. At six o'clock in the evening the water was eight feet from the top of the embankment, at nine o'clock only two feet and by midnight it was lapping over the edge. At about one o'clock on the morning of the 5th the first overflow swept away a considerable part of the outer embankment. At this late stage a number of runners set off to carry warnings of the imminent danger down the valley. A few minutes later, with a deafening roar, the whole of the embankment gave way and the water it had confined, estimated to weigh three hundred thousand tons, began its destructive and devastating run down
the Digley and Holme Valleys. Ironically, the rain had ceased, the clouds had rolled away and abright moon illuminated the awesome scene. A spectator who, with many others, witnessed the collapse from the safety of the nearby hills described the moment as being ‘awfully grand’.
BILBERRY MILL Standing, as it did, close to the foot of the embankment, Bilberry Mill was the first building to be engulfed by the torrent as it spilled into the valley. One end of the mill was washed away along with a large quantity of machinery which, of course, did its own damage as it washed against the obstacles in its path. One of these was Bilberry Bridge which was completely destroyed. Fortunately the occupants of the mill and the associated cottages had heeded the warnings given earlier and made their escape to higher ground. Bilberry Mill was rebuilt and continued to work, spinning yarn for the nearby Digley Mill. Both these mills were largely demolished to make way for the Digley Reservoir but during the long drought of 1995 when the reservoir was empty, a remnant of Bilberry Mill could be clearly seen from the embankment. Despite its historical interest, however, we must hope, for the sake of our water supply, that this ruin will soon be covered again.
Cross the embankment and climb the steep, narrow path up the hillside, pausing, perhaps, to look across the reservoir at the sites of Hoobram and Green Owlers. Once through the gate at the top turn left onto a distinct track which runs along the hillside above Digley Reservoir. Follow this through four more gated stiles to a small car-park. From the car-park turn left to cross the Digley embankment and then follow the road back to the starting point of the walk.
LUMBANK LANE 100 yards (91 M) after the first gate the track crosses a clough by means of a low stone bridge. Just before the stream, which is called Intake Gutter, notice Lumbank Lane, a sunken way descending the hillside between two drystone walls. Until it was washed away by the 1944 flood this was a road leading from Holme, via Meal Hill and the old settlement of Lumbank, to Bilberry Mill. After the flood, the road was not repaired and over the last
fifty years nature has taken over to such a degree that the one time busy route is now barely recognisable as such.
UPPER DIGLEY MILL 140 yards (127 M) beyond Lumbank Lane, just before the fourth gate, the path crosses a small nameless stream running down to the reservoir from a spring further up the hillside. Before the reservoir was built the stream ran down to the valley floor where it entered Digley Brook close to Upper Digley Mill. The mill, which stood about a quarter of a mile away from the Bilberry embankment, was in the occupation of John Furness whose affairs in 1852 were in the hands of officers of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. Part of the mill, the gable end of the house and all the associated farm buildings were Swept away on the flood waters along with twelve tons of hay, a horse, a goat and three cows. The occupants of the house and their overnight guests, two Court officers, did not leave their beds until twelve thirty a.m. and only narrowly escaped with their lives after struggling through deep, fast flowing water to reach the safety of the hillside
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After the flood, the mill was rebuilt and by the 1890s it had expanded to become a large concern where many local people were employed. Known after the flood as Digley Mills, the factory continued working until 1936. Later, it was demolished to make way for the Digley Reservoir. Unlike Bilberry, no identifiable remains of Digley Mills emerged from the waters during the drought of 1995 and it is impossible to pinpoint its exact site although the map on p.7 will help with its approximate location.
DIGLEY MILL Whilst crossing the Digley embankment look over the fence on the right hand side for a view of the valley which narrows considerably at this point to become a steep-sided gorge running down towards Holmbridge. Near the head of the gorge, Digley Mill (not to be confused with Upper Digley) stood in what was described by a Huddersfield Examiner reporter as 'a truly romantic situation’. The mill, which employed a hundred workers, was a hundred and eight feet long and four stories high. It was built across the width of the valley and adjacent to it were dry-houses, a weaving shed, a dye-house and other out-buildings. Nearby, on the river bank were nine cottages occupied by employees and two houses, one of which was described as a mansion. Here lived Mrs. Mary Hirst, the owner of the mill, with her four daughters and two sons. Because it was in the direct line of the flood as it swept into the gorge all this extensive property was washed away with the exception of the tall mill chimney which, according to persistent but unlikely legend, was carried along by the flood waters and deposited upright and intact twenty yards away from its original position. Fortunately no lives were lost at Digley Mill as the Hirst family and their employees, fearing the worst, had made their escape well before the embankment collapsed. There are, though, two conflicting reports of Mrs. Hirst's escape. By her own account, she sat alone during the evening calmly reading her Bible. but, towards midnight, became alarmed and decided to seek refuge in the cellar! Almost at the last moment two of her neighbours came and carried her to safety. As they crossed the bridge towards the higher ground she looked back and saw the water coming - she described it as high’. In less than a minute she saw the mill and her house swept away.
Many years later, Mrs. Hirst's son, George, a nineteen year old at the time of the flood, told a different story. He said that all his family left the house during the evening, including his mother who was taken to the safety of ahouse at Bank Top. According to his account he was attempting to remove the family's livestock to higher ground when the flood came and he was forced to flee for his life to Sykes Brow from where he saw the mill go down. It is, of course, impossible to say which of these accounts is correct but as George Hirst was eighty-two years old when he told his story - and his mother long dead - it is possible that the discrepancy was aresult of imperfect memory. Digley Mill was never rebuilt. The chimney, surrounded by the sad ruins of the place, survived until 1946 when it either collapsed or was demolished just before work on the new reservoir began. Looking down into the valley today it is obvious that nothing remains of the mill, the site of which lies partly or wholly beneath the Digley embankment (see map p.7). There is, however, a small reminder of its presence on the hillside below Bank Top Lane where the old access lane can still be made out. From the heights of the Digley embankment it is possible to see the route the flood took from the Bilberry embankment down to Holmbridge Church. Fortunately, because the inhabitants of the Digley Valley were near enough to receive the warnings sent down from the embankment, and wary enough to heed them, there were no fatalities. When the flood reached the Holme Valley it was a very different story.
From the car-park retrace the route towards Holmbridge but in about four fifths of a mile stop in Field End Lane for a view to the right of St. David's Church, the small road bridge and, beyond the cricket field, the line of the river as it emerges from the Digley Valley. Here we pick up the story of the flood as it turned north-east to begin its destructive run down the Holme Valley through Hinchliffe Mill to Holmfirth.
HOLMBRIDGE As it approaches Holmbridge the Digley Valley widens out and here, in the fields and woods on both sides of the river, the flood deposited its cargo of broken machinery, engines, looms, dye vats, bales of cloth, rocks, stone from the embankment, timber, uprooted trees, animal carcases, roof
tiles, doors, windows, furniture and all manner of household goods. In the days that followed, the sight of this sad detritus profoundly affected spectators who variously described the scene as awful, melancholy, sombre, sorrowful. The small road bridge, which stood in the direct line of the flood, was completely washed away along with some thirty feet of the Huddersfield to Woodhead turnpike road. For many weeks the only way across the void was by means of a plank and this, of course, temporarily prevented wheeled traffic from using the Holme Moss route over the hills. Below the bridge, the width of the valley somewhat diminished the force of the flood and consequently Holmbridge Church escaped serious structural damage although it was flooded to a depth of five feet. After the water subsided, the body of a goat from Upper Digley was found in the centre of the aisle and near to it, resting on a damaged pew, lay a coffin containing the remains of a man which had been washed up from the churchyard. Other remains torn out of their graves by the water as it swirled across the graveyard were carried away down the valley where they were soon to mingle with the newly dead.
Continue to the bottom of the hill and turn left in front of the Bridge Tavern into Woodhead Road.
HINCHLIFFE MILL WESLEYAN CHAPEL In about two hundred yards (182 M) notice on the left the former chapel (now an apartment block) and what remains of its graveyard high on the hillside. On Sunday 8th February, 1852 nine victims of the flood were interred here including Jane, William and Joseph Mettrick. The bodies of other members of the Mettrick family (see below) had not yet been found. A newspaper account of the funerals tells of a heart-rending moment when 'A young man named Mettrick began to talk very incoherently in the chapel during the burial ceremony and it was necessary to remove him from the place; his reason had been affected by the awful events he had witnessed and the bereavements he had sustained.’ The Mettrick family lived in Hinchliffe Mill where there were many fatalities. Shortly after the chapel we take a short diversion through the village but as this involves an awkward turn across the traffic you may prefer to
ignore the next set of directions and continue straight on towards Holmfirth.
About three hundred and fifty yards (318 M) after the chapel bear right out of the main road into Old Road. At the cross roads at the bottom of Old Road notice Water Street straight ahead then turn sharp right along Ford Gate to the bridge from where there is a good view of the mill across its dam. Turn round at the other side of the bridge, recross it and continue back to the crossroads. At the top of the hill carefully turn right into Woodhead Road.
HINCHLIFFE MILL About a quarter of a mile below Holmbridge Church the valley narrows down and here the torrent gathered force again to begin its catastrophic descent on the densely populated village of Hinchliffe Mill. The mill from which the village takes its name stands on the south west bank of the river a few yards downstream from the bridge. When the flood arrived it demolished the bridge and swept away the engine house, stables and barn and destroyed three of the mill's four dams. Great damage was done to stock and machinery as the water rushed through the two lower floors but, remarkably, although it was in the direct line of the torrent the mill itself stood firm. Sadly, many of the houses in Hinchliffe Mill, and their occupants, fared less well. A warning of imminent danger reached the sleeping village at about one o'clock but the flood arrived so soon afterwards that for forty unfortunate men, women and children there was to be no time to escape. In Fold Gate, five people drowned inside their houses which were instantly flooded to first floor level. In Water Street, six three storey dwellings were quickly overwhelmed and swept away and with them thirty-five of their forty-two inhabitants. Many years later, George Hirst vividly recalled Water Street as he saw it on the morning after the flood. It was, he said, '...a big open space, just like a dock after the ship has taken to water’. So quickly did the deluge overcome the houses near to the river that the only possible escape route open to their occupants was upwards, through the roof, to reach adjacent, possibly safer, roofs. In one of the houses left standing in Water Street the inhabitants, all sixteen of them, managed to save their lives by clinging precariously to their own roof top as the water tore
past only a foot or so below and the building trembled beneath them. There were other, even more remarkable escapes that night. James Mettrick, aged twenty-three, who lived in Water Street with his parents, brothers and sisters, was awakened by the warning shouts at just after one o'clock. As he was helping to carry the younger children to the first floor the water burst in through the doors and windows flooding the lower rooms and catching Mr. Mettrick and the youngest child on the stairs. The rest of the family scrambled into the attic but less than a minute later the house collapsed. James was swept along on the flood for about a quarter of a mile before he was carried into the comparatively calm waters of Bottoms Mill dam. There he managed to seize hold of a plank and, with the aid of the wind, eventually succeeded in reaching dry land. Dazed and exhausted he stumbled to a nearby house where he went to bed. Tragically, his father, stepmother, three sisters and three brothers perished. The youngest child of Robert Ellis of Water Street was overlooked in the family's haste to escape. When the worst of the flood had passed a neighbour, Charles Johnson, made his way into the remains of the house and found the baby in his waterlogged cradle underneath the table. Fearing the child was near to death Mr. Johnson carried him to a neighbour's house where he was revived and later reunited with his family, all of whom survived. Another remarkable escape was that of George Crosland, also of Water Street, who, when he was cast out into the flood, managed to climb onto a box which eventually washed into a house downstream. There, with great presence of mind, he caught hold of a sampler hanging from the joists and saved himself by clinging on until the water level lowered. Eight others of his family drowned. Before leaving Hinchliffe Mill try for a moment to imagine the terror of that dreadful night, the havoc facing the inhabitants when morning came and the bewilderment and despair they must have felt in the days and weeks that followed. Many had lost their homes and treasured possessions, many were thrown out of work but worst of all they had to bear the loss of so many of their neighbours and friends, whole families wiped out in an instant. Of the eighty-one souls who perished in the flood nearly half came from this small community.
Follow the Woodhead Road towards Holmfirth and in 1.2 miles turn right into Hollowgate, passing the Toll House bookshop on the right. The course of the river, and the flood, is on the right hand side all the way down to Holmfirth. Because the places mentioned below are difficult or impossible to see from the road you might like to stop from time to time and VERY CAREFULLY cross over on foot for a better view. The map below will help with the location of Sites.
Bottoms Mill Victoria Mill Dyson's Mill Farrar’s Upper Mill Farrars Lower Mill Victoria Inn
BOTTOMS MILL In about a quarter of a mile, after leaving Hinchliffe Mill, notice Bottoms Mill, presently the premises of Messrs. Brook Dyeing Co. Ltd. Because the valley here opens out, the flood lost some of its destructive force and consequently the mill sustained comparatively little damage. Many of the present buildings, and the tall brick chimney, post-date the flood but, as may be seen, two older buildings survive as does the dam from which James Mettrick made his escape after his involuntary and terrifying journey down from Hinchliffe Mill. Just below the mill, in the flat area called Bottoms, the flood deposited a good deal of debris including three boilers brought down from Digley Mill. They were afterwards reclaimed by the Hirsts who sold one to the owners of Washpit Mill and the other two for scrap. Beyond Bottoms the river swings north towards the road and the valley
again contracts becoming ever narrower as it approaches Holmfirth. From this point the flood, once more confined, rolled on with renewed force and ever increasing fury.
VICTORIA MILL About two fifths of a mile past Bottoms Mill, just before the Victoria Inn, notice, on the right hand side of the road, the entrance to Victoria Mill yard, now the property of V.M. Fabrications. A large prefabricated building now dominates the scene but some old buildings remain including the old mill, which can be glimpsed at the bottom of the yard, and two cottages (now used as offices) which stand on the site of three destroyed by the flood. The mill itself survived the disaster although it and its contents were badly damaged and its outbuildings swept away. Five workmen who were asleep in the mill knew nothing of the approaching danger until the flood crashed in. Pursued by the water they rushed upstairs and took refuge among the rafters while the current surged around them threatening to dislodge their precarious hold. For over an hour they clung on, half submerged, until at last the water level subsided and the worst of the danger passed. At the adjacent cottages also, the first intimation of the flood was its arrival. The occupants of the two houses nearest the river saved their lives by breaking through the party walls into the end cottage which stood on slightly higher ground. Bewildered by the suddenness of the calamity and dazed by the overwhelming noise, twenty men, women and children huddled together in the attic expecting death at any moment. When at last the water level dropped, a ladder was brought by which they all escaped but their fears had been well founded, for a moment after the last of them reached the ground the houses fell.
DYSON'S MILL Just after the entrance to Victoria Mill the river turns north east again and, for 220 yards (200M), runs immediately below the road. Opposite the Victoria Inn, notice a bridge that gives access to a large open space. This was the site of Dyson's mill, a large textile factory, which stood within a stone's throw of Victoria Mill, on the other side of the river. In 1852, the mill was occupied by Jonathan Sandford who lived in a large house within
the mill yard. If a flood warning ever arrived here it was too late to save Mr. Sandford who, with his two young daughters and housekeeper, died when the deluge hit their house and swept it away. Mr. Sandford, a man of some wealth, had recently instructed his stockbroker to buy for him a large number of shares in the London North Western Railway Company and after the disaster it was rumoured that he had about £4000 in the house that night. It seems likely that such a large sum would have been kept in a safe or strong box which would probably have survived the flood intact. However, although an order was issued calling upon all persons to take recovered property to the Town Hall under pain of prosecution in default, there are no reports that the money, if it ever existed, was found. Mr. Sandford was, of course, well insured but in order to prove his death to the insurers his relatives were required to produce his remains and this they could not immediately do. Consequently, a reward of £10 was offered for the recovery of the body which was described as 'six feet tall, stout, round shouldered with sandy hair and whiskers, slightly pock-pitted and very bald on the top of the head.' By 14th February, sixty-nine bodies had been recovered, including those of Sarah Jane and Emily Sandford and the housekeeper, Ellen Wood, but it was not until 20th February, by which time the reward has been increased to £100, that the body was found embedded in the mud in Robinson's Mill goit at Thongsbridge. Apparently it had been spotted earlier but mistaken for a side of bacon! Mr. Sandford and his daughters were buried in the graveyard of the Holmfirth Wesleyan Church and their gravestone has survived (see p.36). Dyson's Mill which was badly damaged by the flood was rebuilt and later renamed Perseverance Mill. It was demolished in 1983 but some traces of buildings remain and although the extensive mill dam was filled in, its position can still be made out (see map p.19). All this may soon change, however, as there are indications that a new housing estate is to be built on the site.
About 140 yards (127 M) beyond the Victoria Inn, if time and inclination allow, stop (by lamp post No. 154) and cross the road to look over the wall
at the site of Prickleden or Upper Mill. The mill, which stood on the river bank at the north end of the large dam, has gone but the weir and sluices built to control the flow of water remain and add interest to an unexpectedly attractive riverside scene. The flood claimed no lives at Prickleden and, surprisingly, considering its position close to the river, the mill withstood the deluge although it was badly damaged. All the outbuildings, including the dyehouse, the bath house and the engine room, were destroyed and one of the boilers, weighing more than six tons, was carried away by the water and deposited three miles downstream at Berry Brow. John Farrar, the owner of the mill, estimated his losses at between two and three thousand pounds. N.B. To compare the value of money in mid Victorian times with its modern value, contrast the average wage of about one pound a week then with the two hundred plus pounds of today.
LOWER MILL 150 yards (136 M) downstream from the site of Prickledon Mill stands Lower Mill, a large factory which, in 1852, was occupied by Mr. Hobson Farrar. Because the mill was built over the river, it received the full force of the flood which washed away the greater part of the building leaving only the gable walls standing. When daylight came the bodies of two young children were found in the mill yard.
After turning right by the Toll House Bookshop follow Hollowgate which, at the other side of Upper Bridge, turns left to run parallel with the river. At Victoria Square go straight ahead along Towngate into Station Road. Continue up the hill and in a few yards after a small car park on the left turn left into Bridge Lane and follow this round to cross the county bridge. Soon after the bridge turn left into Market Street and park in the car-park at the end.
The above route, which takes you by car from Upper Bridge through Holmfirth to the Market Street car-park, follows the direction of the flood but, because it is impossible to drive slowly along the busy streets and to stop and start at will, it is advisable to walk back to Upper Bridge from the
car-park and tackle the trail through Holmfirth on foot. Walking will also allow you to investigate a couple of interesting old alleys and additional directions for these diversions, marked (W), are given within the text at the appropriate places. Towards the end of the trail it is possible to take a short cut through the old graveyard back to the car-park. The whole walk, including the diversions, is slightly under one mile long.
(W) Turn right from the car-park into School Street and at the main road turn left to walk back to Upper Bridge (about 400 yards - 363 M) and the start of the trail through Holmfirth. Follow Hollowgate towards Victoria Square.
SCAR FOLD Just before crossing Upper Bridge notice, to the right, ascene well known to ‘Summer Wine' fans as the home of Nora Batty and Compo Simmonite. This is Scar Fold where the flood was to claim eight lives. The long row of cottages at Scar Fold is, strictly speaking, two rows, one on top of the other, with the lower houses facing the river and those above facing the main road. As the flood approached the Fold the occupants of some of the upper cottages, having heard the warning, frantically broke through their floors and had just enough time before the lower houses were inundated to pluck the desperate families below to safety. Sadly though, for some there was to be no escape. In one of the cottages Joseph Hellawell and his family, who had their bedroom downstairs, were asleep when the flood burst in. The force of the water carried Joseph upstairs into the weaving chamber where, bewildered, he managed to cling to the breast beam of his loom. Eventually, his cries were heard and he was dragged to safety through the floor of the house above. Later that morning, a neighbour, William Moorhouse, who was inspecting the damage at Scar Fold, found the bodies of Mrs. Mary Hellawell and her five children, aged between one and nine, inside their house. Three days later they were buried together at Upperthong Church. In a nearby house Richard Woodcock, somehow sensing danger, left his wife and seven children and walked up to the turnpike road to reassure himself that all was well. Whilst there he heard the alarm given and rushed
back to his family. Seizing two children he urged his wife to run but she said she would not leave any of her children to die alone. With two children in his arms Richard began the difficult climb up to the road through the deep and treacherous current, closely followed by his son, Alfred, and his daughter, Sarah, who, sadly, lost their footing and were swept away. Desperately hoping that his wife and the three children he had left behind were still alive Richard fought his way into the house above his own where the occupants helped him to break through the floor. They found two children huddled together in the attic and Mrs. Woodcock in the bedroom, standing on a ladder, struggling to hold the youngest child above the water which had reached her shoulders. As they were pulled to safety, two sides of the house fell.
UPPER BRIDGE John Whitely, one of the three messengers who set off from the embankment to carry the alarm down the valley, outran the others and reached Upper Bridge where, not surprisingly, he collapsed, exhausted. His cries were heard by a group of men keeping watch on the river who themselves took up the alarm but to little effect as, less than a minute later, the flood arrived. It was later calculated that it took the water less than fifteen minutes to travel the distance between Bilberry and Holmfirth. Whitely, who did not leave the embankment until after the first overspill, ran that night as if he had the devil at his heels - which, in a way, he had. On the fifth day of the Inquest (20th February) Whitely gave an account of his epic run. Despite the fact that he had stopped on the way to warn one or two small communities and thus saved lives, the Foreman of the Jury, Mr. G. Mellor, was unimpressed by his endeavours and remarked that Whitely's warning was no warning at all. When the Coronor pointed out that the man had done his best, Mellor's unappreciative response was 'He began too late’. A weaver by trade, Whitely had no official connection with the reservoir and he had, like many others, gone up to the embankment that night merely out of curiosity. Considering the fact that as soon as he understood the danger he took action, Mellor's remarks seem a trifle harsh. Whitely neglected to say how, in his exhausted state, he managed to get away from the area but his escape must have been timely as only a minute
or so after his arrival the bridge was under several feet of water. Two cottages were swept away from the north end of the bridge, one of which was occupied by Enor Bailey, his wife and two young daughters who either did not hear or did not heed the frantic cries outside. By his own account Bailey and his wife were watching the children playing on the bed when the water crashed in. As the house fell he was thrown out into a field at the back and escaped serious injury but his wife and children were overwhelmed and carried away. Their bodies were found the next day, Mrs. Bailey and the younger child close together at Thongsbridge and four year old Martha three miles away at Armitage Bridge. Miraculously, all nine members of the Hepworth family, who lived in the other cottage, escaped. At the other end of the bridge, Mrs. Elizabeth Kippax, the landlady of the Elephant and Castle, together with her servants Mary and Grace Spivey, frantically tried to escape through doors that would not yield. As the water rushed in through the windows they fled upstairs to the garret where they stayed in safety until the flood subsided. Had they succeeded in leaving the building it seems likely that they would have lost their lives.
HOLLOWGATE The bed of the river alongside Hollowgate was soon choked up with debris and mud and the current, diverted from its usual course, flooded the street to a considerable depth. No lives were lost in the three storeyed shops on the right hand side of the street although the property was badly damaged and the shopkeepers, who included a grocer, a clogger, a bookseller and tea dealer, a tailor and a draper, lost most of their stock. About fifty yards (45 M) beyond the Elephant and Castle notice, on the left hand side of Hollowgate, a small bridge of uncertain age. On the river bank immediately beyond the bridge a row of houses and shops was so badly damaged by the flood that afterwards hardly a trace of them remained and for many days the river washed over their foundations. Nearest to the bridge was the Hollowgate toll bar house where lived Samuel Greenwood, gatekeeper, his wife, Lydia, and their twelve year old niece and servant, Eliza Matthews. Only a few hours before the disaster Greenwood was visited by his brother who warned him of the perilous state of the reservoir and advised him to move to a safer place. Unfortunately,
Greenwood, probably because of his duties as gatekeeper, decided to remain at his post. Later, as the flood began to roll down Hollowgate he was seen to come outside holding a lighted candle. After a brief look around he returned and as he closed the door the water crashed over the house which immediately disintegrated. The body of Eliza Matthews was found at Rotcher Bottom about two hours after the water subsided but because of the accumulated debris in the area her aunt and uncle were not discovered until Saturday and Tuesday respectively, the former in the cellar of a house in Hollowgate, the latter behind a washing machine in Holmfirth Mill. A few yards below the bar house stood a house and shop occupied by John Ashall, currier, his wife, Margaret and their two year old son Alfred. A friend who lived opposite saw them dressing and heard them crying out for help just before their house was inundated. It might well be that the modesty of the times contributed in a small way to the Ashalls' fate, for had they not stopped to dress it is just possible that they would have escaped with their lives. The house next door to the Ashalls was occupied by John Kaye, grocer and corndealer, his daughter and son-in-law, Amelia and Matthew Fearns, and his six month old grandchild. As their house collapsed around them they were quickly caught up in the torrent and Mrs. Fearns and the baby were drowned. Mr. Fearns was discovered near to death in Holmfirth churchyard by Joseph Barraclough who dragged him out of the water and took him to his own house in South Lane to recover. A list of the dead, published on 14th February, 1852, includes a three year old boy, Charles Thorpe. A later list places him in Hollowgate but gives his age as thirteen. There are no reports of the discovery of his body, of anyone laying claim to him or of his burial nor is anyone else of that surname mentioned among the survivors in Hollowgate. However, the census of 1851 shows a Charles Thorpe, aged two, living with his uncle, John Kaye, in Hollowgate so it may be that the age given on the later list was a misprint and that another member of the Kaye household lost his life that night. John Kaye himself had a narrow escape. The current carried him across the street into the Ribble water course where he was seen struggling in the water by Mr. Boothroyd, the landlord of the Rose and Crown. With the help of others Boothroyd held out a flagpole to the drowning man who, with
strength born of desperation, managed to hold on to it until he was dragged to safety through the parlour window.
(W) The Rose and Crown, now called The Nook, stands behind the premises of Barclays Bank in Victoria square. To see the inn and the confluence of the Ribble and Holme rivers walk along the ginnel which starts at the bottom of Rotcher Road. This interesting old way crosses the Ribble water course by the ancient Higgin Bridge where, several days after the flood, a bag was found containing about a hundred pounds in gold and silver. After passing the Rose and Crown follow the ginnel round into Victoria Square, stop and look back to the bottom of Hollowgate and then carefully walk across Victoria Square to Victoria Bridge.
LOWER HOLLOWGATE In the lower part of Hollowgate houses, shops, warehouses, and offices on both sides of the road were flooded to first floor level. Across the river a dyehouse, barn and other outbuildings belonging to J.P. Moorhouse were destroyed and his house gutted but he and his family made a last minute escape by breaking through into an adjoining office. Despite the massive damage in the lower Hollowgate area only one life was lost. James Lee, a sixty-five year old tailor, lived with his family in a house situated on the riverbank. James and his twenty-two year old son, Job, who shared a ground floor room, awoke when the flood burst the door open. James, who was probably infirm, was unable to attempt an escape and drowned almost immediately. With the water at his heels Job made his way upstairs where his frantic cries were heard by his sister and her husband who, unable to open their bedroom door, forced out one of the panels and with difficulty dragged him through to safety. Because the aperture was only five inches square Job suffered severe lacerations to his face and chest but, although he was very ill for several weeks, he survived. At about a quarter to two a.m., soon after the water level had dropped, a man was seen stumbling among the debris in this area tearing his hair and shouting that all his family were lost. Although the man was not identified, he is likely to have been Enor Bailey as he is the only one so bereaved whose movements or whereabouts at that precise time cannot be deduced from the
reports. His was perhaps the first overt demonstration of the outpouring of grief that Holmfirth would experience in the days and weeks to come.
VICTORIA BRIDGE AND STREET As might be expected, the damage and destruction in this populous part of Holmfirth was very great. In Victoria Street six shops and dwelling houses, described at the time as 'newly built in the modern style’, were flooded to a considerable depth and two others were gutted. Three shops standing on the south-west end of Victoria Bridge (the left hand side looking from Victoria Square) were partially destroyed and their contents damaged to the extent of several thousand pounds. These three buildings, which were afterwards repaired or rebuilt, survived until 1944 when they collapsed as a result of damage sustained in the flood of that year. Remarkably, no lives were lost in the area although there were a number of narrow escapes. One young man, Edward Williamson, who had recently taken the lease of ashop in Victoria Street was awakened by what he described as 'a tremendous rushing noise of He immediately jumped out of bed and saw the flood nearly up to his bedroom window. As he dressed he heard the shop floor give way and, seeing no other means of escape, he climbed out of the window on to a narrow wooden cornice which ran along the whole row of shops at first floor level. Moving away from the deepest water he carefully made his way along the narrow ledge but after struggling to keep his balance for several yards he decided he would be safer on the ground and jumped. Fortunately, a bag of wool, which had been washed on to the road, broke his fall and he landed unhurt. After the water level lowered he went back to his shop and found that all his newly acquired stock, worth £700, had been destroyed. Williamson was not the only one who saw the cornice as a means of escape. In the house nearest to the water course Joshua Woodcock, his wife and family, awakened by the flood, were naturally bewildered and alarmed as they looked around for an escape route. Eventually, Mrs. Woodcock told her family that she knew of a way and commanded them to follow her lead. She threw open the window and climbed out on to the ledge, which was only fifteen inches wide, and edged along it past eight shops to the top of the row. Finding that her family had not followed she decided that if her children
were to die she would die with them and turned back but, as resignation replaced desperation, she soon lost her balance and fell through an open window into one of the shops. Later she was overjoyed to find that, against all her expectations, her house had stood firm and her husband and children had survived. On the opposite side of the bridge two shops were almost completely destroyed but fortunately the occupants escaped. An adjoining shop belonging to William Day Martin, jeweller and watchmaker, was badly damaged and all his valuable stock washed away. The Martin family, who took refuge in the upper storey of their house, found, after the water had gone down, that they could not escape because of the perilous state of the building which was in imminent danger of collapse. Fortunately, Joseph Barraclough, who had been out to reassure himself that his daughter was safe, saw their plight and offered his assistance. After flinging out a mattress, Martin dropped his five children, one by one, into Barraclough's arms. Martin's brother, who by this time had appeared on the scene, carried the children off to a nearby house where they were put to bed. Meanwhile, Barraclough, who had somehow procured a ladder, went up to help Mr. and Mrs. Martin down to the ground. Afterwards, Barraclough twice made his way through an adjacent house, part of which had collapsed, to lead ten of Martin's neighbours from the roof top down to safety. William Day Martin was later to serve as a juryman at the Inquest although his appointment was strongly challenged by Mr. W. Jacomb, Clerk to the Commissioners. Several people in the Victoria area who took refuge in their attics reported afterwards that they felt their houses rock as the water rushed through the lower rooms. Others who were on their roof tops when the flood was at its height spoke grimly of seeing desperate people struggling in the water as it swept them away and of hearing their frantic cries for the help they would never receive.
(W) Walk across the right hand side of Victoria Bridge to look at a stone tablet on the wall of a butcher's shop which marks the height of the flood waters in this area. Continue up Victoria Street (Williamson's shop was the third from the bridge on the left hand side) and turn right at the traffic lights
into Huddersfield Road. After a few yards turn right again down a steep cobbled hill and at the bottom follow the track round to the left into Norridge Bottom.
NORRIDGE BOTTOM Stop for a moment in Norridge Bottom to try to imagine the terror felt by the residents as the pent-up waters swirled and eddied in this low lying hollow. It was calculated afterwards that if the water had risen just two feet higher not a single person out of the eight families who lived here would have survived. Most of the cottages here were, in 1852, occupied by Irish hawkers all of whom reported losing baskets of brooches, combs, ribbons, brushes, buttons and pegs as well as money, furniture and other household goods. In one house, Samuel Bancroft and his wife awoke to find their bed floating on the water. They immediately took refuge on the window seat which was only four inches above the water level and there they stood, screaming for help, until a neighbour reassured them that the flood was going down. Their neighbour, Sarah Green, her daughter, Sophia Morton and four children clung together on a bed which was lifted up and repeatedly thrown about the room by the force of the flood. Four occupants of a nearby house were in imminent danger of being swept away when two men, who spotted their plight from the turnpike road above, lowered ropes and managed, in the nick of time, to haul them to safety. Eight members of another family who were trapped in a ground floor room saved themselves by climbing up the chimney. The owner of the cottages at Norridge Bottom, Eli Sanderson, heard the water coming and managed to carry two of his children to safety. He returned for his wife and youngest child but before he could reach them his house was inundated and, greatly distressed, he gave them up as lost. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sanderson, who took refuge in the attic was equally distressed as she was convinced that her husband and children had been washed away. It is not difficult to imagine their relief and joy when, after the flood subsided, they all met in safety. Several barns and stables in Norridge Bottom were flooded or destroyed and a number of horses, cows, pigs, dogs and hens drowned. Two pigs
belonging to Joseph Battye were carried downstream for about a hundred yards and deposited by the flood in an outhouse where, afterwards, they were found alive. Opposite the cottages, the Old Bridge Hotel incorporates much of the fabric of Eldon House, a large residence occupied in 1852 by Joseph Charlesworth J.P. and his family. There is no detailed account of the Charlesworth's escape but it was, apparently, a narrow one as the house was flooded to the first floor ceiling and the surrounding gardens inundated. Extensive warehouses and dye houses belonging to Mr. Charlesworth were completely destroyed. Joseph Charlesworth had been expected to take the chair at a public meeting held at the Crown Hotel, Holmfirth on Saturday 7th February 1852 but, not surprisingly, it was announced that he was indisposed. He did, however, briefly address the meeting and, because he was one of only a very few victims to publicly express his feelings in the immediate aftermath of the flood, his words are worth quoting in full:
"When I tell you that at twenty minutes past one o'clock on Thursday morning myself and my family were mercifully delivered from imminent peril and danger and that I have not since sat down to a regular meal, nor been in bed more than three hours I need not, under these circumstances assure you that I come to the meeting distressed in mind and harassed in body. I feel quite unable to make a speech. I believe however that we have not come to make speeches but to write down our names and give subscriptions.'
Shortly afterwards a resolution 'that a committee be appointed to solicit subscriptions immediately’ was carried unanimously.
(W) From Norridge Bottom, turn right down the side of the Old Bridge Hotel and then right again to walk in front of the hotel. After it ceased to be a private residence and before it became an hotel Eldon House was used for many years as a Conservative Club. Over the years it has been renovated restored and extended but, as may be seen, the original entrance with its fine portico has been retained. The front garden is now the hotel's car-park and the larger side garden became, in 1912, the site of the Valley Cinema.
Walk on past the old cinema, cross the appropriately named (but not too obvious) Picture Bridge and then turn left to walk along Towngate passing the church and the White Hart Inn on the right.
TOWNGATE The flood, which by the time it reached this part of Holmfirth had descended some 330 feet from Bilberry, caused great damage to the buildings in the neighbourhood of the church. The church itself escaped serious injury but a massive stone pillar at the entrance to the church yard was displaced and a draper's shop within the yard - perhaps the very building now known to the world as 'Sid's Cafe' - was gutted and stock worth £250 lost.
AAR Lo wes - Ss gd OE
4, - + +Towngate c.1900 At the time of the flood Towngate was a narrow cobbled street with houses, shops and inns crowded together on both sides. The buildings on the west (left) side, which were demolished in 1920 when the road was widened, were, of course, particularly vulnerable to flood as they stood on the very edge of the river. Opposite the church, the Jolly Hatters Inn was flooded to the first floor level and the upper storey of an adjacent shop was Swept away.
A little further along Towngate, opposite the White Hart Inn, William Gledhill, corndealer and grocer, had a shop and warehouse. Mr. Gledhill, slept in an underground kitchen which was on a level with the river. That night he heard thunder in his dreams and awoke to find water rushing in. In total darkness he made his way upstairs feeling, he said, that every step was worth a sovereign to him. By the time he reached the top, the kitchen was completely flooded. Having so narrowly escaped with his life Mr. Gledhill regarded the loss of his stock of corn and sugar with equanimity. At the White Hart Inn there was, during that Wednesday evening, much discussion about the weather, the river and the possibility of the reservoir collapsing. The landlord, William Dyson, was of the opinion that something was wrong as he had noticed that the water was coming down in much greater abundance than was usual in heavy rain. Later in the evening a customer assured him that the water had settled and gone down by at least a foot. His fears allayed, Mr. Dyson went to bed at midnight. Just over an hour later he was awakened by his wife who frantically told him that Holmfirth was in flood. After waking everyone in the inn and ordering them up to the top floor Dyson ran out to help his friend, James Shackleton, a retired publican, who lived with his daughter in a house opposite to the inn. Urging the old man to fly for his life, Dyson seized Miss Shackleton and led the way across the flooded street to the comparative safety of the White Hart. Very shortly afterwards the water level rose to about ten feet and Shackleton's house fell. Whilst walking along Towngate notice, opposite the White Hart, a tall stone monument which must stand very close to the site of James Shackleton's house. Erected in 1801 to mark the short lived Peace of Amiens the column is known locally as 'Owd Gen' presumably because Henry Genn of Totties, who was regarded as something of a ‘character’, contributed in some way towards it. After the disaster of 1852 a bronze plate was affixed to the monument on which is recorded the height reached by the flood in this part of Holmfirth. Behind the monument, notice an area between Towngate and the river now used as a car-park. Until it was cleared in fairly recent years this was a busy bustling place where houses, workshops and warehouses associated with Holmfirth Mill stood along two sides of the mill's narrow dam. The site of the mill, which had a long history in Holmfirth, is now occupied by
the post-office. All the property in this small area was damaged by the flood to a greater or lesser degree but nowhere were the consequences more tragic than at a row of three cottages, called Mill Hill, where only twelve of the twenty occupants survived. The cottages at Mill Hill stood immediately behind James Shackleton's house but separated from it by the mill dam. The greater part of the end cottage collapsed under the weight of the flood but miraculously the four occupants, John and Lydia Tait, their daughter, Helen, and alodger named Firth, survived. After the water went down they were rescued from the ruins of their house by William Dyson of the White Hart. The middle cottage, which was occupied by Richard Shackleton (James Shackleton's son) his wife, Tamar, and their three children, received the full force of the flood and immediately disintergrated. Here there were no survivors. The bodies of Tamar and the children were found near Thongsbridge only hours afterwards but Richard's body was not discovered for several weeks. A remark in a letter written on the 10th March by John Tait suggests a reason for the delay; he says: "They only just found poor Dicks Boddy floating down as far as Ferry Bridge.’ Holmfirth is linked to Ferrybridge, some thirty-five miles away, by the rivers Holme, Colne, Calder and Aire. The third cottage at Mill Hill was the house of Sidney Hartley, mill engineer, his wife, Mary Ann, their eight children and Henry Dearnley an apprentice who lodged with the family. David Hartley, the eldest son, afterwards described the family's ordeal:
"When we were in bed early in the morning we heard a noise as if the slates were falling off the house. I got up and cleared away a number of slates so that I was able to get out on to the thack. I then pulled up my sister Ann beside me; after that I managed to get John, my brother, up and also the apprentice boy. I tried long and hard to pull brother James up but had to give up the attempt or we would both have been dragged down together. While we were standing on the roof we saw many persons with their heads a little above the water struggling and crying for help. We could see into the chamber where my mother was lying but it was impossible to reach her, the water had risen so high. We saw her look towards us and heard her say farewell and then she was swept away.’
A few days later Mr. & Mrs. Hartley and their five children were buried together at New Mill Church. All the property in Towngate beyond the White Hart suffered some structural damage but the buildings on the left hand side were in a particularly vulnerable position. One of these was the George and Dragon inn where the water rushed in with such force that the cellar arch collapsed causing the upper walls to subside. Adjoining the inn was a butcher's shop, in the occupancy of Richard Birks, the greater part of which was carried away. Another inn, the Friendship, was also badly damaged and the landlord, John Bower, afterwards reported losing spirits and liquor worth £50.
HOLMFIRTH MILL At the end of Towngate look left to see the site, now partly occupied by the post office, of Holmfirth Mill which in 1852 was occupied by Messrs Nathan Thewlis and Co., woollen manufacturers. The mill, which was four storeys high, sustained a great deal of structural damage to its two lower floors. Inside, scouring machines, fulling stocks, stoves, vats and dye pans were overturned and thrown together in an immense tangle with all manner of flood debris, including three bodies, which was forced in through the windows. The mill yard was afterwards found to be filled with stones, mud and rubble to a depth of six feet and in the adjacent mill dam was a thirty horse power steam engine which had been washed down from one of the mills upstream. Immediately behind the mill a large blue dyehouse collapsed and most of the adjoining house was swept away. Fortunately the occupants had taken refuge in the small part of the house left standing. Just beyond the dyeworks, on the opposite side of the river, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was flooded to within a foot of the top of its pews and as the flood swirled over the adjacent grave yard several bodies were washed up from their graves and carried away. The Rev. B. Firth and the Rev. J. Garbutt and their families, who lived nearby, made their escapes in their nightdresses and sought shelter on higher ground. The chapel which stood between the river and the main road was replaced by a larger building in 1871 and that in its turn has been replaced by the modern single story premises
(W) From Towngate continue straight ahead into Station Road and in forty-five yards (41 M) go througha gate on the left into the old burial ground. Follow the path across to a gate diagonally opposite the entrance and once through this cross a small footbridge back to the car-park. This is a shorter route to the car-park than the one you took earlier by car via the county bridge.
Whilst crossing the footbridge stop to look at the river winding its peaceful way out of Holmfirth and try, for a moment, to imagine the scene as it was that night when a vast body of water two hundred yards wide and ten feet deep rolled down and vastly overspilled the water course. Before returning to the car-park turn left towards the Methodist church to see, on the left hand side of the path, the grave stone of the Sandford family which has recently been restored by the Holmfirth Civic Society. Part of the inscription reads:
‘Also of the above named Jonathan Sandford aged 45 years Also his daughter Sarah aged 9 years 10 months Also his daughter Emily aged 4 years 10 months All of whom lost their lives by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir in the morning of Thursday, February Sth, 1852.'
It is at this point that we end our but, of course, the flood continued on its inexorable way down the valleys of the Holme and Colne to Huddersfield and beyond. To bring the story of that fateful night to a proper conclusion therefore we must, briefly at least, describe how the flood affected some of the hamlets and villages beyond Holmfirth.
BEYOND HOLMFIRTH As the river Holme leaves Holmfirth, it is crossed by a county bridge leading to the railway station. The bridge was badly damaged, its battlements washed away and the occupants of a nearby cottage had a narrow escape
when the building collapsed around them. Immediately beyond the bridge the fields on both sides of the river were strewn with all manner of wreckage and debris from which several valuable parcels of title deeds were later recovered. A quarter of a mile away at Bridge Mill, which was occupied by Messrs J. Broadbent, the willow room was swept away and a recently constructed goit was destroyed. Just beyond the mill, Sands House, the residence of Mr. Cookson Stephenson Floyd, was damaged and a cart, belonging to John Furniss of Upper Digley Mill, was deposited on the arch of a nearby bridge. Soon after daybreak on Thursday morning seven bodies were recovered from a field near Sands House bridge. At Thongsbridge, the destruction of property was immense. One end of Robinson's mill was forced down, the goit was broken and a steam engine, two scribbling machines, two carders, a billey, a washing machine and the fulling stocks were swept away in a tangled mass. The lower storeys of five adjacent cottages were shattered but fortunately for the occupants, who took to the roof tops, the buildings stood firm. After the flood subsided three coffins and their contents, washed down from one or another of the graveyards upstream, were taken from the river at Thongsbridge together with the bodies of eight flood victims. When the flood reached Smithy Place, a hamlet two miles north east of Holmfirth, it had one more life to claim. Elizabeth Healy, aged eight, lived with her parents and three siblings in a cottage near to the river. Shortly before the flood arrived a warning reached Smithy Place and Mr. & Mrs. Healy hastily carried three of their children to the safety of higher ground. Unfortunately, before Mr. Healy could return for Elizabeth the flood hit the house and the little girl was swept away. The height of the water at Smithy Place was described as ‘fearful’ and there is no doubt that the loss of life would have been much greater had the alarm not been given and heeded. Beyond Smithy Place the river runs close to the former Wadsley and Langset turnpike (now New Mill Road, A616). The Smithy Place barhouse on the road side was flooded and the gates destroyed. Four hundred yards (363 M) further on the Travellers Inn was damaged and the landlord reported losing all his stock of beer and spirits and twelve apple trees. Before ten o'clock on Thursday morning eight bodies had been recovered from the river
between Smithy Place and Honley and taken to the inns nearest to where they were found. A witness who saw the flood arrive at Honley described the scene as ‘awfully terrific’. The flood, now some four hundred yards wide, reached to the tops of the tenter posts in the fields and swept before it walls and hedges, weirs and dams, barns and haystacks and everything else that was moveable. At Honley Bar the toll gates were carried away and several houses in the neighbourhood were flooded. Further down the river at Armitage Bridge the front and back walls of St. Paul's church yard, which were seven feet high, disintregated but only a small quantity of water entered the church and the damage inside was slight. Near the church the bodies of two children, one with a long pillow round its neck, were found in a tree. They were later identified as Martha Bailey and Elizabeth Hartley. Beyond Armitage Bridge the flood still had enough force to cause considerable damage to Dungeon Mill (now Park Valley Mill) and to the bridge, public baths and brewery at Lockwood. The scene at Lockwood, when dawn broke on Thursday morning, was said to resemble a battlefield; lying in every direction was a tangled mass of mill machinery, rollers, warping creels, boxes, barrels, old coffins, wheelbarrows, oranges and apples, cart loads of turnips, brushes, shattered furniture, uprooted trees, large quantities of soap and candles and the carcases of several horses, sheep, cows and pigs. At Kings Mill a wooden cart-bridge over the river Colne, built seven years previously by Joseph Kaye, was swept away. On the other side of the town, at Bradley Mills, the body of a man was taken out of the river two days after the flood. Between Bradley Mills and Mirfield the river banks were scattered with debris but, as the flood had lost most of its force at this stage, this consisted mainly of timber, uprooted trees and broken furniture. In the cold revealing light of that Thursday morning the dazed and bewildered inhabitants of the Holme Valley began to count the cost: eighty- one people dead and many many more suffering from injuries and exposure; thirty-three industrial premises, thirty-four houses, seven shops and seven bridges completely destroyed; thirty-one mills and dyehouses, one hundred and thirty-six houses, forty-four shops, eleven public houses, three churches and six bridges badly damaged, some of them beyond repair. In addition,
some five thousand people were thrown out of work and consequently did not have the wherewithal to provide for their families. The material loss, initially estimated at £250,000, was subsequently declared to be £67,224. 10s. 9¥%d. although it was acknowledged that the final sum did not cover the total amount of losses sustained as a number of sufferers were known to have made no claim.
THE AFTERMATH No time was lost in caring for the homeless and destitute. On the day after the flood a meeting of poor-law guardians and relieving officers was held for the purpose of making arrangements for the ‘decent burial’ of the dead and, in their words, 'to afford relief to those who have escaped from a watery grave but have been rendered destitute of their clothing, furniture and all the necessities of life.' Officials were appointed to visit the sufferers to ascertain their immediate needs and to distribute food and warm clothing. Others supervised the grisly task of searching for the bodies of those lost. Men thrown out of work were employed in clearing away a massive amount of debris and mud from the watercourse and from streets, houses, shops and factories. In this task they were closely supervised by the local police and anumber of special constables who preserved order and attempted to prevent theft. Several sums of money, found in drawers, boxes and shops tills, were in fact handed in to the authorities during the clearing process. Nevertheless it was known that a great deal of money and property was misappropriated and the police soon issued a warning that anyone refusing to deliver up goods obtained from the ruins would be taken into custody and charged with theft. Not surprisingly, the disaster left the people of Holmfirth in a highly nervous state and ready to believe rumours that other, similar, disasters were imminent. For example, on the Sunday after the flood the congregation of the parish church had just started a service in the Underbank National Schoolroom when a woman rushed in and frantically begged those present to send the children home as the Ribbleden stream was in flood and the Holme Styes reservoir was about to collapse. Terrified, the congregation speedily left the room and the Rev. R.E. Leach found himself closing the service alone. Afterwards it was found that the swollen state of the river was caused by
the drawing of the Holme Styes' sluices to allow the water to subside below the safety level. Meanwhile at the Wesleyian Methodist chapel, where the diverted river was still lapping at the foundations of the building, the congregation willingly abandoned their act of worship when it was suggested by the minister that they should take immediate action to preserve the chapel. For many hours afterwards the male members of the congregation, led by the Rev. J. Garbutt, were busily engaged in throwing up a barrier of stone and earthwork which they hoped would protect their property in the event of another flood.
THE REACTION Naturally, the flood excited great curiosity throughout the country and long before the streets were passable hoards of people descended on Holmfirth to see the disaster and misery for themselves. In the week following the flood the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company reported bringing more than nine thousand visitors daily to Holmfirth station. In addition, thousands came in coaches, omnibuses, cabs, gigs, on horseback and on foot. While most locals must have regarded this influx with impatience, indignation or indifference a few enterprising men took to the streets with collecting boxes to solicit aid for the victims. The sums they received, which were willingly given, were the first contributions to a relief fund which would soon receive donations from all over the country. On Saturday 7th February, a public meeting was held in Holmfirth at which a committee was appointed to solicit subscriptions throughout the locality and various sums, amounting to £1010 were then and there subscribed. This was followed by meetings in Huddersfield, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Dewsbury and many other places further afield including London. Two weeks after the disaster the Holmfirth and Huddersfield subscription lists were published detailing donations which ranged from one shilling from ‘a homeless person' to £500 from Messrs. John Brooke and Sons. The final sum collected was £69,422. 8s. 4d. to which Holmfirth and Huddersfield contributed £14,861. As the money rolled in committees and sub-committees were appointed to administer the fund. After much argument a claim by the Commissioners of the Holme reservoirs for £7,000 to repair Bilberry dam was met out of
the fund. All claims were vetted by members of the general committee and only settled at their discretion. Although it was well known that a number of victims made no claim upon the fund it was eventually decided that too much had been collected and, astonishingly, £31,011. 11s. 1d. was returned to the subscribers. The members of the general committee, who were judged to have been severe in their assessment of the needs of many of the victims, attempted to explain their decisions in their final report, dated 27th January, 1854. They said:
‘In the arduous duties which have devolved upon them, your committee have endeavoured to do justice to the sufferers, and carry out the views of the subscribers with all possible fairness and discrimination. In apportioning the grants, your committee are aware that they have not altogether escaped the charge of illiberality. But they could not divest their minds of the fact that the subscriptions were raised in the first instance in consequence of statements made during the excitement of the moment, and which, after careful investigation, turned out to be much over- estimated; and the losses in many instances to have fallen on those who were not properly objects of public subscription.'
Another committee, separate from the relief fund committee, was formed to determine a suitable method of commemorating the flood victims and also, in the words, '..to perpetuate the remembrance of the unparalleled munificence of the public.’ After discussing and dismissing the respective merits of a dipensary, a savings bank and public baths the committee finally decided to erect almshouses in Holmfirth to be held forever on trust. However, subscriptions to the memorial fund fell short of the sum needed and the project could only go ahead after the general committee voted that the balance of the relief fund be transferred to the memorial fund. Five almshouses, built in Gothic style, were erected in Station Road on land given by Cookson Stephenson Floyd Esq. The foundation stone was laid on 21st April, 1856 by Mr. Floyd on behalf of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Freemasons. As there was only just enough money to complete the building project the ladies of Holmfirth offered to hold a three day bazaar
to try to raise an adequate sum for the endowment of the houses. This was held on 17th, 18th and 19th September, 1856 and the thousand pounds it produced was deemed sufficient for the purpose. A stone tablet, still to be seen on the almshouses, bears the following inscription:
IN DEI GLORIAM
These Almshouses built and endowed by public Subscription, and by the proceeds of a Bazaar promoted by the Ladies of the neighbourhood, as a memorial of the Holmfirth Flood, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir on February 5th 1852, by which 81 lives were lost, and an immense amount of property destroyed; and as a further memorial to the National Munificence for the alleviation of that calamity, are dedicated to the Poor of the Townships of Holme, Austonley, Cartworth, Wooldale, Upper-Thong, Nether-thong and Honley for ever. MDCCCLVI.
THE INQUEST Many witnesses were called to give evidence at the Inquest which spread over six days (6th, 13th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 27th February 1852) and many thousands of words were exchanged. Accusations and counter-accusations, excuses and denials were rife and the benefit of hindsight was much invoked. As we intend to highlight only one or two of the main strands of evidence, interested readers might like to know that a full account appeared in the Huddersfield Examiner on 14th, 21st and 28th February 1852, microfilm copies of which may be consulted at the local studies department, Huddersfield Central Library. A preliminary Inquest was opened at the Railway Tavern, Holmfirth at nine o'clock a.m. on the day after the flood, Friday 6th February, 1852. Sixteen local men were sworn in as jurors and instructed to view the sixty bodies already recovered at the places where they were lying - Armitage Bridge, Honley, Smithy Place, Thongsbridge, Holmfirth and Hinchliffe Mill. The jury reassembled at three o'clock p.m., at the Town Hall, Holmfirth, where they were addressed by George Dyson Esq., of Halifax, Coroner for the Division of the West Riding of Yorkshire. After commenting on the magnitude of
the disaster the Coroner urged the necessity of making immediate application to the Government for an inspector to be sent to examine the condition of the reservoir and report thereon. He then adjourned the Inquest and instructed the members of the jury that they should, in the meantime, make individual inquiry into the origin of the flood and by strictest investigation endeavour to ascertain whether the calamity was unavoidable or whether any blame was attached to the Commissioners or their servants. On Friday 13th February the Coroner and the jury assembled at the White Hart inn, Holmfirth to hear the statements of those persons who first discovered the bodies or who could in any way identify them. When the Inquest was resumed, on Wednesday 18th February at the Town Hall, Captain Moody of the Royal Engineers was present on behalf of the Government and the Commissioners of the Holme Reservoirs were represented by Mr. William Jacomb, solicitor, Clerk to the Commissioners. The Coroner, addressing the jury, said that the inquiry would formally be in reference to the death of Eliza Marsden, of Water Street, Hinchliffe Mill, but it would also involve an inquiry into the deaths of all other persons who had lost their lives by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir. He then told the jury that they would find it convenient to divide their inquiry into two parts: firstly as to the collapse of the embankment for which someone or other ought to be responsible and secondly whether the misfortune had arisen from the culpable negligence of any persons in the performance of their duties which case would constitute the crime of Manslaughter. After the Coroner's remarks Mr. Jacomb rose to object to the presence on the jury of William Day Martin, clockmaker, who, he said, had lost a considerable amount of property in the flood and who could, therefore, hardly be called disinterested. The Coroner pointed out that it would not be possible to obtain a jury without having some gentlemen who had lost property to some extent by the accident. When asked for his views, Mr. Martin said that he had sworn to decide the question without fear, favour or reward and, as an Englishman, he intended to do so. After Mr. Jacomb's further objections, to the Inquest being held in public and to the press being allowed to report the day to day proceedings, had been Over-ruled by the Coroner the inquiry got under way. The question of the spring at the base of the puddle clay core naturally
exercised everyone's mind. George Leather, the engineer, categorically stated that nothing was reported to him of any spring at the bottom of the puddle trench although several witnesses swore that they had informed him of its presence. For example, John Tait, clerk of works at the reservoir (probably the same John Tait who narrowly escaped with his life at Mill Hill) stated that in the course of his fortnightly communications with Mr. Leather he had more than once reported that water had been discovered in the trench. Leather's response was that Tait was quite mistaken in saying that he had reported to him fortnightly. As engineer in charge - a title he disputed at the Inquest - Leather's visits to the site were surprisingly infrequent and his observations when there were less than acute. When asked by Mr. Jacomb if, in one of his later visits (September 1844) to the site, he did not see that the height of the bye-wash was above the embankment, Leather replied noncommittally, that he really did not notice. It is clear from the evidence given at the Inquest that the project was a chronicle of disasters from start to finish. No one admitted having overall responsibility either for the construction of the dam or its day-to-day management. The chain of authority was, in fact, badly fragmented and as well as George Leather there were others equally at fault. The Commissioners were in constant disagreement, with Mr. Leather, many of whose orders they countermanded, and with his deputy and the overlookers and drawers. One drawer, Jonathan Woodcock, when asked by Mr. Jacomb why he had not entered the daily height of the water in the special book provided by the Commissioners replied, with some indignation, 'What was the use of entering it in the book? Nobody looked at the book but myself; I could do as I like as to what I entered.’ After five months as drawer Mr. Woodcock resigned as he had not been paid. Towards the end of the Inquest, Captain Moody was to say that the men in charge of the reservoirs were not paid enough. ‘You have no right,' he said, 'to expect to get intelligent men to devote their attention to the management of the reservoir for £5 a year. You must pay more and get good men.’ There is no doubt that financial difficulties beset the scheme from its inception. The initial estimate of £6300 was soon found to be hopelessly inadequate and application had to be made to Parliament for further funds to complete the dam. Mr. Jacomb stated that the project was already insolvent
when he was appointed in 1846 and had remained so ever since. Money was owed to, among others, the Huddersfield Banking Co., Messrs Floyd and Booth, solicitors, and Messrs Sharps, the original contractors, who were taking legal action against the Commissioners to recoup some £3000 still owing to them. The Commissioners themselves were taking action against the millowners who, dissatisfied by the supply, were refusing to pay for the use of water released from the dam. It would appear that as well as disagreements between that Commissioners and the parties connected with building and maintaining the reservoir there were differences between the Commissioners themselves. For example, Joshua Littlewood, architect, told the Inquest that, as asafety measure, he recommended that an opening be made in the bye-wash at eighteen feet from the shuttle. An order was made by an acting committee of Commissioners for the work to commence but he was later told that other Commissioners had forbidden the work to go ahead. When pressed on this point he said, with tears in his eyes, that they (the Commissioners) said that if an attempt was made to make the opening it would resisted by force. In his closing statement Captain Moody gave a detailed account in which he commented on the principles of reservoir building in general and the design of Bilberry and the manner in which that design was carried out in particular. After commenting that the jury had heard abundent evidence of the faulty management and control that had marked the construction of the dam he went on, 'The execution of the work was not what it ought to have been and bad execution in works of this kind or any work connected with water is fatal. The works must be good and watertight or they will become dangerous and their destruction must come sooner or later.' Although it was his opinion that the immediate cause of the disaster was that the bye-wash had been allowed to remain above the level of the sunken embankment, he commented that the plans proposed to repair Bilberry, had they been adopted, would not have answered so long as that full spring existed where it was. Having drawn attention to ‘unskilled men who do not know what they are proposing' he concluded his report with the following warning:
much better to leave hydraulic engineering and all engineering to engineers... In this neighbourhood there are many
mountain reservoirs... pray don't look upon them and treat them like mill dams and fish ponds. They are engines of mighty force, strong in aid of your industry to augment your wealth, and terrible in their power to destroy if mismanaged or neglected. This fact must be indelibly impressed on the minds of all dwellers in Holmfirth.’
As he sat down, Captain Moody was warmly applauded. In his summing up the Coroner said that although the evidence might have proved that the Commissioners could have prevented the tragedy by lowering the bye-wash in 1848 or 1849 they could not, being a corporate body, be made criminally responsible for the loss of life which had occurred. Further, those engaged in the construction of the works many years earlier could not now be held responsible for what had happened, however imperfectly they had executed such works. After two hours of deliberation the jury returned and the foreman handed in the following verdict:
‘We find that Eliza Marsden came to her death by drowning, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir. We also find that the Bilberry Reservoir was defective in its original construction and that the Commissioners, Engineers and Overlookers were greatly culpable in not seeing to the proper regulations of the works. And we also find that the Commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry Reservoir to remain in a dangerous state with the full knowledge thereof, and not lowering the waste pit, have been guilty of great and culpable negligence. And we regret that the reservoir being under the management of a corporation, prevents us from bringing in a verdict of manslaughter; as we are convinced that the gross and culpable negligence of the Commissioners would have subjected them to such a verdict had they been in the position of private citizens. Wealsohope that the legislature will take into its most serious consideration the propriety of making provision for her majesty's
subjects, exposed to danger from reservoirs placed by corporations in situations similar to those under the charge of the Holme Reservoir's Commissioners.'
Interestingly, William Day Martin dissented from the verdict. Presumably he would have liked to press charges of manslaughter. From all the evidence given at the Inquest one fact is paramount. If the top of the bye-wash had been lowered to below the top of the lowest part of the embankment all would have been well. When asked by the Coroner, ‘Tell us as clearly as you can for we wish it to go before the public what a trifling expense would have saved such an awful Mr. Leather replied, 'I think twelve pounds ten shillings would have done it.' To paraphrase a well known verse - for the want of twelve pounds ten shillings a valley was lost. It is a sad epitaph to those who died.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES
The Huddersfield Examiner copies of 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th February 1852, held on microfilm at the local history library, Huddersfield.
The History of Huddersfield and its Vicinity D.F.E. Sykes A History of the Parish of Kirkburton H.V. Moorhouse Holmfirth from Forest to Township E. Williams O.S. maps 1854, 1894 The Upper Holme Valley S.J. Streek The Leeds Intelligencer microfilm copies April 1832 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Our thanks to our friends, James and Kathleen Broadbent of Burnlee, who have helped us considerably with the details of old Holmfirth.
Thanks also to J.R.B. for taking time out from painting to produce the admirable line drawings.
ISBN 9524747 4 3