Chambers' Edinburgh Journal (05/Jun/1852) - Visit to the Scene of the Holmfirth Flood

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The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.


The great flood which took place in the valley of Holmfirth in February last, was in itself a deeply-interesting and awe-exciting incident. I was curious to visit the scene, while the results of the catastrophe were still fresh, both on account of the sympathy I felt with the sufferers, and because of some physical problems which I thought might be illustrated by the effects, so far as these were still traceable. I therefore took an opportunity on the 22nd of April, to proceed from Manchester to Holmfirth, accompanied by two friends, one of whom, though he had not visited the place since the calamity happened, was well acquainted with the scene and with the country generally, so as to be able to guide us in our walk. A railway excursion to Huddersfield, and a second trip on a different line from that town to the village of Holmfirth, introduced us to a region of softly-rounded hills and winding valleys, precisely resembling those of the Southern Highlands of Scotland, as might indeed be expected from the identity of the formation (Silurian), but which had this peculiar feature in addition, that every here and there was a little cloth-making village, taking advantage of the abundant water-power derived from the mountain-slopes. The swelling heights were brown and bare, like those of Tweeddale ; and there the blackcock may still, I believe, be found. The slopes are purely pastoral, with small farm-steadings scattered over them. But down in the bottom of the dale, we see the heavy stone-and-lime mill starting up from the bare landscape, with a sprawling village of mean cottages surrounding it, giving token of an industrial life totally opposite to that which is found beside the silver streams of the Tweed and its tributaries. When we passed near any of these spots, we were sure to catch the unlovely details, so frequently, though so unnecessarily attendant on factory-life — the paltry house, the unpaved, unscavengered street, the fry of dirty children. It was a beautiful tract of natural scenery in the process of being degraded by contact with man and his works.

Arriving at Holmfirth at one o’clock, we found it to be a somewhat better kind of village, chiefly composed of one or two irregular streets running along the bottom of a narrow valley. Hitherto, in passing up the lower part of the vale, we had looked in vain for any traces of the inundation ; but now we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of ruin and devastation. Holmfirth is only two miles and a half from the reservoir, and being at a contracted part of the valley, the water came upon it in great depth and with great force. We found a bridge deprived of its parapets, the boundary-walls of factories broken down, and court-yards filled with débris and mud. Several large houses had end or side walls taken away, or were shattered past remedy. In a narrow street running parallel with the river, and in some places open to it, many of the houses bore chalk-marks a little way up the second storey, indicating the height to which the flood had reached. When we looked across the valley, and mentally scanned the space below that level, we obtained some idea of the immense stream of water which had swept through, or rather over the village.

A rustic guide, obtained at the inn, went on with us through the town, pointing out that in this factory precious machinery had been swept away — in that house a mother and five children had been drowned in their beds — here some wonderful escape had taken place — there had befallen some piteous tragedy. Soon clearing the village, we came to a factory which stood in the bottom of the valley, with some ruined buildings beside it. This had been the property of a Mr Sandford, and he lived close to his mill. Taken completely unprepared by the inundation, he and his family had been carried off, along with nearly every fragment of their house. His body was discovered a considerable time after, at a distance of many miles down the valley. It may be remarked, that about 100 people perished in the flood ; and out of that number, at the time of our visit, only one body remained unrecovered.

The catastrophe is too recent to require much detail. It took its origin, as is well known, in a reservoir of water for the use of the mills, formed by a dam across the valley. This had been constructed in 1838, and in an imperfect manner. The embankment, eighty feet in height, sloped outwards and inwards, with facings of masonry, thus obeying the proper rule as to form ; but the puddling, or clay-casing of the interior, was defective, and it is believed that a spring existed underneath. Some years ago, the embankment began to sink, so that its upper line became a curve, the deepest part of which was eight or ten feet below the uppermost. This should have given some alarm to the commissioners appointed to manage the reservoir ; and the danger was actually pointed out, and insisted upon so long ago as 1844. But the commission became insolvent, and went into Chancery ; so nothing was done. A sort of safety-valve is provided in such works, exactly of the same nature as the waste-pipe of a common cistern. It consists of a hollow tower of masonry rising within the embankment, in connection with a sluice-passage, or by-wash, by which the water may be let off. This tower, rising to within a few feet of the original upper level of the embankment, was of course sure to receive and discharge any water which might come to the height of its own lip, thus insuring that the water should never quite fill the reservoir, or charge it beyond its calculated strength. By the sluice provision, again, the water could at any time be discharged, even before it reached nearly so high a point. Unfortunately, this part of the work was in an inefficient state, the embankment having itself sunk below the level of the open-mouthed top of the tower, while the sluice below was blocked up with rubbish. It was subsequently declared by the manager, that this defect might have been remedied at any time by an expenditure of £12 10s.! If the commission could not or would not advance this small sum, one would have thought that the mill-owners might have seen the propriety of clubbing for so cheap a purchase of safety. They failed to do so, and the destruction of property to the extent of half a million, the interruption of the employment of 7000 people, and the loss of 100 lives, has been the consequence. Surely there never was a more striking illustration of the Old Richard proverb: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost,’ &c.

The night between the 4th and 5th of February was one of calm moonlight ; but heavy rains had fallen for a fortnight before, and an uncommon mass of water had been accumulated behind the Bilberry embankment. The vague apprehensions of bypast years reviving at this crisis, some neighbours had been on the outlook for a catastrophe. They gathered at midnight round the spot, speculating on what would be the consequence if that huge embankment should burst. There were already three leaks in it, and the water was beginning to pour over the upper edge. A member of the ‘sluice-committee’ was heard to say, that before two o’clock there would be such a scene as no one had ever seen the like of, and not a mill would be left in the valley. Two persons were then understood to be sent off, to give warning to the people down the valley ; but no good account of the proceedings of these two messengers has ever been given. It appears as if the very singularity of the dreaded event created a confidence in its not taking place. By and by, a breach was made in the casing of the embankment just below the top ; the water then got in between the casing further down, and the puddle or clay which invested the internal mass, composed of mere rubbish. In half an hour, a great extent of this case was heaved off by the water, and immediately after a tremendous breach was made through the embankment, and an aqueous avalanche poured through. Men then began to run down the valley, to waken the sleepers, but the water ran faster. In a few minutes, it had reached the village, two miles and a half distant, carrying with it nearly everything which came directly in its way. It is said to have taken nearly twenty minutes to pass that village — a fact which gives a striking idea of the enormous mass of water concerned.

About a mile and a half above the village, we came to a modern church, which had been set down in the bottom of the valley, close to the river-side. Entering, we found some curious memorials of the operation of water, in the upbreak of the whole system of flooring and seating, which now lay in irregular distorted masses, mingled with all kinds of rubbish. Bibles and prayer-books still lay about among the seats, as if the people had never so far recovered from the hopeless feeling originally impressed upon them, as to put out a hand for the restoration of order. The position of this church and its fate give occasion for a remark which, if duly remembered and acted upon, may save many a good building from destruction. It should be known, that the meadow close beside a river — what is called in Scotland the haugh — is not a suitable place for any building or town, and this simply because it is, strictly speaking, a part of the river-bed. It is the winter or flood-channel of the stream, and has indeed been formed by it during inundations. Unless, therefore, under favour of strong embankments, no building there can be secure from occasional inundation. Thus, for example, a large part of Westminster, and nearly the whole borough of Southwark, are built where no human dwellings should be. The fair city of Perth is a solecism in point of site, and many a flooding it gets in consequence. When a higher site can be obtained in the neighbourhood, out of reach of floods, it is pure folly to build in a haugh — that is, the first plain beside a river.

We were coming within a mile of the Bilberry embankment, when we began to observe a new class of phenomena. Hitherto, the channel of the stream had not exhibited any unusual materials ; nor had its banks been much broken, except in a few places. We had been on the outlook to observe if the flood, and the heavy matters with which it was charged, had produced any abrasion of the subjacent rock-structure. No such effects could be traced. We were now, however, getting within the range of the scattered débris of the embankment, and quickly detected the presence of masses of a kind of rubbish different from the rounded pebbles usually found in the bed of a river. There were long traînées, composed of mud and clay, including angular blocks of stone, which were constantly increasing in size as we passed onwards. These blocks were the materials of the embankment, which the water had carried thus far. No ploughing up of the channel had taken place, but simply much new matter had been deposited. In some places, these fresh deposits had transgressed into the fields ; and where trees were involved, the bark on the side toward the upper part of the valley had generally been rubbed off. Not much more than a quarter of a mile from the reservoir, we found Mrs Hirst’s mill, or rather a memorial of its former existence, in a tall furnace-chimney, for literally no more survives. The deposit of rubbish was here eight or ten feet deep, and a number of workmen were engaged in excavating from it fragments of machinery and other articles. They had cleared out the ground-rooms of the house, though little more than the base of the walls remained. The scene was precisely like an excavation at Herculaneum. The outline of the rooms was beginning to be traceable. A grate and a fireplace appeared. We observed a child’s shoe taken out and laid aside — an affecting image of the household desolation which had taken place. Mrs Hirst, however, and her whole family, had been fortunate enough to escape with life, although with the loss of all their property. This mill, from its nearness to the reservoir, as well as the contractedness of the valley at the spot, had experienced the violence of the flood in a degree of intensity unknown elsewhere.

The space between Mrs Hirst’s mill and the reservoir is for a good way comparatively open, and here some good land had been completely destroyed ; but for two or three hundred yards below the reservoir the valley is very narrow, and there some extraordinary effects are observable. The flood, at its first outburst here, has exercised great force upon the sides of the valley, carrying off from the cliffs several huge blocks, which it has transported a good way down. Three of from five to seven tons’ weight are spoken of as carried half a mile, and one of probably twenty tons is seen about a quarter of a mile below the place whence it evidently has been torn. These are prodigies to the rustic population, little accustomed to think of the dynamics of water, and totally ignorant of the deduction made in such circumstances from the specific gravity of any heavy mass carried by it. Geologists, who have looked into the great question of erratic blocks, are less apt to be startled by such phenomena.

Some of these gentlemen will, I suspect, find the transport of blocks at Holmfirth less remarkable than they could have desired. It is well known that, while most of them ascribe the travelling of boulders to the working of ice in former times, one or two persist in thinking that water may have done it all. The present president of the Geological Society has endeavoured to shew, by mathematical reasonings chiefly, that the blocks of Shap Fell granite, scattered to the south and east in Yorkshire, may have been carried there by a retreating wave, on the mountain being suddenly raised out of the sea. Now here is a moving flood, of greater force than any retreating wave could well be ; and yet we see that it does not carry similar blocks a hundredth part of the way to which those masses of Shap Fell have been transported, even although their course was all downwards moreover — a different case from that of many of the Shap boulders, which are found to have breasted considerable heights before resting where they now are.

At length, after a toilsome walk along the rough surface of the débris, we reached the place whence this wonderful flood had burst. We found on each side of the valley a huge lump of the embankment remaining, while a vast gulf yawned between. This was somewhat different from what we expected ; for we had seen it stated in the newspapers, that the whole was swept away. So far from this being the case, fully half of the entire mass remains, including portions of that central depression which has been spoken of. There is more importance in remarking this fact than may at first sight appear. In the investigation of the mysterious subject of the Parallel Roads of Glenroy, one theory has been extensively embraced — that they were produced by a lake, which has since burst its bounds and been discharged. It has been asked: Where was the dam that retained this lake? and should we not expect, if there was any such dam, that it could not be wholly swept away? Would not fragments of it be found at the sides of the valley — the breaking down of the centre being sufficient to allow the waters to pass out? When we look at the masses left on each side of the Bilberry embankment, we see the force and pertinence of these queries, and must admit that the lake theory is so far weakened. In the bottom of the breach, a tiny rill is now seen making its exit — the same stream which cumulatively took so formidable a shape a few months ago. For a mile up the valley, we see traces of the ground having been submerged. Immediately within the embankment, on the right side of the streamlet, is the empty tower or by-wash, that dismal monument of culpable negligence. We gazed on it with a strange feeling, thinking how easy it would have been to demolish two or three yards of it, so as to allow an innocuous outlet to the pent-up waters. When we had satisfied our curiosity, we commenced a toilsome march across the hills to a valley, in which there has lately been formed a series of embankments for the saving up of water for the supply of the inhabitants of Manchester. About six in the evening, we reached a public-house called the ‘Solitary Shepherd,’ where we had tea and a rest ; after which, a short walk in the dusk of the evening brought us to a station of the Manchester and Sheffield Railway, by which we were speedily replaced in Manchester, thus accomplishing our very interesting excursion in about ten hours.

My final reflections on what we had seen were of a mixed order. Viewing the inundation as a calamity which might have been avoided by a simple and inexpensive precaution, one could not but feel that it stood up as a sore charge against human wisdom. That so huge a danger should have been treated so lightly ; that men should have gone on squabbling about who should pay a mere trifle of money, when such large interests and so many lives were threatened by its non-expenditure, certainly presents our mercantile laissez-faire system in a most disagreeable light. But, then, view the other side. When once the calamity had taken place, and the idea of the consequent extensive suffering had got abroad amongst the public, thousands of pounds came pouring in for the relief of that suffering. The large sum of £60,000 was collected for the unfortunates ; and it is an undoubted, though surprising fact, that the collectors had at last to intimate that they required no more. It is thus that human nature often appears unworthy and contemptible when contemplated with regard to some isolated circumstance, as misanthropes, poets, and such like, are apt to regard it. But take it in wider relations, take it in the totality of its action, and the lineaments of its divine origin and inherent dignity are sure to shine out.