Donald Riley (1901-1944)

This page is part of the Holmfirth Flood Project which aims to make content available to researchers in advance of the 175th anniversary of the 1852 Flood which will be commemorated in 2027.

Donald Riley was one of the three victims of the Holmfirth Flood of 1944.


He was born on 4 December 1901 in the Holmfirth area, the son of boot dealer George Willie Riley and his wife Ellen Ann (née Seddon), and was baptised on 5 January 1902 at Holmfirth Wesleyan Chapel.

At the time of the 1921 Census, he was living with his parents at 6 Woodhead Road, Holmfirth, and working as an electrician at F. W. Taylor & Son.

He married Lily Battye of 63a Woodfield Road, daughter of engineer Arthur Battye and his wife Emily (née Bedford), on 3 August 1927 at St. John, Upperthong. At the time, he was an electrician residing at Woodfield, Woodhead Road, Holmfirth. The couple had one known child:

In 1939, the family was living with Lily's parents at 63a Woodhead Road.


On Whit Monday 29 May 1944, heavy rains from a thunderstorm led to flash flooding in the Holme Valley.

Donald and his son Geoffrey went to the aid of one of their nearby neighbours, 76-year-old spinster Maude Evelyn Wimpenny of 51 Woodhead Road who had become trapped in her garden by rising waters. Another neighbour, Mavis Lockwood of 80 Woodhead Road, was an eyewitness to what happened:[1]

She [Mrs Wimpenny] was sitting on a wall. When it was seen that she was in danger of being carried into the river, Mr. Riley, with the help of his son, managed to reach her with a clothes line and tied it round her. But then the wall collapsed, and all three were swept down river.

Another account of the rescue attempt was published in the Yorkshire Post on 1 June:[2]

Father and son were near their home on the left bank of the River Holme when they saw Miss Maud Wimpenny (75), a neighbour, struggling in the water. They raced to her aid. Without hesitation, Geoffrey plunged in and tried to rescue the woman, but failed. He then came out of the water, stripped off some of his clothes, and rushed in again. Seizing the woman by the wrist, he attempted to swim with her to safety. Mr. Riley, thinking his son was in danger, then plunged into the water and grabbed him. All three were clinging to each other when they were carried down the river and under a bridge.

Downstream, Mrs. Annie Beaver of Netherfield, Upperthong, spotted Geoffrey in the river and called to her father, Ernest Hampshire, who went to assist the boy:[1]

He seemed to be clinging to some wood. With the help of another man, I removed the rubber piping from a stirrup pump and threw one end to the boy. I had to warn him to to drag on it too hard, for I was afraid it would break. He showed great presence of mind, however, and we were soon able to pull him clear from the water.

After being rescued, Geoffrey reportedly said "I shan't see daddy again".[3]

An inquest into the deaths began on 2 June at the Holme Valley Memorial Hospital and verdicts of "accidentally drowned" were recorded.

Geoffrey was awarded the Albert Medal for bravery in November 1944.[4] At the time, he said "I am very pleased, but I only did my duty".[5] In 1973, the medal was exchanged for the George Cross.[6]


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Notes and References

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Holmfirth River Deaths" in Yorkshire Post (31/May/1944).
  2. "Boy Hero's Rescue Attempts" in Yorkshire Post (01/Jun/1944).
  3. "Holmfirth Cloudburst" in Yorkshire Observer (09/Jun/1944).
  4. "15-Year-Old Holmfirth Boy Decorated by the King" in Yorkshire Post (17/Nov/1944).
  5. "Albert Medal for Boy Hero of Holmfirth" in Bradford Observer (04/Oct/1944).
  6. "Obituary: Geoffrey Riley" in The Guardian (02/Feb/2005).