Hampshire Advertiser (14/Feb/1852) - The Holmfirth Catastrophe

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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.


We gave last week a short notice of the terrible catastrophe at Holmfirth, in Yorkshire, where, owing to the bursting of the Bilberry reservoirs, three miles above the town, but at the top of a gorge, upwards of eighty lives were lost, and an amount of property destroyed which cannot be calculated with precision, amounting in individual cases from £30,000 and in downward proportion to the cottager’s dwelling and furniture. We select a few of the particulars from the Halifax Guardian[1]:—

BILBERRY MILL. — This mill, which was occupied by Messrs. Broadbent and Whiteley as a fulling and scribbling mill, is completely gutted. A house in the immediate locality, occupied by Mr. John Furness, was partly destroyed, and an adjoining barn and stable swept away bodily. Three cows and a horse were in the premises at the time, and were washed down the stream. A stack of hay, valued at £40, withstood for a moment the mighty shock, and the next was engulphed and carried away. Fortunately the family were aware of danger, and had removed out of the house when the mischief happened.

MIDDLE DIGLEY MILL. — The next scene of devastation was at Middle Digley Mill, occupied by Mr. Furness, and used as a woollen mill. The mill is erected broad way across the valley, with a dwelling-house on the left hand side. Fortunately at this point the valley widens considerably, and in the rear of the mill stood the house occupied by Mr. Furness, and as it faced the coming current acted somewhat as a break, like the bowsprit of a vessel against the coming waters. The cottage house adjoining the mill was nearly swept away, but the walls of the mill were left standing. Nearly the whole of the machinery was washed out of the windows and doors, and a large quantity of pieces also carried away. Between this mill and Digley Mill a singular scene of devastation is presented. The day previous, we are told that the valley was covered with green pastures, but when we visited the place on Thursday, we could only conceive it to be the bed of some mighty river. The ground was covered with sand and loose stones which had apparently been washed, for ages, by some mountain torrent. Some of these stones were of immense size, and one of them was computed to be at least four or five tons weight. It will be a work of immense labour to remove these stones and rubbish, if ever the great cost can, be incurred.

DIGLEY MILL. — A little below this singular scene of devastation the valley became contracted into a narrow gorge, but in spite of the natural disadvantages of the situation, the enterprising genius of a British manufacturer had been evinced in the erection of some very extensive premises known as Digley Mill. On the left of the river some extensive dye works were erected, and a little lower down on the same side a large weaving shed. Between the two there was a wright’s shop, a mistal, barn, cart-shed, &c. and two cottage houses. On the opposite side of the river stood five cottages and a large woollen mill. The whole of this extensive property, with the exception of the mill chimney, was swept away. Of the cottages scarcely a vestige remains. We have heard the loss at this place variously estimated, and should think that £20,000 was under rather than over the mark. Fortunately Mr. George Hirst and his family were saved, having been made aware of the extreme probability of the reservoir bursting during the night.

BANK-END MILL. — The next scene of destruction down the stream was at Ban-End Mill, occupied by Messrs. Roebuck, and used as a woollen mill. The east end of the mill was forced in, and a great portion of the machinery washed away. To add to the cumulative force of the destructive current, the mill-dam gave way. Fortunately no loss of life occurred in this locality.

HOLME BRIDGE. — Holme Church is situated on one side of the valley, the steeple facing up the stream. The churchyard walls were tumbled down, nearly all the tombstones overturned, and several of the bodies, it is said, washed out of the graves. The Church, doors were stove in ; and such was the force of the water that the whole of the pews on the floor of the Church were lifted up bodily. The interior of the Church presented a most lamentable aspect. A goat, which was last seen feeding in the grave-yard, was found dead in the middle aisle of the Church, having been washed there by the flood. The battlements and one of the arches of the bridge are washed away, rendering the valley impassable. The gates of the toll-bar house were also lifted from their position, and swept along by the fury of the torrent, but the bar-house escaped. The wreck of property left by the flood when it subsided, is immense ; mud, broken machinery, woollen pieces, large beams of machinery, and broken furniture were spread over the fields to a great extent. The houses of the inhabitants bordering upon the stream were inundated, their property either spoiled or destroyed, and such was the quantity of mud and filth which had accumulated in and about their dwellings, that a most awful stench was occasioned, and the next evil to he feared is the outbreak of some dreadful pestilence.

HINCHCLIFFE MILL. — Here the most appalling scenes were witnessed, here the uncontrollable fury of this terrible visitation manifested itself in the most fearful form. Hinchcliffe Mill is occupied by Messrs. Butterworth and Co, and like the rest of the mills in this locality is used as a woollen mill. A large dam extends on the easterly side of the mill, and on the other at the-river six cottages were erected immediately opposite the mill, the rivulet dividing the respective buildings. On the easterly side of these six cottages was a large mistal, and above that another long row of cottages upon the immediate banks of the river. This row of houses is called Water-street, and it was in this locality where the most of the terrible loss of life was occasioned. It appears that a general rumour prevailed that the reservoir (which is two miles and a half up the valley) was in an unsafe state, but no specific information was conveyed to the unfortunate inhabitants that immediate danger was apprehended.

In order to appreciate the dreadful scene, it must be borne in mind that the six cottages erected on the opposite bank of the river to which the mill is erected, faced sideways to the stream, the dam-head being immediately opposite. These cottages were occupied respectively by Eliza Marsden, Joseph Dodd, Jonathan Crossland, John Charlesworth, James Metterick, and Joshua Earnshaw, with their families. In all, forty-four individuals retired to rest in that clump of houses on Wednesday night, and soon after they had gone to sleep — or at all events retired to bed, thirty-six of them met a watery grave. The following is the sad record :—

Eliza and Nancy Marsden and two sons — all lost — 4
Joseph Dodd, wife, and two daughters — all lost — 4
Jonathan Crossland, and seven children — all lost — 8
John Charlesworth[2], wife, and eight children — seven lost — 7
James Metterick, wife and twelve children — nine lost — 9
Joshua Earnshaw, son, grandson, and grand-daughter — all lost — 4
total — 36

Thus out of this terrible catalogue four families have been clean swept away! The whole of the houses were carried away by the flood, and when we the site was visited upon which they stood, an old rusty can was the only article seen. Houses, furniture, beds, and inmates — all were swept away. A person who saw the houses go, described the scene thus — “I was looking out of the window, and saw the water coming rolling down the valley. In a minute after I saw the six houses wobble a bit like on the top of the water, and then they all went away.” With regard to the three first families on the list nothing can be said, excepting that one or two bodies have been recovered — the rest were carried along by the mighty torrent.

Three of Charlesworth’s children by some means made a miraculous escape. They ran to the door of a neighbour named Ellis, and were fortunately taken in by him only just in time to make their escape out of the top of the house. Other two children of the same family had escaped as far as the top of the fold, leading into the turnpike road, but returned to rescue two hens which they kept, and by so doing were caught and drowned.

In the family of the Metterick’s two remarkable circumstances occurred. The eldest son (William), who does not live there, had been for a warp, and the evening being so very wet and stormy he decided to stay all night at his father’s rather than encounter the storm in going home to his family. He was drowned. Another son[3], 24 years of age, was washed out of his bed-room, but fortunately got astride a small beam, on which he managed to balance himself, and was carried with tremendous impetuosity down the foaming waves. Fortunately the end of the beam pointed itself in the direction of the dam adjoining Mr. Harpen’s mill, and borne up by the beam he swam into the harbour of refuge, and was rescued from his frail life-boat in a state of extreme exhaustion.

HARPEN AND VICTORIA MILLS. — Progressing lower down the stream, we come to Harpen Mill, occupied by Messrs. Barber and Co. ; and Victoria Mill, occupied by Messrs. Harper and Co. At the latter place three dwelling-houses were entirely washed away ; but fortunately the inmates escaped. Both mills have suffered great damage.

SANDFORD MILL. — This mill was occupied by Messrs. Sandford and Co., and on the left-hand side of which a small mansion had been erected, and was occupied by Jonathan Sandford, jun., esq., his family consisting of two daughters, (the one about ten, the other five years of age), and his housekeeper. The house was completely swept away, and nothing left standing except a portion of one of the walls. It is said that Mr. Sandford had been informed the evening previous that a report had spread about the unsafe state of the reservoir, and that it would be hardly safe for him to sleep at home : and it is rumoured that he did not believe there was sufficient danger to justify the removal of his whole family. He, therefore, retired to rest with them ; but not one now remains to tell the events of that terrible night. Only one of the bodies has been recovered.

UPPER AND LOWER MILL. — The mill called Upper Mill, occupied by Mr. John Farrar, was washed into, the engine greatly damaged, the whole of the dyehouse nearly swept away, and a great amount of “mungo” or “devil’s dust” carried down by the flood. At Lower Mill, occupied by Mr. J. H. Farrar, nearly all the windows were broken, the machinery greatly broken, and what is remarkable the boiler was lifted clear off its seat and carried away, rolling on the surface of the water like an immense porpoise. How far down the valley this boiler was carried we have not ascertained ; but several boilers have been left high and dry in the fields by the retiring waves. The mill dam was burst. It appears that some person had run down the valley when the embankment first gave way to give an alarm, for in the neighbourhood of Lower Mill or Upper Bridge several young men, who were returning from Holmfirth, met a young man who was running and crying “Flood, flood!” but was unable to utter one single syllable more. Mr. Tedbar Earnshaw and Mr. George Littlewood, in company with some others, met this young man at Holmfirth, and by a sort of instinct at once concluded that the reservoir had burst, but the young man who thus brought the alarm sank thoroughly exhausted to the ground. Upon the strength of the supposition they had come to they commenced kicking at the doors, and in less than five minutes the flood was upon them. Earnshaw says that he saw a bed with two little children in it come out of one of the houses, and roll down the stream ; the shrieking children were lost.

HOLMFIRTH. — The first news of the fearful doom which had befallen so many of the inhabitants in the Holme valley, and of the terrible approach of the flood, reached Holmfirth about half-past one o’clock, and the two parties just alluded to, along with one or two of their companions, were the first to rouse the inhabitants ; they acted in a praiseworthy manner in their heroic exertions to save life and property. Among others whom they aroused was Mr. Lomax, surgeon, who, upon running to his bed-room window, was horror-struck at seeing the water surging in the road beneath. Looking across the valley, he saw the toll-bar house carried away at one fell swoop. Thinking it time to escape, he and his wife and family managed to squeeze themselves through one of the windows on the back part of the house, and ascended one of the neighbouring heights for security.

Considerable damage was done at Upper Bridge, where the valley is very much confined. The door of a dwelling-house, occupied by a poor man named Joseph Hellawell, was burst open by the destructive current. He was in bed at the time with his wife ; his four children were also asleep in bed. Hellawell made his escape by climbing into an upper room, from whence he was taken into another dwelling by the inmates, and saved. His wife and four children were all drowned. In the next house two children named Alfred and Sarah Woodcock, were drawn into the current, and perished. A house adjoining the bridge, occupied by Enor Bailey, was swept away, and his wife and children carried away. The toll-bar house in Hollow-gate, kept by Samuel Greenwood, was entirely swept away, and the inmates, three in number, drowned. Two houses a little lower down the river, occupied by Mr. Ashall and his family, were completely carried away, not a vestige remaining ; the family, five in number, were all lost. In an adjoining house two females named Kaye were drowned.

In Victoria Street the work of devastation was equally great, every building in that recently-erected street being literally deluged with water, and the goods of every shopkeeper damaged to a serious extent.

A warehouse, occupied by Mr. Bower, at Holmfirth Mill, was clean swept away. It is estimated that wool to the amount of £2000 was stowed in the warehouse at the time it was washed away. A portion of the mill was also destroyed, and the machinery damaged to a dreadful extent.

Great damage was done to the Church, and especially to the Wesleyan Chapel. Several graves were burst open in the cemetery adjoining the chapel, and washed down the stream in their coffins. A small mill at Bridge was also washed down the stream.

At Bridge Mill the force of the current washed down the embankment of the dam, doing considerable damage to the mill and machinery. A building at Bridge Fold, occupied by Mr. Exley and his family, was completely destroyed, and the inmates pulled out of the house before it went to complete ruin. Their escape is miraculous. The harrowing recital of scenes which will never be effaced from the memory of those who witnessed them, might be continued to an indefinite extent, but we are obliged to curtail those sickening details.

HUDDERSFIELD. — Below the immediate neighbourhood of Holmfirth the whole line of the river is one scene of wreck for many miles; as the course of the river is pursued, scarcely a field, garden, or building on its confines but has suffered more or less. At Smithy-place, the dyehouse and mill of Messrs. J. Robinson has suffered severely, part of the dyehouse with its contents being washed away; at a rough calculation, the damage done is about £1500.

POLICE ARRANGEMENTS. — As soon as the magistrates could be assembled the town crier was at once sent round the neighbourhood to summon the inhabitants to the Town Hall, and about 150 special constables were sworn in for the purpose of being stationed along the brink of the river for the preservation of any property that could be rescued. Information was also conveyed to Huddersfield, and a large police force sent for. Messages were also telegraphed to Dewsbury, Wakefield, Doncaster, &c. for the police to be on the look out for the recovery of any bodies or property that might be seen floating down the river. By this means a great amount of property of all descriptions has been recovered. The greatest possible exertions were made during the day to fish out as much property as possible out of the river, and the adjacent fields were covered with the debris of the flood. At several places we saw entire waggon loads of all kinds of property, household and otherwise, which had thus been rescued, and were hoarded in the streets awaiting orders.

A list of the bodies found is given by the local press.

The excitement at Holmforth consequent upon this heartrending occurrence was of the most intense character. At Huddersfield, the railway station was literally besieged by a dense crowd of persons of all classes, who evinced the greatest impatience to possess themselves of a ticket, for the purpose of going to view the scene of the dire calamity. The struggling and pressure was severe, and despite the utmost perseverance, great numbers were left behind. On the arrival of the train the parties dispersed themselves in groups, and gratified their curiosity by examining those parts of the place which had been most exposed to the resistless torrent. The day being beautifully fine, the usually quiet village of Holmfirth presented an appearance of great animation, consequent upon the hundreds who thronged the various thoroughfares. The town-hall was made a receptacle for such property as had been found, which we need scarcely say was of a multifarious kind.

George Dyson, esq., the coroner, arrived on Friday morning, and accompanied by the gentlemen who had been summoned as jurymen were occupied several hours in the painful duty of viewing the bodies, which had been taken to the various public houses in the village. Having fulfilled this necessary preliminary, they proceeded to the Town-hall for the completion of the remaining forms.

The inquest was adjourned until Wednesday week.


A public meeting, convened by the constable (Mr. Thomas Mallinson), was held at the Philosophical Hall, for the purpose of advancing a subscription commenced on Saturday. The spacious hall was densely crowded by a most respectable audience, who in various ways manifested their sympathy for the sufferers at Holmfirth, and most of all by the largest subscription ever raised in Huddersfield for any purpose.

John Brook, esq. was called to the chair, and he introduced the subject in a few appropriate observations.

The Rev. Josiah Bateman moved—

“That this meeting sympathises most deeply with the suffering inhabitants of the valley of the Holme under the recent calamity caused by the bursting of Bilberry Reservoir, by which upwards of eighty persons have lost their lives (sixty-eight bodies have already been found), and a frightful extent of property swept away, reducing many of the survivors from comfortable circumstances in life to utter ruin, and depriving upwards of two thousand operatives of employment for some time to come.”

Their sympathies, he observed, had recently been stirred by other accidents. Not long since general attention was drawn to the terrible calamity in a coal mine, in the neighbourhood of Rotherham, and still more recently to that dire and terrible calamity which overtook the Amazon. Who had not, as they lay in bed, thought of the horrors of that fire, of the raging billows, the frail life-boat, and of the multitudes then hurried into eternity in a moment? There, indeed, had the midnight cry been heard; but here there was none, and the terror of the calamity was in its silence. At sunset, on the preceding day, all was quiet ; and if there were any forebodings in some minds and hearts, they produced but little effect. Parents and children retired to rest in confidence, and all was peace in that stirring valley, of which every Holmfirth man had felt so proud, in the morning they were gone — the whole of the valley was strewn with dead bodies ; its factories wrecked, the houses ruined and swept away ; shops gutted of their property ; and the ruins of this terrible devastation scattered on every hand — (hear, hear, hear). Such were the broad features of the event, which had struck the people with so much of surprise and terror, that not a tear was observed by the visitors to the valley. A kind of silent awe oppressed the spirits of all men, who stood, as it were, panic-struck with the extent of the calamity which had so suddenly fallen upon them — (hear). These broad general features could be infinitely heightened, if he had the power to do it, by going into a detail of individual suffering, for it was individual sorrow which brought pain to the heart. As he had read these details, he noticed that there was buried in the churchyard a Johnathan Crosland, a Joshua Crosland, a Charles Crosland, a Joshua Crosland, jun., a Hannah Crosland, and a Mary Crosland, all of one family, and as it were in one grave — (sensation). What a tale of woe did that present? — the whole family cut off ; and yet it was but one of many similar instances. They might imagine that family retired to rest in peace. In the middle of the night the strong current of the devastating flood entered the house and swept them in a moment into eternity. Imagine that family to be their own — their own dear wives and children, hurried in a moment from this world and they might then, perhaps, form some conception of the amount of individual suffering — (great sensation). He had observed further, in the same paper, an account of one of the victims, who was described as a fine young woman, unknown. Who was she? A young wife, a young mother, or the beloved of some fond heart? Who, he repeated, was she? — (sensation). Then there was the account still more touching of the babe some few hours old, and its mother, both hurried into eternity. He knew Yorkshiremen had strong minds, but they had also tender hearts, which could feel for others, and he asked if there was anything more touching than that single incident? And such details as these could be multiplied until the mind was harrowed up with the intensity and magnitude of the suffering brought before it — (hear). Those of them who had families could imagine the desolation of hearts caused by such sorrows. The resolution stated that sixty-eight bodies had been actually found, and the total number missing was eighty. Such a calamity was almost unprecedented in its extent, and called for Christian sympathy and support — (hear, hear). He now came to the second point of his resolution — the destruction of property. After details of shocking losses, be proceeded to speak of the subscriptions :— Their sympathy must find action — (hear, hear). And he really thought it was finding action, and that there was not a single gentleman in that room but was ready to subscribe at once — (hear, hear). He could only say that having been called upon to attend a preliminary meeting on Saturday, which was convened by their excellent constable, he met with a few gentlemen just to consider what should be done. He there sat silent to see what the gentlemen would do, and after due consideration of various matters by fifty or sixty gentlemen came the question “What shall we give?” from which he did not see a single gentleman shrink. He was sorry that Mr. Brook was in the chair that evening, as he would not speak of him as he could, nor of the other gentleman who so nobly followed the lead of a chairman with his munificent donation of £500 — (subdued applause). In the space of about twenty minutes subscriptions were put down which be cast up to something like £1700. Now as he sat silently, he felt he could not but help them with his prayers, praying as he did that their kindness might be returned to them sevenfold, and that none of them might ever know what it was to lose wife, or child, or property, and want friends to comfort and console them. He tell pleased that he was the vicar of such a parish, so prompt, so ready to devise liberal things ; and he had no doubt that it would be reported to them that the amount then raised had since been largely increased, and would still be increased — (hear).

Mr. William Leigh Brook, one of the acting magistrates at Holmfirth, seconded the resolution. Most of them were acquainted with the beautiful valley of the Holme, one of the richest and most fertile valleys in the kingdom, covered as it was with cultivated fields and valuable mills, and everything that could gladden the heart of man. What was the case now? There, where they had heard the shuttle and the loom, they now saw lamentation and woe. Desolation and destruction had swept the valley, and mills but the other day actively employed were either destroyed or rendered useless, and the hands employed deprived of work — (hear, hear). The destruction of the Amazon steamer the other day was a tearful calamity ; and they had often heard of dreadful coal-pit accidents. But in these cases the loss of property fell upon one or two persons only, and the persons thrown out of work were soon re-employed. Not so here. The very source from which the people derived their means of livelihood was swept from them, and it must take years before the inhabitants of the valley of the Holme could be placed in the situation they were in when this calamity overtook them, unless this was taken up as a national question through the length and breadth of the land — (hear, hear). They might subscribe there, but they must make it known, that the other towns might sympathise with them. They must raise money, not merely to grant present relief, but they must try to place funds in the hands of those employers who had been ruined, that they might be able again to employ the hands now deprived of their usual labour — (hear, hear). In conclusion, he said that at the public meeting held in Holmfirth on Saturday night, £1020 was raised, which, considering the paralysed state of the locality, was, he thought, a large sum. The people of Huddersfield had also raised a large and astonishing amount, and which he hoped would yet be increased — (hear, hear).

The resolution was then put and carried nem. con. as were all the others.

The total subscribed was £4934!!


  1. The same report was also used by the author of Sorrow on the Land: An Account of the Inundation Occasioned by the Bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir (1852).
  2. John Charlesworth survived.
  3. This was James Mettrick (1828-1902).