Holmfirth: A Valley Made for Flooding (1973) by Wylbert Kemp

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.

The following article by the late Wylbert Kemp remains the copyright of his estate.


Holmfirth: A Valley Made for Flooding.

Holmfirth is a thriving little West Riding township near Huddersfield set in a valley, overshadowed by Holme Moss and the B.B.C. television station. It is a valley of craftsmen where the weaving of fine cloth is a family tradition handed down from father to son, mother to daughter.

One can turn a fold in the hills to find sturdy stone mills tucked away among fields where cattle and sheep are almost grazing in the mill yard. Like as not you might come across a weaver who would tell you in a rich northern burr: “I’ve worked a loom at that spot all mi life, mi fatther an’ granfatther afore me. I want nowt no better.”

Holmfirthers are a sturdy independent race, not given to violence, demonstrations and civil disturbance. Honest and straightforward they have no hesitation in calling a spade a spade and not a blooming shovel.

Over the years there have, naturally, been changes. Townspeople are finding it a pleasant environment and modern dwellings are springing up cheek by jowl with the old cottages scattered about the hillsides.

New industries are also springing up, some from humble beginnings. One such is Dunsley heating appliances which developed a revolutionary method of central heating using the existing domestic fire. This began in outbuildings on a remote hillside farm. Later a disused mill was taken over, and the firm recently moved to a custom-built factory from which they have supplied boilers to the Royal household.

Hepworth Electrical is another to take over a large mill where they are engaged in light engineering and production of lathe light engineering and production of lathe tools. Further down the valley, on the site of the old Honley Lake pleasure grounds, Brook Motors are producing thousands of electric motors which can be found running, sometimes under water, in remote corners of the globe.

From a small farm on a high hilltop the Dickinson brothers have developed what must be one of the largest creameries in the country.

Holmfirth is changing from being a valley involved only in the making of cloth. The influx of new industries breathes life into the valley, finding work for modern technicians.

This is Holmfirth, the valley made for flooding. The inhabitants have suffered floods in 1771, 1821, 1852 and 1944. There are several reservoirs dotted about the countryside, for the surrounding moors are a natural catchment area which has its fair share of rain. After an Easter of continual downpour a native was heard to observe: “They want to put a bank across t’valley an’ flood damned lot. It’ll nobbut take five minutes to fill.”

Before the reservoirs were constructed it was found that the supply of water was inadequate for the manufacturers who needed an abundant supply for their mill dams. Water wheels were the chief motive power in the early 1800s.

With this in mind Bilberry reservoir was constructed in 1840 at the head of a narrow gorge draining the moors from Holme Moss on one side and those running up to Saddleworth on the other. It was formed by blocking up the valley, enclosing some 15 or 20 acres with an estimated 86,240,000 gallons — or the enormous weight of three hundred thousand tons. This was the setting of the terrible tragedy when the reservoir burst its banks 12 years later.

The tragedy occurred in the early morning of February 5, 1852, and 81 lives were lost together with the destruction of 244 properties and over 200 acres of land.

In all, 7,038 people were thrown out of work.

From the time of construction the embankment leaked. The leaks, increasing in power and number, caused it in places to fall below the level of the bye-wash, which was rendered useless to take away surplus water. Some leaks were so serious they supplied the mills without the necessity of opening the shuttles.

Work was put in hand to rectify the damage but, after a while, the commissioners declined to go to any further expense. The construction of two other reservoirs in the area had been heavy.

January and early February of 1852 had a period of exceptionally heavy rain. Almost ten inches fell in the 12 hours before the disaster and the insecurity of the reservoir was thoroughly understood in the valley.

Many said that under heavy pressure the bank would give way, but the cry of “wolf” had been heard so often. On the night of the 4th, most of the people had gone to bed. Others, more apprehensive, removed their treasured possessions to the safety of the higher ground.

On the hills, at midnight, they watched as the wind and water beat upon the embankment. A considerable portion was washed away, large fissures appeared down the grass-covered sides and tons of loose earth and rubbish were carried away. It was now too late to warn the unfortunate neighbours sleeping in the valley below.

Just before 1a.m. the bank burst. An eye-witness described the scene as the rising of an immense sheet of mist accompanied by a roar like thunder. In about 30 minutes the reservoir was empty and the passage of the water down the valley to Holmfirth, a distance of three miles, took about 20 minutes.

Water Street, directly in the path of the flood suffered terribly, and here 36 people lost their lives. One of the survivors described a scene that was indelibly fixed on her memory.

Mr. and Mrs. Ellis had 12 children and slept downstairs in a turn-up bed. Mr. Ellis rushed upstairs to the children telling his wife to bring the youngest and follow him. Instead she opened the door. The backwash of the flood swept her out on to the flags clutching the door handle.

Thanks to Mr. Ellis’s exertions 11 of the children were taken from one of the upper windows and one child left in bed. She was afterwards rescued in a remarkable manner. As the debris rose with the water, her cries attracted the attention of two of her brothers who broke the window frame to reach her. In a collapsed condition she was taken to the New Inn, put in a hot bath and brandy was forced between her teeth.

A man named Ned o' Sneks took three children out of the flood in Water Street. Mrs. Ellis, badly injured could not tell who she was and could only express herself by using a slate and pencil. Her husband identified her by a birth mark and it was 12 months before she was “herself again”.

They escaped with their lives but little else. They remembered the flood rushing by almost to the top of a field they called Long Tongue where a mill boiler carried along by the water brought down part of a mill and caused great havoc with the buildings in Water Street.

This was repeated all down the valley. As a child, I remember my grandmother telling me she had watched coffins, torn from graveyards, being carried along on the flood at Armitage Bridge six miles away. I myself recall a mill chimney still standing in 1946 with the ruins of the mill around it. On the top was a large tree, in full leaf.

It was always said that the workmanship was so good that the waters made no impression beyond removing it bodily ten yards backwards from its original position. If anyone doubted this tall story one man swore: “I saw it happen mysen.”

Digley, a much larger reservoir, has since been constructed below Bilberry. Modern methods, standards of materials and inspection have allayed fears of any like disaster.

It is reassuring to reflect that the inhabitants of Holmfirth no longer think of it as a valley made for flooding.

Wylbert Kemp