Holmfirth Flood of 1852

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.
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In the early hours of 5 February 1852, the Bilberry Reservoir to the west of Holmfirth burst its embankment and an estimated 86 million gallons of water poured down the Holme valley along the route of the River Holme, causing considerable destruction to buildings and bridges, as well as claiming the lives of around 80 people.

Events Prior to the Flood

Following the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, a large number of textile mills and dye works had been constructed along the length of the River Holme and its tributary valleys. Concerns about the reliability of the water supply during periods of drought led in the mid-1830s to an ambitious scheme to construct eleven reservoirs[1] which was submitted to the House of Commons in 1837.[2]

By September 1838, the scheme had been scaled back to just three reservoirs which were to be built to designs by civil engineer George Leather of Leeds:[3]

One at Boshaw Whams, in the Township of Cartworth, in the Parish of Kirkburton, in the said county, the Embankment of which will be in the highest part above 50 Feet.

A Second at Holme Styes Mill, in the several Townships of Cartworth and Wooldale, in the Parish of Kirkburton aforesaid, the Embankment of which will be about 84 Feet at the highest Point.

And a Third, at or near to Bilberry Mill, in the Township of Austonley, in the Parish of Almondbury, in the said County, the Embankment of which will, in the highest Part, be nearly 100 Feet.

During the preparatory work for the foundations of the embankment of Bilberry Reservoir, a water spring was uncovered. Rather than constructing a culvert to safely divert the water, a fateful decision was made to plug the spring with rubble and puddle clay in the assumption that the weight of the embankment above it would divert its flow elsewhere. Instead, the spring gradually dissolved the puddle clay embankment core over a period of several years and ultimately led to the centre of the embankment slumping until it had collapsed to a level below that of the top of the reservoir's waste pipe. In the event of the reservoir filling to a dangerous level, the waste pipe would normally allow the excess water to be drained away, much like an overflow in a domestic bath.

In the years that followed the completion of the three reservoirs, legal disputes amongst members of the Commissioners of the Holme Reservoirs and the mill owners who were supposed to be paying rates for use of the water supply meant that the reservoirs were poorly maintained. The state of the Bilberry embankment led to growing fears that the reservoir would likely overflow during periods of exceptionally heavy rain — in 1849, the Holme Styes Reservoir had overflowed "causing damage to property and mills".[4]

In late January 1852, the Huddersfield Chronicle newspaper reported on the recent weather, noting that there had been "strong gales of wind, and an unusual quantity of rain" in the Holmfirth area:[5]

We now frequently hear very old people remark that they cannot remember so wet a January on the whole as this has been. The winter on the whole thus far has been of a very open character, and judging from the number of deaths that have taken place, we are inclined to say it is rather healthy than otherwise. At least no serious results have attended its course yet.

In the days of heavy rain that followed, the level of water in the Bilberry Reservoir continued to rise despite efforts to open the shuttle valves in the lower section of the waste pipe to allow more water to be drained.

On Wednesday 4 February it had become apparent that the reservoir would overflow the slumped embankment, leading to raised water levels in the River Holme and the risk of flooding downriver. By 10pm, the reservoir was overflowing and at some point after midnight, a section of the embankment was washed away. A small group of runners set off from the embankment to raise the alarm along the valley.

Shortly after 1am on Thursday 5 February 1852, the weakened embankment suddenly gave way and an estimated 86,000,000 gallons of water — the equivalent of approximately 130 Olympic swimming pools — poured down the valley in a deadly torrent.

The Huddersfield Chronicle estimated the damage to buildings and bridges:[6]

destroyed seriously damaged
mills 4 17
dyehouses 10 5
stoves 3 3
cottages 27 129
bridges 6 5
county bridges 1 1
warehouses 10 4
tradesmen's houses 7
shops 7
barns & stables 8


Although it is usually stated that 81 people perished in the flood, only 78 were named by contemporary local newspaper articles. When the body of James Mettrick was recovered in July 1852, the Huddersfield Chronicle stated that "eighty individuals [...] were swept down by the flood" and that one body was still to be found (that of teenager Joseph Marsden).[7]

The situation is further complicated by the fact that not all the bodies — particularly of the children — were formally identified before burial and one girl was even identified as three different people. Also, some of the lists of the missing and dead reported in the press — especially newspapers outside of Huddersfield — contain people who survived or incorrect names.[8]

The Huddersfield Chronicle produced a list at the time of the inquest containing the details of 61 formally identified bodies, along with four unidentified male children (ages approximate 4, 6, 11 and not stated), two unidentified girls (aged about 2 and 5), and 14 missing people (including 3 boys aged 2, 6 and 8, and 3 girls aged 3, 4 and 4½), giving a grand total of 81 (or 75 named individuals). However, it seems almost certain that some of the unidentified bodies of the children would be of those in the missing list.

A contemporary commemorative single-sheet document was printed locally in Holmfirth by Joseph Crosland and titled "The Flood came, and took them all away", measuring 17 by 12 inches. The document lists 78 names, tallying with the list collated from local newspaper articles.

Local newspaper reports also include two identified bodies who are not included in the list of 78 names below:

  • Martha Hinchliffe (child)
    Initially identified at the New Inn, Hinchliffe Mill. However, John Charlesworth then identified the body as that of his infant daughter, Ruth, and the body was released to him. No other references to Martha Hinchliffe were found and her name was not transferred to the list of missing.
  • Ann Greenwood (12)
    Supposedly the daughter of Samuel and Lydia Greenwood. This was in fact their niece, Eliza Matthews, who had lived with them since at least aged two (1841 Census). Possibly Eliza was also known as "Ann" — after her mother Ann Matthews — and some locals believed her to be the daughter of Samuel and Lydia.

It seems likely that the accepted total of 81 was arrived at by adding the known 78 names to the fact that 3 children were buried on 9 February without having been identified, although almost certainly one of those three was actually Ann Bailey. A boy and a girl were buried at St. John the Evangelist, Upperthong, although no approximate ages were recorded in the burial register, and a girl around 2 years of age — "found drowned in the River at Thongsbridge"[9] — was buried at All Saints Church, Netherthong.

The surviving burial registers show entries for all of the named girls, with the exception of of 3-year-old Ellen Ann Hartley[10], which implies that at least one girl was never reported missing and her name therefore remains unknown.

Several newspaper reports make reference to the finding of the body of a new-born baby at Hinchliffe Mill. Confusingly, the reports were then seemingly conflated with the finding of a young child near the body of Hannah Bailey at Thongsbridge — that child was in fact Hannah's 22-month-old daughter Martha. The Leeds Mercury suggested that the body of the baby at Hinchliffe Mill had "been purposely placed there since the accident at the reservoir, by some unnatural mother to conceal her shame".

Although not victims of the flood itself, a subsequent outbreak of typhus in district beginning in mid-March claimed further lives.

The ages shown in parentheses are either exact (based on date of birth), those given in newspaper reports, or are based on the 1851 Census.

Hinchliffe Mill: Fold Gate
  1. James Booth (60), his wife Nancy Booth (44) [née Taylor?], and their lodger William Healey (45)
Hinchliffe Mill: Fold Head
  1. Lydia Brook (28) [née Booth] and her daughter Hannah Brook (11) — Lydia's husband Joseph Brook survived
Hinchliffe Mill: Water Street
  1. Jonathan Crosland (39) and his children Charles Crosland (13), Hannah Crosland (19), Martha Crosland (17), Foster Crosland (8) and Ralph Crosland (3)
  2. Rose Charlesworth (40) [née Haywood] and her children Joshua Charlesworth (16), James Charlesworth (14), John Charlesworth (7), Emor Charlesworth [or Hamer] (6) and Ruth Charlesworth (1) — Rose's husband, John Charlesworth, survived although died the following year
  3. Joseph Dodd (48), his wife Hannah Dodd (30) [née Hirst], and their children Elizabeth Dodd (7) and Sarah Hannah Dodd (2)
  4. Joshua Earnshaw (72), his son Charles Earnshaw (36), and his grandchildren Joshua Crosland (21), Mary Crosland (19) and Ann Earnshaw Beaumont (12)[11]
  5. Nancy Marsden (53), her unmarried sister Eliza Marsden (47) and two nephews Joseph Marsden (19) and Joshua Marsden (16) — the body of Joseph Marsden was seemingly never found
  6. James Mettrick (60), his wife Mary Mettrick (38) [née Hirst], his children William Mettrick (30), Samuel Mettrick (20), Alfred Mettrick (8), Jane Mettrick (3) and Joseph Mettrick (1), his married daughter Betty Earnshaw (30) and her son Abel Earnshaw (5), and his son-in-law William Exley (32)
Dyson's Mill
  1. Jonathan Sandford (45), his daughters Sarah Jane Sandford (9) and Emily Sandford (3), and their housekeeper Ellen Wood (22)
Holmfirth: Upperbridge
  1. Hannah Bailey (40) [née Crookes], and her daughters Ann Bailey (4) and Martha (1) — her husband, tailor Aner Bailey, survived
Holmfirth: Hollowgate
  1. John Ashall (32), his wife Margaret Ashall (30) and their son Alfred Ashall (2) — a woman who claimed to be John's real wife came forward in March 1852 stating that John had abandoned her to live with Margaret, and that his real name was John Spencer[12]
  2. Amelia Fearns (23) [née Thorpe], her illegitimate son Charles Thorpe (2y 10m), and her daughter Lydia Ann Fearns (6m) — her husband, Matthew Fearns, was saved from drowning by Joseph Barraclough
  3. Samuel Greenwood (46), his wife Lydia Greenwood (46) [née Roebuck], and their niece Eliza Matthews (12) — born Samuel Midgley
Holmfirth: Scarfold
  1. Mary Hellawell (28) [née Woodhead] and her children George Hellawell (9), Sarah Hellawell (7), Elizabeth Hellawell (5), John Hellawell (3) and Ann Hellawell (11m) — Mary's husband, Joseph Hellawell, survived and soon remarried[13]
  2. Alfred Woodcock (17) and his sister Sarah Woodcock (12) — children of Richard Woodcock
Holmfirth: Rotcher Bottom
  1. James Lee (65)
Holmfirth: Mill Hill
  1. Sidney Hartley (41), his wife Mary Ann Hartley (40) [née Lodge], and their children Martha Hartley (16), James Hartley (14), Elizabeth Hartley (5), Ellen Ann Hartley (3) and George Hartley (10 weeks)
  2. Richard Shackleton (31), his wife Tamar Shackleton (33) [née Green], and their children Hannah Shackleton (9), Grace Hirst Shackleton (4½) and James Shackleton (1) — Tamar and Richard had a daughter (Ann Shackleton Green) outside of marriage who had lived with Tamar's parents and was classified as a flood orphan
Honley: Smithy-Place
  1. Elizabeth Healey (8) — also known as Betty, she was the daughter of Thomas Healey


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Further Reading

Notes and References

  1. "Notices" in Leeds Mercury (26/Nov/1836). The proposed reservoirs were at (or near) Ramsden (Cartworth & Holme), Nedderly (Cartworth & Holme), Issues Clough (Upperthong), Digley (Austonley), Long Ing (Wooldale), above Holme Styes Mill (Cartworth & Wooldale), Boshaw Whams (Cartworth), Field Heads (Hepworth & Cartworth), Uppershore [Brow Grains] (Meltham), and Grange Ash [Brow Grains] (Meltham).
  2. "Public Notices" in Leeds Mercury (18/Mar/1837).
  3. "Public Notices: Holme Reservoirs" in Leeds Mercury (29/Sep/1838).
  4. "Holmfirth" in Manchester Times (11/Aug/1849).
  5. "District News: Holmfirth" in Huddersfield Chronicle (31/Jan/1852).
  6. "Estimated Damage" in Huddersfield Chronicle (14/Feb/1852).
  7. "Funeral of James Metterick" in Huddersfield Chronicle (10/Jul/1852).
  8. For example, this list reproduced from the Manchester Guardian, which claims to be "the nearest approach to a correct list of the missing persons which has yet been made" contains duplicate names, names of survivors (such as Matthew Fearns and his step-uncle John Kaye) and a "Brooke" family who don't appear in any of the Huddersfield newspaper articles (possibly mixed up with Lydia and Hannah Brook).
  9. The bodies taken to inn in Thongsbridge included "an infant child", "a girl two and a half years old" and "a girl six years old". The age of around 2 would imply the body was possibly that of Ellen Ann Hartley.
  10. Although there is strong circumstantial evidence that Ellen Ann Hartley's body was buried as Ann Bailey, in which case Ann Bailey was very likely the unidentified girl found in Holmfirth.
  11. The first two grandchildren were the children of Jonathan Crosland and his late wife Sally (née Earnshaw), who was Joshua Earnshaw's daughter.
  12. "The Flood at Holmfirth" in Morning Post (29/Mar/1852).
  13. He married Lydia Crosland on 25 September 1852.