Huddersfield Daily Examiner (02/Feb/1952) - Centenary of Holmfirth Flood

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 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.

Centenary of Holmfirth Flood

Next Tuesday will be the 100th anniversary of the Holmfirth Flood, a major disaster in Yorkshire’s history, and, indeed, one which at the time aroused the sympathy of the whole nation.

It was caused by the bursting of Bilberry Reservoir, and its surging waters laid waste a great part of the Holme Valley and took toll of eighty-one lives. Tomorrow the B.B.C. will recall, in a special programme to be broadcast at 10-30 p.m in the North Home Service, the night of terror which came to the Holme Valley in the early hours of February 5, 1852. The programme, "The Holmfirth Disaster," has been prepared by Mr. Heppell Mason. He has been assisted by local experts. including Mr. H. Goulden. the Huddersfield Librarian; Mr. Winston R. Wood, a Holmfirth solicitor; Mr. S. G. Dilnot, Clerk to Holmfirth Council; and Mr. Cyril Armitage, editor of “The Holmfirth Express.”

Tomorrow morning also there will be a commemoration service at Holmfirth Parish Church arranged by the Chairman of Holmfirth Council (Clr. H. Beever). and the Vicar of Holmfirth (the Rev. A. T. Dangerfield).

An exhibition dealing with the flood is being held at the Tolson Memorial Museum.

From the Pages of George Eliot

"Nature repairs her ravages — repairs them with her sunshine and with human labour. The desolation wrought by that flood had left little visible trace on the face of the earth five years after," wrote the great Victorian novelist in "The Mill on the Floss."

It has been claimed that the Holmfirth Flood inspired the flood scenes in that novel, which was published in 1860, eight years after the disaster.

Memorial Plaque?

Holmfirth Council are to consider the provision of a memorial plaque, or plaques, recording the height of the flood of 1852 and also the height of the water in the flood of Whit Monday, 1994, when a cloudburst caused much damage to property in the Holme Valley. On that occasion three lives were lost.

Next month the Holmebridge Parish Church Amateur Dramatic Society are to produce "Smoke in the Valley," by the local playwright, Mr. Wylbert Kemp, in commemoration of the flood.

Deluge, Devastation and Death in the Valley

This contemporary artist's impression of the Holmfirth Flood is among the exhibits of flood relics at Ravensknowle Museum, to which it was presented by the late Mr. Ernest Woodhead In 1927.

It is highly imaginative, but, while the landscape bears little resemblance to that of the scene of the disaster, the artist has fully grasped the awesomeness of the deluge.

The flood, caused by the bursting of Bilberry Reservoir, totally destroyed thirty-four houses, four mills and six bridges, and seriously damaged 180 houses and seventeen mills. Eighty-one lives were lost.

Rumours of a Catastrophe Heeded Too Late

The disaster followed heavy rains, and when the overcharged reservoir burst not less than 300,000 tons of water (it is estimated) deluded the valley.

Impending disaster had long been evident — if there had been eyes to see. Even a few hours before the catastrophe warning was given, but it went unheeded.

On February 4 a considerable portion of the outer embankment, which was not faced with stone, was swept away. It offered very little resistance to the rising waters.

Many people were attracted to the scene, and rumour soon reached the folk in the valley below that the reservoir was in danger of bursting.

But many a time before they had heard similar rumours — and the reservoir had held. Familiarity had bred indifference, if not contempt.

Collapse and Destruction

The process of destruction went on. Soon after the outer embankment collapsed the puddle-bank gave way.

It was then too late to do anything, and about one o’clock in the morning of the 5th the inner embankment collapsed.

The angry waters swept down the Digley Valley, tearing away part of Digley Mill, and surging on to Holmebridge in the main Holme Valley. The parish church was inundated and bodies washed from their graves.

It was at Hinchliffe Mill, a little further down the valley, that the first big loss of life occurred.

In Water Street thirty-five of the forty-two residents perished. Indeed, about half the number of victims of the flood belonged to Hinchliffe Mill. Sixteen people saved their lives by getting on the roofs of their homes.

The alarm was given at Holmfirth about five minutes before the waters arrived.

Destruction was tremendous. It might be said that the heart was torn out of the little town.

When day dawned the Holme Valley as far as Lockwood presented a deplorable spectacle. It was littered with the bodies of the victims, human and animal, with broken machinery, timber and stones; in fact, with debris of all kinds.

From statements subsequently drawn up it appeared that the damage occasioned totalled £67,224, excluding a claim for £33,000 made by the mortgagees of the reservoir. The figure also took no account of the incidental loss to trade.

Nation’s Sympathy

The sympathy of the nation was aroused by the disaster, and a sum of £69,422 was raised to alleviate distress.

Strange as it may seem, many sufferers made no claim, and no less than £31,011 was returned to the subscribers. Although the claim of the reservoir mortgagees was at first disallowed, £7,000 was ultimately granted from the fund for the repair of the reservoir.

At the inquest on the victims the jury found that "the Commissioners in permitting the Bilberry Reservoir to remain for several years in a dangerous state, with a full knowledge thereof ... have been guilty of gross and culpable negligence."

"We regret," they said, "that the reservoir, being under the management of a Corporation, prevents us from bringing in a verdict of manslaughter."

The Bilberry Reservoir was one of eight authorised in 1837 for the better supply of water to the mills in the district, which, with the coming of the industrial era, were increasing in number.

From the beginning the reservoir was unsatisfactory, and as two experts on the geology of Yorkshire (Kendall and Wroot) have pointed out, "the circumstances illustrate the astonishing naivete of those in charge of such works."

When the work was in progress a spring was encountered at the heart of the dam. Apparently it was considered too costly to pipe this water away — so, incredible as it may sound, an effort was made to suppress the spring!

Puddle was piled on it "to keep it down." The dam leaked from the first, and within a few years it had subsided to such an extent that its centre was actually lower than the overflow of the water.

So death and disaster were stored up for the ill fated folk of Holmfirth and its environs.

Holmfirth was the scene of another disastrous flood, due to a cloudburst, on Whit Monday, 1944. There was great destruction of property, but nothing like the same loss of life.

Two women and a man were drowned. On that occasion it is estimated that a million and a half tons of water swept through the Holme Valley.

The Holmfirth Flood of 1852 is commemorated on the column raised in Holmfirth to celebrate the Peace of Amiens (1801), on which the height reached by the waters is marked.