Huddersfield Daily Examiner (26/May/1994) - Holmfirth Flood: Fiftieth Anniversary
HOLMFIRTH FLOOD: FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY
Day the valley will never forget
It's just 50 years since a freak cloudburst flooded the Holme Valley, causing widespread devastation and three deaths. Whit Monday, 1944, had dawned fine and sunny, giving no indication of the frightening storm to come. DAVID HAMMOND sets the scene for the tragedy
The sun shone, the bands played, the children were dressed in their summer finery.
May 29, 1944, seemed an ideal day for the traditional Sunday School processions at Holmfirth.
In the midst of war, it was a time to forget troubles and worries for a while, to enjoy the hot weather, look forward to tea and a relaxing evening.
If you had spread the word around that storm clouds were building up over Wiltshire and Berkshire, the news would have seemed completely inconsequential.
Addressing the Sunday Schools' united service in Victoria Park, the Rev Mr Blackburn had chosen as his subject the power of water. He could never have believed how appropriate the theme was for a day which would bring disaster.
For the storm clouds from the south were on the move ... up through Warwickshire and Derbyshire. By the time the formation had reached Sheffield, weathermen observed that a huge pile of cumulo-nimbus had built up, resembling a gigantic cauliflower, and something like 25,000ft in height.
And it was also noticed that the great cloud formation had become unstable.
The climb over the Howden Moors was too much for the clouds. The great "cauliflower" fell over and broke up, releasing millions of tons of water, flooding the Longdendale Valley and the Holme Valley.
Much more water fell even than in the great flood of 1852, which claimed 81 lives.
The forked lightning and rumbles of thunder which preceded the downpour reached their climax around 6pm in a vivid flash. The whole of the Holme Valley was lit up in a ghostly, bluish-white light.
An ear-splitting peal of thunder followed, and the rain came down in torrents.
As water streamed off the hillsides in the upper reaches of the valley, the River Holme reached an alarming level in minutes.
Bilberry Reservoir, which had been 12ft down, took 25m gallons of rainfall before it overflowed.
At Holmbridge, the rush of water was soon deep and powerful enough to smash the parapets of the river bridge.
Floods 6ft to 8ft deep now carried everything in their wake as they swept through Holmbridge and Holmfirth, shifting coping stones as if they were paper, and drowning three people. Animals, too, were drowned.
Thirteen factories were seriously damaged by the floods, and 107 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Some buildings disappeared completely.
It was a day that the valley would never forget. But at least this time there was no dam burst to make things worse, as there had been in 1852.
On the sunny morning of May 29, 1944, it had looked a good day for a walk and picnic, as well as for the Whit walkers.
Aileen Brook, of Southlands, Kirkheaton, had packed a lunch and set off with a foursome which included her boyfriend Geoff. They caught a train to Greenfield, before beginning the walk back through Chew Valley and Woodhead.
As they started the long climb up to Holme Moss, they noticed the weather beginning to change. When they began the descent towards Holme, thunder rolled in the distance.
"The thunder became quite fierce and the lightning flashes were spectacular," says Aileen.
"The thing I really remember is seeing the lightning flashing below us in the valley as we walked down the long hill," says Aileen. "It was so unusual to be looking down on lightning."
At Holme, they tried to huddle out of the rain by the Fleece Inn, then boarded a bus which took them back to Huddersfield.
Unaware of the floods and the tragedy which had occurred at Holmfirth shortly afterwards, they went to Huddersfield's Theatre Royal in the evening, enjoying a performance of the opera, Madame Butterfly.
But other walkers, having a similar day out to Aileen, became frightened witnesses of the disastrous happenings.
Sheila Holmes, of Penistone Road, Kirkburton, a 17-year-old weaver at the time, was with a group of six, including her boyfriend, Jack, and John Mernagh (later councillor and mayor).
This party had also been to Greenfield and were walking back. As the heavy rain began, they sheltered in a bam.
"We stayed there for some time till Jack noticed that the bales of hay were moving towards us," Sheila (now Mrs Asquith) recalls.
"We shot out as fast as we could and looked back to see the whole barn collapse."
The walk back down towards Holmbridge, in torrential rain, was a fearful affair. "I've never seen anything like what we saw.
"Sheep were being washed down off the hillside. The river was carrying dead sheep, dye from a dyeworks and a tremendous amount of debris.
"It was very frightening. Annie Bonser fainted from the cold, wet, exhaustion and fear. One of the cottagers took her in and gave her a cup of tea.
"By the time we reached Holmbridge, a policeman was on guard to prevent anyone crossing the bridge. The parapets had gone from either side and it looked very unsafe.
"We pleaded with him to let us across, as, to us, this was our only way home. Jack and I were the last of our group to cross, and as far as I know the last ones to cross before the bridge was washed away.
"We took refuge in a pub to recover a little from our ordeal and shortly afterwards someone came in and said the bridge had gone."
When Sheila eventually arrived safely home at Bradley, she could not believe that not a drop of rain had fallen there!
A toll of tragedy
Though three people died in the 1944 floods, the death toll would probably have been higher had the storm occurred on a working day, not a holiday.
Mrs Dorothea Schofield, of Towngate, Holmfirth, who had been working at Baddeley's garage, died after being swept into the river when she was trying to dodge the flood-waters by standing on a wall.
Her body was found in the river, near Holmfirth Cricket Club, about two hours later.
Lewis Hirst, a driver, who had been standing on the wall with Mrs Schofield, was also thrown into the river, but managed to cling to a bale of bobbins, and was rescued.
In the other tragic incident of the flood, 14 year-old Geoffrey Riley, saw his father, Donald, washed away in the river as the two of them were trying to save 76-year-old Miss Maude Wimpenny, who, like Mr Riley, was drowned.
Miss Wimpenny's low-lying house at Victoria was flooded, and she had struggled on to a wall adjoining her small garden, with water swirling round her feet.
Mr Riley and Geoffrey went to her aid, Geoffrey taking off his clothes and swimming towards the stranded woman.
Walter Haigh, who watched the incident, told the inquest that Geoff reached Miss Wimpenny and was swimming back with her. But after a good distance, he seemed to be getting into difficulties.
The father dashed into the water himself, and the current carried all three towards the river wall. The wall collapsed and the three were swept into the river.
Geoffrey was the only one to be saved. He was rescued at Upper Mill, near Holmfirth, where he managed to grip the hose of a stirrup pump which was thrown towards him.
Afterwards, he was awarded the Albert Medal (later converted to the George Cross) for his bravery.
The news of the three deaths was carried in the Examiner the following day, and was said to have occurred due to "a river mishap in the Holme Valley."
There was no mention of the rainstorm, or the floods. This was wartime, the long- awaited D-Day invasion was only days away, and any weather information had to be kept away from the enemy.
No mention of meteorological conditions could be given publicly until 10 days had elapsed. So it was Friday, June 9, before Examiner readers could read the full story of die floods.
The newspaper apologised for being so late with the details, but pointed out, "The censor was unyielding in his demands."
Fear on a bus ride to safety
Edward Hinchliffe's Whit Monday outing was to the Sunny Vale pleasure gardens at Hipperholme.
The eight-year-old was in a family party which had set out in the sunshine. "My uncle Fred was the only person who had a raincoat on his arm — very prophetic, as it turned out."
The return bus journey to the Hinchliffes' home at Holmbridge was quite unforgettable, and vividly remembered 50 years later.
The further up the Holme Valley the bus went, the darker grew the clouds. There was thunder and lightning in the distance.
"The majority of the passengers alighted at Holmfirth, and there were just six of us, plus crew, still on board as the bus came round the corner by the church at Holmbridge.
"The rain was pouring down, thunder and lightning were all around. The river was beginning to rise at a rapid rate, uprooting trees as it did so.
"The bus parked between the mills. The driver came to the rear and said, 'We'd better move.' The water was well over his ankles as he returned to the cab.
"It was exciting, but also frightening. As the bus started, we could see from the rear that the River Holme was rushing over the parapet of the bridge, with water spreading completely over the adjoining cricket field, just like a blanket.
"The wooden cafe looked as if it would be swept away by the torrent. It moved on its foundations. The water got deeper as our bus struggled to get out of the way.
"Up Smithy Lane went our heroic driver. At last we were safe, and able to look down on to the surging waters at the three-road junction below us — now at least 4ft deep.
"I have a vivid memory of an empty tea chest floating in the middle, just like a boat on Honley Lake.
"The rain stopped. A strange calm took over. We made our way home. Our house was not too bad, but mud was everywhere."
Surveying the scene in the valley later, Edward saw that the cricket field now looked like a giant chocolate cake, all trace of green obliterated. Most of the Parish Hall yard had disappeared. The cafe was askew.
"The river was a mass of debris. Italian prisoners of war helped to clear it up later, and re-build the river bank. The floor of the parish hall was inches deep in horrible, greasy, brown mud"
A noisy competition
Panic and fear are two of the worst things when any emergency arises.
Holme Valley parish councillor Hilda Smith recalls how children were kept calm during the flood incident, in a splendid example of appropriate child psychology.
"I was a Sunday School teacher at the Methodist Church at that time," she recalls.
"We had held our usual processions, and after tea, because of the rain, we went to join Lane Congregational scholars and teachers in their schoolroom for games, instead of the usual outdoor sports.
"When the thunder and lightning were very bad, and some of the youngest children were frightened, the big bass drummer invited them onto the platform where the band was playing, gave them the drumsticks, and invited them to bang the drum, and see if they could make more noise than the thunder.
"Tears miraculously dried and the children waited for the next thunderclap to show what they could do when it was their turn."
Silenced with awe at scenes of chaos and ruin
Sylvia Lee's Whit Monday picnic never took place. Her mother had promised the nine-year-old they would go up from their home in the hamlet of Malkin House and have a sandwich tea at the Sycamore Recreation Field.
But Uncle Harry next door put the damper on the trip. He said there was a storm coming. Sylvia (now Mrs Freeman, of Netherton) stared disappointedly out of the window, but soon began to realise her uncle had been right, as the torrential rain began.
Her view overlooked Perseverance Mill, and the two dams above it.
The girl shouted for her mother as she saw what was happening. Big bales of wool started to bounce about on the water of one of the dams.
"Suddenly, the gap between the dams disappeared and there was a mighty lot of water building and rushing for the mill itself.
"I saw a cow in the middle of a field, completely cut off by water. The poor thing was in a hopeless situation.
"A few moments later, we saw part of the wall at Woodhead Road collapse, leaving a gaping hole in the road itself.
"The river had risen and the speed of its flowing was fearsome."
When the rain had cleared, her mother took young Sylvia to Holmfirth.
"What we met there was enough to make us silent with awe. Water still covered the main streets. On Hollowgate, the small row of old shops were still engulfed nearly to the top of the doors.
"Then, with a low rumble, Wallace's grocery shop dropped into the river, right across from us. We were left with a view into the remains of rooms.
"On one of the higher floors, through the gaping void, a toilet was balanced. That view met us for months, every time we went to and from Holmfirth National School."
The day of the flood brought another memorable experience. "We saw our very first coloured man — a great big, smart serviceman. I may be wrong, but I think he wore a kilt.
"Perhaps some older residents will remember him. They all admired him."
Black American soldiers, drafted in from the Penistone area, worked "like Trojans" for weeks, helping in the big clear-up after the flood.