Huddersfield Daily Examiner (29/Jan/1992) - Fatal Flood 140 Years Ago
OUT AND ABOUT: Denis Kilcommons
Fatal Flood — 140 Years Ago
Rain lashed down the Pennines and turned Digley Dam into a bubbling cauldron.
We crossed it on the path along its rear support wall: the site of the original Bilberry Dam.
Much further up the track, we turned to head back to Holme across Blackpool Bridge.
Below the wooden planking, the water seethed as it rushed down the tight dough to the reservoir below, as if the hills were bleeding their glacial origins.
The Pennines are at their most magnificent in fierce weather: moody, brooding and dangerous.
They were particularly dangerous 140 years ago on the night of February 4.
Rain had been falling for days and the feeder streams that joined up below the high bluff of Good Bent had filled the 12-year-old Bilberry Reservoir to capacity.
It was estimated it contained more than 86 million gallons: 300,000 tons of water.
By midnight, it was washing over the top. More rain was draining off the moors of Holme Moss and Saddleworth and being beaten against the dam by winds.
The disaster that had been long predicted, was about to happen.
Just before one o'clock in the morning of February 5, the dam broke and drained its contents in thirty fearful minutes.
The waters powered down the valley, destroying property and carrying 81 people to their deaths.
Its rush was so fierce that the devastation stretched all the way through Holmfirth to Armitage Bridge.
My anniversary walk was prompted by the publication of the new edition of the definitive account of the Holmfirth Flood.
First published in 1910, it is culled from contemporary newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts.
It's available again, in a limited edition, because of Councillor Stanley Dickinson of Netherthong.
His wife Christine is from an old Holme Valley family and her great great grandmother, a lady named Hobson, helped lay out the bodies of the victims 140 years ago.
Stanley said: "My mother-in-law has one of the original 1910 editions of the book. It's a marvellous and vivid piece of local history and I thought it was a shame it was not more widely available."
His new edition has been produced in the same style to keep the period feel, and also includes his own accounts of four additional floods in the area, that occurred in 1738, 1777, 1821 and 1944.
It finely complements the permanent audio-visual exhibition about the Flood at Holmfirth Postcard Museum, and makes evocative and chilling reading:
"On rushed the waters with renewed fury as they swept down each successive obstruction, carrying with them amongst the wreck of houses, mills and other buildings, struggling men, women and children, and the air was filled with death shrieks which were heard above the roar of the waters."
At Holmebridge, the force of the flood sucked coffins from their graves in the churchyard.
Further down the valley, it swept away a row of cottages and the lives of thirty six people at Hinchliffe Mill.
Whole families died: Crosland, Mettrick, Marsden, Charlesworth, Hellawell, Hartley and Shackleton; fathers, mothers, babes-in-arms, toddlers and working teenagers.
Their corpses were collected the next day and local pubs were used as mortuaries: many in Holmfirth, the Rose and Crown and Royal Oak at Thongsbridge, the Rock at Brockholes, the Travellers and the Jacob's Well at Honley, the Golden Fleece at Armitage Bridge and the Oddfellows' Arms at Big Valley.
The stories are of tragedy, heroism and good fortune; and of the guilt of the men who built a defective reservoir and failed to make it safe.
It rained for days after Stanley published his new edition of the book and there were those up the Valley who kept a wary eye on water levels in case he was tempting fate.
We walked on to the Fleece at Holme and kept an eye on water levels through the window while we dried out in front of the fire with good ale and home cooked food.
The replacement reservoir of Digley was in good shape, we decided; the tragedy was that Bilberry had not been all those years ago.
An account sums up the scene the morning after:
"The valley from Holmfirth to Lockwood forms a fine sweep of meadowland; the hills rising rather precipitately on each side, richly clothed with wood, and along the valley are several handsome residencies and stately factories.
"On this fatal morning it presented a most deplorable aspect, being overspread with timber, broken machinery, dead cattle, human bodies, mud, stones and all kinds of debris."