Illustrated London News (06/Mar/1852) - The Fatal Inundation At Holmfirth

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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.



After a patient investigation into the whole circumstances attending this dreadful catastrophe, a coroner’s jury have felt themselves constrained to pass a heavy censure upon the commissioners under whose management the Holme reservoirs were constructed and worked. On Friday, the 27th ult, after a sitting of five days duration, the following emphatic verdict was handed in to the coroner by the foreman, on behalf of himself and fourteen fellow-jurymen :—

We find that the deceased persons tame to their deaths by drowning, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry reservoir. We also find that the Bilberry reservoir was defective in its original construction, and that the commissioners, the engineer, and the overlooker were greatly culpable in not seeing to the proper regulation of the works ; and we also find that the commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry reservoir to remain for several years in a dangerous state, with a full knowledge thereof, and not lowering the waste pit, have been guilty of great and culpable negligence ; and we regret that the reservoir being under the management of a corporation prevents us bringing in a verdict of manslaughter, as we are convinced that the gross and culpable negligence of the commissioners would have subjected them to such a verdict had they been in the position of an individual or firm. We also hope that the Legislature will take into its most serious consideration the propriety of making provision for the protection of the lives and properties of her Majesty’s subjects exposed to danger from reservoirs placed by corporations similar to those under the charge of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners.

The evidence of the various witnesses disclosed the existence of so large an amount of neglect and carelessness, that the severity of the above finding can be no matter of surprise ; indeed, it is impossible to avoid a feeling of regret that the Commissioners cannot be made legally responsible for the heavy suffering and loss which has been entailed upon innocent individuals through their fatal recklessness. Of the degree of blame attached to these gentlemen a fair estimate may be gathered from the very clear and valuable report made by Captain Moody, the Government Inspector, (upon which, no doubt, the verdict of the jury was in a great measure framed). After expressing his opinion that the immediate cause of the catastrophe was the middle portion of the embankment, or dam being lower than the top of the waste water pit (as shown in the accompanying Engraving), the gallant Captain said :—

This waste pit is designed to carry off the waste or flood water, but the top of the embankment having sunk below the top of the pit, and being suffered to remain so, the flood waters had no proper or sufficient escape, but went over the dam, which, as a necessary consequence, gave way. In the evidence before you mention has been made of a spring, of different leaks, and defective workmanship, but so long as the level of the dam was below the level of the waste pit, and the flood suffered to pour over the top of an embankment of this kind, it would give way, though there were no springs, no leaks, and though the best quality of “puddling” was put in as water tight as possible. It would give way, though not so simultaneously, from top to bottom ; it would be slower in its operation, but still quick enough to form a flood of terribly destructive effects in its course.

After describing the mode of constructing reservoirs of a similar character to the “Bilberry,” and pointing out. in the formation of the dam, that the best materials only should be used, Captain Moody said :—

In the construction of the Bilberry dam this careful selection has not been made. The material is similar on both sides, and loose in its nature. The inner portion is permeable throughout ; and, instead of the part next to the puddle-dam being closely rammed, and almost puddle in its character, a dry, open, rubble wall, or backing, appears to have been carried up from the bottom, on both sides of the puddle-dam, inviting the water, as it were, to act on the whole inner surface of the puddle, and to escape with greater ease at any leaks or fissures arising from settlement or bad execution of the work. In flowing over the top of the dam (which it ought not, if the waste pit was in a position to act), the water would flow down through this dry rubble to the very bottom, and, acting on any cavities, or porous or weak portions at that part of the embankment, would act with immense hydraulic pressure — in fact, on the principle of a hydraulic ram. In the case before us you have it in evidence, that the water before passing over the outer surface of the dam did pour down thus for half an hour, and also acting on the water which was forcing its way through leaks and a spring at the bottom, the dam boiled up in the centre, as the witness stated, and burst out from the bottom almost simultaneously with breaking away in masses from the top. It was thus the whole dam gave way, and the volume of water in the reservoir burst forth at once.

Referring to the spring stated to have been discovered in the trench under the embankment, Captain Moody referred to the fact proved in evidence, that it was not led away by any of the usual and necessary modes, but

That very objectionable plans were resorted to in the hope of choking it up, or “weighting it down.” But it was not to be “weighted down ;” it rose as the work rose, materially infusing the lower portion of the puddle, making it weak and bad, of a nature easily to be worked away with the water of the spring, as the latter forced itself through the outer part of the embankment like a little rill of water issuing from the foot. At times this rill was clear, and at times muddy and yellow. The muddiness varied with the head of water in the reservoir. To the weak nature of the puddle at the base, and the washing away from time to time by the continuous run of water from the spring under the bottom of if, the great settlement of the puddle darn in the centre is to be attributed, a settlement which continued to go on during the construction, and after the dam had been raised to the height required in the specification. Of late years the settling down appears to have gradually ceased ; doubtless the soft puddle had been nearly all squeezed out, and then would probably commence a different mode of action, leaks increasing in size, and unequal settlements causing fractures.

Captain Moody concluded his observation with this emphatic warning to the inhabitants of Holmfirth:—

In this neighbourhood there are many mountain reservoirs receiving floods of water, impounded by lofty dams ; pray don’t look upon them and treat them like mill-dams or fish-ponds. They are engines of mighty force, strong in aid of your industry to augment your wealth, and terrible in their power to destroy if mismanaged or neglected. The fact must be indelibly impressed on the minds of all the dwellers in Holmfirth.

At the conclusion of the gallant Captain’s observations the audience broke out into a general buzz of approbation.

The Illustrated London News of the 14th ult. contained a series of Engravings from sketches made upon the spot, within a few hours after the catastrophe. We this week present our readers with other Illustrations, taken by one of our own Artists, from which a more accurate idea of the site of the reservoir and of the destructive ravages of the inundation may be gained.

The first Engraving is sketched from the heights above the Reservoir, showing the breach in the embankment or dam, and the waste pit tower rising above the level of the embankment.

The second large Sketch is taken from the bed of the Reservoir, looking towards the hilly range, crowned by Holme Moss, from which the Bilberry reservoir derived its supply of water, through the two dykes or becks shown in the Illustration.

The third large Sketch is a view of the village of Holmfirth from Victoria Bridge, and shows the awful debris occasioned by the inundation.

The fourth Illustration is taken from a point of the village known as “Mill Hill,” upon which stands the White Hart hostelry, the host of which (Mr. W. Dyson), after narrowly escaping being drowned, exerted himself in a very extraordinary manner in the preservation of his neighbours.

The ruins of two large factories, known as the “Upper Mill” and the “Lower Mill,” and a third vignette of “Charlesworth’s Mill,” also partially destroyed by the flood, complete the series.