Illustrated London News (14/Feb/1852) - The Fatal Inundation At Holmfirth

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This melancholy catastrophe, which we noticed in our late edition of last week, has, it appears, been much more calamitous in its consequences than was at first supposed. Scarcely recovered from the shock inflicted by the news of the burning of the Amazon,[1] we are again put in possession of intelligence equally appalling of a calamity more exclusive in its character, and attended with a still greater destruction of human life. The circumstances of this disastrous occurrence were rendered awfully appalling, not only from its suddenness, but also from the great loss of life which it occasioned.

On Thursday morning, the 5th instant, at one o’clock, the inhabitants of Holmfirth were suddenly overwhelmed by a mountainous mass of water, which, bursting through an extensive reservoir, hurried them without a moment’s warning into eternity. A more complete wreck, a more melancholy scene than Holmfirth presented to the thousands who visited it on Thursday, has never been beheld. The streets were filled with broken furniture, carding machines, huge iron boilers, bags of wool, and other things ; and the grave-yards had their dead dislodged, and their contents borne again to the doors of the living.

Holmfirth is about seven miles from Huddersfield. The town is built in a deep valley, with immense ranges of hills on each side ; and at the lowest level, in a somewhat circuitous course, through the centre of the town, winds the river Holme, which is crossed at different points by four stone bridges. From Holmfirth runs the valley of the Holme for a distance of several miles, winding amongst most alpine scenery, and forming deep ravines, with scarcely an outlet for three or four miles, when they terminate on vast tracts of moorland. Along the bed of these ravines runs a strong mountain stream, enlarged, as it rushes on from the moors. By the streamlets which fall down the mountain sides, until it reaches Holme Bridge, where it meets and empties itself in the river Holme, which passes through Holmfirth. On each side of this stream of water are erected numerous scribbling and fulling-mills along the whole course of the valley. As the supply of water in droughty weather is inadequate for the purposes required, the idea was conceived of storing up water in huge reservoirs at the top of the highest hills ; and to the bursting of one of these reservoirs the present frightful destruction of life and property is attributable.

The “Holme reservoirs” are three in number, and are formed at the top of the hills, at some distance from each other. They are called “the Bilberry,” the “Holmestye,” and the “Bawshaw” reservoirs. They were made under the authority of an act of Parliament, passed in 1840, and constructed under the superintendence of Mr. Leather, C.E., of Leeds. The cost of the whole was £70,000 or more. The particular reservoir which has caused the present destruction is “the Bilberry.” It is situated three miles from Holmfirth, at the foot of the moors, which extend from the Yorkshire and Cheshire hills, and terminate in a bluff or hill called “Good Bent.” The reservoir lies between two hills, called Hobrook Hill and Lion Bank, the former of which forms its north, and the latter its south boundary. The water for this reservoir is supplied by the confluence of two streams at the foot of “Good Bent” bluff, which drain the vast extent of moorland in that district for many miles. The embankment to form the other side of the reservoir is constructed a little lower down, where the valley or ravine widens ; and by this means, with two natural embankments, and the one alluded to, a vast reservoir is formed, with a surface of eleven acres or more. The depth is said to be sixty feet. The surplus water is carried away by a tunnel running under the reservoir, communicated with by a funnel or chimney behind and just below the embankment, which is worked by means of a shuttle. This shuttle, it has been alleged, has latterly become unworkable, preventing the surplus water from being let out, and as the heavy rams have very much filled the reservoir, its weight acting upon what has long been considered an insecure embankment, the latter has suddenly giveaway, and allowed the accumulated waters to rush down into the ravine, along the valley of the Holme, with a force which was perfectly resistless.

The embankment of the reservoir has always, from being leaky, been regarded as unsafe, and from time to time rumours have been circulated in Holmfirth that it was likely to give way. Some of the company’s servants it is said, were watching it on the Wednesday before the accident, and, in consequence of what transpired, the whole of the families connected with the Dighley Mill, which is near the reservoir, fortunately removed the night before. Had they not done so, there would doubtless have been a serious addition to the present fearful loss of life. These premises consisted of a mill fourteen yards square and four stories high ; a weaving shed, with thirty-four power-looms at work ; steam engine and water power ; two superior dwelling-houses, one occupied by Mrs Hirst (widow of the late Mr. George Hirst) and family, and the other by Mr Henry Beardsall ; also cottages and numerous outbuildings ; making altogether quite a small town. These premises stood in a rather wide part of the valley, but not far from a carve in it. On Thursday there was literally not one stone left upon another ; the whole suite of buildings were swept away, with the exception of one house, built in the embankment, and of a tall engine chimney, round the base of which gurgled the still foaming and angry water. The rumours which induced the parties at Dighley to remove were current in Holmfirth the same evening ; but, unfortunately, the inhabitants disregarded them, and retired to rest, hoping that all would he well.

It appears that the pent up waters burst their barrier a little after one o’clock on Thursday morning, and in a resistless and mighty torrent swept away all obstacles. The town has a population of six thousand, most of whom were, of course, in bed at one o’clock in the morning ; and the only warning given was by a few watchers, who started off when it was seen that the reservoir was really about to burst its bounds, running down the river ride, shouting, casting stones through bedroom windows, and startling people from their sleep as best they could. But even this brief and imperfect warning (alas! never heard by many) only extended to the entrance of Holmfirth nearest the reservoir ; for there the flood overtook the warners themselves, and was its own tearful herald of destruction and death. The scenes which occurred along the valley never could be described in all their sickening and heart-rending fulness : the rain was falling heavily, and the streets crowded with people ; while along the banks hundreds were rushing madly about in their night-dresses, seeking their friends or bewaring their losses.

The Bilberry Mill, which stood a few hundred yards below the reservoir, which was in the occupation of Mr. Joseph Broadhead, was caught by the sudden swell, and about 10 feet of it, together with its gable, were washed down the valley. Dighley Upper Mill, on the same side, which was built of block stonework, is partly washed away, together with the whole of the farm buildings, which at the time contained twelve tons of hay, three cows, a horse, a goat, and a duck. The property of this mill was lately valued at upwards of £12,000, and it was in the hands of the executors of its late owner, Mr. George Hirst. The whole of this mill, extensive farm buildings, and seven cottages were swept down with the torrent, and with them four valuable cows, and a horse valued at forty guineas. Fortunately the inmates of the seven cottages escaped with their lives.

Bank-end Mill and its machinery is almost wholly destroyed. The wall surrounding Holme Bridge Church has been washed away by the torrent, and the few trees planted in the yard were uprooted, and had gone down the stream. The interior of the church and the graveyard presented a most awful spectacle. Inside the church the water had risen about five feet. The floor was torn up, the pews had been floating, and the floor was covered with sand and mud several inches thick. In the centre of the aisle was laid the body of the goat that had been washed from Upper Dighley Mill ; and within a few feet of it, resting on the seat or one of the pews, lay the remains or an infant ; and on the top of the stairs leading into the gallery lay the coffin and remains of a full-grown man. Both these human relics, with others not found, had been washed up from their graves by the whirlpools formed by the headlong current as it passed over the churchyard.

Hinchliffe Upper Mill was the next place reached by the rushing water, and here the devastation was immense, and the loss of life considerable. Six houses, which formed Water-street, were hurled forward with the flood, and nearly all the inmates perished. The houses in this neighbourhood not washed down were in some cases flooded into the chambers ; and in one of them — the endmost left standing — there were sixteen individuals, who saved their lives by getting on an adjoining roof. In one of the houses that was flooded, the inmates were drowned. Their names are James Booth and his wife, and a lodger named William Heeley, in the same block of buildings, the wife of Joseph Brook, clothier (who was endeavouring to save herself and child), was drowned with her infant in her arms. The following is a list of the occupants of the houses that were thrown down at Hinchliffe Mill, as nearly as could be ascertained from the neighbours, who were all busy with mops, buckets, and barrows, clearing their houses from the refuse of the flood :— The first house was occupied by Miss Marsden and three others ; the second, by Joseph Dodd, steam tenter, his wife and two children ; the third, by Jonathan Crosland, and seven others ; the fourth, by James Metternick, clothier, and nine others ; the fifth, by Joshua Earnshaw, master clothier, his little girl and two sons ; and the sixth, by John Charlesworth, clothier, and nine others : out of the whole of whom, seven were said to have been saved, leaving 32 to be accounted for! Many of them were taken out of the water during Thursday. At the New Inn, at Hinchliffe Mill, seven of the bodies of those who had been drowned in their houses, were laid out.

Mr. James Metternick, about 24 years of age, who occupied a cottage on the hill side, opposite to Bottom’s Mill, said “There were ten of us in our house — my father, step-mother, and eight children. Somebody came and roused us just after one o’clock. We looked out of the windows, and saw a large quantity of water and sticks coming down. From their appearance we knew the reservoir had burst. I and my step-mother came down stairs, then stood on the stairs, and my father handed us the children who were asleep in the house, for us to lift into the chamber. I ran with the rest into the garret, except my father and one child, who we expected were drowned in the house About half a minute after we got into the garret, the whole house gave way, and we were all swept down the stream, and I saw no more of any of them. No part of the home touched me that I know of. When I got into Harpin’s (Bottoms’) dam, I caught hold of a piece of wood and sprang up. I got a good sob of breath, and then went under the water and lost my hold of the plank ; on coming up again I got hold of another, and again rolled over ; at last I got hold of a large piece of timber and kept my hold. I got hold of a small piece of wood and paddled it towards the side. A gush of wind then came and blew me towards the land on the Austonley side. I leaped off the timber and fell up to my neck in the water ; but I managed to scramble out of the water, and after falling several times I got into Hannah Berry’s, and stripped my trousers and shirt (all I had on) and went to bed. I was nearly exhausted.”

Within a stone-throw of Victoria Mill stands Dyson’s Mill, which was occupied by Mr. Jonathan Sandford. In the yard of the factory Mr. Sandford resided. His house was swept away, and with it were taken himself, his two children, and his servant.

In the factory yard of Mr. Farrar two children named Woodcock were drowned, and a little further down a third was discovered dead.

At the George Inn nine bodies, principally recovered from the stream, were laid. Amongst them were Jonathan Crossland, of Hinchliffe Mill, and his son, a young man, the litter of whom had been taken out at Upper Mill, where he had been so tightly wedged into the wall that two men had hard work to drag him out. Amongst these unfortunates was a woman named Hellwell, and her two children.

Between Mr. Farrar’s dyehouse and Holmfirth is a place called Scar Fold, where a person named Hellwell, his wife, and two children resided. When the water burst into the house they were all in bed, and his wife and children were drowned. Hellwell jumped to the top of his loom, where he narrowly escaped death, but fortunately the water did not quite reach the ceiling, and he remained upon his precarious perch until it subsided.

At the end of Upper Bridge was a house occupied by a man named Bailey, with a wife and two children, which was entirely washed down, and the inmates and furniture thrown into the river. Bailey himself managed to get out again almost miraculously. He was thrown with great force to the opposite side of the river, caught hold of the railings and clung to them ; his wife and children all perished. All the shops in this locality have been nearly destroyed. A man, manager for Mr. Crawshaw (of Dewsbury), a currier, occupied one of these houses, and he and the whole of his family perished.

Adjoining the back of Mr. Wimpenny’s house, in Cattle Bolton, which is lower and nearer the river than the front, there is a dwelling-house, in which a young man, servant to Mr. Floyd, solicitor, and a little boy, were sleeping. When the water burst into the house, the man took up the boy and attempted to pass up the staircase, but, unhappily, just as he passed the threshold himself, the door closed by the force of the water and separated them, leaving the boy in the lower room to drown, as was expected. The boy, however, was borne up by the force of the water, and catching hold of the top of the joists, he held by them until the water subsided. He was about an hour in this position, with the water nearly up to the ceiling.

In the locality of Mill Ford the flood has taken down several houses, and all its occupants and families have perished. S. Hartley, engineer, of Holmfirth Mill, and all his family, are supposed to have lost their lives. The house of Richard Shackleton was also taken down by the torrent, and both he and his wife, and two children, have disappeared. At the opposite side of the river, at this point, is a burial-ground attached to the Wesleyan chapel. Part of the vestry was destroyed, the interior of the chapel much damaged, and the graveyard very much torn up, and coffins were floated away from their resting-place. The vault in which the body of the late John Harpin, Esq., of Birks House, was interred about two years ago, was torn open, and the coffin, with the remains of the deceased, was carried away. What makes this rather remarkable, is the fact that Mr. Harpin was one of the chief promoters of the “Holme Reservoir” scheme.

The water swept through the lower part of the mill of Messrs. Wimpenny and Woodhead, at Thong’s-bridge, and carried away the dry-house and other outbuildings. The engine-man lived in a cottage on the premises, it was filled with water and gutted. In the moment of peril he sprang to the window to escape, but before he left it, it occurred to him to look back for his child, and on turning round it was just floating out beside him : he had only just time to catch it by a leg or an arm — thus saving both himself and child. The destruction of property is immense.

The heavy fall of rain during Saturday night and Sunday stayed for the time further search for the bodies of the sufferers. Up to Sunday morning the whole of the sixty-five bodies lying at the public-houses in and about Holmfirth had been identified except three, and certificates were issued that morning by the coroner to enable their friends and relatives to inter them. A great portion of the poorer sufferers were members of the Druids, ‘Oddfellows,’ and other friendly societies.

Sunday (the day of burial) was a gloomy day in Holmfirth. About sixty were removed for interment at different periods of the day, mostly in the villages on the adjoining hills or up the valley. Seven bodies were taken for interment to Holm Briggs Church, but the graves had become filled with water during the night, and the churchyard, being one which the flood had swept over, was altogether in such a state of devastation and disorder, from the disturbance of graves, the destruction of the yard walls, and other damage, that it was found expedient to place the bodies in a temporary resting-place in the church itself for some weeks to come.

Notwithstanding the rain, there was an immense influx of strangers, who had come to gratify their curiosity by inspecting the scenes of devastation.

On Monday last, the weather proving somewhat favourable, a search was made for the dead, when a number of bodies were found, which were inspected by the coroner’s jury, who had appointed Friday for another meeting to identify the other bodies which it was expected would be discovered. One little girl, Sydney Hartley, who had a wonderful escape, stated that her mother having heard on the Wednesday previous to the accident that the reservoir was likely to burst, had resolved not to go to bed. She, however, put her family of eight children to bed, and sat up to await the issue, hoping to get sufficient warning to enable all to escape, if the report should prove correct. She sat up until one o’clock on Thursday morning, and then went to bed. The alarm reached almost immediately she had retired to rest. The girl states that the water burst upon them before they could get out of the chamber, and, when her mother found they could not escape, she held up her infant child above the water outside the window, hoping to save it, but finding the front of the house giving way, she turned and bade her family farewell, and was swept away with the babe in the foaming torrent. So also perished the father and four other children ; but this little creature, with two sisters and the apprentice boy, who had also been sleeping in the house, being suddenly floated up to a part of the roof which yet remained, caught hold of the rafters and clung to them, from which they were ultimately rescued by persons who had previously succeeded in reaching the roof of the house.

The Holmfirth Ladies’ Committee met on Monday evening to distribute clothing. The subscriptions raised in the town now amount to £1050. At Huddersfield a good deal of sympathy has been manifested for the sufferers. The Rev. J. Glendinning preached a sermon at the Independent Chapel, which led to a collection of £20. At a public meeting, held on Monday at Huddersfield for the purpose of opening a subscription list for the sufferers, an application was stated to have been made to the relief committee for clothing on behalf of a family who prior to the accident, were worth upwards of £10,000. There was about £5000 subscribed. It was said that the Commissioners of the Holme Reservoir went a couple of sessions ago to Parliament with a bill to enable them to borrow a large sum of money for the necessary repairs of the reservoir. The bill was defeated in the House of Peers, in consequence of an objection raised by Lord Beaumont ; and it was owing to that defeat that the present calamity had occurred.

In other parts of Yorkshire there has also been serious damage done from the same cause — the excessive rains. On Sunday morning an aqueduct, which carries the river Koch across the front of the Littleborough tunnel of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, immediately over the line, burst, owing to the great accumulation of water from rain during the night, and inundated the line, so as to prevent several of the morning trains from passing along it. Mr. Hall, the superintendent at Manchester, and other officers belonging to the company, on receiving information of the accident by telegraph, hurried to the spot, and found a deep cutting of the line there converted into a watercourse. Fortunately, the tunnel having a rising gradient under the hills into Yorkshire, the water took an opposite direction, and the damage was easily repaired. Mr. Hall caused the passengers to be taken from the Lancashire trains across the hill to the Yorkshire side, and he brought back the passengers from trains on that side to Lancashire, so that, except for a few hours, the stoppage did not lead to any very serious inconvenience. A great number of excavators were set to work to cut a new channel by the side of the line for the river, and, before night, one line of rail was entirely restored to working order. The obstruction in the railway tunnel caused by the overflow of the aqueduct has since been removed.

In the Neighbourhood of Manchester there has also been an inundation. The large reservoirs which are constructing near Woodhead, thirteen miles above Manchester, by the corporation of that town, were filled so full on Sunday that the engineer was under considerable apprehension that the Tor-side Reservoir, the embankment of which is not yet completed, would burst, and he very prudently despatched messengers down to the inhabitants below, warning them of the danger ; but by keeping the water back as much as possible in the upper reservoir at Woodhead, and by employing a great number of excavators to cut an extra channel for the overflow from the Tor-side, so as to keep it off the embankment, the disaster was happily averted. The quantity of water stored in the Bilberry Reservoir, which has committed such devastation at Holmfirth, is as a bucketfull compared with the water in the Woodhead and Tor-side. So great was the accumulation of water, that Mr. Bateman had to discharge during many parts of the day at the rate of 3200 cubic feet of water per second, to prevent the disaster.

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