John Whiteley (1807-1857)

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.

John Whiteley was a weaver who helped raise the alarm that the Bilberry Reservoir embankment was overflowing in the early hours of 5 February 1852.


He was born at Bartin in the Township of Austonley on 1 September 1807, the son of Jeremiah Whiteley and his wife Mary (née Hirst), and was baptised on 19 September 1807 at All Hallows, Almondbury.

He married Esther Tuncliffe on 20 May 1833 at St. David's, Holmbridge. The couple had 8 known children:

  • Mary Whiteley (c.1836-?)
  • Betty Whiteley (c.1838-?)
  • Hirst Whiteley (c.1841-?)
  • Jane Whiteley (c.1843-?)
  • Joe Whiteley (c.1845-?)
  • John Whiteley (c.1847-?)
  • Lydia Whiteley (c.1848-?)
  • Henry Whiteley (c.1850-?)

At some point after 1852, the family moved to Springfield, Saddleworth.

John Whiteley died aged 50 and was buried at St. John's, Upperthong, on 8 March 1857.

Holmfirth Flood of 1852

John's uncle, Joseph Whiteley of Hoobram, was one of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners.

He was one of a number of people who watched Bilberry Reservoir's level rise on 4 February 1852. At around 11:30pm, the water began to flow over the sunken part of the embankment and started washing away the eastern slope, weakening the structure. A flow of water also appeared at the foot of the embankment.

At some point after midnight, he set off towards Holmfirth to raise the alarm by calling out "flood!", accompanied by Benjamin Bray (of Bank End Mill) and Joseph Whiteley. They parted at Longwalls with Bray deciding to warn people at Hinchliffe Mill whilst John carried on towards Holmfirth. As he reached Victoria Mill, he saw the river level rising quickly. By the time he got to Upper Bridge — some 2½ miles from the reservoir — the main torrent unleashed when the embankment failed had caught up to him.

He appeared at the inquest into the flood and made a number of statements:

I live at Greengates. I know the district well. I was on the embankment on Wednesday night at nine o’clock. John Roebuck went with me. I examined the settlements in it. The water was then about a yard perpendicular from the top of the hollow. Whilst I was there I beard John Roebuck, who was standing in a field near, say he was afraid the reservoir would burst He did not mention any hour when it would burst I remained there until after twelve. John Roebuck was also there. I heard him say several times that he was afraid it would burst. The water began to run into the sunken part of the embankment about eleven. It would be about half an hour or rather more that it began to flow over the embankment. I remained near an hour after it overflowed. As soon as the water began to run over it washed away the outer embankment in small portions. It began very slowly at first and extended to a broad stream, when it washed away the outer embankment in larger quantities. After it had ran over some time a stream burst out near the bottom of the embankment. The puddle wall had not been bared when I left. I saw the water heave forward a large quantity from the bottom of the embankment when I set off. I did not hear the embankment give way. I ran down to Holmfirth warning the people. The first time I saw the flood coming was when I had got to Victoria Mill. When I got to Upper Bridge I saw several persons standing on the bridge.

I am a weaver with Mr. Roebuck. I heard Mr. Roebuck say he thought the Reservoir would burst if the wet continued, but he did not add “if it ran over the embankment.” I afterwards went up to Bradshaw dike to see the water come in, and when I returned I and others stayed to watch the waters rise. We had no orders to go and give warning. I don’t know what time the weather cleared up that night. Benjamin Bray and Joseph Whitely were near me on the embankment that night. They accompanied me to give the alarm. I overrun Benjamin Bray, and he said I was to go forward, and he would alarm them at Hinchliffe Mill. When I arrived at Upper Bridge I met several persons I knew, and gave them the alarm. I never saw the water so strong in the Bradshaw dike before, nor accumulate so fast in the reservoir.

I went to the reservoir out of curiosity, and remained there. Heard the reservoir was filling fast, and went up to Flushes to hear about it. I here met with Mr Roebuck, and we went together. When I got there I did not think it was likely to burst saw it give way in large pieces.

I think it would be about one when I got to Victoria Mill. When I got to Victoria Mill the water was very little behind me, and seeing the water up to the houses I ran forward to Holmfirth crying “flood!”


On the Trail of the Holmfirth Flood 1852 (1996) by Gordon and Enid Minter:

John Whitely, one of the three messengers who set off from the embankment to carry the alarm down the valley, outran the others and reached Upper Bridge where, not surprisingly, he collapsed, exhausted. His cries were heard by a group of men keeping watch on the river who themselves took up the alarm but to little effect as, less than a minute later, the flood arrived. It was later calculated that it took the water less than fifteen minutes to travel the distance between Bilberry and Holmfirth. Whitely, who did not leave the embankment until after the first overspill, ran that night as if he had the devil at his heels — which, in a way, he had.

On the fifth day of the Inquest (20th February) Whitely gave an account of his epic run. Despite the fact that he had stopped on the way to warn one or two small communities and thus saved lives, the Foreman of the Jury, Mr. G. Mellor, was unimpressed by his endeavours and remarked that Whitely’s warning was no warning at all. When the Coronor pointed out that the man had done his best, Mellor’s unappreciative response was ‘He began too late’.

A weaver by trade, Whitely had no official connection with the reservoir and he had, like many others, gone up to the embankment that night merely out of curiosity. Considering the fact that as soon as he understood the danger he took action, Mellor’s remarks seem a trifle harsh.

Whitely neglected to say how, in his exhausted state, he managed to get away from the area but his escape must have been timely as only a minute or so after his arrival the bridge was under several feet of water.

Notes and References