Morning Chronicle (07/Feb/1852) - The Catastrophe at Holmfirth: One Hundred Lives Lost

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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.

THE CATASTROPHE AT HOLMFIRTH.

ONE HUNDRED LIVES LOST.

HOLMFIRTH, Friday.

This terrible and destructive catastrophe, one of the most appalling that has ever happened in this part of the country, was not at all exaggerated in the accounts given of it in The Morning Chronicle of to-day. A more complete wreck, a more melancholy scene than Holmfirth presents to the thousands who have visited it, has never been beheld. The shops left standing are all closed — the streets knee-deep in mud, and filled with broken furniture, carding machines, huge iron boilers, bags of wool, while the graveyards have their dead dislodged, and their dread contents borne again to the doors of the living. Altogether the scene is one of heart-rending misery ; numbers, who retired to rest the night before last in comfortable circumstances, now find themselves homeless, penniless, and, so far as their immediate relatives are concerned, friendless.

The confusion and uncertainty is still so great that it is impossible to ascertain the number of persons who have perished, but from all that we can learn, about sixty bodies have been recovered, and it is thought that at least forty more are missing. The exact number cannot, however, be ascertained for some days. Some of the bodies, as stated yesterday, have been found a distance of many miles from the scene of disaster.

Before proceeding further with our narrative of this most disastrous event, it may enable our readers to be better able to comprehend the nature of the catastrophe, if we describe with more accuracy than yesterday the position of the reservoirs and the nature of the locality.

Holmfirth is about seven miles from Huddersfield, and is approached by the Huddersfield and Penistone Railway. The town is built in a deep valley, having immense ranges of hills on each side, and at the lowest level, in a circuitous course through the centre of the town, winds the river Holme, which is crossed at different points by four stone bridges, called the Bridge, Thong’s Bridge, Victoria Bridge, and Upper Bridge. From Holmfirth through the valley of the Holme for a distance of several miles, amongst almost Alpine mountains, run deep ravines, with scarcely an outlet for three or four miles, when they terminate on vast tracts of moorland. Upon the bed of these vast ravines runs a strong mountain stream, which is increased, as it rushes on from the moors, by the streamlets which fill down the hill sides, until it reaches Holme Bridge, where it empties itself in the river Holme, which passes through Holmfirth. On each side of this river are erected numerous scribbling and fulling mills along the whole course of the valley, built there with the view of taking advantage of the water power which this watercourse furnishes. As the supply of water in droughty weather is inadequate for the purposes required, the idea was conceived of storing the element in huge reservoirs at the top of the highest hills, and it was to the bursting of one of these reservoirs that 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 Holmstye,” 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, £40,000 of which was raised in shares, and the other £30,000 on mortgage of the works, the company of shareholders having power to lay rates upon the mill-owners using the water. As a pecuniary speculation, the undertaking has been a failure, owing in part, it is said, to heavy law expenses. The particular reservoir which has caused the present destruction is “the Bilberry.” It is a situated three miles from Holmfirth, at the fool 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 re said to have been 84 feet. The surplus water was carried away by a tunnel, running under the reservoir, communicated with by a funnel or chimney, in the centre of the reservoir, 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 rains have very much filled the reservoir, its weight acting upon what has long been considered an insecure embankment, the latter suddenly gave way, and the waters pent up rushed down the ravine, and along the valley of the Holme, with a force which must have been perfectly resistless.

As we have intimated, 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. The company’s servants were watching it on Wednesday, and, in consequence of something that 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 14 yards square and four stories high ; a weaving shed, with 34 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 widish part of the valley, but not far from a curve in the valley, and when our reporter visited the place yesterday, there was literally not one stone left upon another ; the whole buildings were swept away, with the exception of a tall engine chimney, round the base of which gurgled the still foaming and angry waters. A more complete destruction cannot be imagined. The engine was carried to a considerable distance down the stream, where it remains imbedded in the mud. The rumours which induced the parties at Dighley to remove were current in Holmfirth the same evening, but unfortunately the inhabitants, from often having heard similar reports, disregarded thorn, and retired to rest, hoping that all would be well. The waters burst their barrier a little after one o’clock yesterday morning, and, from the appearances which every where present themselves, must have swept everything before them with most terrific force. From concurrent statements, it would seem as it the whole body of accumulated waters tumbled down the valley together in one vast overwhelming mass. Their passage down to Holmfirth, a distance of three miles, occupied less than half an hour, and in rather more than an hour they had receded from the houses. In consequence of the narrowness between the bluffs on either side, a vast volume of water was kept together, to spend its force upon Holmfirth, after which it got more into the open country (which was very much underwater the whole of yesterday), all the way down to Honley, Armitage-bridge, Huddersfield, and even below Mirfield.

Taking, then, the reservoir as our starting point, we will now proceed to give some details of the sad havoc which it has made.

A few hundred yards below the reservoir stood a small building, two stories high, called Bilberry Mill. It was in the occupation of Mr. Joseph Broadhead, and used as a scribbling and dressing mill. This was built on one side, and rather out of the direct course of the torrent, as it relied in its leviathan proportions down the valley. The end of the mill was caught by the sudden swell, and about ten feet length and its gable washed down the valley. A man at this mill staled that he witnessed the overflow of the embankment when the ordinary channel out of the reservoir had become too small for the outpouring — that the water rolled over the embankment until a large breadth and depth had been washed away, and then the puddlebank and the inner lining of the reservoir to the depth of fifty feet gave way in one immense body, and down went masses of rock weighing several tons, and everything else that offered the slightest obstacle to its onward course.

At a short distance down the valley, and on the same side as Bilberry Mill, stood Dighley Upper Mill, lately occupied by Mr. John Furniss, woollen manufacturer, whose affairs are now in the bands of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. This building was a block of stone work, consisting of a factory, a large house, with farm building and outhouses. The end of a mill is washed away, a quantity of machinery, and a large amount of property in the shape or pieces, warps, &c., destroyed, and the gable end of the house, which is comparatively new, and the whole of the farm-buildings swept away. In the latter were twelve tons of hay, three milch cows, a horse, a goat, and several heads of poultry, which were carried down the stream. In the house was Mrs. Furniss and her two children, and in bed in one of the chambers were two messengers from the bankruptcy court. They were alarmed at the rapid rise of the water about half-past twelve o’clock, and left the house. One of the messengers, named William Crompton, had barely enough time to put his clothes on, and get to the rising ground before the final burst took place. He had to wade up to the middle in water before he could land on terra firma. Mrs. Furniss says she saw the bursting of the bank, and describes it as the rising of an immense sheet of mist, accompanied by a sound like reverberating thunder. The miller employed at the factory had been confined to bed for several weeks, and he with his family remained in the house at one end of the mill until the morning without sustaining any personal injury, when they were rescued in a cart.

A short distance, perhaps 500 yards below, the valley narrows between two lofty hills, and here stood Digley Mill, upwards of 60 yards square. This was a substantial stone-built factory, four stories high, with an attic used as workshops above. It was driven by a large water wheel (as were the two mills before mentioned), and a steam engine. 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. G. Hirst. The whole of this mill, with extensive farm buildings, and seven cottages, were swept down with the torrent, and with them four valuable cows, and a horse worth forty guineas. Fortunately the inmates of the seven cottages escaped with their lives.

Bank End Mill was the next building in the valley. Its gable end and one window from the top to the bottom of the building washed away. The lower rooms are completely gutted, and the machinery in the upper stories thrown together in heaps. The dyehouse and stove, about sixty yards long, were completely destroyed, leaving nothing of them standing above the ground. This property belonged to Mr. John Roebuck.

The valley then widens, until it reaches Holm-bridge, a small village composed of a few hundred inhabitants. The stream at this place is crossed by a bridge of one arch, about forty yards on one side of which stands Holm-bridge church, in the centre of a graveyard, and about the same distance on the other side stands a tollgate and a number of dwellings. The foundations of the bridge were washed completely bare. The wall surrounding the church was swept away by the torrent, and the few trees planted in the yard were uprooted and carried down the stream. The interior of the church and the graveyard soon presented a most awful spectacle. Inside the building the water had risen about five feet. The floor was torn up — the pews were floating, and the floor covered with sand and mud several inches thick. In the centre of the aisle was laid the body of a goat that had been washed from Upper Digley mill, and within a few feet of it, resting on the seat of one of the pews, lay the remains of an infant, and on the top of the stairs leading into the gallery lay a coffin containing remains of a full grown man. Both these human relics, with others not yet found, had been washed up from their graven by the whirlpools formed by the headlong current, as it passed over the churchyard. The road and fields from the reservoir downwards are still covered with huge masses of stone and other substances, of which the bank of the reservoir had been formed.

Hinchliffe Upper Mill was the next place reached by the rushing water ; and here, as the stream was more confined in its channel by the buildings erected on its edge, the devastation was immense, and the loss of life considerable. Six houses, which formed Water-street, were hurled down by the flood, and nearly all the inmates perished. The dwellings 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 them all the inmates were drowned. Their names are James Booth and his wife, and a lodger named William Healey. In the same block of buildings, the wife of Joseph Brook, clothier, while endeavouring to save herself and child, perished with her infant in her arms. The following is a list of the occupants of the houses that were taken 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 Crossland and seven others ; the fourth by James Metternich, 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 only seven were saved, leaving thirty-two to be accounted for. At the New Inn, at Hinchliffe Mill, seven of the bodies of those who were drowned in their houses were laid out. The damage in the mill seemed to have been confined to the lower story, the windows of which, and those of the second story, are blocked with broken machinery, heavy pieces of timber, and furniture.

The country grows wider below this point, and in the centre of a wide valley stands Bottom’s Mill. From the open country here offering little resistance to the stream, this factory, which is a very large one, sustained comparatively only trifling damage.

In a cottage on the hill-side opposite to Bottom’s Mill, was laid the son of James Metternich, of Hinchliffe Mill, just mentioned, from whom we obtained the following statement. He is about 24 years of age. He 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. I put on my trousers : my step-mother and I stood on the stairs. We looked out of the windows, and saw a large quantity of water and slicks 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. The water burst in at the window and through the door, filled the lower room and half filled 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 had 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 house touched me that I know of. When I got into Harpen’s (Bottom’s) 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 water, but I managed to scramble out of the water, and after falling several times I got into Hannah Barry’s, and stripped my trowsers and shirt (all I had on) and went to bed. I was nearly exhausted.

The next building in the valley is Victoria Mill, which had sustained little damage beyond the disarrangement and partial breakage of the machinery in the lower story. In the yard of this factory three houses were swept away, but no lives lost.

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. The factory also sustained very serious damage in its walls and machinery.

Prockleton, or Farrar’s Upper Mill, is the next, the large dyehouse of which was completely destroyed, with its huge puns and fixtures. These were the property of Mr. John Farrar. The factory known as the Lower Mill is situate a little lower, and was built across the stream. The torrent carried the greater portion of the factory along with it, leaving only the two ends standing. This factory was filled with valuable machinery and woollen material, and is the property of Mr. Hobson Farrar. In the factory yard two children named Woodcock were drowned, and a little further down a third was discovered dead.

At the George Inn, near this place, nine bodies, principally recovered from the stream, are now laid. Amongst them were Jonathan Crossland, of Hinchliffe Mill, and his son, a young man, the latter 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. Among these unfortunates was a woman named Hellawell and her three children. They had been taken out of a house within 30 yards of the George Inn.

Coming from Mr. Farrar’s dyehouse to 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 child were both drowned. Hellwell jumped to the top of his loom, where he narrowly escaped death, for fortunately the water did not quite reach the ceiling, and he remained upon his precarious perch until it subsided. The warehouse of Mr. John Haigh, grocer, in the same locality, was filled with water, and entirely gutted. His loss will be from £300 to £400. The house of Mr. James Charlesworth, manager of the Holmfirth branch of the Huddersfield Banking Company, adjoins the house of Mr. Haigh, and the partition between the two houses was washed away, but no lives were lost. The shop of a cooper, named Coldwell, was also gutted.

At the end of Upper Bridge were two houses, with a gable end to the bridge — that nearest the river Holme being occupied by Enor Bailey, his mother, wife, and two children. The walls or battlements of the bridge were swept off, and Bailey’s house entirely washed down, and the inmates and furniture thrown into the river. Bailey himself and his mother managed to get out again, but the latter has since died.[1] Bailey only is left to tell the tale of sorrow, his wife and children having all perished. The interior of the adjoining house, occupied by a shoemaker, named John Hepworth, was completely exposed, and nearly all his furniture swept away. The bedsteads are standing partly in the house and partly out, one end projecting over the floor, which had been partially removed. A barn, stable, and coach-house, belonging to Miss Kippax, was levelled. The shop of Messrs. Woodhead was completely gutted. The shop of Mr. M’Laren, bookseller, was also much damaged, the windows and doors of the shop having all disappeared, and his stock and furniture destroyed. All the other shops in this locality (Hollowgate) suffered in the same way, including those of Abm. Haley, a green-grocer, and Mrs. Briggs, who, with her family, were rescued by being taken out at the top of the house roof. On the opposite side of Hollowgate, next to the river, all the houses and shops and the toll-bar house were swept down ; and, in the middle of the street, was deposited a huge forest tree, which had been torn up by the roots. Mr. Robinson[2], a currier, occupied one of these houses, and himself and the whole of his family perished. The shops of Mr. Henry Firth, grocer, and Mr. Abel Hoyle, greengrocer, are amongst those destroyed, but they did not live on the premises.

Victoria-bridge was dismantled, like all the others, the walls having been destroyed. The back part of three dwelling-houses at the end of it are completely gone, viz., those occupied by Charles B. Marples, straw bonnet shop, and William Martin, watch and clock maker (both of whose stock is destroyed), and James Whiteley. The houses of Mr. Johnson, tinner and brazier, and Mr. Alfred Wood, draper and grocer, were filled to the ceilings with water, and the goods in them considerably damaged. Mr. Allred Wood’s damage, it is said, will amount to from £1,500 to £2,000.

Cuttle Bottom belongs to Mr. Joseph Moorhouse, a magistrate of the West Riding, and formerly a woollen manufacturer. A dryhouse, a warehouse, a dyehouse, several outbuildings (including a warehouse occupied by Mr. Samuel Winpenny, grocer), were all swept down. The stock was entirely destroyed. Adjoining the back of Mr. Winpenny’s house, which is lower and nearer the river than the front, there was 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 or the water, and catching hold of the top of the joists, he held by them until the flood subsided. He was about an hour in this position, with the water nearly up to the ceiling. The shop of Mr. Woodcock, draper, in Victoria-street, was gutted, and his slock, worth £700, all swept away. The water rushed through the premises out at the back over the grounds of Mr. Charlesworth, and then rejoined the river. The house of Mr. Gutteridge, confectioner, was also gutted. Mr. Dyson, druggist’s shop and stock was also damaged. The next shop to this had recently been taken by Mr. Williamson, a draper, and was to have been opened on Saturday (thin day), it haying been stocked frith goods to the amount of £600. When the rush came, the window was burst in by the root of a large tree, which was carried with such force, that it passed through the shop and out at the opposite end of the building, carrying part of the wall and flooring with it. Mr. Charles Boocock, who has just commenced as a grocer, had a quantity of provisions destroyed and the back part of his premises taken away. About £100 damage has been done to the stock of Mr. Lawson, tinner, and a like amount to the stock of Mr. R. Harrison, grocer. The lower part of the house of Mr. Charlesworth, the magistrate, was filled with water, but no lives were lost. The house and shop of Mr. Garside, in Towngate, was much injured in the lower part, the water entering in at the window and coming out at the shop-door. The damage is estimated at from £200 to £300. The water also passed through the Jolly Hatter’s Inn ; and a shoe-shop in the neighbourhood, belonging to Elliot Brown, was completely swept away.

In the locality of Mill Fold the flood broke down several houses, and all their 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 grave yard torn up, and coffins floated away from their resting places. 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. Mr. Harpin was one of the chief promoters of the “Holme reservoir” scheme.

A small mill, called Charlesworth’s mill, was swept down, and several homes near it filled with water, but no lives were lost. The whole of the new goit made by Messrs. Broadbent for Bridge Mill was torn up, and also the embankment for the water lodge. The water took in course right through the mill and made sad havoc, but the building is yet standing. The mill of Joseph Brook and Son was also damaged.

The end of Mr. Geo. Robinson’s fulling mill, at Thongs-bridge, was taken down ; the boiler-house and the counting-house completely levelled, but a cottage house, nearer the water, weathered the storm. The occupant of the cottage, while surrounded with water, gave himself up for lost, especially when he saw the raging element tear up the boiler and toss it about as if it were only a feather, but both man and his cottage escaped. On the opposite side of the river is the mill of Messrs. Wimpenny and Woodhead. The water swept through the lower part of the mill, 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 sprung to the window to escape, but before he left it, it occurred to him to look back for his child, and on turning round he saw it just swimming out beside him ; he only just caught it by a leg or an arm, and thus saved both himself and child.

The above are all the particulars it was possible to gather up to last night. The mischief is too extensive, and the loss of both life and property too vast, to get at once at all the details. It is a serious and dire calamity to Holmfirth, the results of which will be felt for many years to come.

The Inquest is fixed to be opened to-morrow (Saturday) before Mr. Dyson, the coroner.


Notes and References

  1. This is the only article found which claims Aner’s mother, Martha, was residing in the house at the time of the flood. As there are no local burial records for a Martha Bailey in 1852, it is assumed this claim is erroneous.
  2. Presumably a mistake on the part of the journalist, as this appears to be a reference to the Ashall family.