Morning Post (16/Feb/1852) - The Holmfirth Catastrophe

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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.



On Friday afternoon, notwithstanding the difficulties which were believed to stand in the way, the committee had obtained a general estimate of the different descriptions of property which had suffered from the flood. The substance of the returns given in the various schedules is as follows :—

Property Totally Destroyed. — Mills, 4 ; dyehouses, 10 ; stoves, 10 ; cottages, 27 ; tradesmen’s bouses, 7 ; tradesmen’s shops, 7 j bridges, 6; county bridge, 1 ; warehouses, 10 ; barns and stables, 18.

Property Partially Destroyed, or Seriously Injured. — Mills, 17 ; dye-houses and stocks therein, 5 ; stoves, 3 ; cottages, 139 ; tradesmen's houses, 7 ; large shops, 44 ; public-houses, 11 ; bridges, 5 ; county bridge, 1 ; land seriously injured, 200 acres ; watercourses, mill-falls, and highways, sustaining immense damage, over a distance of five miles.

Workpeople. — The workpeople thrown out of employment by the catastrophe are thus returned adults, 4,986 ; children, 2,142 — total out of work, 7,128. These people were earning, upon an average, the weekly aggregate amount of £3,748.

Up to Friday morning, the subscriptions in Huddersfield and the neighbourhood amounted to £8,000 ; and those in Holmfirth and the neighbourhood to £1,100. As both committees have amalgamated, forming a joint committee, the further additions in both localities will be stated generally and in one amount — the aggregate amount being as above £9,100. The later subscriptions include £50 from the Bishop of Ripon ; 25 guineas from Richard Cobden, Esq., M.P. ; and £200 from Alexander Henry, Esq., M.P. In a former statement, we were in error as to some subscriptions by Messrs. Charlesworth ; they should be, Joseph Charlesworth, Esq., £100 ; Joshua Charlesworth, Esq., £50 ; and James Charlesworth, Esq., £50.

On Thursday evening last, a purse containing £84 was found near the ruins of the house of Mr. John Kay, a shopkeeper in Holmfirth. The house was swept down by the flood, and he, with his daughter, grand-daughter, and another person, was carried down. All were drowned, except himself ; and he was saved by clutching at a pole thrust towards him from the Rose and Crown public-house, as he floated past. He was very severely injured by a portion of the house falling upon him, and he is still lying very ill. As soon as he was able, he described a purse which was in the house, containing sums of money, in several small purses, and these again within a large purse ; and the £84 found on Thursday evening being thus enclosed, there is no doubt that the money is his.

The bodies of the following fourteen persons, who are known, are still missing :—

Joseph Marsden, aged 19, Water-street.
Joseph Dodd, aged 48, Water-street.
Mary Copeland, aged 19, Water-street.
James Metterick, aged 37, Water-street.
Mary Metterick, wife of James Metterick, aged 38, Water-street.
Samuel Metterick, aged 20, Water-street.
Alfred Metterick, aged 8, Water-street.
Hamer Charlesworth, aged 6, Water-street.
Jonathan Sandford, aged 45, Dyson’s Mill.
Richard Shackleton, aged 31, Holmfirth.
Grace Hirst Shackleton, aged 4½, Holmfirth.
Ellen Ann Hartley, aged 3, Holmfirth.
Ann Bailey, aged 4, Upper-bridge.
Alfred Ashall, aged 2.

The body of Mr. Jonathan Sandford, for the recovery of which a reward of £10 has been offered, has not yet been discovered, although most minute search has been made for it. It is still supposed to be lying among the debris of the ruins at Holmfirth, although there are many who think it may have been carried to a great distance. The latter supposition has given rise to many idle rumours, among which we may mention that by some it has been affirmed that the remains of the unfortunate gentleman have been discovered in the harbour at Hull, while others state that they have been picked up by the crew of a vessel far out at sea. We need scarcely say that there is no foundation for either rumour. The body of the female domestic, Elizabeth Marsden[1], who was in the house of Mr. Sandford at the time of the calamity, is included in the list of those which have not yet been recovered. His two little daughters, however, who were among the number of the missing, Sarah Jane, aged 13 years, and Emily, aged 3 years, have both been found, the latter on Saturday in the Holmfirth Mill-dam ; and the former on the previous day, underneath a gig at the White Hart Inn.

Besides the body of Miss Emily Sandford, there were three others found on Saturday — that of Miss Nancy Marsden, which was discovered beneath a pile of ruins in Water-street, and those of two children, whose names were unknown, which were recovered in Bottom’s Mill-dam. The body of Sarah Woodcock (aged 12 years), was found on Monday. It had been washed from Scarfold to the Holmfirth Mill-dam, where it was discovered.

A singular circumstance occurred during the identification of the bodies of the deceased on Saturday. When the jury viewed the bodies lying at Berry Brow, an intelligent little girl, daughter of Sydney Hartley, one of the deceased, identified an infant as the body of her sister Ellen. She said she knew it because it was “calf-licked,” like herself — pointing to a peculiarity of the hair on the forehead, so denominated in Yorkshire. The coroner took her deposition, but afterwards the same child was claimed by a man named Bailey as his daughter, and he obtained possession of the corpse, and interred it. The girl’s narrative of the horrors of Thursday morning is as follows:— Her mother had heard on Wednesday night that the reservoir was likely to burst, and 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 ; almost immediately after which the alarm reached her. The girl states that the water burst upon them before they could get out of the chamber ; and that when her mother found she 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, with the infant was immediately swept away by 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. When the flood began to abate, the apprentice, John Dearnley, got out upon the roof and assisted the three girls to do the same. Here they remained at least 20 minutes; and he afterwards carried them one by one into the portion of Holmfirth Mill which had escaped destruction where, in their night clothes, standing up to their knees in mud, they were exposed to the inclemency of the night air, and to the falling rain. Ultimately, however, they discovered a way into a room nearly full of wool, and burying themselves amongst it, they obtained the warmth they so much needed, and remained till morning. The three orphans are now residing with their relations.

Among the striking events which have occurred during the week, perhaps the circumstances attending the identifying the body and the funeral of the boy Fawcett Crosland, ought not to be omitted to be mentioned. Early on the morning of Monday, the body had been found at Dalton Lee, at a distance of about two miles from Huddersfield, in so swollen and altered a state that it appeared to be the body of a person at least sixteen years of age. At the coroner’s inquest, however, it was proved by the evidence of the grandfather, that the deceased had been only seven years of age. The appearance of the old man in the court, as may well be imagined, caused no small excitement, for no fewer than nine of his descendants had ceased to exist on that eventful night. The old man gave his testimony clearly and firmly, although the struggle underneath was painfully evident to every observer, and it was only at the conclusion of the inquest, when a subscription, which had been entered into by the jury and other gentlemen present in the court, was handed to him, that his feelings gave way. And then followed a singular scene. From the bruised, swollen, and decayed state of the body, it was found necessary that it should be buried immediately, but the burial ground was far distant, and there were none to bear it to its last resting place. No sooner was this known, however, than the gentlemen who a short time before had formed the jury, although their way homewards was widely apart, formed themselves into a funeral cortege, and, relieving each other at intervals, bore the corpse along until they had consigned it to the narrow tomb.

On Saturday, the body of Mrs. Greenwood, the wife of Samuel Greenwood, the tollkeeper, was found crushed up in the shop of Mr. James Haigh, draper, and on Tuesday the body of her husband was also recovered by the persons engaged in clearing out the Holmfirth mill-dam. This is the person who, it will be remembered, was seen to come to his door with a candle in his hand apparently to see what was the cause of the commotion, when he himself, house, and family, were swept away in a moment. There was also found on Tuesday, at Hinchcliffe, the body of a child unknown, which, from certain appearances which it exhibited, the medical gentlemen who have examined it, and with whom we have conversed, have declared must have been born in the water. On hearing of this incident, Mrs. Pilling, a lady from the neighbourhood of Saddleworth, became violently excited, and, after the lapse of a few minutes, sunk to the ground to all appearance lifeless — indeed many who surrounded her were so satisfied that she was dead, that it was thought unnecessary to send for medical assistance. Mr. Lomas, however, having fortunately been in the neighbourhood, was soon in attendance, and the lady so far recovered under his care as to be able to be taken home at a later hour of the day.

Of the various escapes which were made, perhaps none was more marvellous than that of a young man of twenty-two years of age, named Job Lee, the grandson of James Lee, with whom he resided at that part of Holmfirth named Rocher. Job and his grandfather had gone to bed in a room on the lower floor of a house, the upper rooms of which were occupied by Benjamin Brierley. Brierley had been alarmed at an early period by hearing a strange rumbling noise rapidly approaching the village, which he very correctly attributed to the bursting of the reservoir, when he immediately roused his wife, and, accompanied by her, rushed down stairs. On reaching Lee's door, Brierley gave it a violent kick which broke a panel nearly from top to bottom, making an aperture in the side of the door of about four inches and a half in width, and at the same moment the water burst in upon them. What we are now about to state may well appear incredible, but we have been so assured of the circumstance happening as we are about to narrate it, that we are bound to believe in its truth. It appears that Job Lee had heard the Brierleys coming down stairs, and becoming alarmed, he had sprung from his bed and rushed to the door, which he had reached at the very moment the panel was broken in. Stretching forth his arms through the opening he both seized and was laid hold of by Brierley and his wife, and as the water continued to rush in a deadly struggle ensued, Lee retaining his grasp with desperate determination, Brierley and his wife at the same time endeavouring to extricate themselves from his deadly grasp, until at length, when the water was up to their necks, and life or death hung in the balance, the body of Lee was actually drawn through the narrow aperture, and the three made their escape.

Another very narrow escape was made by Mr. Gladhill, provision merchant, whose residence is immediately adjoining the White Hart Inn. He had been in bed in a room in the lower story, and hearing a noise, he went up stairs to look out, in order to see what was the matter. He then saw the mighty torrent approaching, and immediately ran down stairs to the street-door, and was about to rush out when he thought he might have time to put on some clothes before the flood could reach so high as his house. He had only taken a step or two from the door, however, before it was burst in by the waters, when he sprung to the staircase, and succeeding in reaching the upper floor, he there remained in safety until the inundation had subsided. While looking out at the fearful ravages which were being made around him, he saw a pony borne on by the torrent. After several fearful struggles, during which it was repeatedly turned over, it managed to reach the land, where it stood for a few seconds trembling, looking upon the rushing torrent, and then suddenly turning, it started off at a furious gallop, heedless of every obstacle, and was soon lost in the distance.

Every precaution has been taken by the authorities to prevent the possibility of any casualty occurring. Temporary barricades have been erected along the sides of the bridges, and at every point where there is the least possibility of danger. Large fires have also been kept burning in different places during the night, so that it is almost impossible that even a complete stranger can be placed in a situation involving any risk.

The number of visitors who have crowded to the scene of this dire calamity, during the week, in order to witness the extent of the devastation, even from such distant points as London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, has been almost incredible. No fewer than 6,000 persons have been conveyed thither by railway alone in a single day, and we confine ourselves within the actual limits when we state that nearly as many more have at the same time reached the scene by-other means. From an early hour in the day until it has been far advanced, vehicles of every description have thronged the road in every direction, wending their way towards Holmfirth — the family chaise, the chariot, and the barouche have jostled with the farmer’s gig, the spring cart, and the waggon; for all have brought their respective groups to swell the multitude which has gathered in this valley, the name of which had scarcely been heard of before. We cannot give anything like an idea of the numbers. The railway trains have continually been crowded from Huddersfield to Holmfirth and back, and more than the ordinary trains have run on some days this week.

At an early hour on the first Sunday morning after the accident, long before the crowds of visitors who rushed to the spot had broken in upon the quiet of the Sabbath, usually so peaceful and still in that district, the advent of that day, long to be remembered by the people of Holmfirth with feelings of the deepest sorrow, was heralded in by a peal of dumb bells. Strangely and with a melancholy wildness did the muffled notes strike upon the ear of many as they started and raised their heads at the unwonted sound, the tears earnestly sought for before, sprung unbidden to their eyes, and the pent-up anguish of sorrowing and surcharged hearts for the first time found relief in the full and open expression of their grief.

The editor of the Sheffield Times makes the following remarks upon the probable causes of the accident:— The question which naturally suggests itself upon an examination of the artificial embankment of the Bilbery reservoir is, whether that embankment was at any time of sufficient strength to bear up the weight of water which was liable to press against it, the principal pressure being upon that embankment. This is properly a question for the engineer rather than the ordinary spectator; but we heard it stated by a gentleman conversant with works of that nature that in his judgment the bank would not have yielded by mere pressure, and that all that was needed to ensure safety was to prevent the water from overflowing, and thus wearing the earthwork away. The bank at its base is about 100 yards broad, diminishing gradually to three or four yards broad at the summit. What, then, was the provision for keeping the water below the summit of the bank? The visitor will see within and near the front of the reservoir a stone shaft in the form of a chimney, technically called a valve house, attached to which at the outer side is an iron rod extending from top to bottom. Its use was to raise and lower a valve or shuttle placed at the end of a tube, through which when open at the end a stream of water would ascend some distance up the shaft, and run off through another tube to a waste weir in the vicinity of the dam. The principal use of this apparatus seems to have been to let off a supply of water to the mills below when the low state of the stream required subsidies. It would be of some use also to relieve the reservoir when surcharged with water. Last week, when it was needed in a great emergency, the shuttle-rod refused to perform its office. Some ingenious wag promulgated the statement that a tree-root had become lodged against the shuttle ; but a very moderate amount of investigation suffices to dissipate the tree-root theory, and leaves the inquirer to draw the conclusion, vague though it be, that the machinery had become deranged, from some cause which has yet to be explained. Could the shuttle have been kept continually raised from the first moment that the water in the reservoir assumed a menacing attitude perhaps, the outlet would have been copious enough to prevent an overwhelming accumulation. On the day preceding the catastrophe, the water rose, it is stated, at the rate of 18 inches an hour. The raising of the shuttle at any period of that day might have averted the calamity for a very few hours, but the artery with which the shuttle was connected would certainly have failed to discharge a volume of water at all commensurate with the accumulation which continued up to the moment when the gigantic rupture took place. Whether or not the prompt application of engineering skill immediately after the uselessness of the shuttle would have sufficed to carry off the surplus water in safety it is not for us to investigate. Neither does it devolve upon us to inquire whether any and what agency other than the shuttle ought from the first to have existed for accomplishing that end.

  1. This appears to be an error on the part of the reporter, as Sandford's domestic was Ellen Wood.