On the Trail of the Holmfirth Flood 1852 (1996) - The Inquest

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.
© Gordon & Enid Minter
The text of On the Trail of the Holmfirth Flood 1852 (1996) is the copyright of Enid Minter and has been made available on this web site with her express permission.


Many witnesses were called to give evidence at the Inquest which spread over six days (6th, 13th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 27th February 1852) and many thousands of words were exchanged. Accusations and counter-accusations, excuses and denials were rife and the benefit of hindsight was much invoked. As we intend to highlight only one or two of the main strands of evidence, interested readers might like to know that a full account appeared in the Huddersfield Examiner on 14th, 21st and 28th February 1852, microfilm copies of which may be consulted at the local studies department, Huddersfield Central Library.

A preliminary Inquest was opened at the Railway Tavern, Holmfirth at nine o’clock a.m. on the day after the flood, Friday 6th February, 1852. Sixteen local men were sworn in as jurors and instructed to view the sixty bodies already recovered at the places where they were lying – Armitage Bridge, Honley, Smithy Place, Thongsbridge, Holmfirth and Hinchliffe Mill. The jury reassembled at three o’clock p.m., at the Town Hall, Holmfirth, where they were addressed by George Dyson Esq., of Halifax, Coroner for the Division of the West Riding of Yorkshire. After commenting on the magnitude of the disaster the Coroner urged the necessity of making immediate application to the Government for an inspector to be sent to examine the condition of the reservoir and report thereon. He then adjourned the Inquest and instructed the members of the jury that they should, in the meantime, make individual inquiry into the origin of the flood and by strictest investigation endeavour to ascertain whether the calamity was unavoidable or whether any blame was attached to the Commissioners or their servants.

On Friday 13th February the Coroner and the jury assembled at the White Hart inn, Holmfirth to hear the statements of those persons who first discovered the bodies or who could in any way identify them.

When the Inquest was resumed, on Wednesday 18th February at the Town Hall, Captain Moody of the Royal Engineers was present on behalf of the Government and the Commissioners of the Holme Reservoirs were represented by Mr. William Jacomb, solicitor, Clerk to the Commissioners.

The Coroner, addressing the jury, said that the inquiry would formally be in reference to the death of Eliza Marsden, of Water Street, Hinchliffe Mill, but it would also involve an inquiry into the deaths of all other persons who had lost their lives by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir. He then told the jury that they would find it convenient to divide their inquiry into two parts: firstly as to the collapse of the embankment for which someone or other ought to be responsible and secondly whether the misfortune had arisen from the culpable negligence of any persons in the performance of their duties which case would constitute the crime of Manslaughter.

After the Coroner’s remarks Mr. Jacomb rose to object to the presence on the jury of William Day Martin, clockmaker, who, he said, had lost a considerable amount of property in the flood and who could, therefore, hardly be called disinterested. The Coroner pointed out that it would not be possible to obtain a jury without having some gentlemen who had lost property to some extent by the accident. When asked for his views, Mr. Martin said that he had sworn to decide the question without fear, favour or reward and, as an Englishman, he intended to do so.

After Mr. Jacomb’s further objections, to the Inquest being held in public and to the press being allowed to report the day to day proceedings, had been over-ruled by the Coroner the inquiry got under way.

The question of the spring at the base of the puddle clay core naturally exercised everyone’s mind. George Leather, the engineer, categorically stated that nothing was reported to him of any spring at the bottom of the puddle trench although several witnesses swore that they had informed him of its presence. For example, John Tait, clerk of works at the reservoir (probably the same John Tait who narrowly escaped with his life at Mill Hill) stated that in the course of his fortnightly communications with Mr. Leather he had more than once reported that water had been discovered in the trench. Leather’s response was that Tait was quite mistaken in saying that he had reported to him fortnightly.

As engineer in charge – a title he disputed at the Inquest – Leather’s visits to the site were surprisingly infrequent and his observations when there were less than acute. When asked by Mr. Jacomb if, in one of his later visits (September 1844) to the site, he did not see that the height of the bye-wash was above the embankment, Leather replied noncommittally, that he really did not notice.

It is clear from the evidence given at the Inquest that the project was a chronicle of disasters from start to finish. No one admitted having overall responsibility either for the construction of the dam or its day-to-day management. The chain of authority was, in fact, badly fragmented and as well as George Leather there were others equally at fault. The Commissioners were in constant disagreement, with Mr. Leather, many of whose orders they countermanded, and with his deputy and the overlookers and drawers. One drawer, Jonathan Woodcock, when asked by Mr. Jacomb why he had not entered the daily height of the water in the special book provided by the Commissioners replied, with some indignation, ‘What was the use of entering it in the book? Nobody looked at the book but myself; I could do as I like as to what I entered.’ After five months as drawer Mr. Woodcock resigned as he had not been paid. Towards the end of the Inquest, Captain Moody was to say that the men in charge of the reservoirs were not paid enough. ‘You have no right,’ he said, ‘to expect to get intelligent men to devote their attention to the management of the reservoir for £5 a year. You must pay more and get good men.’

There is no doubt that financial difficulties beset the scheme from its inception. The initial estimate of £6300 was soon found to be hopelessly inadequate and application had to be made to Parliament for further funds to complete the dam. Mr. Jacomb stated that the project was already insolvent when he was appointed in 1846 and had remained so ever since. Money was owed to, among others, the Huddersfield Banking Co., Messrs Floyd and Booth, solicitors, and Messrs Sharps, the original contractors, who were taking legal action against the Commissioners to recoup some £3000 still owing to them. The Commissioners themselves were taking action against the millowners who, dissatisfied by the supply, were refusing to pay for the use of water released from the dam.

It would appear that as well as disagreements between that Commissioners and the parties connected with building and maintaining the reservoir there were differences between the Commissioners themselves. For example, Joshua Littlewood, architect, told the Inquest that, as a safety measure, he recommended that an opening be made in the bye-wash at eighteen feet from the shuttle. An order was made by an acting committee of Commissioners for the work to commence but he was later told that other Commissioners had forbidden the work to go ahead. When pressed on this point he said, with tears in his eyes, that they (the Commissioners) said that if an attempt was made to make the opening it would resisted by force.

In his closing statement Captain Moody gave a detailed account in which he commented on the principles of reservoir building in general and the design of Bilberry and the manner in which that design was carried out in particular. After commenting that the jury had heard abundant evidence of the faulty management and control that had marked the construction of the dam he went on, ‘The execution of the work was not what it ought to have been and bad execution in works of this kind or any work connected with water is fatal. The works must be good and watertight or they will become dangerous and their destruction must come sooner or later.’

Although it was his opinion that the immediate cause of the disaster was that the bye-wash had been allowed to remain above the level of the sunken embankment, he commented that the plans proposed to repair Bilberry, had they been adopted, would not have answered so long as that full spring existed where it was. Having drawn attention to ‘unskilled men who do not know what they are proposing’ he concluded his report with the following warning:

‘... better, much better to leave hydraulic engineering and all engineering to engineers ... In this neighbourhood there are many mountain reservoirs ... pray don’t look upon them and treat them like mill dams and 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. This fact must be indelibly impressed on the minds of all dwellers in Holmfirth.’

As he sat down, Captain Moody was warmly applauded. In his summing up the Coroner said that although the evidence might have proved that the Commissioners could have prevented the tragedy by lowering the bye-wash in 1848 or 1849 they could not, being a corporate body, be made criminally responsible for the loss of life which had occurred. Further, those engaged in the construction of the works many years earlier could not now be held responsible for what had happened, however imperfectly they had executed such works.

After two hours of deliberation the jury returned and the foreman handed in the following verdict:

‘We find that Eliza Marsden came to her death 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, Engineers and Overlookers were greatly culpable in not seeing to the proper regulations of the works.
And we also find that the Commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry Reservoir to remain in a dangerous state with the 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 from 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 private citizens.
We also hope that the legislature will take into its most serious consideration the propriety of making provision for her majesty’s subjects, exposed to danger from reservoirs placed by corporations in situations similar to those under the charge of the Holme Reservoir’s Commissioners.’

Interestingly, William Day Martin dissented from the verdict. Presumably he would have liked to press charges of manslaughter.

From all the evidence given at the Inquest one fact is paramount. If the top of the bye-wash had been lowered to below the top of the lowest part of the embankment all would have been well. When asked by the Coroner, ‘Tell us as clearly as you can for we wish it to go before the public what a trifling expense would have saved such an awful calamity’, Mr. Leather replied, ‘I think twelve pounds ten shillings would have done it.’

To paraphrase a well known verse – for the want of twelve pounds ten shillings a valley was lost. It is a sad epitaph to those who died.