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

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.
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© 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.

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


THE TRAIL

The trail follows the route of the 1852 flood from Bilberry Reservoir to Holmfirth. It begins with a short (1.2 miles) circular walk around Digley Reservoir which crosses the Bilberry embankment and allows a good view of the small reservoir, the appearance of which has changed little since it was repaired after the flood. As the walk passes a number of defunct settlement sites, which were cleared in the wake of the Digley Reservoir, it allows us to build up a picture of the area as it was at the time of the flood.

After the walk we pick up the course of the flood at Holmbridge and follow it down to Holmfirth by car. Although we describe a car route through Holmfirth we suggest that you tackle this very busy section on foot and directions for so doing will be found in the appropriate places in the text.

To reach the car-park at Digley, where the walk starts, take the Woodhead Road (A6024) towards Holmbridge and turn right, just before the Bridge Tavern, into Field End Lane. In about a quarter of a mile fork left into Bank Top Lane. At the Digley embankment continue straight ahead for about 200 yards (182 M) into the car-park.

Take the three steps up out of the car-park to join a wide stony path (called Gibriding Lane) and follow this up the hill and then steeply down to a stile on the right just before a blocking wall.

DIGLEY RESERVOIR

Whilst walking the lane notice the changing views of Digley Reservoir on the left. During the second half of the nineteenth century the Huddersfield Corporation Water Works Committee, to cope with an ever increasing demand for piped water, built a number of large reservoirs at Meltham and Wessenden. However, by the 1930s it was evident that more storage capacity would soon be needed and in a survey made of the area it was found that an impounding reservoir could be conveniently made in the Digley valley by building an embankment across the Digley Brook. The new dam was to be built at the foot of the much smaller Bilberry Reservoir, then owned by the Holme Valley Waterworks Company. The new Huddersfield Corporation Water Bill received Royal Assent on 6th July, 1937 and in December of the following year the Corporation purchased Bilberry Reservoir along with two other reservoirs in the Holme Valley.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the scheme was put on hold for the duration. If finally went ahead in 1946 and the work, which was completed in 1952, resulted in a reservoir 797 feet above sea-level with a capacity of six hundred million gallons. Its building led not only to the destruction of a great deal of property in the Digley Valley but also to the depopulation of the hills in the catchment area.

During the unusually long drought of 1995 much more water was drawn off our reservoirs than was replaced and by autumn Digley was virtually empty. It is, of course, impossible to visualise the amount of water held in a reservoir unless it is empty and a walk round Digley in November 1995 was a remarkable experience. Even in January 1996, although the reservoir was filling again, one or two ruined walls, the remains of Bilberry Mill which had been submerged for some fifty years, were still high and dry.

At the bottom of the hill, beyond the blocking wall, notice the original line of Gibriding Lane which dips beneath the margin of the reservoir (when it is full). At this point on the left hand side of the lane, stood a couple of cottages called Clough Top, the foundations of which may still be seen when the water level is low. Just beyond Clough Top a branch road once ran down to Bilberry Mill on the valley floor but all traces of it have now disappeared.

Just before the blocking wall go through the stile on the right hand side of the lane and at the top of the steps follow a path along the side of a small plantation. Descend the flight of twenty-two fairly modern steps and continue on through the iron gate ahead. At this point Gibriding Lane is regained. The map on p. 7 will help with locations.

HOOWOOD

Before descending the long flight of steps, pause to look over the field below. Silent now, this sheltered hollow must once have seen much coming and going for this is the site of Hoowood which, until it was abandoned earlier this century, had been occupied for at least five hundred years. In 1851, the year before the flood, Hoowood was the home of seven families, fifty-one people in all of whom thirty six were children. As might be expected, at that time most of the folk in this small isolated community, the Lindleys, Tinkers, Waterhouses, Websters and Woods, found their livelihood in textiles or farming.

The small building in the top corner of the field is the only one to have survived the wholesale demolition in this area. Ruined now, its roof gone, it is of considerable age but its purpose is far from clear. Inside the building there is a large water trough but this only confuses the issue as it does not seem to have been part of the original design. It could have been built for use as an agricultural shed but its solid construction and the fact that it is lit by a window in the north wall suggests that it was designed for some specific industrial purpose – a brewhouse perhaps or a dyehouse.

At the bottom of the steps listen for the sound of water which in places can be heard running underground. The several springs in the area once supplied Hoowood’s wells and troughs but today the water runs down unchecked into Digley Reservoir.

Once through the iron gate look to the left to see Gibriding Lane emerging from the reservoir. The buildings of Hoowood stood on both sides of the lane (above the gate) and their sites are easy to discover. On the left, part of an original wall remains and much debris, including a large chimney piece, has been left in situ. It is likely that, at the time of demolition, the building here was the oldest surviving part of the settlement as the jambs, quoins, sills and mullions built into the wall are of a style that dates back to the early seventeenth century.

The wall on the right which follows the building line of a house and paddock also contains a few shaped stones but of a later date than those on the left. A glance over the wall will reveal that the site has been cleared and very few traces remain of the buildings that once stood there.

A bench mark on the wall on the right hand side of the lane is recorded on the 1894 O.S. map at 831.8 feet above sea level, just twenty-five feet above Bilberry Dam. Many people in the Digley Valley, forewarned of the flood, are said to have made· their way that night to the hills above the dam and no doubt the inhabitants of Hoowood, the nearest settlement, offered shelter and comfort to the fugitives.

Many people in the Huddersfield area have heard something of the Bill’s o’ Jack’s murders but what is not so well known is that two of the chief suspects lived at Hoowood. Although it has nothing to do with the flood their story is of some interest.

On the night of 2nd April, 1832 William Bradbury and his son, Tom, were mortally wounded in a vicious attack at the Moorcock Inn near Greenfield. William’s father was Jack Bradbury and, as was the custom of the time, William was known as Bill o’ Jack’s and his son as Tom o’ Bill’s. The Moorcock throughout William’s tenancy was familiarly known as Bill’s o’ Jack’s and that name, because of the notoriety of the murders, stuck until the inn was demolished in the 1940s.

Jamie Bradbury of Hoowood, better known for some reason as Red Tom Bradbury, and his son Joe were notorious poachers and they had come into frequent conflict with Tom o’ Bill’s who was a gamekeeper on Saddleworth Moor. They were due to appear in court at Pontefract on the morning of 3rd April, 1832 to answer a charge of poaching on information laid by Tom o’ Bill’s. They duly appeared and immediately demanded an acquittal as Tom Bradbury, they said, would not be coming to give evidence against them. The acquittal was granted by the surprised magistrates who had not then heard of the murders.

When the news eventually reached Pontefract the magistrates’ suspicions were aroused and they alerted the authorities in Huddersfield where the two men were taken into custody on Monday 16th April. Although they were known to have been in the vicinity of Bill’s o’ Jack’s on the night of the attack there was no firm evidence against them and when Jamie’s daughter stated that there was nothing suspicious about their appearance when they arrived home at the expected time, they were released. It was whispered afterwards that they had been seen washing their clothes in Bilberry Dam on the night of the attack and that two hours before the bodies were discovered Jamie had been heard to say that Tom o’ Bill’s was in hell. Their subsequent behaviour did little to allay suspicions. From that time they shunned the company of others and, enthusiastic drinkers though they were, they were never known to enter an inn or a beerhouse again. Sober men, like the dead, tell no tales.

Jamie and Joe Bradbury were not the only suspects in the case for Tom o’ Bill’s was a hard man and a bully and like other of his kind he had many enemies. No one was ever apprehended for the murders and the verdict returned at the inquest, held on Saturday 7th April, 1832, of ‘murder against some person or persons unknown’ still stands.

Continue up the lane (which beyond Hoowood becomes Hoowood Lane), and follow it as it contours round the head of a small clough. Soon after passing two stone gateposts on the left the old lane swings right but our route turns left towards Bilberry embankment.

Just beyond the ruins of Hoowood notice a small clough over the wall on the left. This was once the site of a two tier mill dam which, before Bilberry Reservoir was built, probably supplied water to the wheel of Bilberry Mill. If old rumours are to be believed it would be here, close to home, where Jamie and Joe Bradbury were seen swilling their clothes on the night of the Bill’s o’ Jack’s murders. The lower embankment has now been removed and the valley planted with rhododendrons.

GREEN OWLERS

As well as small hamlets like Hoowood, solitary houses, their sites often dating back to the sixteenth century at least, also became victims of waterworks clearance and the entrance to one such house, Green Owlers, may be seen on the right hand side of the lane where it begins to bend round the clough. Behind a short section of modern walling a tree-lined overgrown driveway leads to a levelled site where the house once stood. Its position is easily identified by a stand of trees planted, no doubt, as a wind break, a useful amenity for a house in such an exposed position.

At the time of the flood Green Owlers was occupied by Joseph Whiteley, a woollen manufacturer, his four brothers, two sisters, a cousin and two servants. Long after the Whiteleys had left, the name of the house changed to Green Alders but whether this was a deliberate change or an analogical development is not clear. Although it is unlikely that any alder trees grow naturally at this altitude, presumably ‘Alders’ sounded more sensible than ‘Owlers’.

Over the wall on the opposite side of the lane the top pound of the two-tier mill dam may be seen, its small retaining wall more or less intact. The lower section of the dam was built at the foot of this wall and the whole system was advantageously placed to collect the water from the several springs that rise in the vicinity.

ELLIS POND

Just past the entrance to Green Owlers is the site of a row of cottages all traces of which have now virtually disappeared although an old wall built to retain the bank behind them remains. Originally called Hoobram Bottom the cottages were, from the 1860s, alternately called Ellis Pond. It is tempting to think that the name was, in part, influenced by the small ‘pond’ across the lane but in the terminology of these parts such a feature would surely be called a dam. ‘Ellis’ too is a mystery as, as far as we can discover, there was no one of that name living in the neighbourhood at the time the name began to appear on maps and in the census.

The tenants of the cottages in the 1850s were all occupied in the textile industry, working as woollen weavers and warpers. Interestingly, one of them was a Job Bradbury who might well have had family connections with the notorious Bradburys of Hoowood.

HOOBRAM HILL

At the top of the hill notice two stone gateposts on the left. A glance over the wall will reveal the ruins of what was once a substantial house. This was Hoobram Hill, a Georgian or early Victorian mansion built on to a much older cottage. Matching gateposts on the south west side of the site suggest that the house was once partitioned into two dwellings, each with its own entrance. Living here with their families in 1852 were two Joseph Whiteleys, the elder a woollen manufacturer, the younger, probably his son, a woollen weaver. It is likely that they were related to Whiteleys of Green Owlers.

When the house was demolished in the 1950s some of the old stones were used to build up the laneside wall. A benchmark on the wall is recorded at 884 feet above mean sea level on the 1894 O.S. map. Being so close to Bilberry Dam the Whiteleys would have been aware of the dangerous state of the embankment and, some eighty feet above, they would have had an unrivalled view of the dramatic events as they unfolded on that moonlit night in February, 1852.

It would appear that the disaster had long been expected by Joseph Whiteley the elder. As a Commissioner of the reservoir he was called to give evidence on the fifth day of the Inquest held on Friday 20th February. He told the jury that he remembered the reservoir being made and went on: ‘I saw a spring at the bottom as thick as a man’s arm ... I did not see anyone do anything to the spring ... I have been in the habit of going over the embankment since it was first made. It began to settle soon after. The last time I noticed it was the Sunday before it burst. It has always sunk when there has been a wet time. I said it was in danger from the first but nobody took any notice of what I said.’

His concluding words were to be repeated in one form or another over and over again by other witnesses, all of them aided by the benefit of hindsight.

Just beyond Hoobram Hill, where Hoowood Lane swings to the right our route turns left to follow a path down to the Bilberry embankment. Before making the descent you might like to take advantage of the seat overlooking the reservoir which is as good a place as any to consider the events leading up to the flood. The map below will help with locations.

BILBERRY RESERVOIR

Throughout the centuries, many of the people of Holmfirth and the surrounding villages have found their livelihood in the textile industry and it is not unreasonable to say that the past success of the industry owed itself, in part, to the abundant supply of soft water that drains through the area from the hills to the west. There, where the elevation ensures high levels of precipitation, frequent springs rise off the impervious shales beneath the surface and the spring water has, over the millennia, cut several deep narrow valleys, called cloughs in these parts. The streams in the cloughs, often swollen by heavy rainfall or snow melt water, tumble down to the valley floor where they empty into the main drainage channel in the area, the River Holme.

But even a well drained area like Holmfirth can experience dry seasons and when, in the late eighteenth century, mills and factories began to make their appearance along the river, most of them using water as their motive power, it became necessary to ensure a constant supply to keep the water wheels turning at all times. Initially, small dams, built for the use of individual mills and factories, sufficed but eventually, as mills proliferated, the demand for water grew. Consequently, in the mid 1830s application was made to Parliament for permission to construct several large storage reservoirs in the hills above Holmfirth to provide a better supply of water to the ‘many mills, factories and other premises situated near to the line or course of the river Holme ... using water wheels, engines or other machines worked by water’.

The required Act of Parliament received Royal Assent on 8th June, 1837. It authorised the construction of eight reservoirs at an estimated cost of £40,000. To carry out the work a committee was appointed under the title of Commissioners of the Holme Reservoirs. The Commissioners, who were manufacturers, mill owners and owners of falls of water in the district, were to build the dams and thereafter be responsible for their management and maintenance. It was very soon realised that the estimated cost was totally inadequate and in the end only three reservoirs, Boshaws, Holme Styes and Bilberry were constructed and these, when completed were to cost a total of £70,000.

Looking down at Bilberry Reservoir from the high ground it is clear that its position was well found. It was constructed at the foot of a massive bluff of land called Good Bent and supplied by two streams, Hey Clough and Marsden Clough, draining off the moor on either side of Good Bent. At the confluence of the streams the land opens out to form an extensive basin between two hills, Hoobrook Hill to the north and Lumbank to the south. The reservoir was created by building an embankment across the valley below the basin thus enclosing some seven acres of surface for water storage.

To modem eyes, Bilberry appears to be little more than a tranquil pond but at the time of the flood it was described severally as a great reserve, a vast body and a mighty mass of water.

The reservoir was built to the design of Mr. George Leather of Leeds, who recommended to the Commissioners the estimate of £6324 submitted by Messrs. Daniel Sharp of Dewsbury. The initial plan was to build an embankment some three hundred and forty feet long by ninety-eight feet high which would have a central core of puddle clay, tapering from sixteen feet thick at the bottom to eight feet thick at the top. To prevent erosion, the inner face of the embankment would be covered with stone beaching and to avoid the danger of the dam overflowing a bye-wash was to be constructed to take any excess water down though the embankment and away into the valley via a six and a half feet square arched culvert.

From evidence given at the inquest on Wednesday 18th February, 1852, it would appear that in the end the embankment was built to a height of only sixty-seven feet, just eight feet above the top of the bye-wash. At the same time the original planned water level was reduced by just one foot, from sixty feet to fifty-nine feet. This new scheme which resulted in a tremendous saving in construction costs with little loss of storage capacity would, naturally, find favour with the Commissioners.

Soon after work started a spring was found in the trench dug for the foundation of the puddle clay core. This was a problem, but not an overwhelming one, as the spring water could easily have been piped away through the embankment. However, this simple solution was overlooked and Sharps were told to weight the spring down with puddle clay! It is not known who gave this fatuous instruction which, of course, was doomed to failure. At the inquest the likely culprit, Mr. Leather, denied all knowledge of the spring at that early stage, which denial, given his position as engineer in charge of the scheme, is somewhat difficult to believe. What is undeniable is that failure to deal adequately with the spring at the beginning of the enterprise was the first and principle link in a chain of mistakes that caused the embankment to fail fourteen years later.

Trouble continued to beset the scheme. A dispute between the Commissioners and the contractor about the unsatisfactory state of the work resulted in Messrs. Sharp being dismissed and the Commissioners becoming involved in a Chancery Suit. The contract was re-let to Messrs. Porter Bros. of Fartown who completed the work. However, throughout its life the embankment leaked and the spring continued to erode the core causing the structure to slowly subside. Between 1842 and 1844 several attempts were made to solve the problem but with little success and by the beginning of 1852 the middle section of the embankment had sunk below the top of the bye-wash which thus became useless.

Because the Digley Reservoir has changed the shape of the landscape forever it is difficult now to picture the area as it was at the time of the flood. Below the Bilberry embankment the Digley Valley gradually narrowed to become a steep sided gorge running down to Holmbridge. It was a busy and bustling place with much coming and going to the mills, farms, houses and cottages built on or near the valley floor. Doubtless the people in the valley were uneasily aware of the eighty six million gallons of water looming above their heads but they were living in progressive times and progress meant prosperity so, for the most part, they were willing to leave their fate in the hands of the Commissioners, overlookers and drawers of the Bilberry Reservoir. That their trust was misplaced became only too clear in February, 1852.

From the high ground turn left to follow a distinct path down the hill to reach the Bilberry embankment. N.B. At this point anyone who has difficulty with steep gradients should retrace his or her steps back to the car-park.

BILBERRY EMBANKMENT

During the early weeks of 1852 the perilous state of the embankment was causing great alarm and on several occasions warnings were sent down the valley that a collapse was imminent. Of course, warnings are likely to be ignored if the first two or three prove groundless and the people of Holmfirth came to regard them lightly. Those who lived nearer the reservoir, who knew it and its weaknesses well, were less complacent and they were often to be found keeping an apprehensive watch on the state of the embankment and the level of the water.

On Wednesday 4th February, apprehension turned to conviction. The weather during the preceding week had been stormy, for several days the water level had been steadily rising and the combined action of the wind and water on the inner face of the embankment had weakened it to a considerable degree. By that Wednesday the reservoir was filling at the rate of eighteen inches an hour. There was a strong conviction among the people keeping watch from the embankment that, unless the rain stopped, the reservoir would burst. The rain continued.

At six o’clock in the evening the water was eight feet from the top of the embankment, at nine o’clock only two feet and by midnight it was lapping over the edge. At about one o’clock on the morning of the 5th the first overflow swept away a considerable part of the outer embankment. At this late stage a number of runners set off to carry warnings of the imminent danger down the valley. A few minutes later, with a deafening roar, the whole of the embankment gave way and the water it had confined, estimated to weigh three hundred thousand tons, began its destructive and devastating run down the Digley and Holme Valleys. Ironically, the rain had ceased, the clouds had rolled away and a bright moon illuminated the awesome scene. A spectator who, with many others, witnessed the collapse from the safety of the nearby hills described the moment as being ‘awfully grand’.

BILBERRY MILL

Standing, as it did, close to the foot of the embankment, Bilberry Mill was the first building to be engulfed by the torrent as it spilled into the valley. One end of the mill was washed away along with a large quantity of machinery which, of course, did its own damage as it washed against the obstacles in its path. One of these was Bilberry Bridge which was completely destroyed. Fortunately the occupants of the mill and the associated cottages had heeded the warnings given earlier and made their escape to higher ground.

Bilberry Mill was rebuilt and continued to work, spinning yarn for the nearby Digley Mill. Both these mills were largely demolished to make way for the Digley Reservoir but during the long drought of 1995 when the reservoir was empty, a remnant of Bilberry Mill could be clearly seen from the embankment. Despite its historical interest, however, we must hope, for the sake of our water supply, that this ruin will soon be covered again.

Cross the embankment and climb the steep, narrow path up the hillside, pausing, perhaps, to look across the reservoir at the sites of Hoobram and Green Owlers. Once through the gate at the top turn left onto a distinct track which runs along the hillside above Digley Reservoir. Follow this through four more gated stiles to a small car-park. From the car-park turn left to cross the Digley embankment and then follow the road back to the starting point of the walk.

LUMBANK LANE

100 yards (91 M) after the first gate the track crosses a clough by means of a low stone bridge. Just before the stream, which is called Intake Gutter, notice Lumbank Lane, a sunken way descending the hillside between two drystone walls. Until it was washed away by the 1944 flood this was a road leading from Holme, via Meal Hill and the old settlement of Lumbank, to Bilberry Mill. After the flood, the road was not repaired and over the last fifty years nature has taken over to such a degree that the one time busy route is now barely recognisable as such.

UPPER DIGLEY MILL

140 yards (127 M) beyond Lumbank Lane, just before the fourth gate, the path crosses a small nameless stream running down to the reservoir from a spring further up the hillside. Before the reservoir was built the stream ran down to the valley floor where it entered Digley Brook close to Upper Digley Mill. The mill, which stood about a quarter of a mile away from the Bilberry embankment, was in the occupation of John Furness whose affairs in 1852 were in the hands of officers of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. Part of the mill, the gable end of the house and all the associated farm buildings were swept away on the flood waters along with twelve tons of hay, a horse, a goat and three cows. The occupants of the house and their overnight guests, two Court officers, did not leave their beds until twelve thirty a.m. and only narrowly escaped with their lives after struggling through deep, fast flowing water to reach the safety of the hillside.

After the flood, the mill was rebuilt and by the 1890s it had expanded to become a large concern where many local people were employed. Known after the flood as Digley Mills, the factory continued working until 1936. Later, it was demolished to make way for the Digley Reservoir. Unlike Bilberry, no identifiable remains of Digley Mills emerged from the waters during the drought of 1995 and it is impossible to pinpoint its exact site although the map on p.7 will help with its approximate location.

DIGLEY MILL

Whilst crossing the Digley embankment look over the fence on the right hand side for a view of the valley which narrows considerably at this point to become a steep-sided gorge running down towards Holmbridge.

Near the head of the gorge, Digley Mill (not to be confused with Upper Digley) stood in what was described by a Huddersfield Examiner reporter as ‘a truly romantic situation’. The mill, which employed a hundred workers, was a hundred and eight feet long and four stories high. It was built across the width of the valley and adjacent to it were dry-houses, a weaving shed, a dye-house and other out-buildings. Nearby, on the river bank were nine cottages occupied by employees and two houses, one of which was described as a mansion. Here lived Mrs. Mary Hirst, the owner of the mill, with her four daughters and two sons.

Because it was in the direct line of the flood as it swept into the gorge all this extensive property was washed away with the exception of the tall mill chimney which, according to persistent but unlikely legend, was carried along by the flood waters and deposited upright and intact twenty yards away from its original position.

Fortunately no lives were lost at Digley Mill as the Hirst family and their employees, fearing the worst, had made their escape well before the embankment collapsed. There are, though, two conflicting reports of Mrs. Hirst’s escape. By her own account, she sat alone during the evening calmly reading her Bible but, towards midnight, became alarmed and decided to seek refuge in the cellar! Almost at the last moment two of her neighbours came and carried her to safety. As they crossed the bridge towards the higher ground she looked back and saw the water coming – she described it as ‘mountains high’. In less than a minute she saw the mill and her house swept away.

Many years later, Mrs. Hirst’s son, George, a nineteen year old at the time of the flood, told a different story. He said that all his family left the house during the evening, including his mother who was taken to the safety of a house at Bank Top. According to his account he was attempting to remove the family’s livestock to higher ground when the flood came and he was forced to flee for his life to Sykes Brow from where he saw the mill go down. It is, of course, impossible to say which of these accounts is correct but as George Hirst was eighty-two years old when he told his story – and his mother long dead- it is possible that the discrepancy was a result of imperfect memory.

Digley Mill was never rebuilt. The chimney, surrounded by the sad ruins of the place, survived until 1946 when it either collapsed or was demolished just before work on the new reservoir began. Looking down into the valley today it is obvious that nothing remains of the mill, the site of which lies partly or wholly beneath the Digley embankment (see map p.7). There is, however, a small reminder of its presence on the hillside below Bank Top Lane where the old access lane can still be made out.

From the heights of the Digley embankment it is possible to see the route the flood took from the Bilberry embankment down to Holmbridge Church. Fortunately, because the inhabitants of the Digley Valley were near enough to receive the warnings sent down from the embankment, and wary enough to heed them, there were no fatalities. When the flood reached the Holme Valley it was a very different story.

From the car-park retrace the route towards Holmbridge but in about four fifths of a mile stop in Field End Lane for a view to the right of St. David’s Church, the small road bridge and, beyond the cricket field, the line of the river as it emerges from the Digley Valley. Here we pick up the story of the flood as it turned north-east to begin its destructive run down the Holme Valley through Hinchliffe Mill to Holmfirth.

HOLMBRIDGE

As it approaches Holmbridge the Digley Valley widens out and here, in the fields and woods on both sides of the river, the flood deposited its cargo of broken machinery, engines, looms, dye vats, bales of cloth, rocks, stone from the embankment, timber, uprooted trees, animal carcases, roof tiles, doors, windows, furniture and all manner of household goods. In the days that followed, the sight of this sad detritus profoundly affected spectators who variously described the scene as awful, melancholy, sombre, sorrowful.

The small road bridge, which stood in the direct line of the flood, was completely washed away along with some thirty feet of the Huddersfield to Woodhead turnpike road. For many weeks the only way across the void was by means of a plank and this, of course, temporarily prevented wheeled traffic from using the Holme Moss route over the hills.

Below the bridge, the width of the valley somewhat diminished the force of the flood and consequently Holmbridge Church escaped serious structural damage although it was flooded to a depth of five feet. After the water subsided, the body of a goat from Upper Digley was found in the centre of the aisle and near to it, resting on a damaged pew, lay a coffin containing the remains of a man which had been washed up from the churchyard. Other remains torn out of their graves by the water as it swirled across the graveyard were carried away down the valley where they were soon to mingle with the newly dead.

Continue to the bottom of the hill and turn left in front of the Bridge Tavern into Woodhead Road.

HINCHLIFFE MILL WESLEYAN CHAPEL

In about two hundred yards (182 M) notice on the left the former chapel (now an apartment block) and what remains of its graveyard high on the hillside. On Sunday 8th February, 1852 nine victims of the flood were interred here including Jane, William and Joseph Mettrick. The bodies of other members of the Mettrick family (see below) had not yet been found. A newspaper account of the funerals tells of a heart-rending moment when ‘A young man named Mettrick began to talk very incoherently in the chapel during the burial ceremony and it was necessary to remove him from the place; his reason had been affected by the awful events he had witnessed and the bereavements he had sustained.’

The Mettrick family lived in Hinchliffe Mill where there were many fatalities. Shortly after the chapel we take a short diversion through the village but as this involves an awkward turn across the traffic you may prefer to ignore the next set of directions and continue straight on towards Holmfirth.

About three hundred and fifty yards (318 M) after the chapel bear right out of the main road into Old Road. At the cross roads at the bottom of Old Road notice Water Street straight ahead then turn sharp right along Ford Gate to the bridge from where there is a good view of the mill across its dam. Turn round at the other side of the bridge, re-cross it and continue back to the crossroads. At the top of the hill carefully turn right into Woodhead Road.

HINCHLIFFE MILL

About a quarter of a mile below Holmbridge Church the valley narrows down and here the torrent gathered force again to begin its catastrophic descent on the densely populated village of Hinchliffe Mill. The mill from which the village takes its name stands on the south west bank of the river a few yards downstream from the bridge. When the flood arrived it demolished the bridge and swept away the engine house, stables and barn and destroyed three of the mill’s four dams. Great damage was done to stock and machinery as the water rushed through the two lower floors but, remarkably, although it was in the direct line of the torrent the mill itself stood firm. Sadly, many of the houses in Hinchliffe Mill, and their occupants, fared less well.

A warning of imminent danger reached the sleeping village at about one o’clock but the flood arrived so soon afterwards that for forty unfortunate men, women and children there was to be no time to escape. In Fold Gate, five people drowned inside their houses which were instantly flooded to first floor level. In Water Street, six three storey dwellings were quickly overwhelmed and swept away and with them thirty-five of their forty-two inhabitants. Many years later, George Hirst vividly recalled Water Street as he saw it on the morning after the flood. It was, he said, ‘... a big open space, just like a dock after the ship has taken to water’.

So quickly did the deluge overcome the houses near to the river that the only possible escape route open to their occupants was upwards, through the roof, to reach adjacent, possibly safer, roofs. In one of the houses left standing in Water Street the inhabitants, all sixteen of them, managed to save their lives by clinging precariously to their own roof top as the water tore past only a foot or so below and the building trembled beneath them.

There were other, even more remarkable escapes that night. James Mettrick, aged twenty-three, who lived in Water Street with his parents, brothers and sisters, was awakened by the warning shouts at just after one o’clock. As he was helping to carry the younger children to the first floor the water burst in through the doors and windows flooding the lower rooms and catching Mr. Mettrick and the youngest child on the stairs. The rest of the family scrambled into the attic but less than a minute later the house collapsed. James was swept along on the flood for about a quarter of a mile before he was carried into the comparatively calm waters of Bottoms Mill darn. There he managed to seize hold of a plank and, with the aid of the wind, eventually succeeded in reaching dry land. Dazed and exhausted he stumbled to a nearby house where he went to bed. Tragically, his father, stepmother, three sisters and three brothers perished.

The youngest child of Robert Ellis of Water Street was overlooked in the family’s haste to escape. When the worst of the flood had passed a neighbour, Charles Johnson, made his way into the remains of the house and found the baby in his waterlogged cradle underneath the table. Fearing the child was near to death Mr. Johnson carried him to a neighbour’s house where he was revived and later reunited with his family, all of whom survived.

Another remarkable escape was that of George Crosland, also of Water Street, who, when he was cast out into the flood, managed to climb onto a box which eventually washed into a house downstream. There, with great presence of mind, he caught hold of a sampler hanging from the joists and saved himself by clinging on until the water level lowered. Eight others of his family drowned.

Before leaving Hinchliffe Mill try for a moment to imagine the terror of that dreadful night, the havoc facing the inhabitants when morning came and the bewilderment and despair they must have felt in the days and weeks that followed. Many had lost their homes and treasured possessions, many were thrown out of work but worst of all they had to bear the loss of so many of their neighbours and friends, whole families wiped out in an instant. Of the eighty-one souls who perished in the flood nearly half came from this small community.

Follow the Woodhead Road towards Holmfirth and in 1.2 miles turn right into Hollowgate, passing the Toll House bookshop on the right. The course of the river, and the flood, is on the right hand side all the way down to Holmfirth. Because the places mentioned below are difficult or impossible to see from the road you might like to stop from time to time and VERY CAREFULLY cross over on foot for a better view. The map below will help with the location of sites.

BOTTOMS MILL

In about a quarter of a mile, after leaving Hinchliffe Mill, notice Bottoms Mill, presently the premises of Messrs. Brook Dyeing Co. Ltd. Because the valley here opens out, the flood lost some of its destructive force and consequently the mill sustained comparatively little damage. Many of the present buildings, and the tall brick chimney, post-date the flood but, as may be seen, two older buildings survive as does the dam from which James Mettrick made his escape after his involuntary and terrifying journey down from Hinchliffe Mill.

Just below the mill, in the flat area called Bottoms, the flood deposited a good deal of debris including three boilers brought down from Digley Mill. They were afterwards reclaimed by the Hirsts who sold one to the owners of Washpit Mill and the other two for scrap.

Beyond Bottoms the river swings north towards the road and the valley again contracts becoming ever narrower as it approaches Holmfirth. From this point the flood, once more confined, rolled on with renewed force and ever increasing fury.

VICTORIA MILL

About two fifths of a mile past Bottoms Mill, just before the Victoria Inn, notice, on the right hand side of the road, the entrance to Victoria Mill yard, now the property of V.M. Fabrications. A large prefabricated building now dominates the scene but some old buildings remain including the old mill, which can be glimpsed at the bottom of the yard, and two cottages (now used as offices) which stand on the site of three destroyed by the flood.

The mill itself survived the disaster although it and its contents were badly damaged and its outbuildings swept away. Five workmen who were asleep in the mill knew nothing of the approaching danger until the flood crashed in. Pursued by the water they rushed upstairs and took refuge among the rafters while the current surged around them threatening to dislodge their precarious hold. For over an hour they clung on, half submerged, until at last the water level subsided and the worst of the danger passed.

At the adjacent cottages also, the first intimation of the flood was its arrival. The occupants of the two houses nearest the river saved their lives by breaking through the party walls into the end cottage which stood on slightly higher ground. Bewildered by the suddenness of the calamity and dazed by the overwhelming noise, twenty men, women and children huddled together in the attic expecting death at any moment. When at last the water level dropped, a ladder was brought by which they all escaped but their fears had been well founded, for a moment after the last of them reached the ground the houses fell.

DYSON’S MILL

Just after the entrance to Victoria Mill the river turns north east again and, for 220 yards (200M), runs immediately below the road. Opposite the Victoria Inn, notice a bridge that gives access to a large open space. This was the site of Dyson’s mill, a large textile factory, which stood within a stone’s throw of Victoria Mill, on the other side of the river. In 1852, the mill was occupied by Jonathan Sandford who lived in a large house within the mill yard.

If a flood warning ever arrived here it was too late to save Mr. Sandford who, with his two young daughters and housekeeper, died when the deluge hit their house and swept it away. Mr. Sandford, a man of some wealth, had recently instructed his stockbroker to buy for him a large number of shares in the London North Western Railway Company and after the disaster it was rumoured that he had about £4000 in the house that night. It seems likely that such a large sum would have been kept in a safe or strong box which would probably have survived the flood intact. However, although an order was issued calling upon all persons to take recovered property to the Town Hall under pain of prosecution in default, there are no reports that the money, if it ever existed, was found.

Mr. Sandford was, of course, well insured but in order to prove his death to the insurers his relatives were required to produce his remains and this they could not immediately do. Consequently, a reward of £10 was offered for the recovery of the body which was described as ‘six feet tall, stout, round shouldered with sandy hair and whiskers, slightly pock-pitted and very bald on the top of the head.’ By 14th February, sixty-nine bodies had been recovered, including those of Sarah Jane and Emily Sandford and the housekeeper, Ellen Wood, but it was not until 20th February, by which time the reward has been increased to £100, that the body was found embedded in the mud in Robinson’s Mill goit at Thongsbridge. Apparently it had been spotted earlier but mistaken for a side of bacon! Mr. Sandford and his daughters were buried in the graveyard of the Holmfirth Wesleyan Church and their gravestone has survived (see p.36).

Dyson’s Mill which was badly damaged by the flood was rebuilt and later renamed Perseverance Mill. It was demolished in 1983 but some traces of buildings remain and although the extensive mill dam was filled in, its position can still be made out (see map p.19). All this may soon change, however, as there are indications that a new housing estate is to be built on the site.

PRICKLEDEN MILL

About 140 yards (127 M) beyond the Victoria Inn, if time and inclination allow, stop (by lamp post No. 154) and cross the road to look over the wall at the site of Prickleden or Upper Mill. The mill, which stood on the river bank at the north end of the large dam, has gone but the weir and sluices built to control the flow of water remain and add interest to an unexpectedly attractive riverside scene.

The flood claimed no lives at Prickleden and, surprisingly, considering its position close to the river, the mill withstood the deluge although it was badly damaged. All the outbuildings, including the dyehouse, the bath house and the engine room, were destroyed and one of the boilers, weighing more than six tons, was carried away by the water and deposited three miles downstream at Berry Brow. John Farrar, the owner of the mill, estimated his losses at between two and three thousand pounds. N.B. To compare the value of money in mid Victorian times with its modern value, contrast the average wage of about one pound a week then with the two hundred plus pounds of today.

LOWER MILL

150 yards (136 M) downstream from the site of Prickledon Mill stands Lower Mill, a large factory which, in 1852, was occupied by Mr. Hobson Farrar. Because the mill was built over the river, it received the full force of the flood which washed away the greater part of the building leaving only the gable walls standing. When daylight came the bodies of two young children were found in the mill yard.

After turning right by the Toll House Bookshop follow Hollowgate which, at the other side of Upper Bridge, turns Left to run parallel with the river. At Victoria Square go straight ahead along Towngate into Station Road. Continue up the hill and in a few yards after a small car park on the left turn left into Bridge Lane and follow this round to cross the county bridge. Soon after the bridge turn Left into Market Street and park in the car-park at the end.

The above route, which takes you by car from Upper Bridge through Holmfirth to the Market Street car-park, follows the direction of the flood but, because it is impossible to drive slowly along the busy streets and to stop and start at will, it is advisable to walk back to Upper Bridge from the car-park and tackle the trail through Holmfirth on foot. Walking will also allow you to investigate a couple of interesting old alleys and additional directions for these diversions, marked (W), are given within the text at the appropriate places. Towards the end of the trail it is possible to take a short cut through the old graveyard back to the car-park. The whole walk, including the diversions, is slightly under one mile long.

(W) Turn right from the car-park into School Street and at the main road turn left to walk back to Upper Bridge (about 400 yards – 363 M) and the start of the trail through Holmfirth. Follow Hollowgate towards Victoria Square.

SCAR FOLD

Just before crossing Upper Bridge notice, to the right, a scene well known to ‘Summer Wine’ fans as the home of Nora Batty and Compo Simmonite. This is Scar Fold where the flood was to claim eight lives.

The long row of cottages at Scar Fold is, strictly speaking, two rows, one on top of the other, with the lower houses facing the river and those above facing the main road. As the flood approached the Fold the occupants of some of the upper cottages, having heard the warning, frantically broke through their floors and had just enough time before the lower houses were inundated to pluck the desperate families below to safety. Sadly though, for some there was to be no escape.

In one of the cottages Joseph Hellawell and his family, who had their bedroom downstairs, were asleep when the flood burst in. The force of the water carried Joseph upstairs into the weaving chamber where, bewildered, he managed to cling to the breast beam of his loom. Eventually, his cries were heard and he was dragged to safety through the floor of the house above. Later that morning, a neighbour, William Moorhouse, who was inspecting the damage at Scar Fold, found the bodies of Mrs. Mary Hellawell and her five children, aged between one and nine, inside their house. Three days later they were buried together at Upperthong Church.

In a nearby house Richard Woodcock, somehow sensing danger, left his wife and seven children and walked up to the turnpike road to reassure himself that all was well. Whilst there he heard the alarm given and rushed back to his family. Seizing two children he urged his wife to run but she said she would not leave any of her children to die alone. With two children in his arms Richard began the difficult climb up to the road through the deep and treacherous current, closely followed by his son, Alfred, and his daughter, Sarah, who, sadly, lost their footing and were swept away. Desperately hoping that his wife and the three children he had left behind were still alive Richard fought his way into the house above his own where the occupants helped him to break through the floor. They found two children huddled together in the attic and Mrs. Woodcock in the bedroom, standing on a ladder, struggling to hold the youngest child above the water which had reached her shoulders. As they were pulled to safety, two sides of the house fell.

UPPER BRIDGE

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.

Two cottages were swept away from the north end of the bridge, one of which was occupied by Enor Bailey, his wife and two young daughters who either did not hear or did not heed the frantic cries outside. By his own account Bailey and his wife were watching the children playing on the bed when the water crashed in. As the house fell he was thrown out into a field at the back and escaped serious injury but his wife and children were overwhelmed and carried away. Their bodies were found the next day, Mrs. Bailey and the younger child close together at Thongsbridge and four year old Ann three miles away at Armitage Bridge. Miraculously, all nine members of the Hepworth family, who lived in the other cottage, escaped.

At the other end of the bridge, Mrs. Elizabeth Kippax, the landlady of the Elephant and Castle, together with her servants Mary and Grace Spivey, frantically tried to escape through doors that would not yield. As the water rushed in through the windows they fled upstairs to the garret where they stayed in safety until the flood subsided. Had they succeeded in leaving the building it seems likely that they would have lost their lives.

HOLLOWGATE

The bed of the river alongside Hollowgate was soon choked up with debris and mud and the current, diverted from its usual course, flooded the street to a considerable depth. No lives were lost in the three storeyed shops on the right hand side of the street although the property was badly damaged and the shopkeepers, who included a grocer, a clogger, a bookseller and tea dealer, a tailor and a draper, lost most of their stock.

About fifty yards (45 M) beyond the Elephant and Castle notice, on the left hand side of Hollowgate, a small bridge of uncertain age. On the river bank immediately beyond the bridge a row of houses and shops was so badly damaged by the flood that afterwards hardly a trace of them remained and for many days the river washed over their foundations.

Nearest to the bridge was the Hollowgate toll bar house where lived Samuel Greenwood, gatekeeper, his wife, Lydia, and their twelve year old niece and servant, Eliza Matthews. Only a few hours before the disaster Greenwood was visited by his brother who warned him of the perilous state of the reservoir and advised him to move to a safer place. Unfortunately, Greenwood, probably because of his duties as gatekeeper, decided to remain at his post. Later, as the flood began to roll down Hollowgate he was seen to come outside holding a lighted candle. After a brief look around he returned and as he closed the door the water crashed over the house which immediately disintegrated. The body of Eliza Matthews was found at Rotcher Bottom about two hours after the water subsided but because of the accumulated debris in the area her aunt and uncle were not discovered until Saturday and Tuesday respectively, the former in the cellar of a house in Hollow gate, the latter behind a washing machine in Holmfirth Mill.

A few yards below the bar house stood a house and shop occupied by John Ashall, currier, his wife, Margaret and their two year old son Alfred. A friend who lived opposite saw them dressing and heard them crying out for help just before their house was inundated. It might well be that the modesty of the times contributed in a small way to the Ashalls’ fate, for had they not stopped to dress it is just possible that they would have escaped with their lives.

The house next door to the Ashalls was occupied by John Kaye, grocer and corndealer, his daughter and son-in-law, Amelia and Matthew Fearns, and his six month old grandchild. As their house collapsed around them they were quickly caught up in the torrent and Mrs. Fearns and the baby were drowned. Mr. Feams was discovered near to death in Holmfirth churchyard by Joseph Barraclough who dragged him out of the water and took him to his own house in South Lane to recover.

A list of the dead, published on 14th February, 1852, includes a three year old boy, Charles Thorpe. A later list places him in Hollow gate but gives his age as thirteen. There are no reports of the discovery of his body, of anyone laying claim to him or of his burial nor is anyone else of that surname mentioned among the survivors in Hollowgate. However, the census of 1851 shows a Charles Thorpe, aged two, living with his uncle, John Kaye, in Hollowgate so it may be that the age given on the later list was a misprint and that another member of the Kaye household lost his life that night.

John Kaye himself had a narrow escape. The current carried him across the street into the Ribble water course where he was seen struggling in the water by Mr. Boothroyd, the landlord of the Rose and Crown. With the help of others Boothroyd held out a flagpole to the drowning man who, with strength born of desperation, managed to hold on to it until he was dragged to safety through the parlour window.

(W) The Rose and Crown, now called The Nook, stands behind the premises of Barclays Bank in Victoria square. To see the inn and the confluence of the Ribble and Holme rivers walk along the ginnel which starts at the bottom of Rotcher Road. This interesting old way crosses the Ribble water course by the ancient Higgin Bridge where, several days after the flood, a bag was found containing about a hundred pounds in gold and silver. After passing the Rose and Crown follow the ginnel round into Victoria Square, stop and look back to the bottom of Hollowgate and then carefully walk across Victoria Square to Victoria Bridge.

LOWER HOLLOWGATE

In the lower part of Hollowgate houses, shops, warehouses, and offices on both sides of the road were flooded to first floor level. Across the river a dye house, barn and other outbuildings belonging to J.P. Moorhouse were destroyed and his house gutted but he and his family made a last minute escape by breaking through into an adjoining office.

Despite the massive damage in the lower Hollowgate area only one life was lost. James Lee, a sixty-five year old tailor, lived with his family in a house situated on the riverbank. James and his twenty-two year old son, Job, who shared a ground floor room, awoke when the flood burst the door open. James, who was probably infirm, was unable to attempt an escape and drowned almost immediately. With the water at his heels Job made his way upstairs where his frantic cries were heard by his sister and her husband who, unable to open their bedroom door, forced out one of the panels and with difficulty dragged him through to safety. Because the aperture was only five inches square Job suffered severe lacerations to his face and chest but, although he was very ill for several weeks, he survived.

At about a quarter to two a.m., soon after the water level had dropped, a man was seen stumbling among the debris in this area tearing his hair and shouting that all his family were lost. Although the man was not identified, he is likely to have been Enor Bailey as he is the only one so bereaved whose movements or whereabouts at that precise time cannot be deduced from the reports. His was perhaps the first overt demonstration of the outpouring of grief that Holmfirth would experience in the days and weeks to come.

VICTORIA BRIDGE AND STREET

As might be expected, the damage and destruction in this populous part of Holmfirth was very great. In Victoria Street six shops and dwelling houses, described at the time as ‘newly built in the modern style’, were flooded to a considerable depth and two others were gutted. Three shops standing on the south-west end of Victoria Bridge (the left hand side looking from Victoria Square) were partially destroyed and their contents damaged to the extent of several thousand pounds. These three buildings, which were afterwards repaired or rebuilt, survived until 1944 when they collapsed as a result of damage sustained in the flood of that year.

Remarkably, no lives were lost in the area although there were a number of narrow escapes. One young man, Edward Williamson, who had recently taken the lease of a shop in Victoria Street was awakened by what he described as ‘a tremendous rushing noise of water’. He immediately jumped out of bed and saw the flood nearly up to his bedroom window. As he dressed he heard the shop floor give way and, seeing no other means of escape, he climbed out of the window on to a narrow wooden cornice which ran along the whole row of shops at first floor level. Moving away from the deepest water he carefully made his way along the narrow ledge but after struggling to keep his balance for several yards he decided he would be safer on the ground and jumped. Fortunately, a bag of wool, which had been washed on to the road, broke his fall and he landed unhurt. After the water level lowered he went back to his shop and found that all his newly acquired stock, worth £700, had been destroyed.

Williamson was not the only one who saw the cornice as a means of escape. In the house nearest to the water course Joshua Woodcock, his wife and family, awakened by the flood, were naturally bewildered and alarmed as they looked around for an escape route. Eventually, Mrs. Woodcock told her family that she knew of a way and commanded them to follow her lead. She threw open the window and climbed out on to the ledge, which was only fifteen inches wide, and edged along it past eight shops to the top of the row. Finding that her family had not followed she decided that if her children were to die she would die with them and turned back but, as resignation replaced desperation, she soon lost her balance and fell through an open window into one of the shops. Later she was overjoyed to find that, against all her expectations, her house had stood firm and her husband and children had survived.

On the opposite side of the bridge two shops were almost completely destroyed but fortunately the occupants escaped. An adjoining shop belonging to William Day Martin, jeweller and watchmaker, was badly damaged and all his valuable stock washed away.

The Martin family, who took refuge in the upper storey of their house, found, after the water had gone down, that they could not escape because of the perilous state of the building which was in imminent danger of collapse. Fortunately, Joseph Barraclough, who had been out to reassure himself that his daughter was safe, saw their plight and offered his assistance. After flinging out a mattress, Martin dropped his five children, one by one, into Barraclough’s arms. Martin’s brother, who by this time had appeared on the scene, carried the children off to a nearby house where they were put to bed. Meanwhile, Barraclough, who had somehow procured a ladder, went up to help Mr. and Mrs. Martin down to the ground. Afterwards, Barraclough twice made his way through an adjacent house, part of which had collapsed, to lead ten of Martin’s neighbours from the roof top down to safety.

William Day Martin was later to serve as a juryman at the Inquest although his appointment was strongly challenged by Mr. W. Jacomb, Clerk to the Commissioners.

Several people in the Victoria area who took refuge in their attics reported afterwards that they felt their houses rock as the water rushed through the lower rooms. Others who were on their roof tops when the flood was at its height spoke grimly of seeing desperate people struggling in the water as it swept them away and of hearing their frantic cries for the help they would never receive.

(W) Walk across the right hand side of Victoria Bridge to look at a stone tablet on the wall of a butcher’s shop which marks the height of the flood waters in this area. Continue up Victoria Street (Williamson’s shop was the third from the bridge on the left hand side) and tum right at the traffic lights into Huddersfield Road. After a few yards tum right again down a steep cobbled hill and at the bottom follow the track round to the left into Norridge Bottom.

NORRIDGE BOTTOM

Stop for a moment in Norridge Bottom to try to imagine the terror felt by the residents as the pent-up waters swirled and eddied in this low lying hollow. It was calculated afterwards that if the water had risen just two feet higher not a single person out of the eight families who lived here would have survived.

Most of the cottages here were, in 1852, occupied by Irish hawkers all of whom reported losing baskets of brooches, combs, ribbons, brushes, buttons and pegs as well as money, furniture and other household goods.

In one house, Samuel Bancroft and his wife awoke to find their bed floating on the water. They immediately took refuge on the window seat which was only four inches above the water level and there they stood, screaming for help, until a neighbour reassured them that the flood was going down. Their neighbour, Sarah Green, her daughter, Sophia Morton and four children clung together on a bed which was lifted up and repeatedly thrown about the room by the force of the flood.

Four occupants of a nearby house were in imminent danger of being swept away when two men, who spotted their plight from the turnpike road above, lowered ropes and managed, in the nick of time, to haul them to safety. Eight members of another family who were trapped in a ground floor room saved themselves by climbing up the chimney.

The owner of the cottages at Norridge Bottom, Eli Sanderson, heard the water coming and managed to carry two of his children to safety. He returned for his wife and youngest child but before he could reach them his house was inundated and, greatly distressed, he gave them up as lost. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sanderson, who took refuge in the attic was equally distressed as she was convinced that her husband and children had been washed away. It is not difficult to imagine their relief and joy when, after the flood subsided, they all met in safety.

Several barns and stables in Norridge Bottom were flooded or destroyed and a number of horses, cows, pigs, dogs and hens drowned. Two pigs belonging to Joseph Battye were carried downstream for about a hundred yards and deposited by the flood in an outhouse where, afterwards, they were found alive.

Opposite the cottages, the Old Bridge Hotel incorporates much of the fabric of Eldon House, a large residence occupied in 1852 by Joseph Charlesworth J.P. and his family. There is no detailed account of the Charlesworth’s escape but it was, apparently, a narrow one as the house was flooded to the first floor ceiling and the surrounding gardens inundated. Extensive warehouses and dye houses belonging to Mr. Charlesworth were completely destroyed.

Joseph Charlesworth had been expected to take the chair at a public meeting held at the Crown Hotel, Holmfirth on Saturday 7th February 1852 but, not surprisingly, it was announced that he was indisposed. He did, however, briefly address the meeting and, because he was one of only a very few victims to publicly express his feelings in the immediate aftermath of the flood, his words are worth quoting in full:

‘When I tell you that at twenty minutes past one o’clock on Thursday morning myself and my family were mercifully delivered from imminent peril and danger and that I have not since sat down to a regular meal, nor been in bed more than three hours I need not, under these circumstances assure you that I come to the meeting distressed in mind and harassed in body. I feel quite unable to make a speech. I believe however that we have not come to make speeches but to write down our names and give subscriptions.’

Shortly afterwards a resolution ‘that a committee be appointed to solicit subscriptions immediately’ was carried unanimously.

(W) From Norridge Bottom, turn right down the side of the Old Bridge Hotel and then right again to walk in front of the hotel. After it ceased to be a private residence and before it became an hotel Eldon House was used for many years as a Conservative Club. Over the years it has been renovated restored and extended but, as may be seen, the original entrance with its fine portico has been retained. The front garden is now the hotel’s car-park and the larger side garden became, in 1912, the site of the Valley Cinema. Walk on past the old cinema, cross the appropriately named (but not too obvious) Picture Bridge and then tum left to walk along Towngate passing the church and the White Hart Inn on the right.

TOWNGATE

The flood, which by the time it reached this part of Holmfirth had descended some 330 feet from Bilberry, caused great damage to the buildings in the neighbourhood of the church. The church itself escaped serious injury but a massive stone pillar at the entrance to the church yard was displaced and a draper’s shop within the yard – perhaps the very building now known to the world as ‘Sid’s Cafe’ – was gutted and stock worth £250 lost.

At the time of the flood Towngate was a narrow cobbled street with houses, shops and inns crowded together on both sides. The buildings on the west (left) side, which were demolished in 1920 when the road was widened, were, of course, particularly vulnerable to flood as they stood on the very edge of the river. Opposite the church, the Jolly Hatters Inn was flooded to the first floor level and the upper storey of an adjacent shop was swept away.

A little further along Towngate, opposite the White Hart Inn, William Gledhill, corndealer and grocer, had a shop and warehouse. Mr. Gledhill, slept in an underground kitchen which was on a level with the river. That night he heard thunder in his dreams and awoke to find water rushing in. In total darkness he made his way upstairs feeling, he said, that every step was worth a sovereign to him. By the time he reached the top, the kitchen was completely flooded. Having so narrowly escaped with his life Mr. Gledhill regarded the loss of his stock of corn and sugar with equanimity.

At the White Hart Inn there was, during that Wednesday evening, much discussion about the weather, the river and the possibility of the reservoir collapsing. The landlord, William Dyson, was of the opinion that something was wrong as he had noticed that the water was coming down in much greater abundance than was usual in heavy rain. Later in the evening a customer assured him that the water had settled and gone down by at least a foot. His fears allayed, Mr. Dyson went to bed at midnight. Just over an hour later he was awakened by his wife who frantically told him that Holmfirth was in flood. After waking everyone in the inn and ordering them up to the top floor Dyson ran out to help his friend, James Shackleton, a retired publican, who lived with his daughter in a house opposite to the inn. Urging the old man to fly for his life, Dyson seized Miss Shackleton and led the way across the flooded street to the comparative safety of the White Hart. Very shortly afterwards the water level rose to about ten feet and Shackleton’s house fell.

Whilst walking along Towngate notice, opposite the White Hart, a tall stone monument which must stand very close to the site of James Shackleton’s house. Erected in 1801 to mark the short lived Peace of Amiens the column is known locally as ‘Owd Gen’ presumably because Henry Genn of Totties, who was regarded as something of a ‘character’, contributed in some way towards it. After the disaster of 1852 a bronze plate was affixed to the monument on which is recorded the height reached by the flood in this part of Holmfirth.

Behind the monument, notice an area between Towngate and the river now used as a car-park. Until it was cleared in fairly recent years this was a busy bustling place where houses, workshops and warehouses associated with Holmfirth Mill stood along two sides of the mill’s narrow dam. The site of the mill, which had a long history in Holmfirth, is now occupied by the post-office. All the property in this small area was damaged by the flood to a greater or lesser degree but nowhere were the consequences more tragic than at a row of three cottages, called Mill Hill, where only twelve of the twenty occupants survived.

The cottages at Mill Hill stood immediately behind James Shackleton’s house but separated from it by the mill dam. The greater part of the end cottage collapsed under the weight of the flood but miraculously the four occupants, John and Lydia Tait, their daughter, Helen, and a lodger named Firth, survived. After the water went down they were rescued from the ruins of their house by William Dyson of the White Hart.

The middle cottage, which was occupied by Richard Shackleton (James Shackleton’s son) his wife, Tamar, and their three children, received the full force of the flood and immediately disintergrated. Here there were no survivors. The bodies of Tamar and the children were found near Thongsbridge only hours afterwards but Richard’s body was not discovered for several weeks. A remark in a letter written on the 10th March by John Tait suggests a reason for the delay; he says: ‘They only just found poor Dicks Boddy floating down as far as Ferry Bridge.’ Holmfirth is linked to Ferrybridge, some thirty-five miles away, by the rivers Holme, Colne, Calder and Aire.

The third cottage at Mill Hill was the house of Sidney Hartley, mill engineer, his wife, Mary Ann, their eight children and Henry Dearnley an apprentice who lodged with the family. David Hartley, the eldest son, afterwards described the family’s ordeal:

‘When we were in bed early in the morning we heard a noise as if the slates were falling off the house. I got up and cleared away a number of slates so that I was able to get out on to the thack. I then pulled up my sister Ann beside me; after that I managed to get John, my brother, up and also the apprentice boy. I tried long and hard to pull brother James up but had to give up the attempt or we would both have been dragged down together. While we were standing on the roof we saw many persons with their heads a little above the water struggling and crying for help. We could see into the chamber where my mother was lying but it was impossible to reach her, the water had risen so high. We saw her look towards us and heard her say farewell and then she was swept away.’

A few days later Mr. & Mrs. Hartley and their five children were buried together at New Mill Church.

All the property in Towngate beyond the White Hart suffered some structural damage but the buildings on the left hand side were in a particularly vulnerable position. One of these was the George and Dragon inn where the water rushed in with such force that the cellar arch collapsed causing the upper walls to subside. Adjoining the inn was a butcher’s shop, in the occupancy of Richard Birks, the greater part of which was carried away. Another inn, the Friendship, was also badly damaged and the landlord, John Bower, afterwards reported losing spirits and liquor worth £50.

HOLMFIRTH MILL

At the end of Towngate look left to see the site, now partly occupied by the post office, of Holmfirth Mill which in 1852 was occupied by Messrs Nathan Thewlis and Co., woollen manufacturers. The mill, which was four storeys high, sustained a great deal of structural damage to its two lower floors. Inside, scouring machines, fulling stocks, stoves, vats and dye pans were overturned and thrown together in an immense tangle with all manner of flood debris, including three bodies, which was forced in through the windows. The mill yard was afterwards found to be filled with stones, mud and rubble to a depth of six feet and in the adjacent mill dam was a thirty horse power steam engine which had been washed down from one of the mills upstream.

Immediately behind the mill a large blue dyehouse collapsed and most of the adjoining house was swept away. Fortunately the occupants had taken refuge in the small part of the house left standing.

Just beyond the dyeworks, on the opposite side of the river, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was flooded to within a foot of the top of its pews and as the flood swirled over the adjacent grave yard several bodies were washed up from their graves and carried away. The Rev. B. Firth and the Rev. J. Garbutt and their families, who lived nearby, made their escapes in their nightdresses and sought shelter on higher ground. The chapel which stood between the river and the main road was replaced by a larger building in 1871 and that in its turn has been replaced by the modem single story premises of today.

(W) From Towngate continue straight ahead into Station Road and in forty-Jive yards (41 M) go through a gate on the left into the old burial ground. Follow the path across to a gate diagonally opposite the entrance and once through this cross a small footbridge back to the car-park. This is a shorter route to the car-park than the one you took earlier by car via the county bridge.

Whilst crossing the footbridge stop to look at the river winding its peaceful way out of Holmfirth and try, for a moment, to imagine the scene as it was that night when a vast body of water two hundred yards wide and ten feet deep rolled down and vastly overspilled the water course.

Before returning to the car-park turn left towards the Methodist church to see, on the left hand side of the path, the grave stone of the Sandford family which has recently been restored by the Holmfirth Civic Society. Part of the inscription reads:

‘Also of the above named Jonathan Sandford aged 45 years
Also his daughter Sarah aged 9 years 10 months
Also his daughter Emily aged 4 years 10 months
All of whom lost their lives by the bursting of the Bilberry
Reservoir in the morning of Thursday, February 5th, 1852.’

It is at this point that we end our ‘trail’ but, of course, the flood continued on its inexorable way down the valleys of the Holme and Colne to Huddersfield and beyond. To bring the story of that fateful night to a proper conclusion therefore we must, briefly at least, describe how the flood affected some of the hamlets and villages beyond Holmfirth.


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