Reading Mercury (14/Feb/1852) - The Terrible Catastrophe and Loss of Life at Holmfirth

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The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.


The shocking and extraordinary disaster at Holmfirth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, from the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir, continues to excite an amount of interest beyond anything ever recollected in the neighbourhood, and on Saturday the number of people attracted to the town was very great. Every train from Huddersfield was crowded, and it was found necessary to attach two powerful engines to each load. Holmfirth is about 10 miles south of Huddersfield.

No words can picture the grief, distress, and misery which have thrown their gloom over this unfortunate district in consequence of this shocking calamity. To say that 100 lives have been lost, fearful as the announcement is, expresses hut very inadequately the nature of this awful occurrence. The living are in many instances plunged into the deepest distress and suffering; families who had the blessings of wealth and affluence yesterday, are to-day all but penniless. There is reason to believe that one family who had property worth nearly £30,000 are left only with the clothes they stand in — mills, dwelling-house, stables, barns, horses, cattle, everything has been swept away. The working classes have distress threatening them through the want of employment, for by the bursting of the reservoir the course of the river is choked up and diverted in several places, the mills have been stopped for a considerable way down the valley, and it is estimated that it will require a period of four months to place the supply of water on a footing to enable them to resume work — if, indeed, it can be done at all. The amount of damage, it is stated, will not be less than £600,000.

The reservoir, as already stated, was one called the Bilberry Reservoir, and was formed by the waters of the river Holme and Diglee brook being impounded in a deep gorge between the lofty hills in this part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. This was done by means of an embankment about 150 to 200 yards wide, with a depth of 85 to 90 feet of water behind it ; and about one o’clock on Thursday morning the greater part of this embankment gave way from top to bottom, when a deluge of water burst down the narrow but deep valley below, more like the dreadful irruptions from transatlantic rivers we read of than anything we have heard of in this country before. The Diglee woollen mills, the property of Mrs. Hirst, occupied both banks of the river, half a mile below the reservoir. On the right hank was a fine stone erection of four stories high and forty yards long, for scribbling and spinning, with valuable mule frames, and on the left were an extensive weaving mill, dye house, and Mrs. Hirst’s residence. Nothing now remains but a tall chimney. It seems most extraordinary that the heavy machinery, steam engine, huge boilers, &c. should have been thus floated away like straws. Mrs. Hirst and her family escaped, having received timely warning ; though the lady’s terror or incredulity was such as to render necessary something more than gentle force to remove her. The destruction of this property is variously estimated at from £20,000 to £30,000.

At Holme-bridge, a little further down the river, the church was inundated, the pews being lifted from their position and thrown transversely, in rows, across the aisle; the walls inclosing the yard were thrown down ; gravestones were torn up, and coffins and corpses floated out of the new graves down the river. The water reached across the bridge, carrying away the stone battlements. The torrent dashed straight through the windows of the second story of the Hinchcliffe woollen mills, which stand upon a firm rocky foundation, about a mile and a half below the reservoir, and escaped destruction, though they suffered damage to the amount of about £500. A row of ten cottages, two stories high, inhabited by operatives, on the left bank of the river, near this point, were swept entirely away. From one of these houses alone ten human beings, who composed the family, were washed away, and perished. Altogether it is supposed that nearly forty persons inhabiting these houses were surprised by the flood while they were asleep, and were unable to save their lives. Only one man appears to have been saved, and his escape seems almost miraculous ; he was floated down a quarter of a mile further into a milldam.

Some extraordinary accounts of hair-breadth escapes are narrated, as well as hopeless struggles for life. The houses in Water-street had an extra pressure of water thrown impetuously against them, and were struck at the end and front almost simultaneously. Mr. Crossland, Mr. Metterick, and Mr. Earnshaw, who lived in three of these houses, were respectable clothiers. James, one of the sons of Mr. Metterick, was saved almost by a miracle ; but he lies in a precarious state. He states that there were ten of them in the house — his father, step-mother, and eight children. They were roused by some one soon after one o’clock. He hastily put on a few clothes and ran to the staircase window, looking up the valley, where he met his step-mother. A glance at the approaching water satisfied them that it was the reservoir had burst. The children were asleep below stairs, but his father handed them up to him and Mrs. Metterick, and they were placed in the chamber. He and Mrs. Metterick again seized the children, and carried all but one a story higher, into the attic : the flood had caught his father and one child on the stairs and overwhelmed them. The next moment the whole house was carried away, and he saw no more of any of the family : he found himself in the raging torrent, swept before it for a quarter of a mile like a feather. He got hold of a floating plank, and was carried aside in the Bottom Mill Reservoir, where he paddled himself out of it by means of another piece of wood which he seized. He reached the bank of the reservoir in a very exhausted condition. A boy in a cottage was raised in a moment by the water to within a few inches of the ceiling, where he had the presence of mind to lay hold by a beam. To this he clung for an hour, when the water subsided, and he was liberated, in another cottage, Joseph Helliwell’s wife and five children all perished, but he escaped from the second story by floating on his weaving loom till the water went down.

The heavy fall of rain during Saturday night and Sunday prevented any further search for the bodies. On Monday numbers of labourers were employed in removing the wreck from the river and searching the ruins of buildings that had been destroyed. Up to Sunday morning the whole of the 65 bodies lying at the public-houses in and about Holmfirth had been identified except three. On Saturday a cashbox, containing £500, was picked out of the debris thrown together in the track of the destructive torrent. The magistrates met, and determined to open subscriptions, and men were placed in the streets with boxes to collect subscriptions from strangers. The town presented a very mournful scene during the whole of Sunday, that day having been fixed for the interment of nearly the whole of the dead. About 60 were removed for interment at different periods of the day, not many of them in the town, but mostly in the villages on the adjoining hills or up the valley.

Great alarm was excited by an unfounded report being spread in the course of the morning that the Holm Styes Reservoirs had burst. In the almost universal panic which ensued the congregation hurriedly quitted the National School of Holmfirth, where Divine service was being conducted, owing to the injury sustained by the church.

The Bilberry reservoir dam was built in 1840, by Messrs. Sharp and Sons. The foundation has always been suspected : one of the men who has perished, sent his family away, only a few days before the catastrophe, and was among those who watched the bank during the night. In addition, there existed some quarrel, through which the safety-machinery had got out of working order.