Reynolds's Newspaper (15/Feb/1852) - The Terrible Catastrophe 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 once thriving and busy little town of Holmfirth, whose inhabitants have been regarded even in the manufacturing districts as a people of extraordinary spirit and enterprise, was on Sunday a scene of gloom and mourning, from the numerous funerals taking place. The necessity of burying the dead had become a pressing necessity, from the rapid decomposition which usually goes forward in cases where death has resulted from drowning. Morning, noon, and evening, hearses, biers, and mourners were seen flitting about in all directions. The scene had a more strange effect from the unfavourable circumstances under which the funerals took place. The inclemency of the weather, which had been the first cause of such ruin, misery, and death, now interposed to prevent that decent and decorous attention to external forms in which the bereaved, more especially in rural districts, are anxious to manifest their respect for the memory of the dead. All Saturday night week and during the whole of Sunday the rain fell heavily, sometimes in torrents, not only adding discomfort to grief among the mourners, but absolutely again raising the fears of the people almost to terror, lest another of the reservoirs should burst, and overwhelm the town a second time. Between eleven and twelve in the morning a report actually spread that the Holme Styes reservoirs had burst ; and just as the clergyman at the national school — where the congregation had assembled, in consequence of the Holmfirth church being unfit to receive them — had taken his text, the report was communicated by a Sunday scholar running into the place and telling the people of their imminent peril. An extraordinary panic was the consequence ; the congregation hastily quitted the school, and the children rushed screaming to the hills, and the greatest consternation prevailed for some time, before it was known or believed that the story was unfounded. The Holme Styes reservoir is situated on a stream called the Ribble, which empties itself into the river Holme at the entrance to Holmfirth, and would, were it to burst, undoubtedly cause great loss of life and destruction of property. In all about sixty-two bodies were interred, or removed to a temporary resting-place on Sunday, the coroner’s jury having gone round early in the morning to the various inns where bodies were lying to receive evidence of identification and grant burial certificates. Only three of the corpses remained unrecognised by friends after these had been removed. The Charlesworth and Crossland families had burial-places higher up the valley, in the Churchyard of the rustic little village of Holme Briggs, and graves had been dug for seven bodies ; but during the night the incessant fall of rain, added to the waters of the flood which had poured over the yard into the church, had filled them to overflowing, and the coffined dead were deposited for a temporary resting-place in the church.

In some cases, where whole families perished, there was no one for some time to own or identity the dead. Their relatives in distant towns and villages, even if they had heard a vague and uncertain rumour of the inundation, had not apprehended that the consequences were so fatal ; but fortunately most of the heads of families, or some of the branches of most of the families, were members of benefit and friendly societies. These societies were liable by their rules to demands for burial-fees in such cases, and it is creditable to the officers of them that they did not wait for the claim to be discovered and made by friends and representatives, but actually made themselves instrumental in searching out the friends of such parties, visiting Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford, and other places to bring forward the next relatives — where such were discovered — that they might identify the bodies, receive the money, and see that the fitting funeral rites were attended to. The orders of Druids and Odd Fellows were particularly distinguished in this respect ; and groups of members were busily engaged on Saturday week dispersed along the sides of the river searching for the bodies of the dead. On Sunday the fall of rain was too heavy to admit of persons continuing the search, and the river Holme was swollen so that it had become a rushing torrent. There was perhaps only one thing the rain could not damp and restrain, and that was the excited curiosity of the people in surrounding towns. The Lancashire and Yorkshire, and Sheffield railways were running trains, frequently at intervals of less than half-an-hour ; and people flocked in from Manchester (upwards of thirty miles distant), Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Halifax, Wakefield, Sowerby-bridge, Rochdale, Todmorden, and a score of other towns, till the streets, and roads were crowded like a fair. The turnpike-roads were also filled with a constant stream of vehicles full of people. It was extraordinary to see the strangers, despite the falling torrents, wending their way up the valley, after inspecting the scene of devastation at Holmfirth, to Bilberry Mill, three miles higher, where the reservoir had stood. Well-dressed people as well as operatives — men, women, and children of all ages — were amongst them, wet to the skin, shivering with cold, yet unable, to find room in the few public-houses to shelter or warm themselves. The wind blew in sharp and fitful gusts, and now and then as the crowds moved along the hill sides, one of these gusts would catch up an umbrella like a kite, and hurl it down again deep into the valley or into the river.

It would be difficult for strangers, in some places, unless familiar with the valley and its buildings, to comprehend the extent of devastation — so clean had been the sweep. The rent made by the flood in the reservoir from which the water escaped was regarded with intense interest by all who visited the spot. An immense chasm of eighty to one hundred yards wide and ninety feet deep, removed from the front of the dam, and out clear out from top to bottom, leaving the edges as sharp and square as if some vast instrument had been used for the incision, leaves little room for wonder that the body of water which burst forth should have committed such ravages. The site of the reservoir is a deep vale or ravine near the summit of tile lofty range of hills which divide Yorkshire and Lancashire — perhaps 1,800 or 2,000 feet above the level of the sea. It is at the foot of an extensive moss, which drains into it. The whole of these hills are remarkable for the deep clefts and ravines which divide them, and they become the drains for immense quantities of water, which fall here, during the winter months especially. It is in one of them the Manchester corporation have constructed their immense reservoirs, on the same principle as this which has burst with such lamentable consequences. The bed of the reservoir above Holmfirth, which is an area of something like eleven acres, is now only covered by a deposit of black mud. The valley below is mostly in a high state of cultivation. The hills rise abruptly to an immense height, but are in many places covered with green pasture and well wooded. In many places the vale presents scenes of great beauty, and is highly picturesque. Along the sides of the stream which winds along the bottom in the space of the three miles to Holmfirth were twelve very fine stone woollen mills. Whilst some have been entirely swept away, others have had one end out off, and the remnants of machinery and shafting are left dangling over the stream. Most of them have had their numerous windows forced out of the first and second storeys, and here and there you see the sides of these mills covered with bushes and branches of trees for two or three storeys in height, which the torrent had brought down in whole hedge-rows at once, and piled up and accumulated there. The large reservoirs attached to each of these mills, as private stores of water, have all been burst, with one exception — their embankments, in most cases, torn down almost entirely, flood-gates floated away, culverts burst open, and the muddy deposits from the bottom of them carried away and spread many inches in depth over adjoining fields. Here and there you see a field which was once fine meadow-land a barren waste — covered with stones, and mud, and shingle, like the sea coast. You see an immense steam-boiler, the cylinder of a powerful engine, the heavy roller of a carding machine, a dye pan, or a steam pipe, often in the midst of a reservoir, or in a field far from the mill to which they had belonged. Stacks of hay and corn have been floated down bodily and deposited also in remote places. In the middle of Holmfirth the rollers of carding machines swept from the mills above seem to have been carried like huge shots against the houses and other buildings, and hence no doubt so much destruction of property.

The weather on Monday was much more favourable for carrying on the search for the dead, and in the forenoon the body of a female, about 14 years of age, supposed to be a daughter of Richard Woodcock, was discovered by some labourers employed to repair and cleanse the Holmfirth Mill-dam. The body of a boy was also discovered in Whittaker Milldam, Dalton. The body of a youth was also discovered on Monday, at Dalton Lee, who appears to have been blind of one eye, or to have sustained injury of the eye, as a green shade was still tied over it when the body was picked up.

A curious circumstance occurred in the identification of the bodies of the deceased on Saturday week. When the jury visited the bodies lying at Bury Brow, a little intelligent girl, daughter of Sidney Hartley, one of the deceased, came forward to identify an infant as the body of her sister Ellen. She was asked how she knew it, and replied, because it was “calf-licked” like herself, pointing to a pecularity of the hair on the forehead, so denominated in Yorkshire.. The coroner took her deposition but afterwards the same child was claimed by a man named Bailey as his daughter, and he; ultimately obtained possession of the corpse, and interred it. The little girl’s narrative of the horrors of Thursday week is a distressing picture of such a scene. She states that her mother, Mrs. Hartley, had heard on the Wednesday night that the reservoir was likely to burst, and resolved not to go to bed. She however, put her family of eight children to bed, and sat up to await the issue, hoping to get sufficient warning to enable all to escape, if the report should prove correct. She sat up until one o’clock on Thursday morning, and then went to bed. The alarm reached almost immediately she had retired to rest. The girl states that the water burst upon them, before they could get out of the chamber, and when her mother found they could not escape, she held up her infant child above the water outside the window, hoping to save it, but finding the front of the house giving way, she turned and bade her family farewell, and was swept away with the babe in the forming torrent. So also perished the father and four other children ; but this little creature, with two sisters and the apprentice boy, who had also been sleeping in the house, being suddenly floated up to a part of the roof which yet remained, caught hold of the rafters and clung to them. When the flood began to abate, the apprentice, John Dearnley, got out upon the roof and assisted the three girls to do the same. Here they remained at least twenty minutes. He afterwards carried them one by one into the portion of Holmfirth Mill which had escaped destruction, where, in their night-clothes, standing up to their knees in mud, they were exposed to the inclemency of the night air and to the falling rain. Ultimately, however, they discovered a. way into a room nearly full of wool, and, burying themselves amongst it, obtained the warmth they so much needed, and remained there till morning. The three orphans are now residing with their relations.

The Holmfirth Ladies Committee met on Monday evening to distribute clothing. On Monday a public meeting was held at Huddersfield, at the Philosophical Hall, to take into consideration what measures should be adopted to alleviate the destitution occasioned by the late flood. Mr. John Brook, of Armitage-bridge, was called to the chair, and the Rev. J. Bateman, M.A., the vicar, moved a resolution, expressing sympathy with the sufferers and with the survivors, of whom it was said that many had been reduced from comfortable circumstances in life to utter ruin, and about 2,000 operatives had also been deprived of work. The resolution was seconded by Mr. W. L. Brook, and carried. The Rev. John Glendenning moved a resolution pledging the meeting to use every exertion to mitigate the distress, and commence subscriptions “for the immediate relief of pressing distress, and afterwards by affording such further aid as the amount of subscriptions would allow.” The chairman stated that the promises of aid already brought up the subscriptions to a handsome amount for Huddersfield. Mr. J. D. Crossland declared that mere local efforts, however liberal, would be utterly inadequate to relieve the distress, and requesting other towns to aid Huddersfield in the task. Mr. H. L. Brook stated that the committee had been called upon for clothing by a young lady on behalf of a family who, prior to this accident, were worth upwards of £10,000. A committee was appointed, and a spirited subscription was opened in the meeting.

It is said that a majority of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners were anxious to make seasonable repairs to the embankment, and that having borrowed £40,000 on mortgage, at five per cent, the mortgagees came forward and offered to reduce their claims to three-and-a-half per cent., if by so doing they could enable the commissioners to raise upon mortgage the additional sum required. The commissioners went before parliament last session but one, backed by the mortgagees, for a new bill to empower them to raise this extra money ; but they were vigorously opposed by a part of their own body, who had been obstructives all along, and through the influence of these men Lord Beaumont defeated the bill before the Peers, alleging that it was contrary to the principles of legislation by which the house ought to be guided, to suffer mortgagees to come before it for the purpose of improving the security on which they had advanced their money. The objection was not correct in fact, but it was fatal — fatal in more senses than one ; for probably to this objection, so successfully urged by his lordship, it is that we owe the destruction of so much life and property. Perhaps at the adjourned inquest of the 13th some farther details will be elicited.