Reynolds's Newspaper (22/Feb/1852) - The Holmfirth Catastrophe

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


Prepared as we are to hear of disasters by sea and land involving the loss of life and property, it is only occasionally that these take place on a scale and under circumstances which powerfully arrest public attention and sympathy. The destruction of the “Amazon”[1] was an event of this kind, and its tragic incidents readily impressed themselves on the imagination. Not less terrible is the recent catastrophe called the Holmfirth flood, and, though occurring at a moment when public interest was strongly directed in other channels, it is now beginning to claim the full measure of consideration which it deserves. The magnitude of this disaster will be better understood if the loss inflicted by it be for a moment dwelt upon. It is believed that upwards of 100 lives have perished, and 71 dead bodies have already been found. That is a fearful destruction to overwhelm the few thousand inhabitants of one small valley in a single night. But the loss does not stop here. There have been 4 mills, 10 dyehouses, 10 drying stoves, 27 cottages, 7 tradesmen’s houses, 7 shops, 6 bridges, 1 county bridge, 10 warehouses, 18 barns and stables, totally destroyed; while 6 dyehouses and stock, 17 mills, 3 stoves, 139 cottages, 7 tradesmen’s houses, 44 large shops, 11 public-houses, 5 bridges, 1 county bridge, 200 acres of land, 14 warehouses, 13 barns, 3 places of worship, and 2 iron foundries, are partially destroyed. Such is the return made to a committee appointed to institute inquiries on the subject. The number of adults thrown out of employ is stated at 4,986, the number of children 2,142 — altogether, £7,128, whose earnings when at work, amounted to £3,748 per week. The total loss caused is, according to the most moderate calculation, estimated at not less than £250,000, and very competent authorities do not hesitate to place it as high as £500,000. While one manufacturer, Mr. Sandford, was, with his entire family, hurried to destruction by the overwhelming waters, the house where he had lived for many years being carried away ; a widow lady, named Hirst, the owner of two fine and extensive mills, had her valuable property so completely annihilated, that only two tall chimneys remain. Mrs. Hirst was with difficulty prevailed on to save her life, so completely was her fortune committed to the descending flood. The mill property destroyed, great as it is, is not the only matter to be considered. The reservoir which caused the mischief cost a large sum of money, which is gone. The numerous roads and bridges which intersected the valley, and which the inundation has swept away or damaged, must be restored. Besides the houses and shops demolished, there has been an extensive loss, of furniture and stock, which must be replaced, and beyond all this, the irreparable injury to the soil in the bottom of the valley for several miles from the reservoir most also be taken into account. From the manufacturing prosperity of the neighbourhood, land there had become extremely valuable, as much as 7s. 6d. a yard being not infrequently paid for it.

In the manufacturing districts this calamity has excited a sorrow which, when all the circumstances are considered, is not surprising. That part of England is the chosen region of mills, and the whole population is closely bound together by the ties of kindred pursuits. Whatever affects the working of their mills is felt in every family as a private affliction, and thus within the last few days the trains have hardly been able to accommodate the influx of visitors from every quarter to the scene of the recent disaster. From an early hour in the day till nightfall the course of the inundation is traced, and the havoc which it committed examined, by large numbers of people, and women as well as men display their interest in a calamity which, from the distribution of factory labour, appeals equally to the sympathy of both sexes. Nor is the interest displayed a mere idle curiosity. Holmfirth has already subscribed nearly £2,000 towards a relief fund. Very little short of £10,000 has been raised in Huddersfield alone for the same purpose, and it is expected that all the large manufacturing towns in the north will come cheerfully and liberally forward to mitigate a calamity so extensive and terrible.

One word as to the immediate cause of this dreadful calamity. It is tolerably clear that it was the overflow of the reservoir ever the embankment which caused the mischief. There was in the reservoir, near the inner slope of the embankment, which is technically called a “swallow,” that is, a sort of well or shaft, to convey the water from the reservoir through a tunnel and waste weir to the mill-race. The top of this swallow should always be a few feet below the level of the top of the embankment. By the settling of the embankment, the top or mouth of this swallow had become higher than some portions of the embankment. It is, indeed, much to be regretted that amongst the number of persons who were watching the rising of the water in the reservoir, during the afternoon and evening of Wednesday, no one had sufficient knowledge or presence of mind to knock away a few of the upper courses of masonry of this swallow, so as to bring its mouth effectually below the level of the embankment. Had this been done, the swallow, which is probably six feet in diameter, would have taken off a large quantity of water, and in all probability, as has been suggested to us, the water could never have flowed over the embankment, and the dreadful catastrophe would thus have been averted.

Amid the destruction which has overtaken the district, its inhabitants are exerting themselves manfully in repairing, as far as possible, their losses. They have begun to restore the bridges, to clear the watercourses and the roads, to collect in piles the scattered fragments of machinery and of wood, and even to attempt the restoration of the serious damage done to the mills.

On Monday, a public meeting of bankers, merchants, and others was held at the London Tavern, for the purpose of promoting a subscription for the relief of the sufferers by the late calamity at Holmfirth. The Lord Mayor occupied the chair. A subscription amounting to nearly £1,000 was raised, and a committee formed to collect further contributions.


On Wednesday and Thursday Mr. Dyson, coroner for the Halifax district, and a jury of sixteen inhabitants of the township of Holmfirth, empannelled on the 8th instant, reassembled, pursuant to adjournment, at the Town-hall, for the purpose of further prosecuting the inquiry into the causes of the late dreadful calamity, by which nearly 100 lives have been sacrificed.

Captain Moody attended to watch the proceedings on behalf of the government ; Mr. Jacomb, solicitor, of Huddersfield, and clerk to the commissioners of the Holme reservoirs, was present on behalf of that body.

The whole of the witnesses, about forty in number, having been ordered out of court,

The Coroner observed that the course he would recommend to the jury would be to divide their inquiry into two parts ; first, as to what caused the embankment to give way — a matter of great importance, inasmuch as there were several reservoirs in the neighbourhood, and two at least under the same management as that which had caused the calamity ; secondly, as to whether what had occurred was to be attributed to culpable negligence of any party, because, in the event of that being proved, it would amount to the crime of manslaughter. In order to come to this conclusion, they must, however, prove that the person or persons liable to be so charged were legally bound to execute the duties so neglected. He proposed to lay the evidence before the jury in the following order :— First, the Act of Parliament under which the reservoir was formed ; secondly, the construction of the reservoir ; thirdly, the proceedings of the commissioners ; and, fourthly, the state of the reservoir on the 4th instant. He proposed to conclude with the evidence or report of Captain Moody, who had been sent here by government to examine into the cause of the catastrophe. It was unlikely that Captain Moody would be enabled to complete his report for some days, and he suggested that at their rising the inquiry should be adjourned until Monday next, which he believed would be the earliest day when Captain Moody could be expected to be ready with his report.

Mr. Jacomb then required that the proceedings should be conducted privately, but the coroner refused to consent. Mr. Jacomb then gave evidence respecting the Act of Parliament which authorised the construction of Bilberry Reservoir.

Mr. Leather, late engineer of the company, explained the construction of the reservoir, observing that he did not consider the works had ever been completed, and that if the embankment had been of sufficient height above the waste pit, the latter would have carried off the flood water which caused the devastation.

Charles Batty gave evidence as to the rising of the waters, and stated that he had informed Mr. Roebuck, one of the commissioners of the circumstance, and that person observed that as the reservoir was likely to burst, he (Batty) had better take away his family, which he did.

Jonathan Woodstock said : I was drawer of the Bilberry Reservoir for two years, from 1843 to 1845. Shortly after my appointment I received a book, in which I was told to make notices of the height of the water. I continued to do this until the 29th of September, 1845, when I gave notice. The leakage was at that time so great, that for a fortnight together, when the shuttle was down, there was water enough to supply the mills. (Sensation.) I never had to draw until the water in the reservoir was as low as thirty feet. Coroner : Why did you give notice? Witness : Because I could not get my wage. (Laughter.) I ascertained the height of the water in the reservoir by some marks on the rocks, which marks were every five feet, and extended to thirty-five feet. Immediately after the contractors left the embankment, it began to sink, and it was lower than the top of the waste pit before I left the commissioners’ service. The inquest afterwards adjourned.