Sorrow on the Land: An Account of the Inundation Occasioned by the Bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir (1852) - Concluding Reflections

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Sorrow on the Land: An Account of the Inundation Occasioned by the Bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir (1852)


The catastrophe narrated in the preceding pages is one which must excite reflection in every reader, and especially in every beholder. But men will come to very different conclusions, as their habits of thought, their secular interests, their creeds, or their principles, sway their judgment and their hearts. The infidel worshipper of human agencies and second causes will see but little in it except the carelessness and selfishness of contractors and Commissioners, and on these he will principally expend his reflections and his wrath. A few common-place expressions of sympathy with the sufferers will perhaps escape his lips ; but he will profess too much reverence for a merciful God to associate His providence in any way with the event. Thousands of such persons we fear have visited the valley since the fatal event occurred, especially on the Lord's days. "It has been computed that on Sunday, the 14th of February, the second Sunday after the flood, nearly 50,000 persons visited Holmfirth." But little moral benefit is to be expected from such heedless desecration of the Lord's day. One of the most solemn and instructive scenes of admonition concerning the frailty of man, and the uncertainty of human happiness and earthly wealth and prosperity, was thus turned into a theatre for the gratification of a morbid curiosity. We would not pronounce all to be infidels who thus desecrated the Sabbath-day ; but we fear the heedless thousands who still continue thus to turn this affecting and admonitory event into an occasion of adding sin to sin, include a large infusion of the infidels of the vicinity.

Selfishness, in its grossest form, has also prowled over this devoted valley with a vulture's eye and appetite ; and excursion-trains on Sundays, "not to start during service-time," have been put on the different lines, to convey their frivolous thousands to this "valley of the shadow of death." This has been continued. A railway-bill announced the "commencement of the cheap-trip season ;" and informed the public that, "all these excursions would be conducted on the same liberal principles which characterized them last year." The first trips of the season were to take place on Good-Friday, April 9th, and on Easter-Monday, April 12th, to Holmfirth ; and "in order to prevent disappointment at Holmfirth, the contractors had made ample arrangements to supply refreshments on both days in a covered tent, at very moderate terms," of which a list of prices was to be printed. These arrangements extended from Leeds to Liverpool, and included the smallest intermediate stations ; and thus, at railway-speed and at the lowest fares, were the frivolous idlers of these localities to be conveyed, with holiday hilarity, to tread and perhaps to dance in the very footprints of death, while the ravages of the flood, in its most hideous forms, were still staring survivers in the face.

The following is from the local press of the district, of March 27th :—

"The Holmfirth Flood. — Two only of the eighty-two victims to the deluge of the 5th ultimo now remain to be discovered. For the recovery of one of these (James Metterick, of Hinchliffe-Mill) a reward is still pending. As yet, however, the body has not turned up. Skulls and other portions of deceased individuals continue to be found in the watercourse ; but these are, doubtless, parts of what were washed out of the grave-yards of Holmbridge church and the Holmfirth Wesleyan chapel."

It is lamentable, that all the moral purposes for which such a catastrophe may be supposed to be permitted by the wise providence of God are so likely to be defeated. What have such parties to expect, but that, "because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of His hands, He shall destroy them, and not build them up?" (Psalm xxviii.5.) The practical sympathy of this class of visiters with the suffering and bereaved has been but little. By this time they have amounted to hundreds of thousands ; but though £60,000 has been contributed, the only amount we have seen reported from them is £300! The liberality from other quarters, however, has been almost unprecedented ; and the following advertisement from the "Relief Committee" may be regarded as somewhat unique in the annals of benevolence :—

"Holmfirth Calamity. — The Committee respectfully request that all subscriptions which have been promised for the above object may be remitted, without delay, to the Huddersfield Banking Company, Huddersfield ; and they beg to state, with feelings of sincere thankfulness, their belief that, when all such subscriptions have been received, the amount will be sufficient to meet all reasonable claims by the sufferers upon the benevolence of the public. And the Committee beg also to announce that, when the total amount of subscriptions has been ascertained, they will, with the assistance of representatives from other towns, forming the Central Committee, be in a position to appropriate the funds placed at their disposal by public liberality.

John Brooke,
Chairman of the Mutual Committees,
Huddersfield and Holmfirth.
Huddersfield, 30« March, 1852."

This liberality has in a great degree been the result of personal inspection of the scene of the catastrophe, but by a very different class of persons, and from very different principles and feelings, from those on which selfishness relies for success in cheap-trip speculations.

In a neighbouring town, a large bill stared us in the face, headed, For the Benefit of the Holmfirth Sufferers ;" and, on reading the contents, we found that it was to inform the public, that the proceeds of a "ball" would be given to these "sufferers." The band was to consist of upwards of twenty performers ; the doors were to open at 7, and dancing was to begin at 8 o'clock ; and refreshments were to be provided at the hotel. We wish that Committees, consisting as they generally do of the benevolent of different denominations, led on by Ministers of religion, would refuse to receive contributions of this description. There is a revolting incongruity in a large company being called together for dancing and frivolous amusement on such an occasion, and to be flattered, perhaps, by the belief that they are serving the cause of suffering humanity.

Another train of very painful reflections arises from the culpable indifference and selfish apathy of the parties concerned in the construction and care of the reservoir from first to last ; and more especially when, from the rising floods, the result of this insecurity could scarcely be a matter of doubt. A responsible party, whose immediate duty it was to watch and conserve the dam, had refused very trifling expenses for the repairs of the shuttle. Near to the time of the overflow of this dam, £12. 10s., expended in making a hole in the waste-pit, would have prevented the disruption : this was even commenced, but was resisted and abandoned. And yet some of these very persons had large property at stake ; and one on the spot is actually a loser of between £2,000 and £3,000. On the night of the flood he said, that "before two o'clock, at the latest, there would not be a mill in the valley;" but "did nothing to prevent the water from running over," and scarcely warned any person of danger "until it was too late to be of any use." It would be out of place here to pursue the course of reflection suggested by these facts ; but while such reckless indifference concerning life and property on the part of those who had power to act, and were bound to take action, for the prevention of the impending calamity, is very greatly to be deplored, it cannot too strongly be condemned, and all right-minded persons will fully agree in the sentiment expressed in the verdict of the Coroner's inquest, that "if they had been individuals" (acting in a private capacity) "instead of a corporate body, it would have justified and called for a verdict of manslaughter."

Our concluding reflections must be of a spiritual and moral character, for the religious improvement of this awful event. And here we would remark, that we shall not irreverently attempt to meet every argument of those who arraign the equity of the Divine government, nor presume on our competency to "justify the ways of God" to the reason of the believer. In all such cases, much must be left to faith ; but the believer in Divine revelation, and he only, can properly reason on the mysteries of God's providence and grace. After such an exhibition of selfishness and heedlessness, as is supplied in the history of this reservoir, the most obvious reflection is, that its prevention would have required, on the part of God, a miraculous suspension of the most obvious laws of nature. One of the best of man's friends, but one of the most powerful of his foes, — water, to an enormous weight, might be considered as hanging from the first, and especially towards the approach of the catastrophe, in the most threatening state of suspension over the lovely and devoted valley below. No one pleads ignorance of the danger : the Commissioners themselves are many of them the first to confess it; but they do nothing to prevent it ; nor does the voice of apprehension from the people exposed to peril even whisper a demand that they should. Even to the very hour of the catastrophe, they converse of the danger as imminent ; but retire to rest in careless security, and many of them are drowned in their beds. Now the God of nature, the great Governor of the universe, has not promised to interfere by miracle to avert such calamities. By allowing nature to take its course, all may be taught not to trifle with the laws of the material world, and then expect Him to save them by miracle from the effects of their own imprudence.

The following paragraph, extracted from a local newspaper, furnishes painful illustration of the moral character of some of the sufferers, such as little consists with any trust in special protection by Divine Providence :—

"An unpleasant incident occurred, during the week, to the Committee at Holmfirth, which is deserving of notice. Amongst the number of those drowned by the flood was a person calling himself Ashall, who managed a leather-dealer's establishment, at Holmfirth, for Mr. Crawshaw, of Huddersfield. This man, with his presumed wife, and two children, perished ; the house they inhabited being swept entirely away. Now, however, his true wife has presented herself at Holmfirth, and pleads for relief from the contribution-fund, as well as the transfer of her late husband's watch, which was picked up after the deluge. The statement of the woman, which is duly confirmed, is, that the name of her deceased husband was not Ashall, but Spencer ; that he left her at Bacup, with two children, seven years ago, eloping with the now-sacrificed young woman, to whom she was cousin ; that she knew not what had become of the guilty pair, until the newspaper reports suggested her suspicion ; and that subsequent inquiries had unfolded the whole romantic, though melancholy, truth."

There is, however, a danger of those who read the records of a calamity like the present, turning their attention to the event in the way of uncharitable reflection on the characters of those on whom its greatest severity has fallen, to the diversion of their mind and heart from their own sins, and from a day which, if they repent not, will be as awful to them, though they die in their beds, as was the solemn hour of this visitation to those who thus perished and were the least prepared. This was the folly of those mentioned by St. Luke, chap. xiii. 1-5. In the preceding chapter, the Lord Jesus exhorts to immediate repentance on pain of perdition. St. Luke says that "there were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices ;" evidently supposing that those must have been "sinners above all men," or God would surely have protected them while they were engaged in His worship. Our Lord answered these self-righteous cavillers according to what He knew was in their hearts ; and He referred to an additional case more obviously than this the result of Divine penal visitation, because no human hand was seen, — the case of eighteen persons on whom the tower of Siloam had (no doubt recently) fallen and slain them. Our Lord desires those whom He addresses to consider that these calamities had not been permitted of God for the punishment of some extraordinary depravity in those who suffered, but for the special admonition of those who survived ; and that to make them the subject of idle conversation, to divert the mind from repentance, and find all the reasons why these events were permitted, in those who suffered, was to resist the purposes of God. This is evidently the moral designed to be inculcated, and it speaks with a trumpet-voice to us : it forbids us to sit in uncharitable judgment on the departed : it commands us to spend our reflections on ourselves, and to repent of our sins as now we see they ought to have repented. Eighty or eighteen souls thus swept off is an appalling event ; but penitence or impenitence is still the great distinction, and men may perish in detail as well as in crowds. Let us leave their judgment to God, and attend to our own salvation, and be thus prepared for death, whenever or however it may come to call us to our final award and our eternal state.

By the sceptic, who either believes our world to be innocent, or, if sinful, only under the dominion of "a God all mercy," no satisfactory reason can be assigned for any of the afflictions of life, and especially for such a catastrophe as the one under review. The imaginary deity whom he worships would either be indifferent to the affairs of men, or, if active, accountable to any of his creatures who might dare to arraign him at their bar ; but the sceptic is as much bound to give the philosophy of such facts as daily wring anguish from our hearts, or occasionally strike us with horror and dismay, as the believer in revelation. The latter only can do this, however ; and he finds the great reason for the whole in the facts, that this is a fallen world under a discipline of mingled judgment and mercy, and that spiritual and eternal good is mercifully designed, and frequently effected, by such means as those which lead infidels most loudly to blaspheme. These spiritual and eternal results are so much beyond all the sufferings of the body, and all the interests of time, that the latter are in comparison unworthy of a thought. But yet, as earthly good is that to which we are most ardently attached, and that by which we are often so guiltily ensnared, nothing is so likely to awaken us, as seeing death drag the worldling from his enjoyments, or his possessions made the prey of the fire or the flood. In the one case, the Saviour says, "Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh ;" and in the other we seem to hear Him again saying, "Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee : and so is everyone that layeth up treasure on earth and is not rich towards God." Suffering without sin, or affliction and catastrophe without moral and disciplinary ends, and a future state of rewards and punishments, are indeed incomprehensible mysteries ; but, as a system of government, leaving the details to be studied in the light of eternity, that which works out eternally glorious results, by transitory sufferings and secular losses, is what ought to "commend itself to every man's conscience in the sight of God." We live in a world of men absorbed in earthly frivolities and interests, and insensible to the approaches of death : the only exceptions are the effect of religion. What so likely to arouse such a world to a sense of its present perils and its eternal dangers, as the voice of the flood, or the glare of the flame, by which both life and property are in a moment destroyed? "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters ;" "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." This is the obvious moral of the whole ; and therefore it is that we condemn whatever is calculated to remove or weaken the spiritual impression intended to be produced by the God of providence and grace in this visitation ; and especially every attempt to divert the mind from the contemplation of an event so well calculated to produce the best effects, for this world and another, on the mind and heart of all.

We conclude with an extract from an eloquent article on this calamity in the "Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine" for April, 1852, and to which we cordially refer our readers :— "Let those who are trusting implicitly in the goods of this life learn to cease from their idolatry, by the stern lesson of many who retired to rest affluent and prosperous, but who rose, according to this world's language, ruined. Let them think of the elaborate and costly apparatus for producing wealth effectually destroying in an hour more than it would produce in a generation, and count it a symbol. Let those who shudder at the cold thought of the stealthy, insidious entrance of the midnight flood, suppressing the very cry for mercy which it created, learn to live in such daily preparation for death as none but those who are in Christ can attain to ; remembering that they may themselves be under the frowning brow of as imminent a calamity as fell upon the sleepers of that valley.

"And let all, in addition to these lessons, learn to bless the goodness of God, who left not His essential compassion without a witness during that night of sorrow, — who saved multitudes more than He permitted to die, — who gave long, ample, and repeated warning to all, — and who doubtless heard many voices in their prayer for spiritual grace, who cried in vain for temporal deliverance. Bread was cast upon those waters. May it be found after many days!

"By this time, the first excitement is over. The desolated valley is fast undergoing renovation. The British energy, which cannot be thoroughly broken, will soon restore the prosperity of the Holme valley — if God give His blessing. May He prosper the effort! The broken hearts we leave with the only Healer. May He succour the parents beginning to find the lack of their little ones, and the little ones who, though they know it not, have lost their best friends! Especially may the Lord sanctify this visitation to the good of those sufferers — not many — in whom the readers of this Magazine have a more special interest!"

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