Sorrow on the Land: An Account of the Inundation Occasioned by the Bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir (1852) - First Sunday After the Flood

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The following is a transcription of a historic book and may contain occasional small errors.

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


The following is the account of the the first Sunday after the flood.

"As was anticipated, the influx of visiters on Sunday was enormous. Although the weather was extremely wet, and the rain descended incessantly, thousands of persons were found visiting the desolate valley during the day. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company alone brought in more than nine thousand passengers. From Bradford the estimated number was four thousand, in addition to many coaches, omnibuses, cabs, horsemen, &c, from that place, as well as from Wakefield, Halifax, Manchester, Sheffield, and other places. The Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Company also contributed very materially to the great influx of people into Holmfirth. In fact, such was the great number of persons in the valley, that there was a complete dearth of provisions, most of the inns being cleared out early in the day.


"It was a day of gloom and mourning, from the extraordinary number of funerals which took place. The urgency for 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 moving 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 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.

"Although no service could be performed at Holmfirth church, owing to so large a portion of wreck being deposited therein, the ringers were able to ascend the tower, and ring muffled peals nearly the whole of the day. These mournful peals, added to the fitful gusts of wind, and the darkened atmosphere, gave a melancholy interest to the funeral ceremonies which were performed.

"There was, perhaps, only one thing the rain could not damp and restrain, and that was the excited curiosity of the immense crowds of people. 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 the ruins of the reservoir. 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."

The events of each day were sufficient, would our space permit, to supply matter for interesting narration, but a bare reference must suffice. On an application made to the Home Office, Captain Moody, R.E., was sent down to examine the reservoir, and to watch the proceedings of the Coroner's inquest. A party of Sappers and Miners, under the command of Lieut. St. John, was also sent, to make a careful survey of the whole valley, and of the damage sustained ; a local Committee composed of the magistrates, clergy, and gentry, sat daily to assist, by their authority and advice, in making inquiry or giving directions ; public meetings were held in the large towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire especially ; clothing was sent in large quantities from all parts, to be given to those who needed it ; and the suddenness of the disaster and the inclemency of the weather made this very needful. A Ladies' Committee sat daily to inquire into the cases ; and, as if to show the mutability and uncertainty of earthly things, it is stated that application was made to this Committee for clothing for a family which, the night before the catastrophe, were worth £10,000.

The Coroner's jury concluded their sittings on Friday, the 27th of February. The particular case selected for them to find their verdict upon, was that of Eliza Marsden ; and the following is a report of their verdict, which the Coroner read to a crowded court, who listened to it with breathless silence :— "We find that Eliza Marsden came to her death by drowning, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry reservoir. We also find that the Bilberry reservoir was defective in its original construction, and that the Commissioners, engineers, and overlookers were greatly culpable in not seeing to the proper regulation of the works. And we also find that the Commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry reservoir to remain for several years in a dangerous state, with a full knowledge thereof, and not lowering the waste-pit, have been guilty of gross and culpable negligence. And we regret that, the reservoir being under the management of a Corporation prevents us bringing in a verdict of manslaughter, as we are convinced that the gross and culpable negligence of the Commissioners would have subjected them to such a verdict had they been in the position of a private individual or a firm. We also hope that the Legislature will take into its most serious consideration the propriety of making provision for the lives and properties of Her Majesty's subjects exposed to danger from reservoirs placed by Corporations in situations similar to those under the charge of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners."

During the inquest, the bodies of the sufferers had been found as far as this ever will be the case, we presume ; and an estimate of the amount of property destroyed had been returned. The loss of property is estimated at A QUARTER OF A MILLION STERLING ; and the following is a report of the losses : —

Mills — 4
Dyehouses — 10
Stoves — 9
Cottages — 27
Tradesmen's houses — 7
Shops — 7
Bridges — 6
County-bridge — 1
Warehouses — 10
Barns and stables — 8
Dyehouses and stock — 5
Mills partially destroyed — 17
Stoves — 3
Cottages — 129
Tradesmen's houses — 7
Shops: large — 23; small — 21
Public-houses — 44
Bridges — 11
County-bridge — 5
Land — acres 200
Warehouses — 4
Barns, &c — 14
Places of worship — 3
Iron foundries — 2
Adults — 38
Children — 39
Total — 77
Of these there are
Married — 12 fathers and 14 mothers — 26
Unmarried — 12
Children — 39
Total — 77
Note. Inasmuch as bodies have been found which cannot be identified, it is believed that more lives have been lost.

Rewards are still being offered (March 23d) for some of the missing bodies ; but we fear it will be in vain. They are probably either imbedded in the mud, or carried into the sea. From the first, Mr. Sandford, sen., had anxiously offered rewards for the recovery of the bodies of his son and his grandchildren. Emily, a child of three and a half years old, was found on the Saturday after the flood, by the parties engaged in clearing away the wreck near the brook, at the dam-head, Holmfirth. Mr. Sandford's body, however, was not found until the 20th, fifteen days after it was lost. In the meantime, its recovery had become a subject of exciting pecuniary interest. It was found that, not long before his death, Mr. Sandford had insured his life for £1,000, which could not be recovered unless his remains were found ; and it was also believed that his property would be thrown into Chancery. In the interval, therefore, which elapsed, the original reward of £5 was raised to £10, and then to £100. On the 20th it was discovered, quite accidentally, by a boy who went to fetch water, and who, by an arbitration to which the case has been submitted, receives £50 of this amount, the other £50 being divided between those who assisted him in recovering the body. It was too fast embedded in the mud of the tail-goit of the mill to be easily recovered ; and, as the evidence on the inquest may show the manner in which the flood had deposited the bodies in its course, we give the testimony of this boy on the inquest : —

"William Broadhead, of Thong's-Bridge, the lad who discovered the body, said : ' On Friday, the 20th of February, I went to the river Holme for some water. I put my pail down, and then went on the bridge. I saw part of a body laid in the water. His feet would reach into the tail-goit of Mr. Robinson's mill. I went home and fetched a muck-drag. There had been no one near the body whilst I was away. On returning, I went down Mr. Robinson's yard, and called Hiram Earnshaw's sons. They followed me to the place. I went into the water so as to put the drag over the body. I could not pull him out. Hiram Earnshaw's son was coming, and I sent for John Crosland, the constable. I remained with the body till he came. It was not removed. Crosland, Hiram Earnshaw, Jonathan Brooke, and two other masons removed the body into Hiram Earnshaw's house ; and it was afterwards removed to the Royal Oak, and afterwards to the Crown. When it was found, some men said it was Jonathan Sandford.'

"A verdict similar to those in the other cases was then returned."

The jury was the same which had been engaged in the official investigation of the state of the reservoir, and which concluded its various and protracted sittings on Friday, the 27th of February.

Except in the cases of the children, the appearances were not the ordinary appearances of natural death. The children seemed to have suffered little, and to have made but little resistance to the overpowering flood. But the adults appeared to have struggled and suffered much. The faces were flushed ; they exhibited bruises on various parts ; and in some cases the expression seemed to be that of surprise and consternation. This was remarked to be the case especially with Mr. Sandford. Though living actually under the mill-dam, and in the very course of the current, and warned of the danger impending over him and his family, he had retired to rest in his usual security, and the next time he was seen, it was above a fortnight after the catastrophe by which he had been surprised and destroyed. Well might his very remains exhibit the surprise of the moment in which he was awoke to a sense of his danger and called to meet death in such an awful form. Though by insuring his life he had provided for a common event, he had hoped to live for years in the enjoyment of domestic bliss ; and it is remarked that he had just expended £200 in additional household furniture.

He and his family attended the Wesleyan chapel in Holmfirth, and there his two wives had been interred. His family-tomb, being somewhat further from the brook, and protected by the chapel, had escaped the violence of the flood by which so many others were destroyed ; and it was ready to receive his two lovely children and himself, as successively they were rescued from the retiring flood. The following account of his funeral is from the "Halifax Guardian" of March 6th: the service was conducted by the Rev. B. Firth :—

"The funeral of Mr. Jonathan Sandford (for the recovery of whose body, it will be remembered, the reward of £100 was given) took place last Saturday, in the Wesleyan burial-ground, at Holmfirth. This unfortunate victim to the ' raging waters ' was followed to the grave by a large retinue of sorrowing relatives and friends ; and after the solemn ceremony of interment, the officiating Minister took occasion to address those present, in a very affectionate manner, touching upon the awful catastrophe by which so many homes had been made desolate, and endeavouring to impress the subject practically upon the hearts of his hearers."

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