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

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


In the preceding narratives some cases have been given which come under this designation ; but to have separated them from their connection would have broken the course of the narrative. Those here brought forward are such as it had been reserved for the calmer moments of intercourse and reflection to bring to light, and for the recital of those who owe their existence to the gracious interposition of that God who, though he employs a friend, or a beam, or any other agent or instrument, to accomplish His purpose of mercy, is not, therefore, to be ungratefully forgotten. This is, perhaps, most likely to be the case, when, in the midst of imminent peril, self-possession is maintained, and the means which lead to security are used at the apparent promptings of a prudent in genuity. Of this kind of ingenuity some cases are related which ought to lead all, and especially the persons themselves, to adore that God whose "Spirit alone giveth us understanding."

The instances which we intend here to detail will, by individualising the sufferers, throw us more into their society in the trying hour. We shall commence at Hinchliffe-Mill, where the flood first became fatal, and where those who escaped, in some cases, had not only to flee from death by the flood, but to abandon to its merciless violence their sinking, dying friends. One of those who escaped as by miracle was James Metterick, a young man of twenty-four years of age. His statement is as follows :—

"There were ten of us in the house, — my father, step-mother, and eight children. Some body came and roused us just at one o'clock. I put on my trousers ; my step-mother and I stood on the stairs. We looked out of the windows, and saw a large quantity of water and sticks coming down. From their appearance we knew the reservoir had burst. I and my step-mother came down-stairs, and my father handed us the children, who were asleep in the house-part," (the lower room,) "for us to lift into the chamber. The water burst in at the window and through the door, filled the lower room, and half filled the chamber. I ran with the rest into the garret, except my father and one child, who we expected were drowned in the house. About half a minute after we had got into the garret, the whole house gave way, and we were all swept down the stream, and I saw no more of any of them. No part of the house touched me that I know of. When I got into Harpin's" (Bottom's) "dam, I caught hold of a piece of wood, and sprang up. I got a good sob of breath, and then went under water and lost my hold of the plank : on coming up again, I got hold of another, and again rolled over : at last I got hold of a large piece of timber, and kept my hold. I got hold of a small piece of wood, and paddled it towards the side. A gust of wind then came, and blew me towards the land on the Anstonley side. I leaped off the timber, and fell up to my neck in water ; but I managed to scramble out of the water, and after falling several times, I got to a house, and stripped off my trousers and shirt, (all I had on,) and went to bed. I was nearly exhausted."

At Victoria-Mill twenty persons were very narrowly saved from three houses, which were washed down just as the fleeing families had escaped to the one which was on the ground nearest the road. The names of the heads of these families were John Howard, Eli Sander son, and John Pogson. A young man named Haywood speaks as follows :—

"I lived with my grandfather, John Howard, in the house nearest the river. The next was occupied by Eli Sanderson and family ; and the house furthest from us by Joseph Pogson. Over our house was a warehouse, which was partitioned off from Pogson's by a thin wall. We heard no alarm, and found the water about us. Pogson, I believe, got his family up into the garret by a ladder, after which he pulled the ladder up after him, and broke into the warehouse through a door which had been closed up. He then broke a hole through the fleor, and putting the ladder down, enabled Sanderson to get into the warehouse also. Both the families were then over our heads, but we could not get to them. When the water had subsided, I got a lad on my back, and tried to escape to the road, but I could not, and I turned back, and put the lad on the mill-step ; after which nine of us who were in the house escaped, when we placed a ladder against the end of the wall, and enabled the other families to escape. Immediately after, the roof fell in. The greater part of the building came down."

Mr. Richard Woodcock's account is this :—

"When I was aroused by the cry of those who gave the alarm, there were nine of us in the house, — myself, my wife, and seven children. On hearing the alarm, I ran up a few steps leading to the road, to see what was the matter ; but, on hearing the roar of the water, I ran back again to see for my family. I met my wife at the door, with two of the children : I took one under each arm, and carried them up into the road, and told my wife to follow me. When I took these children, I was up to my knees in water. My wife, instead of following me, ran up-stairs to see after the children. These were five in number, and they all slept in the garret ; three in one bed, two in another. The bed containing the three was washed away, the other stood. Two out of the three sleeping in the bed washed away, or that fell with the part of the floor into the flood, awoke and got up, — a girl five years old, and a boy of seventeen. This boy went down-stairs, but returned to put on his trousers. The girl was coming down the ladder by which they went from the chamber into the garret, to her mother, who by this time was standing in the chamber, up to the neck in water. The ladder, with the child upon it, was washed away ; but the mother caught her as she fell, and held her up above the flood. In the garret was one child still asleep, the boy who had returned to dress, and two other children. While the boy was putting on his trousers, by the side of the bed, that part of the floor gave way, and the bed with his sister dropped into the flood, carrying him along with it. The other part of the floor stood, and the children were safe. My wife had got into a corner of the chamber, where she was sheltered from the sweep of the flood by the chimney ; and here she stood holding up the child until the water subsided. The two children (one fifteen and the other eight years of age) clung together in the corner of the room that stood, and with the mother, and child she held above the flood, were rescued in the following way. A person broke a passage through the gable-end of the house next the road, which was twenty feet above the basement-story of the house, into the garret, and the two children who clung together were taken out of the opening made in the wall. One of the children said, 'My mother is below in the chamber.' I got through this hole, and saw my wife with the child in the chamber. A person near handed me a short ladder, and I put it down to my wife ; but it would not reach the part of the floor where she stood. I held it as firmly as I could. The child first attempted to climb up this swinging ladder, but in climbing fell. Her mother again caught her, and the next time she got safe up : then the mother followed, and both were safe, and were taken through the hole like the others." This poor man is a Wesleyan, and the only member of the Wesleyan church whose house was that night entered by death.

"Another house, occupied by Mr. Enor Bailey, his wife, and two children, projected towards the stream, and was carried away by the flood. His wife and children were all drowned ; but he laid hold of a beam which was being carried down the stream, and which, by a sudden sweep, brought him again to the left bank of the river, and he was able to scramble out and escape into the turnpike-road.

"Another cottage was occupied by a labouring man, named John Kaye, with whom lived his son-in-law and daughter, with their child. The three latter were drowned, while a remark able deliverance awaited the old man. He was driven by the force of the current into Victoria-square, on the opposite side, and a little lower down the street. He was espied floating on the water by the landlord of the Rose and Crown Inn, who at once stretched out a pole to the drowning man, and rescued him from almost certain death.

"The premises occupied by Mr. T. Ellis, plumber and glazier, are elevated from the road, and ascended by a flight of steps. Never theless such was the sudden and great rise of the flood that the inmates who were sleeping in the upper story were placed in great jeopardy. Mr. Ellis made his escape by forcing open a small portion of the ceiling of the workshop with a crow-bar, and by this means got into one of the houses on the hill-side. Richard Tolson, (a workman with Ellis, and who lived upon the premises,) his wife, four children, and James Roberts, a lodger, seeing the water already up to the lower ledge of their bedroom, and having witnessed the destruction of the three houses opposite, went up the narrow and contracted bedroom-chimney, and providentially got into another house higher up the hill side. The inmates of the adjoining house, occupied by Mr. R. Parsons, escaped out of the back-door : the house was gutted.

"Mr. James Lee, tailor, perished. Lee and his grandson Job were down-stairs at the time, making some clothes for a funeral. The flood burst open the door ; and the old man, unable to help himself, was drowned. Job managed to swim about the house ; and fortunately his cries were heard by a man named Benjamin Brearley, and his wife, who lodged in the house, and were asleep up-stairs : they immediately ran to his assistance, but found themselves unable to open the chamber-door : with their feet, however, they managed to force one of the panels, and through a small aperture, of a few inches square, pulled Job by the head and shoulders."

One of the most affecting instances is that of Mr. Sidney Hartley, whether we refer to those who were lost, or to those who were saved. The family consisted of Mr. Hartley, his wife, eight children, and an apprentice. Mrs. Hartley had heard the report of the insecurity of the reservoir, and she sat up until ten o'clock. "Then, however, she went to bed. The alarm reached the family almost immediately, and the daughter (one of the three children saved) states, that the water burst upon them before they could get out of the chamber ; and when the mother found that they could not escape, she held up her infant child (a boy three months old) 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 foaming torrent. So also perished the father and four other children. But the little creature who gives this narrative, with two brothers, and an apprentice-boy, being suddenly floated up to a part of the roof which yet remained, caught hold of one of the rafters, and clung to it. The apprentice, John Dearnley, got out upon the roof, and assisted the three children to do the same. Here they remained at least twenty minutes. He after wards carried them one by one into a portion of the Holmfirth-Mills which had escaped destruction ; where, in their night-clothes, they stood up to their knees in mud, exposed to the inclemency of the weather. 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 relatives."

Mr. Joseph Barrowclough makes the following statement : —

"My residence is at the bottom of South-lane, Holmfirth, and my threshold about six teen feet above the bed of the river. At a quarter before one I was awoke by my wife : she asked what that rush was. I said it was the wind ; but I was not quite awake. I put my clothes on, and gave the alarm that the water was up to my door-stone : that was at one o'clock. I then went out, turned my attention to the churchyard, and saw a man just drowning : the water was about four feet deep : Matthew Fearns was his name. I dragged him out, and took him to my house, and left him there, and then went to see after my daughter living at Nathan Littlewood's, Ribbledon-road ; and on my way back, I tumbled over the body of the wife of the above Matthew Fearns, dead on the road. The thought struck me, 'I must not stay with the dead, but try to save the living :' so I left her just where she was. My attention was next attracted by six persons on the top of a house-ridge, one side of which stands in the river. I got upon a wall, and shouted to them, 'Stay where you are ; for the water, I believe, is about to lower.' I then attempted to make my way to them, but saw that I could not with safety. I waited five minutes, and I believe the water lowered four or five feet. I then got on a piece of timber ; and from one piece of timber to another, I got to George Haigh's shop, close to James Whiteley's house. I lost my footing, and fell up to my neck in water. I got out ; and William Martin then shouted out of his chamber-window, 'Come and save us !' and I said, 'I will shortly.' He said, 'You can now, if you will.' He first flung out a mattress out of the bed, and then flung five children, and I caught them and handed them to his brother, who had then come to my assistance ; and he took them to my house, where they were put to bed. Martin and his wife came down by a ladder, which was handed over to me. Another long ladder was brought, and was put up to James Whiteley's window. I then went up the ladder, through the window into the back room next the river; and while I was there one part of the house-side fell into the river. I then went up one flight of stairs on the back-side, next the river, into the attic, and then up through the roof, and shouted, 'Where are you?' They said, ' We are all here.' 'Come then,' I said: 'I'll try to save you.' I then brought them down, put them all out of the chamber-window, —James Whiteley, his wife, two sons, and two daughters : parties took them away to my house and the neighbours', and they were put to bed. I then came down myself into the street, which was still swimming with water ; and, turning my head up to the place from which I had fetched Whiteley's family, I saw four more persons. I went up the ladder again in the same way ; and brought down Charles Marples, his wife and servant, and a little girl, who had made their escape through the ceiling and slates to the roof of a house near to Victoria-Bridge."

The only case of resuscitation, of which we have heard in the narratives of this catastrophe, was that of a little girl, who was found in or near the grave-yard of the Wesleyan chapel. The principal agent in this case was C. T. Floyd, Esq., solicitor. When this child was found, he thought he discovered signs of life, and called the attention of Mr. Beeley, the surgeon, to the circumstance ; who, however, was of a contrary opinion. Mr. Floyd felt with his hand whether the heart had ceased to beat : he found it just fluttered ; and called the attention of Mr. B. to the circumstance, who was now convinced. They administered brandy, and used friction, and soon the little creature began to vomit. In the afternoon she was even playing in the street, with all the cheerfulness of childhood.

In seasons of surprise and danger, persons are divested of all disguise, and, in some cases, of what may appear to be a regard to the ordinary dictates of prudence. In other cases, the ruling passions and affections prompt to the use of such means as the most deliberate judgment approves, and as the warmest affection applauds. Cases which come under these descriptions occurred in this catastrophe.


The ruling passion in the solitary state of widowhood is often that of lingering attachment to the home of wedded joys, and to everything associated with blighted bliss. This was remarkably exhibited in the conduct of Mrs. Hirst, of Digley-Mill. The following is her own account of her conduct under apprehension of the flood : —

"I went into the house and opened my Bible, and thought I would read a little about the troubles of Job. After this I went to bed. By and by I was again alarmed by my neighbours, who urged me to fly for my life. The members of my family said they would go in different directions to my relations and friends, and they did so. I put, as I thought, many things out of harm's way, by taking them from the lower rooms into the chambers. The heavy pieces of furniture, such as the pianos, tables, and chairs, were left below. I got into the cellar, and there I thought of staying for safety. By and by, two of my neighbours came and urged me to run, but I refused, and clung to the cellar-stone ; but they forced me away. I then seized my youngest child, who was in bed, wrapped it in a table-cloth, and we fled for our lives, the men carrying us along ; and as soon as I got over the wooden bridge, I looked and saw the water coming in great force, mountains high, and dashing in the windows of the house. I just saw the white window-blinds floating on the water, and then remembered no more. Another minute and I had been lost. The reservoir burst before I left the house. All I had was swept away."

The following is but too true :—

"Mrs. Hirst, a widow, the mother of a large family, — who but an hour before was possessed of a respectable home, an excellent furnished house, a well-stocked farm, a large and most valuable mill, with well-appointed machinery, — was suddenly bereft of all. Not a vestige of property, estimated at from £10,000 to £15,000, now remains; and even the very clothes her family now wear they have had to sue for and obtain from private benevolence."


At Holmfirth there was a row of very neat houses and shops, recently built. They stood at right angles with the course of the stream, and with their fronts facing up the valley so as to breast the boiling flood. The lowest of these shops, and the one nearest the brook, was occupied by a Mr. Joshua Woodcock, a tailor and draper, whose shop was filled with water, and whose loss will probably amount to nearly £500. "He and his wife and family (two children, three young men, and a servant-maid,) were awoke by the roaring of the waters, and, seeing the flood rush past with such impetuosity, were very naturally alarmed for their safety. Mrs. Woodcock at last exclaimed, 'I know a way of escape : follow me.' She immediately threw open the window of the room above the shop-windows, and, nothing daunted, stepped upon the narrow wooden cornice of the shop-fronts, which is only some fourteen or sixteen inches in width. Upon this narrow ledge she ran in her night-dress to the top of the row, which consists of eight shops. Her family had not heard or understood her, and of course did not know where she had gone, and did not follow her. Finding no one followed, she returned, exclaiming, 'If I am to perish, I will perish with my children, and we will all go together.' As she was thus returning, she fell through one of the windows of an adjoining house, and, we believe, fainted. The water did not reach the story above the shops, and her husband and children were safe ; but Mr. Woodcock had an idea that his wife was lost, and in an agony he felt as if he could not survive the loss of his devoted wife. It was, however, soon made known to him that she was safe in a neighbour's house ; and when this was announced, he exclaimed, ' Then, if she is safe, I have lost nothing!' Mr. Woodcock is an excellent Local Preacher ; and he says that when, surrounded by his family, he presented their morning sacrifice of praise, he was strongly reminded of Mr. S. Wesley's feelings after the fire at Epworth rectory."

On the opposite side of the brook, at the same time, all the feelings of the mother were excited to the uttermost in the case of the wife of Mr. Sidney Hartley, until they were quenched by sudden death. Her husband and four of their children were gone. Three of them, as by miracle, had been placed on the roof of an adjoining house. The water had risen in the room so that she was all but overwhelmed : the youngest, an infant of three months old, she held in her hand out at the window, with but little hope of its being seized or saved. As long as she could, however, she held its little head above water, and only when the side of the house fell into the flood did she yield to the stern necessity of resigning it to the torrent ; and then, with a mother's heart and eye, she cast a last look on the three children on the roof, and bade them an affectionate and last farewell :

"And when she sinks beneath the billows wild,
Still, still she stretches out towards heaven — her child!"

But perhaps the following case is still more affecting :—

"Mr. Dyson, with afamily of several children, was awoke by the water coming into the house, and he succeeded in saving the whole of them : he afterwards ran across the street, and saved another family by carrying the females and children on his back ; and then he found a woman standing on a portion of her house, who refused to leave the spot, because her child had just before been swept away before her eyes : he, however, compelled her, and saved her."

At Thong's-Bridge, a mile below Holmfirth, a mother held up her child while she herself was standing almost up to the neck in water, and by this saved it from the jaws of death.

At Mytholm-Bridge, an instance of rare heroism occurred in the case of Mrs. Shaw, the sister of the Rev. James England, a Wesleyan Missionary in Newfoundland. The only means of escaping destruction was to ascend the chimney, take off a part of the roof, and thus make an opening for the deliverance of the family. Her husband was too stout to go up the chimney ; but, prompted by the feelings of the wife and the mother, she effected the difficult task, and when she had ascended the chimney, she took off a part of the roof, and through this opening took the children from her husband, and thus they all escaped.


We have given an account of two children of the name of Charlesworth, who with another of the same family "had escaped as far as the top of the fold, but, returning to rescue two hens which they kept, were caught and drowned."

At Holmfirth a lovely girl was supposed to be lost, the house in which her parents lived having been partially destroyed. She was the child of an architect, whose name we have not heard. In the search that ensued, she was found under a board-partition, which had thrown her down, and fallen upon her. Her remark was to the following effect :— "When I heard the flood, and the house shook, I could not kneel down to pray, but I said my prayers in bed." The family has removed ; but we are sorry to hear that this lovely child is so ill that her recovery is scarcely expected. The contrast here is striking.


An eccentric individual, a bachelor, who was employed as a fireman at one of the mills about a mile below Holmfirth, for the last two or three years, from mere penuriousness, had been sleeping on a sheet of wool, and had long been hoarding from his scanty income whatever he could spare. These savings amounted to upwards of £11. On the morning of the flood, he says, "I was awoke from my bed by a noise resembling distant thunder, and almost immediately, as if by magic, I found myself floating about the room. As soon as I could collect myself, I thought of my little stock of money, which I had folded up in a pocket-handkerchief, and deposited safely in a wall in an adjoining stable, opposite the mill. It was mostly in half-crown pieces. Money! money! being the topmost thought, I instantly scrambled to the window, and from the light of the moon, which shone brightly through the window, I perceived that the building was entirely swept away. I exclaimed, 'I am ruined ! I am ruined!' and hastened out of the room." In concluding his narrative he adds, "I dreamt the night previous that I was surrounded by water, and, observing a large number of half-crowns floating down the stream, I at once thought I would seize them ; and in my attempt to secure them I awoke, and found to my astonishment it was but a dream."

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