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

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


The insecurity of the reservoir was no secret : from the very first it was known to be defective, and by many its bursting was regarded as only a question of time ; and every unusual season of rain excited apprehension. But although the engineer had refused to certify the embankment as secure, and the contractor had in consequence entered an action for the recovery of the amount of his contract ; and everybody was sure that some day or other the barrier would burst and involve the beautiful valley of the Holme in indescribable desolation ; yet it is astonishing what recklessness and indifference prevailed amongst those whom the sweeping ruin menaced. Some who lived all but under the embankment were hardly convinced of the nearness of the catastrophe, when it was close at hand, and narrowly escaped the death which befell those who lived a mile or two down the valley. Some of those below had heard that the rupture of the embankment was possible ; and two men from Holmfirth, who had business up the valley, had even been to see the reservoir ; but on their return they gave no alarm, and retired to rest in their accustomed security. Their very familiarity with the report of danger had rendered them less susceptible than they would have been of fear and caution. Those, however, who had the reservoir in charge, and a few others also, were more alive to their peril, and that of their friends and neighbours, as shown by the following painfully interesting account of Charles Batty, the drawer in charge of the reservoir, given in evidence at the Coroner's inquest. The inquest was taken before George Dyer, Esq., of Halifax, the Coroner for that division of the West Riding which includes Holmfirth. He opened his court in the Town-Hall at Holmfirth, on the 6th of February, and continued it by successive adjournments, (sometimes at intervals of a week,) for the purpose of affording time for minute inquiry, until Friday the 27th.

"Charles Batty said, — 'I am a cloth-miller, of Bilberry-Mill. That is the next mill to the reservoir. I have lived there six years since last October. I have been the drawer of the Bilberry reservoir for six years. The gentlemen from whom I received my appointment were Mr. George Hirst and Mr. John Roebuck. Mr. J. Roebuck gave me the key. My salary was £5 per year. My duty was to supply the water for the mills below. I was appointed to draw water for Bilberry-Mill. I was to draw water to fit our mill, whether we had work or not, and for the supply of other mills as well. I had directions from Mr. Hirst to keep the water at a height of thirty-five or thirty-seven feet in the reservoir, and not to exceed forty feet if I could help it. He assigned as the reason, that it was not safe above that height. We had no marks specifying the height. I ascertained when it was thirty-seven feet, from a place in the waste-pit called a square, which was generally considered forty feet high. Some people estimate that at forty-four feet. I have generally drawn the shuttle at that height, but sometimes the water rose higher. I never saw the water come over the embankment before the 4th of February instant. I received my orders and directions from Mr. George Hirst and Mr. John Roebuck during Mr. Hirst's life ; but since Mr. Hirst's death I received them from Mr. Roebuck, and from no other person. I had no instructions to look to the repair of the reservoir, and my duty was simply to draw the water. We had a good deal of rain on the Saturday preceding the 4th, and some days previously. On the Saturday afternoon preceding the accident the water was thirty-six feet high. It was under the square referred to. The shuttle was partly drawn on that day. The proper quantity of water did not flow through the shuttle ; and I drew it up to the height on Saturday, and it remained drawn up to Sunday morning. On Sunday morning the water had risen to forty-four feet. It was four courses above the square ; and we reckoned the courses at one foot each course. On Sunday morning Mr. John Roebuck was at our house, and I told him that there was not the quantity of water coming out of the shuttle that there used to do. We then went to the reservoir, and we found that the full quantity of water was not coming through. We had two shuttles, but one was not in working order. That shuttle, however, was up. We tried to move it, but could not ; and Mr. Roebuck measured it, and ascertained that it was up. The screw part had been taken off. We then tried the front shuttle. It was in working order. We let it down and pulled it up to try it, after which we left it up. The next time I visited the reservoir was on Monday, about noon. The water then was better than a foot below the square. The water coming in then was not so strong as on Sunday. I did not go up again till Wednesday night, about five. The water was just at the ladder at the bottom of the valve-pit, and would be five or six feet above the square ; and we estimated the height at forty-six feet. The shuttle was still at the top. I did not take particular notice of the escape of water ; but I think it was the same as on Sunday, and was less than formerly. The first time that I had noticed that the escape was less than formerly was on the Saturday. I think there was more than half the usual quantity coming through the shuttle at that time. There was on the embankment, besides myself, Charles Batty, of Bottoms-Mill, and Joseph Broadhead Whitely, of Green-Owlers. It was raining very heavily at that time, and the water was coming very strong. Mr. Roebuck came up afterwards, and I saw him at my house, and told him the stream was coming in very strong, and that the escape from the shuttle was only about half what it ought to be. Mr. Roebuck said he thought the reservoir would burst if it continued raining, and he ordered me to remove my family. This was betwixt five and six o'clock, and I did remove them. I saw Mr. Roebuck again on the reservoir-bank about nine o'clock. I can't exactly speak to the height of the water, as it was getting dark, but it had risen three or four feet. The water was a good bit off running over then. I should say from the valvepit it would be fifty feet high at the time : it would be at least ten feet above the square. I did not remain long upon the embankment then, but returned again soon after nine o'clock, and found the water about three feet perpendicular from the surface of the embankment. I was there several times again that night, but 1 don't know exactly what were the hours. I left Mr. Roebuck, Mr. Whitely, and several other persons there. I was there about half-past eleven. Joseph Whitely was there, but I did not see Mr. Roebuck. The water was then running over, but not in a great quantity. I believe it had been running over some time. To the best of my knowledge, the embankment burst about half-past twelve o'clock. I was in my own house at that time, but my family had been removed. It was with great difficulty that I escaped. Before it burst, I saw Joshua Charlesworth, engineer of Bilberry-Mill, and he said he would go up and see how it was going on. He was the first who alarmed me. I heard some one whistle, but I did not know what it meant. It would be a quarter of an hour after he went up that he came down and alarmed me. There was not a great noise, but a tremendous rush of water. The regular stream was rather stronger for a few minutes, and then it came all abreast in one mass. I gave no warning to any one but Mrs. Hirst.'"

The following is from the evidence of Jonathan Woodcock, Batty's predecessor, who left his situation because he could not get his salary of £5 per annum :— "I was at the reservoir on the Sunday morning before the accident. They were working the shuttles. Mr. John Roebuck was coming away when I was going, and he said, 'There is great danger.' We were about forty yards from the reservoir then. The water was forty-seven feet high. It was three feet above the square, and I reckon the square as forty- four feet high. I noticed the water through the shuttle. It did not sweep through as it ought to do ; and, in my opinion, there was only about half the quantity which ought to have come. I looked down the waste-pit, and observed that the water was boiling up instead of sweeping' through. I was at the reservoir again on Wednesday night, at nine o'clock. I went there because Joseph Whitely told me that the water was within eight feet of the top. When I got there it was within two courses (exclusive of the coping) of the top of the waste-pit. It was about two yards from the top of the embankment by the slope, or about two feet perpendicular. There were many people on the embankment at that time. Mr. John Roebuck was there, but at that time he said nothing. The first time I stayed a very little, and returned about eleven, when I found that the water was nearly running over. Mr. John Roebuck was there then, and he said, 'You will see such a sight before one, or at the latest two, o'clock as you never saw in your life before.' I understood he referred to the bursting of the reservoir. He said there would not be a mill left in the valley. I remained on the embankment till it burst. The water began to overflow the embankment about half-past eleven. There was nothing done at the waste-pit or other places to prevent the bursting. I was close to the embankment when it burst. It did not burst all at once. There was a hollow in the puddle on the north side. The water commenced to overflow on the north side, into the hollow first, and then over it, when it washed away part of the embankment. There was no water to be seen in the hollow at eleven. The first time I noticed it flow into that hollow would be about twenty minutes past eleven. It lodged there for half an hour, after which it overflowed the outer portion of the embankment. The hollow would be six feet in depth. It was on the out side of that hollow where I noticed the embankment first give way. It began to give way about the middle of the embankment. The water ran along the top, and the upper surface of the embankment continued to give way. After that the water boiled up about the middle of the outside slope of the embankment, and swept away a great quantity at once. The water washed nearly to the bottom, close, as we imagined, to the puddle-bank. We were then aware of the consequences which would follow, and withdrew from the embankment. The embankment gave way, and Bilberry-Mill was swept down in less than five minutes after wards. After the outer portion of the embankment was washed away, the puddle-bank was standing, but we had not much time to notice it."

We have preferred giving this full account of the awful event from those in charge, on their oath before the Coroner's jury, as showing their unaccountable indifference, as to the loss of life and property, up to the very hour at which it occurred. There is proof that on the previous Sunday the reservoir was considered in a very dangerous state ; that, at six o'clock in the evening of Wednesday the 4th, the danger was so great that Mr. Roebuck ordered Charles Batty to remove his family, and he did remove them. This was at least six hours before the rupture took place. At eleven, Mr. Roebuck said, "You will see such a sight before one, or at the latest two, o'clock as you never saw in your life before : there will not be a mill left in the valley." But, strange infatuation ! although that valley contained mills, houses, and cottages, to the water's edge, and hundreds of human beings, most of them in all the insensibility of their "first sleep" at midnight, not a single messenger is despatched lower than Digley-Mill, only about-one sixth of the distance from the reservoir to Holmfirth. Nay, even those who were nearest the point of anxiety and danger were as narrowly saved as some of those at a distance.

"A few hundred yards down the valley, and on the same side as Bilberry-Mill, stood Digley Upper-Mill, lately occupied by Mr. John Furniss, woollen manufacturer, whose affairs were in the hands of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court. The building was a block of stone work, consisting of a factory, a large house, farm-buildings, and outhouses. The end of the mill was washed away, a quantity of machinery, and a large amount of property, in the shape of pieces, warps, &c, destroyed, and the gable-end of the house, which is comparatively new, and the whole of the farm-buildings, swept away, with horse, cows, goat, poultry, &c. In the house were Mrs. Furniss and her two children ; and in bed, in one of the chambers, were two messengers from the Bankruptcy Court. They were alarmed at the rapid rise of the waters about half-past twelve o'clock, and left the house : one of the messengers, named William Crompton, had barely time to put on his clothes, and get on the rising ground, before the final bursting of the reservoir took place. He had to wade up to the middle in water before he could reach terra firma, and gain the mountain-side. Mrs. Furniss says, she saw the bursting of the bank, and she describes it as the rising of an immense sheet of foam, or mist, accompanied by a sound like reverberating thunder. The miller employed at this factory had been confined to bed for seven weeks ; and he with his family remained in the house at one end of the mill until the following day, when he was taken away in a cart, he not having sustained any personal injury."

Even at Digley-Mill the escape of the family was very remarkable. The following is the statement of Mr. Henry Beardsall, the son-in-law of Mrs. Hirst, the proprietor of the premises, in conjunction with Mr. Beardsall, inserted in the "Leeds Mercury" :— "Mr. Beardsall had become somewhat alarmed at the rapid rise of the water in the reservoir, and began to fear that the embankment would not be able to resist the immense pressure. He accordingly determined to make an examination of it the last thing before retiring to rest on Wednesday night ; and for this purpose he walked up the valley to the top of the embankment, taking his stand on the side opposite the funnel. The weather had cleared up, and the moon, being at the full, shone bright, so that an inspection could easily be made. As he stood on the top of this embankment, at an elevation of more than sixty feet, he saw the water roll over its topmost height ; and while he gazed, the embankment gave way in a mass, and was burst away at a distance of not more than two or three feet from the place where he stood. In this fearful position his thoughts reverted to his family and the family of his mother-in-law, all the members of which he had left only a short time previous in their houses at Digley. It occurred to him that he might outrun the flood ; and he started off at full speed down the valley, intending to give the alarm to his family and friends, keeping in his route to the left of the bed of the water-course. On mounting a wall which he had to cross, the torrent of water spread out into the valley, and levelled the wall the moment he placed himself upon it, for the length of fifty feet, the swell of the water extending towards him. Finding himself in this imminent peril, he made for the high ground, and only reached the hill-side in time to see the mill, houses, and other premises at Digley, carried- away by the resistless torrent, and, for aught he knew, the whole of his relatives and domestics with them. This must have been a moment of intense agony, as he thought upon the fate of his family and friends ; but, to his amazement and delight, very soon his friends and domestics surrounded him on the hill-side. What a moment of ecstasy and joy must that have been to find himself again in the presence of those who only the instant before, he felt assured, had been swept away with the resistless flood! 'How had they escaped?' was a question which he might well ask, and which was promptly answered. During the absence of Mr. Beardsall, Mr. Edward Barber, a nephew of Mrs. Hirst, who resided at Holme-Banks, about half a mile from Digley, whose family had become alarmed for the safety of their friends, had been sent by his father to get them out of the valley. He arrived during the absence of Mr. Beardsall at the reservoir, and insisted upon every one leaving the houses ; and through this most providential interference, the lives of these two families, and also of the families of the cottagers, were saved, with some of the furniture of the lower rooms of the houses. Mr. Barber wished to remove the books belonging to the establishment ; but Mrs. Hirst, who left the house with great reluctance, refused to tell him where they were, intimating that they were 'safe enough.'"

We have thus lingered in the vicinity of the reservoir at that midnight hour, and at the terrible crisis of its disruption, for the purpose of collecting all the evidence we could gather of the occurrences of that fatal moment. All that description and engraving can do, has been done to depict the horrors of the letting loose, almost in an instant, of three hundred thousand tuns of water from such an elevation ; but how futile is the attempt to describe or to portray such a catastrophe! The simple narratives here recorded are, perhaps, more eloquently descriptive of its horrors, than all the art of pen or pencil.

But we must also remember that this flood was no sooner let loose, than it became armed with the most destructive missiles, to assist it in its work of desolation. Uprooted trees, the beams of demolished mills and houses, and, above all, the tremendous steam-boilers, — one of which is said to have weighed fifteen tons, — became the sport of this surging torrent, and, like so many battering-rams, assisted it in its onward work of ruin. We must now endeavour to follow it in its course, and make a tour of the once-beautiful and romantic, but now desolate, valley of the Holme. In this we are assisted by the following graphic narrative from the "Halifax Guardian" of February 7th.

After describing the destruction of Bilberry and Middle-Digley Mills the writer continues, — "A little below this singular scene of devastation, the valley becomes contracted into a narrow gorge ; but, in spite of the natural disadvantages of the situation, the enterprising genius of a British manufacturer had been evinced in the erection of some very extensive premises known as Digley-Mill. On the left of the river some extensive dye-works were erected ; and a little lower down, on the same side, a large weaving-shed. Between the two there was a Wright's shop, a mistel, barn, cart-shed, &c, and two cottage-houses. On the opposite side of the river stood five cottages and a large wooden mill. The whole of this extensive property, with the exception of the mill-chimney, was swept away. Such a complete and utter wreck we never before witnessed. One can conceive of a single building being gutted ; but to be told that only the day previous the property we have briefly described was situated upon either bank of the river, appeared a marvel. Of the cottages scarcely a vestige remains ; but imbedded in the river are unmistakable tokens of extensive works having recently been planted there. Part of the steam-engine remains ; but the huge boiler was floated down the stream as though it were only the weight of a tin tea-kettle. No pen can describe this terrible wreck of property. Some of the dye-pans remained ; but all the machinery and valuable store of goods were gone, — all swept away. We have heard the loss at this place variously estimated, and should think that £-20,000 was under rather than over the mark. During the whole of Thursday, Digley-Mill was visited by thousands of spectators, and certainly such a terrible scene has seldom been witnessed by man. Fortunately Mr. George Hirst and his family were saved, having been made aware of the extreme probability of the reservoir bursting during the night. We had an opportunity of hearing the evidence of two of the tenants occupying the cottages on the right-hand side of the river, and shall give it pretty much in their own words.

"Peter Webster said, that, having heard that the reservoir was in an unsafe state, he went to look at it about half-past ten o'clock on Wednesday. He saw a large hole which had been washed in the inner embankment, about three yards from the top : the wind was blowing hard at the time ; and, fearing that the embankment would break, he gave a warning to that effect to the inhabitants at Digley-Mill, and owing to his foresight not a single life was lost at this place. From what he saw at the reservoir he could not rest until he had visited it again, and went up accordingly after midnight. While thus proceeding on his journey, he met a man, who in breathless haste exclaimed, 'Peter, it's coming : run back!' Webster immediately returned, and soon after the whole valley was inundated. He describes the rolling of the tumbling waves down the valley as being awfully grand. His house was swept away, but his wife and children escaped with their clothes on their backs, being the only things they saved, excepting half a loaf of bread and an old crust of cheese. They formed a pitiable group when we saw them in the upper room of a small warehouse, built higher up the hill-side on the left hand, and which fortunately escaped the wreck.

"James Armitage, the miller, said, that, having been warned by Webster, he took the precaution to remove his family, but every vestige of his property had been swept away. He said he stood on an elevated position upon some steps, and saw the first approach of the waters. According to his own vivid but homely description, the mill, weaving-shed, dye-house, went 'crash, crash, crash,' and in ten minutes or less the whole of the extensive premises were gone. He relates a most wonderful escape of a young man, who had been confined to his bed by an attack of rheumatism. Fearing that a flood would come, Armitage, along with three other men, wrapped the sickly man in blankets, and carried him out of the house to a neighbour's house high up the hill-side. They had just got him out of the house when the torrent swept past. One minute later, and the whole five would have perished.

"It is providential that this awful calamity occurred during the night : had it occurred a few hours later, the whole of the hands employed at these works would have been on the premises, and the probable loss of life under such circumstances makes the blood run chill to contemplate. This remark also will apply to the other mills partially or wholly destroyed by the rapid descent of this terrible flood.


"The next scene of destruction down the stream was at Bank-End Mill, occupied by Messrs. Roebuck, and used as a woollen mill. The east end of the mill was forced in, and a great portion of the machinery washed away. To add to the accumulative force of the destructive current, the mill-dam gave way. Fortunately no loss of life occurred in this locality.


"At this part the valley, which has run from west to east, assumes a north-easterly direction, and is a considerable width ; and the water, therefore, was spread over a much greater surface, but left sad evidences of the amazing velocity with which it swept along. Holme church is situated on one side of the valley, the steeple facing up the stream. The churchyard-walls were tumbled down, and nearly all the tombstones overturned, the church-doors were stove in, and such was the force of the water that the whole of the pews on the floor of the church were lifted up bodily. Cushions, prayerbooks, &c, were washed away in great numbers, and the interior of the church presents a lamentable aspect. A goat, which was last seen feeding in the graveyard, was found dead in the middle aisle of the church, having been washed there by the flood. The battlements, and one of the arches of the bridge, are washed away, rendering the valley impassable. The gates of the toll-bar house were also lifted from their position, and swept along by the fury of the torrent, but the bar-house escaped. The wreck of property left by the flood when it subsided is immense: mud, broken machinery, woollen pieces, large beams of machinery, and broken furniture were spread over the fields to a great extent. The houses of the inhabitants bordering upon the stream were inundated, their property either spoiled or destroyed, and such was the quantity of mud and filth which had accumulated in and about their dwellings, that a most awful stench was occasioned, and the next evil to be feared is the outbreak of some dreadful pestilence. The inhabitants appeared to be in a state of bewilderment bordering upon distraction, and tears were in almost every eye.


"We now approach a spot where the most appalling scenes were witnessed, and where the uncontrollable fury of this terrible visitation manifested itself in its most fearful form. Hinchliffe-Mill is occupied by Messrs. Butterworth and Co., and, like the rest of the mills in this locality, is used as a woollen mill. A large dam extends on the easterly side of the mill, and on the other side of the river six cottages were erected, immediately opposite the mill ; the rivulet dividing the respective buildings. On the easterly side of these six cottages was a large mistel, and above that another long row of cottages upon the immediate banks of the river. This row of houses is called Water-street, and it was in this locality where the most terrible loss of life was occasioned. From the information we were able to collect, it appears that a general rumour prevailed that the reservoir (which is about two miles and a half up the valley) was in an unsafe state, but no specific information was conveyed to the unfortunate inhabitants that immediate danger was apprehended. It was like the story in the fable. The cry of ' Wolf! wolf!' had been raised so repeatedly, and no 'wolf ' had ever come, that the inhabitants generally laughed at the idea of the reservoir bursting, and retired to rest in fancied safety. Fatal security!

"In order to appreciate the dreadful scene to which we are now about to introduce our readers, it must be borne in mind that the six cottages to which we have alluded as being erected on the bank of the river opposite to that on which stands the mill, faced sideways to the stream, the dam-head being immediately opposite. These cottages were occupied respectively by Eliza Marsden, Joseph Dodd, Jonathan Crossland, John Charlesworth, James Metterick, and Joshua Earnshaw, with their families. In all, forty-four individuals retired to rest in that clump of houses on Wednesday night ; and soon after they had gone to sleep — or, at all events, retired to bed — thirty-six of them met a watery grave. The following is the sad record : —

Eliza and Nancy Marsden, and two sons ; all lost 4
Joseph Dodd, wife, and two daughters ; all lost 4
Jonathan Crossland, and seven children ; all lost 8
John Charlesworth, wife, and eight children ; seven lost 7
James Metterick, wife, and twelve children ; nine lost 9
Joshua Earnshaw, son, grandson, and grandaughter ; all lost 4

"Thus out of this terrible catalogue, four families have been clean swept away! The whole of the houses were carried away by the flood ; and when we visited the site upon which they had stood, an old rusty can was the only article we saw. Houses, furniture, beds, bedding, and inmates, — all were swept away. A person who saw the houses go, described the scene thus :— 'I was looking out of the window, and saw the water coming rolling down the valley. In a minute after I saw the six houses wobble a bit like on the top of the water, and then they all went away.' With regard to the three first families on the list nothing can be said, excepting that one or two bodies have been recovered : the rest were carried along by the mighty torrent. Three of Charlesworth's children, by some means, made a miraculous escape. They ran to the door of a neighbour named Ellis, and were fortunately taken in by him just in the nick of time to make their escape out of the top of the house. Other two children of the same family had escaped as far as the top of the fold leading into the turn pike-road, but returned to rescue two hens which they kept, and by so doing were caught and drowned.

"In the family of the Mettericks two remark able circumstances occurred. The eldest son, (William,) who does not live there, had been for a warp ; and, the evening being so very wet and stormy, he decided to stay there all night at his father's, rather than encounter the storm in going home to his family. He was drowned. Another son, twenty-four years of age, was washed out of his bedroom, but fortunately got astride a small beam, on which he managed to balance himself, and was carried with tremendous impetuosity down the foaming waves. Fortunately the end of the beam pointed itself in the direction of the dam adjoining Mr. Harpen's mill ; and, borne up by the beam, he swam into this harbour of refuge, and was rescued from his Heaven-sent life-boat in a state of extreme exhaustion.

"Immediately in the rear of the site upon which these cottages formerly stood is another row, the lowermost of which is occupied by Robert Ellis. It was to this man's door that three of Charlesworth's children ran when the flood first approached. He heard their knock, and immediately opened the door, let them in, and the moment after he had closed the door it was burst open, and the house inundated. Some stockings had been hung up to dry on the bread-creel ; and when we saw them on Thursday they were marked with mud half way up the leg, showing the height of the water in the house. Ellis had a most miraculous escape : he ran up-stairs with his children and those of Charlesworth, and fourteen of them made their escape out of the top of the house. The great rise of water in this immediate locality, and sudden destruction of an entire row of houses, probably arose, first, from the narrow confined water-course opposite the houses ; and, secondly, from the bursting of the mill-dam immediately in their front. A double force would thus be brought to bear against this pile of buildings. It is seldom that we have read before of such a direful destruction of life and property as this we have just narrated.

"The next building higher up the stream is a mistel, where a valuable cow was drowned ; and above this building stands another row of cottages, in continuation of Water-street. A great loss of life was occasioned in this row of houses. But several wonderful escapes are narrated. The cottage occupied by Joseph Brook, wife, and child, was perfectly inundated. The wife and child were lost, but Brook was saved. Brook gives a most affecting account of the loss he has sustained, and of his own narrow escape. He says that he and his wife slept in 'the house,' and his little daughter up-stairs. The child awoke about half-past one o'clock, and came down-stairs, exclaiming, 'Father! father! I am frightened by the wind.' The father leaped out of bed, hearing a strange unearthly sort of noise. He ran to the window, and the next moment exclaimed, 'It's not the wind, it's water ; and the water is on the doorstones : run up-stairs.' He says he did not know but that they were all running up-stairs, but when he got into the chamber he found himself alone. In a moment he heard the water rush through the door of his house, his daughter gave a shriek, he heard a few sighs, and all was still. He then got into the lobby, went to a window, and cried out for assistance. Some men brought a ladder, and he escaped with no other article of clothing save his shirt. When the water subsided, his wife and daughter were found in the bed, and it appeared as though the poor child had run to her mother for safety. " The next-door neighbour, George Crossland, had a more marvellous escape. His family escaped, when he was caught by the water down-stairs, which rose to the height of seven feet in a few minutes. Fortunately, the room was still higher, and, as he had learned to swim, he managed to keep his head above water for some time, but soon became thoroughly exhausted, and was nearly suffocated, and swam round the house in the vain hope of catching hold of something At last he caught hold of a 'sampler' hung up in a frame to the wall ; and, the nail very fortunately having been hammered into the wall a little faster than usual, he man aged to keep afloat until the flood passed away, and thus was rescued.

"In another adjoining house occupied by James Booth, his wife, and a lodger named William Heeley, the whole family were lost.

"In a house in the same street occupied by Jonas Wimpenny, a whole family of eight persons had a most marvellous escape. The oldest son, hearing the rushing of the water, wanted at once to open the door, but, owing to the presence of mind of some member of the family he was prevented, and the door kept to until the whole family had escaped. The next moment the door was burst open by the flood. In all forty-one persons have met an untimely death at Hinchliffe-Mill.


"Progressing lower down the stream, we come to Harpen-Mill, occupied by Messrs. Barber and Co. ; and Victoria-Mill, occupied by Messrs. Harper and Co. At the latter place three dwelling-houses were entirely washed away, but fortunately the inmates escaped. Both mills have suffered great damage.


"This mill was occupied by Messrs. Sandford and Co. ; and on the left-hand side a small mansion had been erected, and was occupied by Jonathan Sandford, jun., Esq., — his family consisting of two daughters (the one about ten and the other five years of age) and his house keeper. The house was completely swept away, and nothing left standing except a portion of one of the walls. It is said that Mr. Sandford had been informed the evening before, that a report had spread about the unsafe state of the reservoir, and that it would be hardly safe for him to sleep at home ; and it is rumoured that he did not believe there was sufficient danger to justify the removal of his family : he therefore retired to rest with them ; but not one now remains to tell the events of that terrible night! Such a tragic event has created an unusual amount of sympathy in the neighbourhood, which was not a little heightened by the almost frantic offers of reward to any amount, by his distracted father, (who resides in the neighbourhood,) for the recovery of any of the bodies. According to our latest reports only one of the bodies had been recovered ; and, with numberless others, the rest may have been washed out even to the sea, the rivers being so greatly swollen by the late heavy rains. Not a particle of the property has been found, that we are aware of, except a deed of some property belonging to Mr. Sandford, which was found embedded in Mr. Floyd's garden. Two houses in the immediate vicinity of Mr. Sandford's residence were also swept away, but the inmates were saved.


"The mill called Upper-Mill, occupied by Mr. John Farrar, was washed into, the engine greatly damaged, the whole of the dyehouse nearly swept away, and a great amount of 'mungo' or 'devil's dust' carried down by the flood. In addition to the injury done to the machinery, Mr. Farrar has sustained a still more serious loss. On Wednesday he had payments made to him amounting to nearly £700, which he had deposited in his counting-house. The whole of this amount was swept away.

"At Lower-Mill, occupied by Mr. J. H. Farrar, nearly all the windows were broken, the machinery greatly damaged ; and, what is remarkable, the boiler was lifted clear off its seat and carried away, rolling on the surface of the water like an immense porpoise. How far down the valley this boiler was carried we have not ascertained ; but several boilers have been left high and dry in the fields by the retiring waves. The mill-dam was also burst.

"It appears that some person had run down the valley when the embankment first gave way to give an alarm ; for in the neighbourhood of Lower-Mill or Upper-Bridge several young men who were returning from Holmfirth met a young man who was running and crying, 'Flood ! flood !' but was unable to utter one single syllable more. Mr. Tedbar Earnshaw and Mr. George Littlewood, in company with some others, met this young man at Holmfirth, and by a sort of instinct at once concluded that the reservoir had burst; but the young man who thus brought the alarm sank thoroughly exhausted to the ground. Upon the strength of the supposition they had come to, they commenced kicking at all the doors, and in less than five minutes the flood was upon them. Earnshaw says that he saw a bed with two little children in it coming out of one of the houses, and roll down the stream : the shriek ing children were lost. Mr. Littlewood says that he handed about twenty women and children out of houses, and knocked up several of the inhabitants, who in the utmost consternation and bewilderment beheld their dwellings surrounded by water.


"The first news of the fearful doom which had befallen so many of the inhabitants in the Holme-valley, and of the terrible approach of the flood, reached Holmfirth about half-past one o'clock; and we believe the two parties just alluded to, along with one or two of their companions, were the first to rouse the inhabitants : at all events they acted in a praiseworthy manner in their heroic exertions to save life and property. Among others whom they aroused was Mr. Lomax, surgeon, who upon running to his bedroom-window was horror-struck at seeing the water surging in the road beneath. Looking across the valley, he saw the toll-bar house carried away at one fell swoop. Thinking it time to escape, he and his wife and family managed to squeeze themselves through one of the windows on the back part of the house, and ascended one of the neighbouring heights for security.

"Perhaps the most affecting spectacle which the dawn of the morning revealed in this valley of desolation was the number of dead bodies, and especially of females, which were laid in the mud and upon the banks of the river. They were all carefully removed by the special constables and others engaged for the occasion, and taken to the nearest public-houses.

"Considerable damage was done at Upper-Bridge, where the valley is very much confined. The door of a dwelling-house occupied by a poor man named Joseph Hellawell was burst open by the destructive current. He was in bed at the time with his wife : his five children were also asleep in bed. Hellawell made his escape by climbing into an upper room, from whence he was taken into another dwelling by the inmates, and saved. His wife and children were all drowned. In the next house two children, named Alfred and Sarah Wood cock, were drawn into the current, and perished. A house adjoining the bridge, occupied by Enon Bailey, was swept away, with his wife and children. The toll-bar house in Hollow-gate, kept by Samuel Greenwood, was entirely swept away, and the inmates, three in number, drowned. Two houses a little lower down the river, occupied by Mr. Ashall and his family, were completely carried away, not a vestige remaining : the family, five in number, were all lost. In an adjoining house two females named Kaye were drowned.

"Great damage was done to the church, and especially to the Wesleyan chapel. Several graves were burst open in the grave-yard attached to the Wesleyan chapel, and coffins were floated away from what had been considered to be their last resting-place.

"At Cuttle-Bottom, a most miraculous escape is stated to have taken place in a dwelling-house adjoining Mr. Wimpenny's house, in which a servant of Mr. Floyd's, solicitor, and a little boy, were sleeping. When the water rushed into the house, the man seized hold of the boy, and made for the staircase ; but just as he reached the door, it was closed by the force of the water, and the boy was separated from him. Of course it was expected that the boy was drowned. It turned out, however, that the little fellow, when borne up by the force of the water, had caught hold, as with a death-gripe, of one of the joists, and held fast for a long hour, until the water subsided, when he made his escape.

"At Bridge-Mill the force of the current washed down the embankment of the dam, doing considerable damage to the mill and machinery. A building at Bridge-Fold, occupied by Mr. Exley and his family, was completely destroyed, and the inmates pulled out of the house before it went to complete ruin. Their escape is miraculous. The harrowing recital of scenes which will never be effaced from the memory of those who witnessed them, might be continued to an indefinite extent, but we are obliged to limit our description.

"Several of the Magistrates had a narrow escape of their lives. The residences of Messrs. Charlesworth and Moorhouse were greatly damaged, the boiling and foaming waters literally surrounding their houses for some time. They were all ultimately rescued.

"At Thongs-Bridge Mill the water entered, and did immense injury to the machinery and the property deposited therein. The scene of devastation in this neighbourhood beggars description. The torrent forced its way through the lower part of the mill of Messrs. Wimpenny and Woodhead, situated on the opposite side of the river, and destroyed the dry-house and other buildings. An affecting incident occurred at this place. The cottage of the engine-man, attached to the premises, was filled with water ; and, finding his position to be one of great danger, he rushed to the window, for the purpose of effecting his escape, when it at once flashed across his mind that he had left his child behind. Fortunately, he observed the little fellow floundering about, and, grasping him by the arm, saved his life.


"Below the immediate neighbourhood of Holmfirth, the whole line of the river is one scene of wreck for many miles : as the course of the river is pursued, scarcely a field, garden, or building on its confines but has suffered more or less. The strong walls on the road side, and surrounding many of the gentlemen's houses on the Honley-road, are razed to the ground, and the houses at the lower part filled with mud and sand.

"At Lockwood, the gardens of Mr. Thewlis are again a scene of complete wreck. The force of the waters appears to have cut up everything in the grounds. The loss to this poor man is somewhere between one and two hundred pounds. The most singular circumstance is, that this is the second disaster he has sustained at this garden : on that very day two years since, his entire grounds were destroyed by a storm of wind and hail ; he was but just recovering his loss, by the aid of a liberal public, when this second calamity has again blighted all his hopes and prospects.

"At King's-Mill, such was the force of the torrent, that a new bridge was torn up, which had lately been erected at considerable expense by Mr. James North, for his own convenience, in running, by a tram-road, his grain, &c, from the canal across his field and to the mill, with out the slow process of having the whole to cart from the canal-warehouse. This bridge was swept away like match or cork wood, and a large portion of it was found, during the forenoon, down below Mirfield. The stout and strong piers, of solid masonry, supporting the recently-erected bridge leading from the new road and Commercial-street to King's-Mill, erected, at considerable expense, by the Trustees, were demolished, and the bridge now hangs like a half-broken reed, and is dangerous to pass over. Several other bridges, &c, below, have suffered materially ; and men were engaged nearly the whole day, up to their breasts in water, at various points of the stream, picking out those portions of wreck they could get hold of.

" At Mirfield, the bank was one heterogeneous mass of broken furniture, wearing-apparel, parts of buildings, and every other movable or floating article. At an early part of the day, a very handsome piano-forte was got out, and the next article was a press-bedstead complete. The bodies of two horses were seen to go over the dam-stones near the station ; and they were followed by the car casses of pigs and cows. Early in the morning, the body of a young woman was taken out near to Low-Mills. She was in a state of nudity, was apparently about twenty-two years of age, and had a ring on the marriage-finger. We are informed that somewhere about £20 of property was recovered from the river in the course of the day."

On the second day after this calamity we visited Holmfirth, to see and sympathise with our afflicted friends ; and of course made the Wesleyan chapel-property the object of special inspection. It also afforded one of the best points of observation in the village, from which to look in different directions at the desolation which this awful flood had opened to the gaze of the lovers of the marvellous, — of whom thousands were visiting the place, — and to the sympathies of those whose visits have led to the most beneficent results.

The Wesleyan chapel stands in the midst of what was once a neat and commodious burying-ground, bordering on the brook to the south, and on the road to the north. Within this space, bounded by walls, is contained the chapel, school-room, vestries or class-rooms, and two Ministers' houses. The fence-walls, except on the side of the road, have been principally washed away ; the boundary-wall on the brook, though it had withstood the ordinary floods of the Holme-valley, was swept from its foundations ; the boundary-line was obliterated ; a part of the graveyard was carried into the flood ; and the river was flowing where once the dead reposed. Many graves and tombs have been destroyed ; and amongst the rest, that of the Rev. Aaron Floyd. Grave-stones, head-stones, and the coverings of many beautiful altar-tombs, have been overturned, and some of them washed into the river. One of these, seven feet in length, nearly four in breadth, and perhaps six inches thick, had been tossed, like as much cork-wood, from the tomb which once it covered. There were the wrecks of the coffins of the dead, with their ends and sides exposed to the gaze of every eye, in some instances as tenantless as if their former occupants had been called to judgment. In some cases the bones had been found, and laid side by side, to suggest lessons of mortality and humility to man, and to admonish him of the uncertainty of finding a resting-place beneath the sun, even in the grave. In or near this burying-ground was seen the wreck of a cradle, in which unconscious infancy had sweetly reposed ; a pillow, from which most probably some one on the fatal night had just awoke to find a watery grave; a mahogany looking-glass, at which some maiden, unconscious of impending danger, might, for the last time before she retired to rest, have admired her charms, and arranged her tresses ; the sofa-pillow, on which perhaps many an anxious and aching head in vain had sought repose ; the bedstead, on which the weary limbs of the son of toil might have been stretched to renew their strength and elasticity for the labours of a day which he was not to live to see ; and the bottle, from which the drunkard might have poured his midnight glass, before he lay down to rise no more. Here, too, lay the conquests of the resistless waters from the vegetable world : a large tree, torn up by the roots, of two feet diameter at the base, had been brought, no one knows whence, and deposited in the back-yard of the Ministers' houses.

The flood had risen twelve or fifteen feet high at the lower end of the chapel ; and, having burst in the lower sash of the windows, had filled the chapel, up to the top panel of the pew-doors, with water, and deposited about a foot deep of offensive mire on the floor. The end of the class-rooms was washed down, and the partitions and floors sent adrift, so as to make the whole very insecure. The school rooms were in a similar state of disorder, and invaded by dirt and drift. The under-story of the Ministers' houses was filled with water six feet deep ; and, if like many of the poor they had slept on the ground-floor, like them they would have been drowned in their beds. The water was about at its height before they were aroused. Mrs. Firth, the wife of the Rev. B. Firth, hearing the roar of the waters, awoke her husband. The people outside were calling to them, and the Rev. T. Garbutt, to jump out of their windows. But it was discovered that the landing to their front-doors was not yet under water, and thus their egress was clear. They and their families escaped in their night-clothes, and sought shelter and security on the side of the hill ; and, through the good providence of God, they have not sustained the least injury.

O, what a scene of devastation is the valley! Three bridges, within sight, have had their parapet- walls swept down. One side of a street is entirely swept away, so that nothing appears less likely than that, on the Wednesday night preceding, inhabited houses had stood there, most of whose tenants were now numbered with the dead. The opposite side of the street also is a mere heap of rubbish, mingled with all kinds of wreck brought down by the flood. Amongst the wreck, are cast metal dye-pans, of several tons' weight each, and two steam-engine boilers, one stopped in its progress by the bridge, and the other grounded in a vacant space, some three miles, it is said, from the place where formerly it was wont to do the work of fifteen horses, in driving the machinery of one of the mills. It is ten tons' weight ; and in its rapid course down the valley, it had been an awful instrument of destruction. A poor man, who had lost two of his children, and very narrowly escaped with his wife and four others, on a subsequent visit gave us a fearful account of the destruction occasioned by these ponderous floating bodies striking the buildings, and scattering them in their course in the angry flood. Had this bulky boiler proceeded a little further, (and no reason can be assigned why it did not,) it would probably have destroyed the Wesleyan chapel, or the Ministers' houses, whichever it had struck. The Ministers, their families, and their friends, looked at its dangerous contiguity to their " holy and beautiful house," with gratitude to God, that it had been arrested in its destructive career. The injury done to the chapel-property is great, and cannot be less than £300. In this is not included the breaking of the tombs. It must be left, we presume, to those whose affection was gratified in their first erection, and whose feelings cannot be described on seeing these monuments of respect to the dead, to a large extent, a heap of ruins, to repair this damage.

But the dead ! O, what a sight is the remains of those who have been recovered from the flood ! At the Crown Hotel we saw six bodies. At the George Inn, we saw eight bodies ; six of them of one family, of the name of Hellawell, of Scarfold, Holmfirth. On one table lay, side by side, five fine and lovely children, each a little taller than the other, as in the order of their birth ; and at their feet lay their mother in tearless insensibility to their fate and her own. The father of this interesting group of children escaped. They slept, it seems, in what in Yorkshire is called "the house ;" that is, the lower story of the building. He had only just time to run up the stairs, and was saved by being dragged through a hole in the floor of the house above. His wife and family were drowned in their beds. The two other corpses were those of Jonathan Crossland, and Joshua his son. The appearance of the place was desolate in the extreme. The back-walls of some of the houses were washed away, and their interior exposed to view, and the ruins were dangerous to be approached : the lower rooms of those that stood were filled with drift and mud, and the poor people were trying to remove it, and restore them to a habitable state. The town was almost deluged with mud ; and men with carts were employed in its removal. Special constables, with cards in their hats, designating their office, and with begging-boxes in their hands, asking alms for what but two days before was a prosperous village, were standing at the corners of the desolated streets. It was a fearful sight. With the exception of hundreds of curious visiters, the living seemed scarcely alive ; and, instead of the neatness and activity of business, the shops which were left standing were not only closed, but they exhibited nothing but broken windows, and a mixture of goods, wreck, and mud. Many of the survivers had retired into secret to mourn their losses, and, we may hope, to seek consolation in God.

At this time the bodies were being found ; a few in the rooms in which they had been drowned, but a greater number amongst the mud, and drift, and rubbish. One had been discovered in a hedge, another in a thorn-bush, and a third high up in the forks of a tree.

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


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