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

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


These reservoirs have been constructed under the authority of an Act of Parliament, which was passed in the year 1837. The Act provided for the construction of eight reservoirs, one of which was on the Digley Brook, at Bilberry-Mill. It was situated at the head of a narrow gorge, or glen, leading from the Holme valley, at Holme-Bridge, to a high bluff of land called Good-Bent, and was supplied by two streams flowing through the cloughs, running to the north-east and south-east of Good-Bent, and draining the moors of Holme-Moss on the one side, and the hills running up to Saddleworth on the other. The extent of surface to be drained by the reservoir was 14,000 acres ; which, reckoning at two inches of rain in twenty-four hours, would give 101,640,000 cubic feet of water. The confluence of the streams takes place between two large hills, called Hoobrook-Hill and Lum-Bank, and which run parallel with each other for a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, when they open out. and form an extensive oval basin, of not less than three hundred yards in diameter. The reservoir was formed by blocking up the valley below this basin, so as to enclose some twelve or fifteen acres of surface. This was done by an embankment, so formed that it was presumed it would constitute a barrier which would be secure against any accumulation of waters the heaviest rains could supply. The embankment was about one hundred and fifty feet wide at the top, and eighty-seven feet high, and was formed of earth, stones, &c, such as the district supplied, with a wall of what is called puddle through its centre, sixteen feet thick at the bottom, and eight feet thick at the top. This puddle was composed of clay, gravel, &c. ; and the object of introducing it was to render the embankment water-tight, and so prevent the leakage of the water. Had the design been properly carried out, no doubt it would have been safe. The precautions against an overflow which would wash away the embankment on the outside of the puddle-wall in the centre, were an outlet running through the bottom, and a waste-pit, like an immense chimney, built up in the embankment, to receive the water when it should arrive at the height of about sixty feet. These were worked by shuttles, which could be drawn up or let down at pleasure, to regulate the ordinary supply to the mills, or to carry off the surplus water in a season of heavy rain. The shuttles were under the care of a man called "the drawer," with a salary of £5 a year. In blasting the rock for the purpose of getting a firm foundation for the puddle-wall, the workmen struck into a spring, about the thickness of a man's arm. Instead of this being carried off, so as not to interfere with the work, an attempt was made to carry it up in the embankment, and force it into the inside. This injured the puddle by keeping it too soft ; and it appears to have been the first great error in the construction of the embankment. Mr. Leather, the engineer, declared on oath before the Coroner's jury, that he never heard of this spring ; and the workmen declared, that they waited five or six weeks for him to come and look at it, and that this delay cost the contractor £200 or £300. From the first, the embankment was leaky ; the leaks increased in number and power ; and the embankment sunk so as to be below the water-pipe. The Commissioners, by law-suits, and expenses incurred by the construction of this and two other smaller reservoirs, got so grievously into debt, that at one time the drawer could not get his paltry salary of £5 : and, to add to the existing evils, the Commissioners split up into parties ; so that when one party ordered a hole to be made in the waste-pit to receive the water in the event of a flood, the other interfered by threats to prevent the workmen from proceeding. The leaks had become so serious, as the drawer testifies, that they would some times supply the mills without his attending to the shuttles : one of these shuttles was under repair, and the workman suspended the work until he could learn who was to pay him ; and the other was so blocked up with stones, ling, &c, that very little water could escape. In this state was the reservoir when the extraordinary falls of rain occurred in the commencement of February, 1852. "There had been much rain for two or three weeks," says one of the witnesses. " There was a good deal of rain on the Saturday night and Sunday morning before the accident. Monday and Tuesday were fine days ; Wednesday was very wet, and continued so until about ten o'clock at night. It was very windy on Wednesday during the day and night. The water was some little higher on the Wednesday than I had seen it before. I never saw the water rise so rapidly as it did on this evening." Mr. J. F. Bateman, C.E., who has the super-intendence of the reservoirs belonging to the Manchester Corporation water-works, (which are situate but a short distance on the other side of the chain of hills,) estimates the fall of water on the summit of the hills, during the first nine days in February, at little less than ten inches ; and states that the fall of rain, at the foot of the hills, was an inch and a tenth on the day preceding the bursting of the Bilberry reservoir, and was two inches and four-tenths from 11 a.m. on the Wednesday to 11 a.m. on the Thursday. So greatly did these rains swell the streams feeding the Manchester reservoirs, that, instead of an ordinary run of from fifteen to thirty cubic feet per second, Mr. Bateman found the stream on Wednesday (the day before the Holmfirth accident) pouring into his reservoirs an average of no less than 1,730 cubic feet per second. And after that time the stream rose at one period to from 3,600 to 4,000 cubic feet per second. We have now arrived at the proximate cause of the fatal accumulation of the waters of the Bilberry reservoir ; and we see how ill prepared the outlets were to dispose of the surplus quantity ; and how weak the embankment had become, from the errors of its original construction, and the casualties and wear and tear of about a dozen years from its completion. " It is calculated, that when the embankment gave way, the quantity of water in the reservoir would not be less than eighty-six millions two hundred and forty thousand gallons, or the enormous and fearful amount of three hundred thousand tuns."