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

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


Men who have become eminent, and places which have become noted in the pages of history, have frequently owed their distinction to accident. This is of such frequent occurrence, that it has passed into a proverb, "It is the occasion that makes the man." It is, perhaps, still more true, that some signal catastrophe only is likely to give prominence, for a time, to such a place as the village of Holmfirth ; a place the very name of which had seldom been heard at any great distance from its own obscure neighbourhood, and which, before the recent flood, had scarcely attracted any degree of public attention. Henceforth, however, it will be held in remembrance, in association with some of the deepest earthly sorrows, and of the finest sympathies of which man is capable, even under the inspiration of Christian charity and love.

"Holmfirth is seven miles from Huddersfield, in Yorkshire. It is a village containing a population of 2,347 inhabitants, situated on the old road to Buxton, in the townships of Wooldale, Cartworth, and Upper Thong ; partly at the foot of three great hills, and partly climbing up their craggy sides. The Holme and Ribbleden waters unite in this village ; and this circumstance, together with its proximity to those stupendous mountains sometimes called the English Alps, renders it extremely liable to inundations. The houses are scattered in the deep valley, and on the acclivities of the hills, without much regard to arrangement. The church is a handsome modern edifice, with a tower, containing six bells. The steeple, which is of ordinary height, sinks into insignificance beneath the neighbouring houses on the cliff, where the beholder looks down upon its highest pinnacle. The traveller, at his first view of this extraordinary village, is struck with astonishment at the singularity of its appearance. The principal part of the inhabitants are employed in the manufacture of woollen cloth."

"Holmfirth has been often subject to floods ; floods which have caused much destruction of property ; but never to compare with the recent calamity. In the autumn of 1799, several houses and mills at Holmfirth and Huddersfield were swept away by the floods ; but no loss of life is recorded. In 1821 we find the following recorded :— 'On September 21st, after a heavy rain, the great reservoir above Blacksike-Mill burst its embankment, and rolled down the valley a prodigious volume of water, which forced down the buildings in its course. The flood commenced at seven in the evening, and the water had subsided at ten, but the inhabitants did not dare to retire to rest. The next day presented a truly affecting scene of desolation ; mud, stones, timber, broken furniture, work-tools, and prostrate trees were spread over the fields to a considerable extent. Happily, no lives were lost, although the wreck of property was very great.' Again, in 1822, we find : 'May 20th, after a severe thunder-storm, a cloud burst on the hills above Holmfirth and Meltham, and, from the junctions of those valleys, sent down the vale a breast of water from seven to nine feet high ; but happily no lives were lost.'"

"The entire Holme valley is a striking instance of British enterprise. On sites apparently the least adapted for their object, mills, manufactories, shops, and dwelling-houses have been erected ; the owner of each actuated only by considerations of his own means and requirement ; and yet all these isolated efforts combining to congregate and employ in the narrow valley of the Holme a large and industrious, and hitherto a thriving, population. With a striking disregard for the dangers of great floods, but a singular fear of little over flows, the Holme-lands upon the wider expanses of the valley are rarely the sites of either mills or dwelling-houses. But where the valley contracts to a gorge, and the stream deepens as it narrows, there the little space by the side of the stream is blocked-up with a mill, and a row of cottages with their 'wall-race' in the very bed of the stream, perched on the precipitous bank on the other side which did not allow room for another mill. It was at these gorges, thus obstructed by buildings, that the loss of life and property occurred. And hence it is, that although the embankment of the reservoir burst to its very base with one tremendous roar, pouring out its millions of gallons of water so fast as to empty the whole in little more than a quarter of an hour, the flood down at Holmfirth is described by some as coming in three successive surges."

Holmfirth, being the principal village on the Holme Brook, is the one from which the late awful catastrophe takes its name, and which, as it was situated in a part of the valley more contracted than some other parts through which the surging billows passed, experienced, perhaps, their utmost rage, although it is three and a half miles below the Bilberry reservoir. The valley, and the surrounding hills, were occupied by a population of about 17,000 inhabitants, about half of whom have been deprived of employment by the inundation. The attraction in this, as in many other of the ravines and glens of Yorkshire, is the Brook, which affords a very partial supply of water to work the machinery employed in the trade of the valley, and an outlet for its refuse. The stream is inconsiderable ; and though it is passed by four bridges, of one arch each, at those points where the desolation was the greatest, it may frequently be crossed by a foot-passenger stepping from stone to stone over its rugged bed. The ordinary supply of water is utterly inadequate to the necessities of the manufacturers who ply their busy machinery by the motive power of the water accumulated in their mill-dams. Hence the necessity of reservoirs. These are formed for the purpose of treasuring up the waters which frequently fall so abundantly in these mountainous districts, that, when needed, they may be let off into the different mill-dams, to turn the wheels which give a kind of magic velocity to the myriads of spindles, shuttles, cards, &c, which these manufacturers employed at the time of this destructive flood ; but which, by its terrific sweep, like many who tended their operations up to the previous sunset, are now motionless and silent for ever.

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