Tales of Pennine People (1923) - A Pennine Disaster

This page is part of the Holmfirth Flood Project which aims to make content available to researchers in advance of the 175th anniversary of the 1852 Flood which will be commemorated in 2027.

The following chapter is reproduced from Tales of Pennine People (1923) by A. J. Howcroft.

A Pennine Disaster

After walking several miles on that undulating and deceptive length of road between Bill's o' Jack's and Isle of Skye, with endless moors on either side, a view at last opens out to us—a kind of promised land after long deferred expectation. The sky, strewn with fleecy clouds, is blue and white, and the distance, here and there, is lighted up by fitful sunshine; the rest lies in soft shadow.

The stately hills stand up one behind another in that rare blue tint which is the poetry of the landscape. The rude mountain Inn, "The Isle of Skye," itself one thousand four hundred and seventy-seven feet above the sea, though near, lies one hundred feet below us. There is ground round about nearly two thousand feet high. For disparity compare these heights with the thirty mile tract between Manchester and Liverpool, where, like a forty mile serpentine ribbon, the old river fell but one hundred feet to the sea. Here, too, the waters divide; some of it meanders its way to the North Sea (once said to be the German Ocean), some, in the opposite direction to the Atlantic.

Before our footfall begins to descend look again at the fine range of hills. On distant eminences are two conspicuous towers — Tinker's Hobby and Cook's Study — always objects of interest and curiosity. Nearer, in the deeply graven valley, are the industrial communities of Holmfirth, Hinchliffe Mill and Holmbridge; to the left, well elevated, Upper and Nether Thong; and nearer, the scattered population of the hillsides, now fast disappearing. The immediate and less distant portion of our view is within the primitive township of Austonley.

We are standing in "Alstaneslie," in old Northumbria, looking on the rugged beauty of that ancient kingdom. There is also Holme to the right a little, high up the valley on the mountain stream, where the uncultured natives give it its right name — Holne, with the accent on the "l," for was it not so recorded by Duke William’s legati in 1086? "Besides these there are two carucates for geld in Holne and another Holne (Yateholme), and Alstaneslei and Thoac (Quick). One plough may till this land. It is waste; wood in places. Some declare this to be thaneland; others, soke in Wachf' (Wakefield)."

Yateholme is still there, and “Gateham” trough is a very mild liberty to have taKen during eight centuries.

“Where are you from?” was asked of a hardy son of the hills, one of the Whitsuntide bandsmen.

“Holne,” was his prompt reply. The “l” was as loud as when it was pronounced to William’s commissioners.

The name is now softened by fortuitous influences into “Home”: to those, however, with a prehistoric local ancestry and an inaccessible cottage it is still “HoLne.” While you are so high look down into the vale of the Holme river and beyond, where villages are to be seen with names dating back three hundred to five hundred years before the Norman Conquest, almost as enduring as the hills themselves.

Look about on the expansive gathering ground, on the deep gulleys which empty their spouts into the Bilberry Reservoir two miles below the Isle of Skye. And look deeper, into that narrow wooded valley, where people toiled and slept their daily round under the shadow of a great danger.

It is with another age than the Saxon, an age less simple in life and amenity, that we are to deal.

Since the early days of Holne the population, following cultivation, had gradually crept down the hillsides to the very bottom, where men had built themselves mills and workshops, houses with beautiful gardens, sanctuaries and God’s acres for their proper and dutiful uses.

In the opening days of February, 1852, there was no sunshine with light and shade on soft blue hills. On the contrary, all was dim and sombre by day and the nights were pitch dark. Ceaseless rain drifted and pelted and descended in sheets. Day by day the rain god, Jupiter Pluvius, pitilessly emptied the waterspouts over Yorkshire, Lancashire and the neighbouring counties until streamlets became torrents and rivers inundations. Town and country were flooded alike in every direction. The Holme, though filled to the brim, with its quick gradient could deal better with this excess of plenty than the flat and sluggish rivers. But its capacity was overtaxed by the rush and fury of the flood to be thrown into it on the fatal 5th of February.

Before 1837 the waters collected by the neighbouring hills, representing money in terms of horsepower, ran largely to waste. The rainy seasons provided more than enough for the numerous little mills on the Holne, and its tributaries, whereas, in dry weather there was a crippling shortage. The remedy for this intermittence became obvious, and eventually, urgent.

A combination of mill owners was formed and commissioners were appointed under an Act which received the Royal Assent a few days before the death of William IV. By 1838 they had applied their Act of Parliament for the making of a number of reservoirs, and were well in the midst of their troubles.

No engineer appears to have been engaged, but the contract was let in the first instance by the commissioners to Messrs. Sharp & Sons, of Dewsbury. The work done was defective and the contract was repudiated before it was completed. Messrs. W. & S. Stephenson then took the work in hand. Consequently Messrs. Sharp entered a chancery suit, after they left in 1840, against the commissioners, which was not settled in 1852. Mr. Leather, a Leeds engineer, was asked by the contractors to make a report on the best method of remedying the defects. He made plans and sections from particulars supplied by Mr. Crowther, surveyor, of Halifax, but the contractor would not carry out his ideas, which may account for still another firm of contractors, Messrs. David Porter & Bros., undertaking the work.

Mr. Leather seems to have had no authority over the contractors, whose servant he was. They did not carry out his ideas. He made few visits and those to little purpose. He left them after a feeble and spasmodic connection of some five or six years' duration.

Early in the operations a spring was discovered in the bank after reaching the shale. This appears to have been treated as a matter of little importance. Later the hole was taken four feet deeper by Mr. Leather, who also ordered a borehole to be put down, when the water gushed out as thick as a man’s leg. Like the man who sat on the safety valve with certain results, the reservoir was made to sit on the bore hole. Large quantities of puddle were tipped upon it, to a height of twenty feet before it seemed to be mastered. Then it was found to be oozing out in various new places. This trifling matter was left, apparently, in the hope that another additional twenty feet depth of earth would eventually add weight enough to stem it.

In this they were deceived; it never ceased to leak, and what was worse, the leak of the borehole became the leak of the reservoir. The engineer seldom came ; he inspired no confidence; he was never paid. Parsimonia vicit! John Tait, clerk of works at two pounds per week, gave place to a Holmfirth man at twenty-five shillings per week. The work dragged on for many years; everybody became sick or indifferent. The reservoir, partially filled with water, could not retain it. The engineer, before he left, advised the commissioners to line the reservoir with three feet thick of puddle, with which they seemed to agree, but nothing was done. The contractors were opposed to this recommendation. He had made a specification but admitted afterwards it would have failed to remedy the defects.

The water area of the reservoir when full was slx and three-quarters acres, and the great bank stood fifty-eight feet high and was three hundred feet long. Underneath the bank was a culvert thirty-seven inches in diameter, over which was erected a vertical waste pit or overflow fifty-eight feet high and twelve feet in diameter. There were two shuttles or valves for letting off the water of insufficient size and defective in design. When the water reached a certain height it ran out of the leakages more copiously, thus it became necessary to fix a limit to the waterline. The vertical overflow pit was originally to have had a bridge for access. This was never supplied. Some of the stones of the overflow were missing, but even then, the overflow was higher than the bank, which had settled.

Of the two shuttles to run the water off only one was in working order. At length the contractors cleared from the site and left a leaky and settling reservoir. The commissioners’ money was gone ; money was owing. Everything was most unfortunate and unsatisfactory. Faults of reservoir construction were not the only troubles of the commissioners ; there were also faults in the construction and provisions of the Act. Care had not been taken to base the economics of the venture on a business-like basis. Neither was there agreement amongst those benefiting by the water as to payment. The water was turned down the stream in the early morning and turned off in the evening by Charles Batty, whose duty it was to regulate the supplies, and to see that the waterline did not rise higher than thirty-six feet.

The Hirst family and Mr. Roebuck, who lived in the narrow valley below, were most watchful and insistent on the thirty-six feet line.

Day by day the water was turned on and off and the millowners’ had the benefit of as much water as the reservoir would hold. Nobody, however, would pay the water charges; everybody held an opinion as to the basis of rating contrary to anybody else.

The commissioners commenced litigation, after great disputation, which held up things much longer. They had naively set out to construct eight reservoirs with thirty thousand pounds and succeeded in making three at a cost of seventy thousand pounds — the full extent of the authorised capital, of which forty thousand pounds was a mortgage debt. No revenue was forthcoming to pay even the mortgage interest. The Act was sufficiently indefinite to cause confusion and doubt as to the interpretation of its provisions, with a paralysing result. The solicitors to the commissioners resigned because things seemed so hopeless. The reservoir banks became worse with time but there was no money to spend upon them.

In their disputes as to the method of rating one group of millowners claimed as a basis “the feet of fall,” some others claimed a basis of horsepower. Whatever was meant, these claims are identical. Prima facie, there is an appearance of equity and fairness in these proposals, but there lurks an element of injustice in the background, which, no doubt, was responsible for the want of unity. If based on “the feet of fall” at the water wheel, the owner of a deep fall would have to pay considerably more than the owner of a shallow fall for the same quantity of water.

Stated in another form, the mill with the deeper fall would have a greater horsepower than the mill with the less fall, and would pay more. But the depth of the fall of a wheel race is a private property and is a quality inherent in the site itself ; it has no taxable relationship to other mill sites. It stands the same for water supplied to it. Its principal value being the depth of gravitation, to tax its depth, or horsepower, is to take away that value. To tax a fifteen horsepower wheel at three times the rate of a five horsepower wheel would be acceptable to some; to the man, however, who had paid three times as much for a fifteen horsepower mill site as his neighbour had paid for a five horsepower site, it would have another point of view.

There is an equitable mean between these considerations nevertheless, but the commissioners failed to find it. On the contrary they drifted into lawsuits, having already on an expensive chancery action, which still lingered in that court when the disaster came in 1852.

The method of rating was put to arbitration after great contention. Mr. J. F. Bateman[1], engineer, of Manchester (who was then making the reservoirs at Crowden), and Mr. F. R. Jones, of Huddersfield, were the arbitrators. They, however, failed to agree on a scheme and it was, therefore, referred to an umpire, Mr. F. Robinson. His decision was to base the charges on horsepower at a rate which produced only seven hundred or eight hundred pounds per year, whereas the interest on the mortgage of forty thousand pounds alone required two thousand pounds. Such a verdict would not, at its best, enable the commissioners to carry on, nor did it satisfy some of the millowners whose rights were invaded. Therefore, nobody paid and nobody seemed to care : and time went on.

The mortgagees, however, could not afford to be indifferent, if the commissioners had lost heart.

The reservoir was getting worse and they were receiving little or no income. They had a large sum of money in peril. In order to save their own property, if possible, they offered to reduce the rate of interest from five per cent, to three-and-a-half per cent, if the commissioners would undertake to obtain another mortgage. The commissioners themselves were entirely disagreed on the subject; indeed, a majority opposed the offer.

Despite this a Bill was presented in Parliament to raise new capital. Quite in keeping with every other phase of this unfortunate business there was a strong parliamentary opposition and the Bill did not become an Act. The only sound justification for its failure was that the majority of the commissioners did not support it: but the dictum of Lord Beaumont, in the House of Lords, that as a matter of principle, “Mortgagees should not come there with a Bill to improve their own position" was sheer fatuity, and a declaration that a declining or injured property ought not to be redeemed.

The reduction of interest was a clear gift of twelve thousand pounds of capital, which amount might possibly have been raised without increasing the indebtedness of the commissioners. This setback to the saner heads speeded the creeping paralysis which now palsied the whole venture. The spirit of helplessness looked on while things grew worse and an unwarned people slept, to be afterwards washed out of their beds to ruin and destruction. Nothing could have been more inept or futile than the conduct of every step and turn of this undertaking; nothing could have exceeded the horror and misery of the tragedy which was to follow. In its genesis, there is no better parallel to this calamity, so long threatening, unheeded, unprepared for, than the great world disaster which burst upon us on August 4th, 1914.

So the early days of February, 1852, were continuously rainy. Our Pennine slopes, with their deep beds of peat, are not unaccustomed to heavy and prolonged rainfalls. This February “fill dyke" filled the brooks and completely soaked the peat beds. The rainfall on the Northumbrian watershed over a very large area is led by countless streamlets and torrents into two deep valleys which meet and disgorge into Bilberry Reservoir. This sheet of water, resembling a body with two legs outstretched, had been gradually filling for many a day (in spite of two open sluice valves which were supposed to run the water off), to the great anxiety of those living in or about Digley Valley. George Hirst, of Digley Mill and John Roebuck, of Bank End Mill, put on watchers and ordered the shuttles to be opened.

On the Sunday prior to the fatal Wednesday midnight, the water had stood at forty-four feet deep — some eight or nine feet higher than the safety mark. On Monday, Charles Batty found the water had subsided to thirty-nine feet.

At five o’clock on Wednesday evening the water had again risen to forty-six feet. The shuttles were both open; one was completely blocked up, the other did not eject the full volume of water.

The rain continued to fall torrentially and the alarm had spread over the immediate neighbourhood, for about fifty persons were now gathered on the embankment. The flood-water rolled into the two limbs of the reservoir faster than ever and the waterline rose alarmingly. The ghostly forms of men moved aimlessly about in the dark.

John Roebuck, as representing the commissioners, was sent for. He declared to the besodden onlookers that if the water rose higher the bank would give way. At nine o’clock he advised Batty to get his family out of the way, which he fortunately did. The water then was fifty feet deep and within a few feet of overflowing. When Batty returned at eleven-thirty the water was running over the bank and into it where the depression had occurred.

Roebuck, consistently with his judgment, was now in an adjacent field, crying, “Come off the bank, you’ll all be swept away.”

Batty, seeing George Hirst’s sons, asked, “Why aren’t you at home? Haven’t you moved anything yet? What will become of your mother?”

Everybody seemed spellbound by their weird surroundings and the looming catastrophe.

“George, go and get your cattle away, while there’s a chance,” directed Uriah Tinker. The youths separately departed into the gloom, and Roebuck’s voice could faintly be heard above the roaring waters, “Stand clear of the bank! Stand clear!”

Batty seeing the state of things returned home to remove the rest of his belongings, which, however, he was now unable to do. He was in the house alone when Joshua Charlesworth heard the great roar and came in to tell him. With some difficulty they escaped.

Down at Digley Mill widow Hirst, acutely realising her loss and the completeness of her ruin, declared if everything was to be washed away she would go with it. She refused to leave the house in spite of all entreaties. It was necessary, therefore, to forcibly remove her, and she and her daughter were thus rescued just in time.

Beside the reservoir bank, but now away and out of danger, a small crowd of men and lads looked on through the gloom in eager apprehension and fear. The overflowing waters were grooving the bank and getting behind the puddle down to the softened earth near the borehole. About half an hour after midnight a piece of the bank was washed out and very shortly after the whole mass, softened to the consistency of a pudding, yielded and gave way with a cruel and hollow roar as the large lake rapidly emptied itself into the narrow valley below.

No warning, no message to the thousands of sleepers in the lower valley taking their nightly refreshment for the toil of the morrow!

Bilberry Mill, about one hundred yards away, the property of Jonas Broadhead, received the first shock. A length of thirty feet from one end was tom away from top to bottom, the rest was shaken and gutted. Outbuildings, machinery and goods were destroyed or washed away.

About a quarter of a mile lower down the valley is Upper Digley Mill, then owned by John Furness. Here the valley is wider and the waters were less concentrated. Part of the house, the farm buildings and the cattle were borne away and the inmates scrambled on to other roofs for safety. Mrs. Furness and her two children escaped in time. The agents of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court were at the time in possession and they, a little less fortunate, escaped up to their necks in water. The house and mills were gutted, machinery broken and carried away and damaged, cloth pieces and other materials were lying about in the mud. In the uppermost part of the mill were a bedridden invalid and three children who escaped with nothing worse than a fright.

The next mill, Digley Mill, the property of Mrs. Hirst, whose husband was one of the commissioners and now dead, is a few hundred yards further down the stream. Here the valley suddenly narrows. This narrow neck was spanned by a five-storey mill under which the brook ran, and every remaining crevice, save for the steep old road, was made up by a cottage or outbuilding, of which there were several. Thus the steep wooded banks and the mill across offered a bar to the impetuous rush of the flood. Little household property had been removed and Mrs. Hirst and her daughter and their neighbours had barely got away when the full force of the water reached them.

Windows were crushed in and the minor buildings destroyed for a path. The waterline rose higher and higher and the water pressed on the outer and inner walls until the whole block swung over and crashed into the flood, the pent-up water carrying all before it. Beams, joists, rafters, boilers, machinery and cloth pieces, furniture, wreckage and torn-up trees, floated down the narrow gulley to further destruction. It is said one thousand pounds in cash also went in the wreck, of which half was subsequently recovered.

At John Roebuck’s Bank End Mill, another quarter of a mile further down, those parts of the premises exposed to the natural stream were swept forward; but the reservoir bank, over twenty feet higher, was burst and a great spout of water leapt down and crushed in the roofs below, washing out the contents where it did not utterly destroy. Here considerable damage was done, but still more was the destruction at Digley Mill, where some twelve thousand pounds was sacrificed.

The valley again widens at Holmbridge. Holmbridge Mills, of the Barber’s, stood on the brink of the flood and suffered only an inundation in parts. It is hereabouts that Digley Brook joins the river Holme and the turnpike road crosses the valley and spans the stream by a bridge. On each side of the road runs a stone fence wall. On the lower side of the road stands Holmbridge Church, with its churchyard, then about a decade old. The whole forms a very pretty and secluded corner with flat meadows in the bottom, beautiful banks on either side and the sylvan glories of Digley Vale on the upper side.

The obstruction of the walls, the Church and the bridge again offered an impediment to the flood. The waters piled up and swept away the walls and the parapets of the bridge, ripped up the road for a passage and bared the bridge foundations. The Church door and windows were crushed in and the pews dislodged and floated about the building. In the churchyard, graves — particularly new graves — were washed away. When the waters had subsided the gruesome sight of a child in its coffin, placed on a pew seat, and the remains of a man left high up on the gallery stairs met the gaze of those who came to inspect the aftermath.

The toll bar, near by, so unpopular in its early days, was now wiped out by a force which the law could not reach. Trees and wreckage lay about everywhere. Though but a very few minutes could have elapsed since the fateful bursting, not a life had been lost so far.

Below Holmbridge, the Holme, which the waters now joined, has a steep and narrow course. At Hinchliffe Mills the cottages and buildings clustered up to the stream and, with the mills, offered some resistance to the passage of the flood. Those in Water Street were carried away and thirty persons here met their sudden and awful death. The mills suffered great damage up to the first and second floors, with the usual destruction of plant and manufactured goods. Hinchliffe Upper Mill, in the ownership of Joseph Eastwood and Thomas Butterworth, were greatly damaged. Machinery, goods and wreckage were piled up in a heap and trees and bushes left in the third storey windows.

Sixteen persons at Hinchliffe Mills were driven to the roof of their cottages for safety, where they hung on in the darkness to a swaying building in constant expectation of death. Fortunately, though sadly, only a mother and baby were drowned.

Near by an awful thing occurred. A man named Mettrick was one of a family of ten, father, stepmother and eight children. About one o'clock somebody came and awoke and warned them to get away. He put on some of his garments as quickly as possible and looked through the window when he saw a large sheet of water and wreckage floating about. It was already too late to escape; he realised what had happened. He and his stepmother stood on the stairs and his father handed the children up to them, still asleep, to be placed in the attic for safety. The flood had burst in the door and windows and the water reached halfway up the bedroom in a short time. Child after child was brought by the father, who heroically tried to save them all, but, with the last child he failed to return, being caught in the mighty current now rushing through opposite windows. Pathetic and daring as was such heroism, it was, unfortunately, of little account, for immediately the whole building shook and fell over and all — rescuers and rescued were plunged into the flood.

Strange, the young man felt no part of the building strike him. He was washed down to Harpin’s Mill Dam (Bottoms Mill), where he came to the surface and began to grab at the wreckage. He succeeded in getting hold of a large piece of wood and floated upon it while he recovered his breathing. Then the surging of the waters threw him over and he went down again. He came to the surface and seized a larger piece of timber floating near him. and paddled himself to the Austonley side of the dam, where he essayed to reach the bank, and fell once more into the water. He had, fortunately, strength enough left to scramble out, though in the last stage of exhaustion. He stumbled and fell repeatedly on his way up the bank to the house of Hannah Berry, where he was put to bed in a state of collapse. Only two out of this family of ten were saved.

John Harpin’s Mill, the next below, suffered no great damage on account of the wider area over which the water spread. In the reservoir were found many of the bodies of those drowned above. John Harpin, said to have been the first magistrate in Holmfirth, was the prime mover in the conservation of the waters which had so sad a development. He had only one arm, but in every other way was ambidextrous. A man of ability and great force of character, he was yet scarcely equal to the difficulties which confronted himself and his fellow commissioners. At his death he was laid to rest in the graveyard of the Wesleyan Chapel at Holmfirth, where he did not rest long.

At the Victoria Mill much damage was done, but only minor buildings and cottages were destroyed. Here twenty people were driven to the upper parts of their houses and effected their escape by breaking through the walls and slates and reaching higher ground. Immediately they were free the houses collapsed. In a field near, the two boilers carried from Digley Mill were found.

To Dyson’s Mill, further down, much greater damage was done; and a house adjoining — the home of Mr. Sandford, two daughters and a maid — was demolished, with all its inmates.

Upper Mill, also adjoining, had damage done to the extent of three thousand pounds. One of its boilers was afterwards found at Berry Brow, more than three miles down the river.

Lower Mill, like Digley Mill, was built across the stream and paid a similar penalty, being cut clean in two, the remnant gable ends standing as an evidence that a broadside had little chance. Bodies were picked up in the locality from cottages and reservoirs and taken to the “George” Inn to await an inquest.

As the water reached Holmfirth its passage again became constricted and impeded by buildings. The bridge had a large boiler jammed up against it and the free passage under was made up with bushes, trees, timber, furniture, carts, and every kind of wreckage imaginable. The water was six or seven feet above the bridge. Shops and houses, when not destroyed, were gutted and cleared of goods and furniture. The Church and the Wesleyan Chapel were both inundated. In the graveyard of the latter lay John Harpin’s earthly remains, deposited there after his life had been soured and shortened by cares and vicissitudes due to the scheme which had once been the pride of his life. The waters burst through, swept away the parapets of the bridge, and rushed down the course of the river, carrying with it all but the strongest buildings. The graveyard of the Chapel abutting on its banks was broken up, and John Harpin's body, washed out of its vault, went with the flood.

Bodies were found six miles away; that of one young woman at Mirfield, ten miles distant. Desolation and ruin spread all down the valley, mills, houses, workshops, walls, hedges and cultivated land were alike borne onward. Eighty-one lives are to be placed to its sad account, with the long tale of desolated homes and bereavements.

There were destroyed:— four mills, ten dyehouses, ten stoves, twenty-seven cottages, seven tradesmen’s houses, seven tradesmen’s shops, six bridges, one county bridge, ten warehouses, eighteen barns and stables.

There were partially destroyed:— seventeen mills, five dyehouses, etc., three stoves, one hundred and thirty-nine cottages, seven tradesmen’s houses, forty-four large shops, eleven public houses, five bridges, one county bridge, and about two hundred acres of land washed away and damaged.

Four thousand nine hundred and eighty-six adult people and two thousand one hundred and forty-two children were thrown out of work, making a total of seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight, earning about three thousand seven hundred and forty-eight pounds per week.

The damage was variously estimated up to a quarter of a million pounds.

Thousands of people, from every part of the country, visited the scene, and, for those ruined and in immediate need, subscription lists were generously supported. Then followed the great exodus which affected every town and village for many miles around.

Such was the trail of death and devastation due to the ineffectual yoking of the forces of nature. To-day, the beautiful valley of the Holme smiles again with happy homes and busy mills — better homes and larger mills, yielding greater prosperity. There is little evidence now of the catastrophe; but the water mark is retained at Holmfirth on the little obelisk commemorating the short Peace of Amiens in 1801, and on the corner of a building at the bridge.

Here the water was about ten feet deep in the roadway and twenty feet deep in the rapidly falling river. At Holmbridge, too, where Digley Brook joins the Holme, there is no sign of flood or devastation.

The Church is again enclosed by a good wall and the graveyard is restored to its former level and appearance.

With the Digley Valley, however, it is different. It was scoured out and has hardly recovered its pristine importance.

Probably it was due to the proximity to the reservoir that no lives were lost in this narrow vale, for the melancholy toll was taken below this part.

At the foot of this valley is Holmbridge Mills, and a little colony, little affected by the flood; but what remains of Bank End Mill, worked by John Roebuck, and afterwards restored and worked by George Tinker & Sons, is fast disappearing. A beautiful and thick wood fills this valley, and amongst the vegetation can be traced the reservoir and mill races which once fed a powerful waterwheel.

Further up the valley is the site where Digley Mill and its houses once stood. Except for its chimney, or rather two chimneys, still standing, the passer-by would not divine the erstwhile existence here of a thrifty industrial concern, so complete was its effacement. Trees and vegetation and summer flowers grow thickly over everything, with the raspberry cane and luscious, ripe raspberries gracefully towering above the rest. It is a very green and peaceful little spot, betokening nothing of misfortune; where children play and birds sing overhead and the brook babbles harmlessly by.

Beneath, may lie five hundred sovereigns amidst the tons of masonry and machinery now overgrown and carpeted during a lapse of seventy years. Here juts out the end of a large wooden roller with a very strong iron axle, and there lies another, recently pulled out after burial for the span of a human life—not so much decayed as might be expected. Large stone beds, hidden in growth, with long iron bolts standing up in several places, indicate the former positions of machines carried away by the waters.

The mill race, easily defined, skirts the right bank and led to the small water wheel whose bearings may still be seen. At other points, walls, culverts, flues and the two chimneys stir up the imagination.

These two chimneys stand like silent monuments of an almost perfect obliteration. They alone are free from the soft green veil of vegetation; yet the larger one, about one hundred feet high, discernible from the “Isle of Skye,” not having entirely escaped the attentions of nature, carries a small tree on its summit, which waves in the breeze like a flag of victory. On the roadside stands a house with workroom over and alongside. The group is placed well into the bank, endways to the flood, and on that account escaped the fate of the rest. It is curious to observe the series of stone posts on the top of the bank on which the cloth pieces were once hung.

Upper Digley Mill, a little higher up the stream, survived both the flood and the bankruptcy process, and now holds the rebuilt Bilberry Mill (since burnt out and restored) as a tenancy. The reservoir bank is now a firm, grassy slope from which gushes out a stream red with oxide of iron — our old friend the bore hole, now freed and treated with due respect.

John and Hannah Hirst came from Pole Chapel to Holmbridge in the early years of the last century. It was from Digley Mill that John Hirst, their son (brother-in-law of widow Hirst), issued, fourteen months before the flood, to seek his fortune in Saddleworth. He held strong views on many things, but none more strongly than that Bilberry Reservoir would one day take toll of those who dwelt in the path of its onrush. Was his removal from Digley to Saddleworth some earnest of that conviction?

It is said and, figuratively, it is true, that many Holmfirth families were washed over to Saddleworth by the flood. John Hirst, of Grove House, Delph, was not washed over, although many were. Indeed, portions of the thousands thrown out of work by the disaster were washed in every direction, as proved by the quaint speech of the new settlers for miles around. Only some ten or a dozen miles separate Saddleworth from Holmfirth, yet the two dialects seem to have distinct philological ancestries. Both are as rugged as the mountains which divide them. They are the survivals of the folk speech of Mercia and Northumbria, when one kingdom fiercely defended these hills against the incursions of the other. The place names which still linger prove this.

John Hirst did so well at Fozzard Mill that in 1859 he built at the foot of Bankfield a large new stone mill of six storeys to look like eleven. He did not intend Bankfield Mill to suffer the fate of Digley Mill.

It was not planned to span and block up the valley like the latter, but, rather, set warily, endways to the waters of Fozzard Mill dam, should it ever play Bilberry. He contracted with the builder to go down to the rock with the foundations. After going down to very firm ground the builder proposed to begin building, but John Hirst held out and told him he would have to go down to the rock if he went to hell. There is no need to go down to such a torrid and undesirable depth for a foundation in Saddleworth, but he had to go deep enough to go to ruin.

The late James Whitehead, of Uppermill, then took the work in hand, and he carried it considerably heavenward and to a finish.

John Hirst had a numerous family, occupying the principal residences in the district and having considerable possessions in Saddleworth and Mottram. John Hirst, Junr., built Ladcastle. It is curious, however, that seventy years have seen the vigour of one man build up a trade and family fortune; the gradual waning of both, and the entire disappearance of the family after an honourable association with the activities and society of Saddleworth during the long Victorian period. Memorials of some members of the family are to be seen in the Church and cemetery, and the latter possesses a remarkable one to the memory of John Hirst, Junr.

The boy who stood on the reservoir bank and was told to go home to release the cattle and get his mother away, is still living.

George Hirst was then nineteen years old, now he is eighty-nine, hale and hearty and capable of achievements beyond the powers of many young men. When on his way to release the cattle, having arrived at Upper Digley Mill, which had then, as now, a wooden overhead conduit on stone pillars, he heard the roar and rush of the waters and the bursting of the conduit. In the greatest alarm he rushed forward with the flood at his heels and just saved a very long life. The family fortune having been washed away he went out to Australia to make his fortune with his cousin, Ben Hirst, where he remained eighteen years, paying one visit home after a residence of five years there.

Mr. Hirst resides at Brownhill, Holmbridge, in full view of Digley Valley, which he thinks is one of the prettiest spots in the country. During the railway strike in 1919 he walked over to Uppermill and called upon a friend who happened to be absent. After a rather late tea he started his journey home over the darkening hills, not without giving some anxiety as to his strength and ultimate safety.

Some weeks afterwards, during a walk over interesting ground in Holmfirth, he was asked, “Which way did you come to Uppermill ?”

“Oh, I came by Greenfield, then on to Mossley and Ashton — I had some business there — then to Uppermill,” he replied, with a simplicity that did not suggest a joke.

“What! you had been round by Ashton when you called!”

By the time he had reached home he had walked thirty-four miles at the age of eighty-six.

He recently started off to visit a relative in Sheffield. Missing the train he complacently settled down to walk the twenty miles, and, thinking the train might again play him the same trick, he walked back the next day. Huddersfield and Halifax he covers both ways and railway strikes have little meaning to him.

Low in stature and stiffly set he moves with a short, quick stride which wears away the distance. Physiologically, Holmfirth is very proud of him, and it also knows and appreciates that he is the last survivor of that cruel event which made Holmfirth a wreck and a Valley of the Shadow of Death.


  1. Mr. Bateman was brought up in Messrs. Blackburn's Office, Oldham (late Messrs. Blackburn, Page & West).