The Aberdeen Journal (11/Feb/1852) - The Holme Reservoirs

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The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.


The busy valley of Holme, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was on Thursday morning last the scene of one of the most fearful catastrophes that can well be imagined. In one short hour no fewer than 100 human beings were hurled into eternity, and property destroyed of upwards of half a million in value. This lamentable event was caused by the bursting of one of the Holme reservoirs — immense tanks of water formed by impounding the several streams in the deep gorges of the hills in that part of the West Riding. There were three of these reservoirs, the erection and management of which were placed, by Act of Parliament, in the hands of a body of Commissioners, consisting of the proprietors of manufactories along the course of the Holme ; and it seems regarded as very questionable whether these Commissioners, who certainly were the persons most interested in the sufficiency of the reservoirs, have in every respect fulfilled the most important and responsible duty with which they were invested. The reservoir which gave way was called the Bilbury Reservoir, and was situated about three miles above the town of Holmfirth. It was formed of the waters of the river Holme and a little brook named the Digley, by an embankment about 200 yards wide and about 90 feet deep. We can easily imagine the effects of such a vast mass of water bursting down at midnight through a narrow and populous valley; but one cannot understand the foolhardiness with which so many people risked the impending danger, when it seems to have been generally believed that the reservoir would give way that night. We are told that the embankment had never been trustworthy. It was erected over a spring of water, and in consequence of that the original contract had been broken before the completion of the works. Lawsuits commenced and accumulated, and the Commissioners themselves became divided on the subject of the interpretation of various clauses. Meantime, money became scarce; and dilapidation of the works took place from want of proper repairs. The water was discharged through a perpendicular pipe, into which it flowed at the surface, and passed out at the bottom of the river. Latterly, however, this pipe got twisted, and the screw that opened and shut would not work ; and the public became universally apprehensive that the reservoir would give way. Indeed, for two or three days previous, the probability of the embankment coming down was the common subject of conversation. Watchers were set to give the alarm, as if such an alarm could afford timely notice to the people down the river ; and so firmly persuaded were the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, on Wednesday night, of the danger of the building giving way before morning, that about fifty people were collected at the reservoir to see the result. Yet we see mention made of only one individual who had taken the precaution of removing his family and furniture out of the reach of danger. About one o’clock on Thursday morning, the embankment burst before the vast pressure of water, and the only warning that the inhabitants of the valley received, was from such of the watchers as succeeded in outstripping the velocity of the torrent. Large buildings disappeared like card-houses beneath the irresistible flood ; “heavy machinery, steam-engines, huge boilers, etc., were floated away like straws.” One range of buildings, of the value of £30,000, was swept away, with all its contents, in a single moment, and nothing left standing but the chimney ; and the owner in that moment was reduced from affluence to beggary. “At Holme Bridge, a little farther down the river, the church was inundated — the pews lifted from their position and thrown transversely across the aisle ; the walls enclosing the grave-yard were thrown down, gravestones were torn up, and coffins and corpses floated out of the new graves down the river.” A row of ten cottages, about a mile and a half below the reservoir, was swept away, and with them their unfortunate occupants, who were asleep. In one of these alone, a family of ten individuals perished together, and in all nearly 40 are supposed to have been surprised in their sleep, only to fall, with a few struggles, into the sleep that knows no waking. How fearful must the scenes of that busy valley have been on that awful night. One man named Hallowell, a weaver, saw his wife and five children perish in the waters, and floated himself to safety on the top of his loom. Family after family were swept away into the sudden waste of waters, without leaving a single remnant, or one faint memorial of their presence, on the spot which had seen them full of life and happiness a few hours before. That night, the busy and prosperous valley seemed to, forget fear in the confidence of success and the fulness of hope ; the wealthy saw before them the prospect of increasing their store, and the working man the pleasing expectation of a sufficient provision for himself and his family in one hour all was death and desolation — nothing to he seen save universal wreck — nothing to he heard save the cry of despair and the roar of the waters. The day dawned upon a scene of no common ruin ; families had been blotted from the face of the earth so completely as scarcely to leave kindred behind them to lament their fate ; and the wealthy mill-owner of yesterday was as poor to-day as the humblest labourer about his works. The number of deaths had not been ascertained, nor had the losses been closely calculated, but they appear to have been very great ; and one serious effect of the calamity is that it may be six months before the works and the reservoir can be repaired sufficiently to afford the means of employment to the operatives of the unfortunate district.