The Desolated Valley: A Narrative of the Flood at Holmfirth (1852) by J. G. Miall
The Desolated Valley: A Narrative of the Flood at Holmfirth — Feb. 4th, 1852 was written by the Rev. James Goodeve Miall, the minister of Salem Congregational Chapel in Bradford, and published in 1852.
THE DESOLATED VALLEY, &c.
Of all the terrific events which ever befel a quiet and secluded population, none has been more desolating than that which swept through the valley of the Holme, in Yorkshire, on the night of the 4th of February, 1852. The town of Holmfirth is situated about seven miles from Huddersfield, and furnishes to its market fancy cloths, trowserings, &c. It is built in a deep ravine, running between a range of considerable hills, and is traversed by a stream, naturally full and angry when the winter rains have fallen profusely, but inconsiderable and almost dry during the parched months of the summer season. No traveller can have visited the retired valley of the Holme without special interest. The God of nature has there left a monument of himself, gloriously worthy of his own power and benevolence. No dale in Yorkshire is more completely secluded from the external world. So lofty are the eminence by which the valley is environed, so deep the recesses in which the inhabitants of the district pursue the arts of life, that they seem almost to possess a world of their own; whilst the insulation and seclusion tend to give a distinctive peculiarity to their characters. On the sides of the mountain stream, and availing themselves of the water-power which it readily furnished, the residents have planted any spots the apparatus of manufacturing production. A lovelier scene exists nowhere; and if the spirits of those who occupied it were in accordance with the scenes around them, one can suppose how the pious heart, rising “from nature up to nature’s God,” would look upon those strongly but gently sloping hills as steps to aid them in the spiritual ascent.
To render the waters of the stream more available for purposes of manufacturing, production, arrangements were made, a few years since, to construct, in the neighbourhood of Holmfirth, several large reservoirs, which, by retaining the water when it was abundant, might allow of its more regular distribution, and thus furnish an adequate supply during the summer season. Three of these are placed in different points at the head the valley. Our present narrative is connected with one only of these is receptacles, called the Bilberry reservoir. It was constructed in the following manner:— Across the valley, three miles above Holmfirth, just where two considerable streams form a junction, a huge embankment was thrown up, composed of puddled clay, earth, and stones, very broad at its base, but considerably diminishing in size towards its summit, which dammed up the waters into a large lake, consisting, it is said, when full, of 20 acres of water. To provide against the washing down of this embankment by the accumulating waters, a stone erection was placed near one of its sides, technically called a funnel, through which the surplus water might flow off by an opening into the brook below. In case of this funnel becoming accidentally stopped, there was no issue for the water except over the embankment itself; which, being formed of soft and perishable materials, could not in that case long resist the force of the stream when compelled to flow over, its summit. Rumours had been long prevalent in the neighbourhood of Holmfirth as to the insecurity of this embankment. As usual in such cases these reports were variously received, exciting no little terror in the mind of many, whilst others received them with dogged incredulity. These rumours, however, had not led to any serious movement or alteration in the state the reservoir. The early part of February, in this year, was remarkable for its heavy and continued rains. All over the country rivers became enlarged, and much damage was done to property and to life. It was not wonderful that the inhabitants of the Holmfirth at the valley should feel some uneasiness at their position. They were not, however, fully aware how serious it had become. They did not generally know that the waste pipe by which the waters of the Bilberry reservoir might be reduced had become stopped up; and those who watched the fall of the heavy rains of the season little thought that every drop which descended fell charged with the destiny of the inhabitants of the valley. Man reads not the future; it is a hieroglyphic to which he has no key.
He who visited the town of Holmfirth on the fourth of February, 1852, would have discerned little variation from its ordinary appearance. The hum of life went on. Volumes of smoke issued, as usual, from the tall chimneys which stood along the stream; the clatter of machinery told the tale of a busy and prosperous time; and the crowds of workmen, of mill girls, and of factory children, went and departed at their usual summons. Fate set no mark beforehand on its victims. If any rumour had for the moment made them uneasy, it had probably led to no substantial moral result. They had heard of such alarms before, and though there were many among them who might have good reasons why they feared to die, they contrived, by some means or other, to dissipate the thought of anger. The great mass of the inhabitants retired to rest that might without any considerable discomposure. It is indeed one of the marvels of the sad story how confidently the inhabitants below trusted that all would be well, whilst those who lived in the immediate adjacency of the reservoir were driven from their homes by the imminence of the peril. But so it was. The infant fed itself to sleep; upon its mother’s breast; the little child prattled itself to rest; the weary “lad” or lass stretched the limbs, exhausted by the labours of the day, upon the welcome couch. The drunkard reeled home to his hardly-found house. That night began, as most nights begin, with some in joy, with some in sorrow; some laying themselves down upon their prayerless bed, whilst others devoutly commended themselves to the God upon whom they believed;—
- “Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind’s sway
- That, hush’d in dim repose, watch’d for its evening’s prey.”
In the midst of that night — at the very hour when sleep begins to be the most profound, and the power of self-preservation least ready — the desolation came, in an instant! Gentle and beautiful as the elements of mature are in their usual manifestations, the concentration of any of them seems to partake of the nature of Omnipotence; reminding man that the most trusted things have their limits, and that presumption is always perilous. The earth which furnishes the beautiful carpet on which we tread, can, by its upheaving or by its fall, overwhelm us with resistless might. The air, which supplies food to our lungs, can, by its derangement, acquire an explosive force to which many fearful accidents have been recently attributable; or can sweep the earth or the sea by the rush of its hurricane. The fire, which prepares our food or warms our bodies, becomes an instrument of terrible devastation when it breaks through its appropriate bounds; and the water which refreshes and nourishes and gives life to the earth is not less fearful in its fury than the rest. That Wednesday was terribly to witness the force of the last element!
Let the reader imagine the valley of which we have spoken, in many parts not a hundred yards in breadth, and in some closely shut in by adjacent hills, so that persons might almost shake hands across the stream. Let him conceive of mills and cottages standing, in some instances, in the very bed of the river. Let him further conceive that the windings of the brook are such as that the stream if unusually swollen would strike with enormous force certain parts of the bank, thickly planted with habitations of very slight construction. Let him carry his eye downward, to the town of Holmfirth, and see masses of buildings on the very edge of the river, thickly crowded in the extremely small level which intervened between it and the sloping hills, and so constructed as that an inhabitant looking out of the back windows is immediately over the water. The utmost confidence in the security of the reservoir would scarcely have justified the position of many of these erections. How men could sleep when, the rumour had already gone forth of its insecurity may well amaze us! But our duty is rather to narrate the general facts than to explain the causes which produced them.
As the waters accumulated in the reservoir, the outlet from which had, by negligence and inattention, become accidentally closed, they swelled gradually over the embankment placed across the head of the valley, and gradually sapped the entrenchment itself. It is said that the bank had never been safe; that it had been originally placed upon a concealed spring; it was certainly not built of masonry, but was composed mainly of loose earth mingled with stones of considerable size. Exposed to such influences, and momentarily becoming weaker and weaker, it was at last unable to resist the enormous pressure of the flood which it had hitherto dammed up, and at length, and in an instant, gave way, whilst the accumulated waters, with the force of a thousand imprisoned giants set loose, poured themselves in one enormous wave upon that hapless valley. Immediately below the reservoir stood a mill abutting upon the stream; it was literally cut in half. A little below was another factory and dwelling-house: the former was greatly injured, the latter bilged in. More serious damage would have been done at this spot, but that: an esplanade of meadow allowed the waters here to expand themselves. But the next point was the narrow ravine, of which we have already spoken; and, dashing down the gorge with resistless fury, the wave made one clear sweep of utter-desolation, whilst mills and cottages planted; there disappeared in an instant from the view. Some accounts say that one of these mills was seen to proceed bodily down the torrent, as if, though built of stone, it were a floating mass. Certain it is, that before the impetuosity of that tremendous wave, the constructions of men were borne away like cobwebs. Hitherto, though the most fearful desolation had befallen property, human life had not been sacrificed. We have said that alarm had already seized those who lived in the vicinity of the reservoir, and the living and breathing human beings escaped. But we must now think of this torrent proceeding onwards, charged as it was with huge beams of timber, torn from the destroyed erections, to do a work of sterner destruction.
Although, in relating the story, we must necessarily describe intervals, there was in reality scarcely an interval at all. At the time when the bank was showing strong symptoms of giving way, messengers were despatched in hot haste to convey the warning to the inhabitants in the village and town below, but their utmost speed could not keep them in advance of the rapidity of such a torrent, and the envoys themselves would have been swept away, but that most of the road ran upon an eminence which the flood could not reach.
The pen of a narrator can very imperfectly describe the terror of the moment when that raging cataract broke in its fury upon the mass of houses where a quiet and trusting population lay in profound repose. Awaked as by the shock of an earth quake, as the flood burst upon his house, the sleeper started up to hear the sound “as of a rushing mighty wind,” mingled with the shrieks of helpless agony, resounding on every hand from the terrified inhabitants. The alarm of danger always comes fearfully upon a slumbering subject! In such a calamity as that we describe, the most prompt presence of mind, even of the wakeful, could scarcely have availed. What must then have been the position of those whose senses were half dulled by their previous unconsciousness? The same shock by which they were aroused, carried off in many cases their habitations and themselves. An instant only intervened between their know ledge of their danger and death itself! Others, lingered a little longer; but the surface on which they trod was failing beneath them, and the timber and materials of their roof gave way above their heads. The instinct of self-preservation was strong, but the suddenness of the calamity deprived it of all power to aid them. The mother, was seen, on that moon-lit night, to be borne along upon the roaring torrent, as with convulsive grasp she clutched her infant, and uttered unavailing cries for help. The father saw his wife and children swept away before his eyes. The miser was seen eagerly to grasp at his treasure, scarcely less precious than life itself. Many, who had run for security to the upper rooms of the houses, were washed away from their hiding places. The doors of habitations were violently burst open, and in one case, out of forty-two sleeping in six houses, only seven were saved. Even those who, under ordinary circumstances, might have escaped, were struck by the heavy timbers, so carried along by the roll of the stream as that the water was hardly visible, and perished in the waters, That torrent made no pause; it heeded no cry for deliverance! “He that was unjust must be unjust still; and he that was holy must be holy still.” God was indeed come quickly! Happy they who had sought peace through the blood of the Lamb. Fearful the condition of those who had no solid foundation of hope when the flood of that might came and beat upon their house! Nearly one hundred persons perished in that tremendous overthrow!
The reader is left to imagine the scenes which were witnessed on the morning which followed that night “much to be remembered.” The course of the torrent strewed with stones, many of them of an enormous size, and with sand, covering what were yesterday scenes of quiet and peaceful industry; fences scattered, landmarks swept away; mud and filth invading hundreds of cleanly habitations; cottages and mills so desolated as that there was literally not left one stone upon another; implements of machinery shattered into ruin; huge boilers carried to an incredible distance beyond the places where they were originally fixed; fractured houses lying open to the winds of heaven, where might be still seen the memorials of the last evening’s quiet occupations, whilst the inhabitants had been torn away, no more to return; such were the objects which met the eye in all directions. Added to these, the visitant could discern the corpses of the dead washed from their peaceful graves; whilst the agitated spectator saw, at every turn, the mangled and macerated remains of those who the might previously had acted in the fulness of their health and their strong emotions, still bearing all the traces of the terror which constituted their last sensation. If anything could be added to the appalling character of such a scene, it was to witness searching among the fragments of so terrible a calamity, the dilapidated tradesman — the ruined merchant — the heart stricken husband — the anguished wife — the mother “weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were not.” Language is poor before such a catastrophe. It transcends all description!
Among the numerous incidents which have transpired relative to this sad occurrence, the following may be deemed worthy of being recorded:—
Mr. Henry Beardsall was, in conjunction with his mother-in-law, Mrs. Hirst, the owner of the Digley property, situated in the ravine above mentioned, and consisting of a mill of considerable size, together with a number of cottages and outhouses. “It seems that Mr. Beardsall had become somewhat alarmed at the rapid rise in the reservoir, and began to fear that the embankment would not be able to resist the immense pressure of the water. He accordingly determined to make an examination of it, the last thing before retiring to rest on Wednesday night, and for this purpose walked up the valley to the top of the embankment, taking his stand on the side opposite to the funnel. The moon shone clear, so that an inspection could easily be made. As he stood on the top of this embankment, at an elevation of some 60 feet, he saw the water roll over its top most 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 the danger of his family and the family of his mother-in-law, all the members of which he had left only a short time previously in their houses at Digley. It occurred to him that he might outrun the flood, and 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 watercourse. 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 property 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 infinite amazement and delight, the next minute the whole of his friends and domestics surrounded him on the hillside. What a moment of ecstasy and joy must that have been to find himself again in the presence of those whom 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 resides 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 cottagers, were saved, with some of the furniture in 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.” — Leeds Mercury, Feb. 14.
The following narrative of a sufferer relates to the effect of the flood at Hinchcliffe Mills — a locality very prominent in the tragic scene. The name of the sufferer is James Metterick, aged 24:— He said, “there were ten of us in our house — my father, step-mother, and eight children. Somebody came and roused us just after one o’clock. I put on my trousers. My stepmother and I stood in the stairs. We looked out of the windows, and saw a large quantity of water and sticks coming down. From their appearance we knew the reservoir had burst. I and my stepmother came down stairs, then stood on the stairs, and my father handed us the children who were asleep in the house, for us to lift into the chamber. The water burst in at the window and through the door, filled the lower room and half filled the chamber. I ran with the rest into the garret, except my father and one child, who we expected were drowned in the house. About half a minute after we had got into the garret the whole house gave way, and we were all swept down the stream, and I saw no more of any of them. No part of the house touched me that I know of. When I got into Harpin’s (Bottoms’) dam, I caught hold of a piece of wood and sprang up. I got a good sob of breath, and then went under the water and lost my hold of the plank; on coming up again, I got hold of another, and again rolled over; at last I got hold of a large piece of timber and kept my hold. I got hold of a small piece of wood and paddled it towards the side. A gush of wind then came and blew me towards the land on the Austonley side. I leaped off the timber and fell up to my neck in water, but I managed to scramble out of the water, and after falling several times I got into Hannah Berry’s, and stripped my trousers and shirt (all I had on) and went to bed. I was nearly exhausted.” — Leeds Mercury, Feb. 7.
Another sufferer gave the following testimony: —
John Charlesworth said — I lived in Water Street. James Charlesworth was my son. My house is entirely destroyed ; four are saved besides myself, and six are lost; one of the bodies is wanting yet. James is 14 years of age. The one whose body is not found is Hamer Charlesworth. On the night when this happened we were all sleeping in the house; four in the low room and seven above. Four of those above were saved and one below. Some one came and cried out, and when I got up the water was running in at the window. I had one child by the hand when I went out, and when I got to the door the water took me up to the knee. The water rose eight yards in two minutes. There were six houses in this row, the doors of four of them never being opened at all. Two of Mettericks and five out of my house were all that were saved out of these six houses. There were forty-two sleeping in these six houses, and only seven of them were saved.”
“In Mill Fold, the family of Messrs. Tate and Linley had a very narrow escape. The front walling of the house and a considerable quantity of furniture was swept away by the torrent, which rose to such a height as to enter the bed-rooms. A child of Mr. Tate’s, about eight years of age, was swum out of bed, and its head forced through a panel in a wood partition; from the hole thus made the child was suspended for a time until it could be rescued. No lives were lost in either of these houses, though the bed on which Mr. and Mrs. Tate were at the time floated on the water in the room.”
“In Victoria Buildings, near Victoria Mill, twenty lives had well nigh been lost. Here are three houses, occupied by as many families, and consisting of twenty persons. At one end of the buildings was a flight of steps outside, by means of which access had at one time been gained to the upper story, formerly intended as a warehouse. When the flood entered these houses, the inmates, recollecting these steps, broke through the partition walls in the upper story and passed through to the end of the building, in order to gain the top of the steps. When they got here, however, they found the steps had been washed away. With the exception of this one corner, into which they had all congregated, the whole of the building was swept away, leaving only sufficient flooring to enable the twenty inmates to huddle together upon. This corner fortunately continued to stand until the water subsided, and these twenty persons could be rescued.”
Richard Woodcock said, “I live in Scarr Fold. Alfred Woodcock was my son. My house is nearly swept away. Two of my family are lost, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 12 years respectively. They have both been found and taken to this house. Seven of us were saved, myself, wife, and five children. When I went out, I took a child under each arm. My wife could not wade through the water. I took the two children to a neighbour’s house, and then broke through the gable end of the building, expecting all would have perished, is but I found my wife nearly up to neck in water in the low room, with a child in her arms, holding it up. Other two children were in an upper room; the steps had been washed away, and my wife could not get into the garret. We had to get a ladder to get her and the child out. The house gave way soon after we got them out.”
“A man of the name of Jonathan Charlesworth, in Scarr Fold, had a very narrow escape. His wife had only been confined about six weeks, and she was so weakly, that on taking her, with two children, out of the house, she fell down quite exhausted. Having, with much difficulty, removed his wife and children to the turnpike road, which is considerably higher than Scarr Fold, he turned back towards the house, intending to fetch some of the furniture out, but ere he reached the entrance to the fold, his house was razed to its foundations before his eyes.”
Among the occurrences, there were some no less remarkable in the town of Holmfirth. We were told of an Irish labourer who having come home “rather fresh” on the previous evening, and not having yet slept off the fumes of the last night’s debauch, was unable to comprehend the reason of the agitation around him, and persisting in imagining that his children were in flames in the cellars below, was with great difficulty prevented from precipitating himself into the flood.
“Mr. William Day Martin, watch and clock maker, and his wife, were also placed in imminent peril. It seems Mrs. Martin, whilst in bed, heard an unusual noise out of doors, and awoke her husband. Mr. Martin looked at his watch, and found that it was twenty minutes past one o’clock, — he then jumped out of bed, and looking out at the window, he saw the fearful rush of water, tossing and rolling over and over, like some immense mountain, threatening death and destruction to all that impeded its progress. Entertaining the worst fears for their safety, he hastened his wife out of bed. She was taking the side next the river, when he warmed her to turn over to the other side of the bed, and scarcely had she placed her feet on the floor, when the whole of the back part of the house came down, taking with it that part of the floor on which she would have placed herself, but for the precaution of her husband, barely floor room having been left for the bed to keep its position. After this Mr. Martin saw his shop front and those of his neighbours broken in by large pieces of timber floated down by the torrent; but he and his wife escaped through the roof of the house.”
Nothing has appeared more affectingly graphic than some circumstances related at the public meeting at Leeds by the Rev. J. Bateman, Vicar of Huddersfield:—
“He gave an account of the interviews which he had had with some of its in habitants. His heart had been almost broken to listen to their stories. One man, whom he saw sitting shivering over the fire in a friend’s house, told this tale. He said that he was in his own house, with his wife and two children, a little boy and a little girl, and was awoke in the middle of the night, by the rushing of water into his bed-room. He jumped up — the water was already over his ankles in the upper story — and called to his wife and children. The little boy, on awakening, began to fondle with his father, but not receiving any answer, he said, “Father, what’s to do?” “My child,” he replied, “we are going to be drowned; the flood is upon us!” The words were scarcely out of his mouth when his house was swept away — himself, his wife, and children all scattered, and he never saw them more He himself was thrown up by the flood at a consider able distance, and was found grappling, as a strong man grapples for his life. Would that poor man ever forget the last words of his little boy, “Father, what’s to do?” Mr. Bateman mentioned another case, in which a man with his wife and five children were seem on the roof of their house, which was being rocked backwards and forwards by the surging of the flood. One child was seen to drop off, then another and another, until all the children were gone, and at last the mother also perished. The father then seemed to lose all heart, and choosing death rather than life, he gave himself up to the flood! An old man was sleeping in his house with a niece and two children, when one of the beams fell across his head and chest. This was the first warming; the next moment he found himself under the water, entangled amid the ruins of his house, and unable to move. He contrived, however, to get his head above water, and there he remained for a quarter of an hour, until he was rescued. He now lay ill of a rheumatic fever, and it was doubtful if he would recover; his niece and children were all gone. The case was mentioned of a young man who was only rescued from death by being forcibly dragged through a small aperture in a door. His chest was so torn and lacerated that he could scarcely speak or breathe.”
The sympathy excited by this event has been deep and abundant. Ministers of all varieties of opinion have been vigorously alive. Among them the Bishop of the Diocese has shown a disinterested and self-denying zeal. The town of Huddersfield has contributed nearly £9,000, and other towns in the vicinity are actively following the generous example. But the losses have been most disastrous. Four mills have been totally destroyed, and seventeen more seriously injured. Nearly ten thousand hands have been thrown out of employment. Twenty-seven labourers’ cottages have been swept away, and 127 have suffered serious damage. Some of the mills had been held by small shareholders, who had industriously saved a little money so as to enable them to take a mill between them. It will be long before the large devastations arising from so melancholy an occurrence shall be repaired.
That, in such a desolation, there is much which is mysterious and inscrutable, is the reflection which will occur to every mind. Any attempt fully to explain it, is obviously beyond the reach of the most sagacious; and as fruitless as it is unwise. It would be the excess of absurdity to imagine that such an event distinguished the moral character of those who suffered in the overthrow. “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the rest of the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you may; but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” The casualties of humanity, of which this was a remarkable specimen, have respect, not so much to this life, as to another. That there were special motives which influenced the God of Providence in all this calamity;— that there was a reason why the accident should have occurred in this valley, rather than in any other; why it should have taken place in this juncture of time rather than in any other time; why it should have taken this form rather than any other form; it would be presumptuous to doubt. But mortal man cannot elucidate the mystery which hangs around it; the wise can only believe that the day is coming which shall explain it all. Yet it may be remembered that the perplexity which belongs to it has no more to do with revealed than it has with natural religion. Throw away the Bible, and the event is equally embarrassing; the Deist feels the difficulty quite as much as the Christian! But between the Deist and the Christian there is this manifest difference, that the former has not the same assured expectation of a future state to explain the mystery. The Christian believes that a day of solution is at hand, and that however the Divine Being may be misinterpreted at present, he can afford to wait till the time shall be ripe for his own vindication. Amidst events like these we can suppose Him saying — “Misjudge and censure me as you will, the hour of my explanation is at hand!”
Yet it is important to remember that, awful as such a scene was, no responsible person involved in it could justly complain of having perished unsummoned. If there were those who were swept away in infancy;— they certainly suffered no injury, seeing that they were snatched from the evil to come, and, through the merit of Christ, passed by a rapid though painful passage to the glory of heaven. And was there an adult who died in that catastrophe who could complain that he had not been often warned? Who did not know that sudden death was, at least, a possible occurrence? Who had not often entertained so unwelcome a thought? The very rumours which had been prevalent in that neighbourhood respecting the safety of the reservoir had been a warning. If, after having trembled at the surmise of their danger, men had laid their heads upon their pillows in carelessness or fancied security, the fatal error was, alas! their own Had not the pulpits of the sanctuaries they frequented often told them that in such “an hour as they thought not, the Son of Man cometh?” The fact that such admonition was addressed to them was in itself a vindication of the ways of God to them. Be it ours, therefore, not rashly to censure the proceedings of the Intelligent and Omnipotent God.
- “One part, one little part, we dimly scan,
- Throughout the medium of life’s feverish dream;
- Yet dare arraign the whole stupendous plan,
- If but that part incongruous seem.
- Nor is that part, perhaps, what mortals deem!
- Oh, then renounce that impious self-esteem
- Which aims to trace the secrets of the skies;
- For man is but of dust; be humble and be wise.”
No wise man can contemplate this disastrous event without learning from it the instability and insecurity of all earthly possessions. The things for which men toil; on which their hearts are so deeply set; which occupy their energies by day and their thoughts by night, are unsubstantial as the shadow; man attempts to grasp them and they are gone! This is one of the most marked features of the whole occurrence, and it is doubt less one which God means to indent most strongly upon the minds of a busy and manufacturing population. In the crowd and in the market-place; whilst the news of this calamity is awakening vivid sensibility and generous effort, God preaches to the masses of our busy population:— “Wilt thou set thine heart upon that which is not; for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle towards heaven.” Of the many ways in which this sentiment is fulfilled, one, and only one, is exhibited in the case of Holmfirth. It is as if God had said to multitudes — “You are adding field to field, and house to house; you are accumulating around you the perisbable; you are unable to a wanton forgetfulness of the imperishable and the immortal. But I blow upon all this and it will wither. See!” and by an instant destruction he demolishes and confounds the whole. Such is God’s lesson; uttered is in a tone so loud as that men must hear it!
O it is a sight worthy of any man of business who has a heart to profit by it — that desolated valley of Holmfirth! There we may learn how the things for which men strive and agitate themselves so profusely are dependent for their continuance upon the accident of a moment. And this is but a specimen of the rest. A breath may disconcert the extensive speculation;— a calumny uttered at a critical moment may bring the ill-poised adventurer to the ground; — a spark or a wave may ruin the merchant; — an impulse of undue ambition in some tyrant may prostrate the prosperity of a great nation. The slightest electric shock made vibrate — none can tell how far; and the end for which time is so profusely wasted — the energies of the mind exhausted — and perchance, in many cases, the soul lost, — may prove to be but an empty dream? Tradesman, merchant, manufacturer, “Wilt thou set thine heart upon that, which is not? Wilt thou be the castle-builder, who having exhausted thine utmost resources in pursuit of a phantom, shalt find the reality nowhere? Dare not the fulfilment of the threatening — “Because thou has forgotten the God of thy salvation and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants and shalt set it with strange slips; in the day thou shalt make thy plant to grow, and in the morning thou shalt make thy seed to flourish; but the harvest shall be a heap in a day of grief and pf desperate sorrow.” Isa. xvii. 10. Let us seek for something which the accidents of life cannot reach; for gold which the thief cannot steal; for garments which the moth cannot devour; for dwellings which the floods cannot sweep away. And, like the philosopher of old when he beheld his companions after a shipwreck full of solicitude respecting their possessions, let us learn calmly to say — “I carry all my treasure with me.”
In one of his elegies, placed among the Psalms of David, Moses says of the lives of men, “Thou carriest them away as with a flood.” How truly is this event descriptive of human life in general. He who looks around that desolate valley of the Holme is only like him who shall happen to live to “a good old age,” and shall look round on the scenes of his boyhood and youth. What a change?
It is as if a mighty flood had swept over it all! The fertile has become barren; the field the desert. Here are spots, once well known; how have they become altered? Where was the former inhabitant of this scene? Where were the friends with whom, we here mingled?
- “Where are they all, the old familiar faces?”
The irresistible flood has dashed them away. These losses may be repaired; but the next erections will be extremely unlike the old. One will soon scarcely know the spot again. And the old voices will sound in our ears no more!
Never was there exhibited, at least within our view, a more fearful specimen of God’s power than that which has been afforded by the desolation, of this valley. Yet the terrific result was produced by a few acres of water alone! How inconsiderable a portions of the elements which the omnipotent God holds in his hands and subject to his bidding! What then must be the power of his anger? “Lo these are parts of his ways, and the mere whisper that is heard of him. BUT THE THUNDER OF HIS POWER WHO CAN UNDERSTAND?”
Let the excitement of this event is therefore lead us to prepare for that great crisis of our being, of which a flood is not an unnatural nor an unaccustomed emblem. “With an overflowing flood the Lord will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies.”
It is coming! that universal desolation of which Noah’s great flood was but an emblem It is coming; that great flood which no promise shall restrain and no barrier oppose; which shall sweep away all refuges of lies, and utterly overwhelm the wicked. The fears of man give indication that it is near. The alarm sounded by many who stand on the foremost points of observation warn us that it is near. Let us not be the unwise who, like the scoffers mentioned in holy writ, plead that there is no danger: that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” Despise not the summons! Provoke not the overthrow! Rise and hasten away; away, without a moments pause! If escape be not now, it may be never. Take shelter in the promise of Christ that none trusting in him shall be cast out or forsaken. Yield to his cross and his service thy heart — thy life! Then, whilst looking out from thy hiding-place thou mayest awfully enquire respecting the fate of others — the overflowing flood shall not come nigh thee. “Thou shalt be hidden in the day of the Lord’s fierce anger.”