The Flood Came and Took Them All Away (1852) - Appendix: Awful Catastrophe at Holmfirth

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The Flood Came and Took Them All Away: A Sermon on the Holmfirth Flood (1852) by Rev. Joshua Fawcett

Awful Catastrophe at Holmfirth, in the West-Riding of the County of York, by the Bursting of a Reservoir, February 5, 1852.

The compiler of this account is indebted to the courtesy of the Editor of the “Halifax Guardian,” from whose correct reports the following statement has chiefly been made.


Between the hours of one and two o’clock on Thursday morning last, (February 5,) a most awful calamity occurred at Holmfirth and the neighbourhood, by the bursting of an immense reservoir. The accident has occasioned a terrific loss of life and property, and will inflict the greatest possible distress upon the entire district for many years to come. It appears that some 14 or 15 years ago, an act of parliament was obtained for the construction of a large reservoir at the head of the Holme valley, in the neighbourhood of Holme Moss, for the supply of the mills erected along the course of the river during the dry seasons. The mill-owners were to be rated in proportion to the fall of water, and the affairs of the company conducted by a board of commissioners, consisting of 70 individuals. The scite fixed upon for the formation of the reservoir is at the junction of two streams on the bleak and wild mountainous range of hills on the borders of the three counties of York, Chester, and Lancaster, the deep and narrow valley of Holmfirth stretching to the east. The scite was, perhaps, the most favourable that could have been chosen; but from the circumstance of the valley being so deep and narrow, and the mountain streams so liable to be suddenly swollen, a greater amount of engineering skill was required than, we are afraid, will prove to have been engaged in the original formation of this immense sheet of water. The plan adopted was to erect an immense wall across the valley, and thus dam-up the two streams alluded to; Marsden Clough being to the right of the reservoir, Good Bent Clough to the left, and Good Bent hill separating the two streams. Everything, of course, depended upon the stability of this wall. We are unable to give a correct measurement of it; but judging from the eye, the wall is (or rather was) about 120 yards wide, and 23 yards high, a large culvert being made on the easterly side. The thickness of the base could not correctly be ascertained, so much of it being washed away. It inclined by a gentle slope towards the reservoir, the face of the inside wall being paved as high as the culvert. The wall on the other side was much more precipitous, and had never been faced with stone. The bur-wall was composed of sand and stones thrown down loosely, and does not appear to have been built up (if that term may be used) with that compactness it ought to have been. Previous to this wall being commenced the foundation was puddled; and during this operation, we are informed, the contractor met with a spring of water, nearly in the centre where the embankment was to be thrown up, and which gave him an immense amount of trouble. The gush of water is said to have been the thickness of a man’s arm, and every means was resorted to, in order to plug-up this valuable stream. An eminent engineer at Leeds, was consulted, who advised the stopping of the flow of water before any further measures were taken. Every scheme which ingenuity could devise was tried, but all to no purpose; until it was said at the time that if the whole of Holme Moss had been tumbled down at the top of the spring the water could not have been prevented flowing. With this difficulty unsurmounted — with a spring of water in the every centre of the puddle-bed — the contractor proceeded with his work! The reason we heard assigned by an old inhabitant, residing on the mountain, why this spring of water was not stopped-up, was — that the commissioners could not afford to lay out any more money in puddling? The consequences might easily have been calculated; and in fact the dire calamity which we are about to record, was generally foretold from the very first. The spring of water at the base of the mound constantly let down the puddle, and washed it away down the mountain torrent.

This evident defection in the bur-wall was viewed with alarm by the mill-owners having property situated on the stream, until the imminent peril they were in, from a sudden rupture of this lateral wall, became a household word. This fear of a mighty inundation has reigned in the minds of the entire population in the valley; and upon several occasions, and especially during any sudden fall of rain, numbers of people have located themselves on the neigbouring hills, expecting to see the reservoir burst. This fear of the embankment giving way, became so great about four years ago, that a Mr. David Porter, contractor, was engaged to repair it. He opened the embankment and put in an immense amount of material for the purpose of preventing a rupture. Whether he ascertained the reason of the embankment giving way or not, we are not aware; but it is said he told the Commissioners he had not got down low enough, and that a further opening must be made, and more puddle put in, if the evil was to remedied. Parsimony, it is said, again prevailed. The contractor declared his work not to be accomplished; but as further operations would be attended with more expense, he was ordered to desist; and with a full knowledge of the extremely dangerous state of the embankment, and in spite of the fact patent to every man, woman, and child in the district, that the reservoir never held water to the satisfaction of the mill-owners, no further steps were taken to avert what was sure to come-to pass sooner or later. In fact, it resolved itself merely into a question of time as to how soon the spring of water would wash away the puddle, and let down the whole of the embankment.

We have stated that a culvert was erected on the easterly side of the embankment; but whether it was of sufficient capacity for a reservoir covering some 12 or 15 acres of land, is not for us to pronounce an opinion upon. Certain it is, however, that it was liable to be easily stopped up. A few years ago, it was found that the shuttle was prevented being drawn, by a piece of timber being jammed against it; but no precautions seem to have been taken to prevent a similar disaster. On Sunday, February 1st, the man whose duty it was to attend to the shuttle found that it was again out of order; and, although the united strength of three men was brought to bear upon it, not one jot could it be moved. In this alarming state of things, we are not aware that any means were adopted to remove the obstacle, or to avert the threatened danger, by cutting a sluice, or taking down a portion of the embankment, and by this or some other means, reducing the immense pressure of water against the already weakened lateral wall. On Monday, when it was found that a less quantity of water than usual was flowing through the culvert, an alarm began to spread through the neighbourhood, which was greatly increased by the heavy fall of rain. Several of the inhabitants were warned of the impending danger; but there had so frequently been similar warnings held out, that, while some took heed to it and escaped a terrible death, others laughed at the outcry, and were in consequence swept away by the flood.

Considerable variety having been found in the estimates of the capacity of the reservoir, we are happy to be enabled, upon the measurements of Mr. Horsfall, land-surveyor, Halifax (taken on February 5th), to state that the area it covered when filled would be about 6¾ acres; and that the embankment wall measures about 100 yards across, and the circular well, or funnel, 58 feet high from the top to the surface of the water now running through the clow. This circular well is 12 feet in diameter at the top, giving an area of about 113 square feet; but the outlet of the culvert into which it leads is little more than half a circle, about 5 feet in diameter, giving an area of outlet both for the funnel (could it have acted) and the clow, of only about 10 square feet.

Allowing for the back-water up the two doughs supplying the reservoir, its area would be at least 7 acres; and, as the engineer at Bilberry mill states that the water rose on the day before the accident at the rate of 18 inches an hour, we have data upon which to calculate the required outlet. The area of seven acres is 33,880 square yards, or 304,920 square feet. A rise of 18 inches upon this surface indicates an addition of 457,380 cubic feet of water, filling the reservoir at the rate of 2,850,480 gallons per hour, the weight of which (apart from the force it would subsequently acquire in its rapid descent down the doomed valley) would be 14,725 tons.

Mr. Bateman, the able civil engineer under whose direction the Manchester waterworks (to which we have already alluded) are now being constructed, reports that his discharge pipes, which are 4 feet in diameter, and under a pressure of from 80 to 100 feet, deliver from 500 to 600 cubic feet per second. These pipes are circular, and their area 12½ square feet. In any comparison with the culvert at Bilberry reservoir allowance will have to be made for its shape (a semi-circle with a bed of silted rubble and gravel) and also for the lesser pressure of the column in the reservoir.

We will not further anticipate the engineering evidence which will, no doubt be adduced before the jury (whilst this Book is in the Press), than to record the universal opinion that the embankment itself was sufficiently strong to have upheld the water at its utmost depth, had there been a proper puddling and an adequate bye-wash. But there is a proof on the embankment as it now stands that this matter had not been duly attended to. The top of the embankment has been suffered to become “saddle-backed;” and near the circular well, which should have been a bye-wash, there is a hole in the embankment which betrays the sinking and washing away of the puddle within. A similar hole to that was in the very top of that part of the embankment which has been washed away. When the water, therefore, began to overflow the embankment at that part, it not only washed away the outer slope of the embankment (which was its only resistance to the pressure of the water in the reservoir) but burrowed within the wall itself, down the hole which indicated the failure of the proper puddling beneath. To this cause, and to the general sinking of the embankment must, no doubt, be ascribed the fatal fact that the reservoir was left entirely without bye-wash, or any means of extraordinary outlet except at the expense of the embankment which was the only safeguard of the lives and property in the valley below.

These statements, which, on our visit to the scene, “the whole country side” united in making, have called for the earnest attention of the coroner’s jury, impanelled upon the absolute crowd of victims so suddenly and sadly hurried at dead of night into eternity by a calamity which we now notice as described to us by eye-witnesses.

On Wednesday, February 4th, there was a regular down-pour of rain, which continued, without intermission, throughout the entire day. The contracted valley of the Holme is, of all valleys in Yorkshire, subject to sudden inundations; and during the whole of the day the river was very much swollen and considerable damage done to the houses on its margin. In the midst of this perfect deluge of rain the fearful alarm was raised that the Holme reservoir was filling fast, and that no outlet could be made for the accumulating waters. Holmfirth being situated about 3½ miles down the valley, the alarm does not appear to have reached so far as that village; but in the immediate locality of the mountain lake the terrific cry spread like wild-fire; and during the whole of the evening, numbers of people, despite the pelting storm, Were assembled on the neighbouring heights waiting with trembling expectation some awful catastrophe.

The engineer who resided at Bilberry Mill, which is situated immediately below the base of the embankment, says that about ten o’clock the water first began to flow over the bank. The reservoir had been filling during the whole of the day at the rate of eighteen inches an hour, and the action of the wind against the inner face of the embankment was also considerable. The very first overflow of water swept away a considerable portion of the outer embankment; which, not being faced with stone offered no resistance to the torrents of water pouring down its surface. Large fissures were immediately made in the grass-covered embankment, and tons of loose earth and rubbish carried away. The outer bank was soon gone, the puddle bank next gave way, and then, just as though the inner embankment had been struck with lightning, the whole mass of earth-work gave way with a loud thundering crash, and the pent-up waters which formed this gigantic reservoir rushed with fearful velocity through the opening thus made. This terrible outburst was described by some of the spectators who were on the neighbouring hills at the time as being awfully grand. The moon was shining brightly when the embankment gave way, but the wind howled fearfully as though some portentous event was about to happen. No doubt our informants who witnessed the dreadful sight, spoke truly when they said that the impression produced upon their minds as they gazed upon the mighty torrent of water as it surged down the valley will never be effaced. We have already stated the capacity of the reservoir, and the terrible consequences which ensued down the peaceful valley, may perhaps be better understood, when we add that the immense reservoir emptied itself, or at least down to its present level, in about twenty minutes!

We have been careful in giving as full and correct an account as possible of the origin of the sad scenes which it is now our painful duty to record. Nor can we proceed to our sad task without expressing our regret that no means were tried to lesson the pressure of water against the embankment. Peradventure it may turn out that the unparalleled loss of life from such a catastrophe, the incalculable loss of property, and the desolation of an entire valley may have arisen from a tree-root preventing the shuttle of the culvert being raised! As nearly as we could ascertain, it was about one o’clock when the embankment gave way; but the testimony of many parties whom we questioned varied some little upon this point, while some of the spectators who saw the catastrophe were so horror-struck at the sight, that they could only give a confused account of it.

The engineer to whom we have before alluded, ran to Bilberry Mill the moment he saw a likelihood of the embankment giving way, and managed to get a few articles out of the premises when the flood was upon him. He had a narrow escape of his life. The mill, which was occupied by Messrs. Broadbent and Whiteley as a fulling and scribbling mill, is completely gutted. A house in the immediate locality, occupied by Mr. John Furness, was partly destroyed, and an adjoining barn and stable swept away bodily. Three cows and a horse were in the premises at the time and were washed down the stream. A stack of hay, valued at £40, withstood for a moment the mighty shock and the next was engulphed and carried away. Fortunately the family were aware of the danger, and had removed out of the house when the mischief happened.

Middle Digley Mill.

The next scene of devastation was at Middle Digley Mill, occupied by Mr. Furness, and used as a woollen mill. The mill is erected broadway across the valley, with a dwellinghouse on the left-hand side. Fortunately at this point the valley widens considerably, and in the rear of the mill stood the house occupied by Mr. Furness, and as it faced the coming current acted somewhat as a break, like the bowsprit of a vessel, against the coming waters. The cottage house adjoining the mill was nearly swept away; but the walls of the mill were left standing. Nearly the whole of the machinery was washed out of the windows and doors, and a large quantity of pieces also carried away. Fortunately the family residing in the cottage house had timely warning given them and escaped; but every vestige of furniture, bed linen, &c., is gone. Between this mill and Digley Mill a singular scene of devastation is presented. The day previous, we were told, that the valley was covered by green pastures; but when we visited the place on the day of the disaster we could only conceive it to be the bed of some mighty river. The ground was covered with sand and loose stones, which had apparently been washed for ages by some mountain torrent. Some of these stones were of immense size, and one of them was computed to be at least 4 or 5 tons weight. It will be a work of immense labour to remove these stones and rubbish, if ever the great cost can be incurred.

Digley Mill.

A little below this singular scene of devastation, the valley becomes contracted into a narrow gorge; but in spite of the natural disadvantages of the situation, the enterprising genius of a British manufacturer had been evinced in the erection of some very extensive premises known as Digley Mill. On the left of the river some extensive dye works were erected, and a little lower down on the same side a large weaving shed. Between the two there was a wright’s shop, a mistal, barn, cart shed, &c., and two cottage houses. On the opposite side of the river stood five cottages, and a large woollen mill. The whole of this extensive property, with the exception of the mill chimney, was swept away! Such a complete and utter wreck we never before witnessed. One can conceive of a single building being gutted; but to be told that only the day previous the property we have briefly described was situated upon either bank of the river, appeared a marvel. Of the cottages scarcely a vestige remains, but imbedded in the river are unmistakeable tokens of extensive works having recently been planted there. Part of the steam engine remains; but the huge boiler was floated down the stream as though it were only the weight of a tin tea kettle. No pen can describe this terrible wreck of property. Some of the dye pans remained; but all the machinery and valuable store of goods were gone — all swept away. We have heard the loss at this place variously estimated, and should think that £20,000 was under rather than over the mark. During the whole of Thursday, Digley Mill was visited by thousands of spectators; and certainly such a terrible scene was never witnessed before by man. Fortunately Mrs. George Hirst and her family were saved, having been made aware of the extreme probability of the reservoir bursting during the night. We had an opportunity of hearing the evidence of two of the tenants occupying the cottages on the right-hand side of the river, and shall give it pretty much in their own words.

Peter Webster said that having heard that the reservoir was in an unsafe state, he went to look at it about half-past ten o’clock on Wednesday. He saw a large hole which had been washed in the inner embankment, about three yards from the top; the wind was blowing hard at the time, and fearing that the embankment would break, he gave a warning to that effect to the inhabitants at Digley Mill, and owing to his foresight not a single life was lost at this place. From what he saw at the reservoir he could not rest until he had visited it again, and went up accordingly after midnight. While thus proceeding on his journey he met a man, who in breathless haste exclaimed, “Peter, its coming, run back.” Webster immediately returned, and soon after, the whole valley was inundated. He describes the rolling of the tumbling waves down the valley as being awfully grand. His house was swept away, but his wife and children escaped with their clothes on their backs, being the only things they saved excepting half a loaf of bread and an old crust of cheese. They formed a pitiable group when we saw them in the upper room of a small warehouse, built higher up the hill side on the left hand, and which fortunately escaped the wreck.

James Armitage the miller, said, that having been warned by Webster he took the precaution to remove his family, but every vestige of his property had been swept away. He said he stood on an elevated position upon some steps, and saw the first approach of the waters. According to his own vivid but homely description, the mill, weaving shed, and dye house, went “crash, crash, crash,” and in ten minutes or less the whole of the extensive premises were gone! He relates a most wonderful escape of a young man, who had been confined to his bed by an attack of rheumatism. Fearing that a flood would come, Armitage, along with three other men, wrapped the sickly man in blankets, and carried him out of the house to a neighbour’s house high up the hill side. They had just got him out of the house when the torrent swept past. One minute later and the whole five would have perished.

It is providential that this awful calamity occurred during the night; had it occurred a few hours later, the whole of the hands employed at these works would have been on the premises, and the probable loss of life under such circumstances makes the blood run chill to contemplate. This remark also will apply to the other mills partially or wholly destroyed by the rapid descent of this terrible flood.

Bank End Mill.

The next scene of destruction down the stream was at Bank End Mill, occupied by Messrs. Roebuck, and used as a woollen mill. The east end of the mill was forced in, and a great portion of the machinery washed away. To add to the cumulative force of the destructive current, the mill dam gave way. Fortunately, no loss of life occurred in this locality.

Holme Bridge.

At this part the valley, which has run from west to east, assumes a north-easterly direction, and is a considerable width, and the water, therefore, was spread over a much greater surface, but left sad evidences of the amazing velocity with which it swept along. Holme Church is situated on one side of the valley, the steeple facing up the stream. The church-yard walls were tumbled down, nearly all the tombstones overturned, and several of the bodies, it is said, washed out of the graves. The church doors were stove in, and such was the force of the waters that the whole of the pews on the floor of the church were lifted up bodily. Cushions, prayer-books, &c., were washed away in great numbers; and the interior of the church presents a most lamentable aspect. A goat, which was last seen feeding in the grave-yard, was found dead in the middle aisle of the church, having been washed there by the flood. The battlements and (me of the arches of the bridge are washed away, rendering the valley impassable. The gates of the toll-bar house were also lifted from their position, and swept along by the fury of the torrent, but the bar-house escaped. The wreck of property left by the flood when it subsided is immense; mud, broken machinery, woollen pieces, large beams of machinery, and broken furniture were spread over the fields to a great extent, The houses of the inhabitants bordering upon the stream were inundated, their property either spoiled or destroyed, and such was the quantity of mud and filth which had accumulated in and about their dwellings, that a most awful stench was occasioned, and the next evil to be feared is the outbreak of some dreadful pestilence. The inhabitants appeared to be in a state of bewilderment bordering upon distraction, and tears were in almost every eye.

Hinchliffe Mill.

We now approach a spot where the most appalling scenes were witnessed, and where the uncontrollable fury of this terrible visitation manifested itself in its most fearful form. Hinchliffe Mill is occupied by Messrs. Butterworth and Co., and like the rest of the mills in this locality is used as a woollen mill. A large dam extends on the easterly side of the mill, and on the other side of the river six cottages were erected immediately op-site the mill, the rivulet dividing the respective buildings. On the easterly side of these six cottages was a large mistal, and above that another, long row of cottages upon the immediate banks of the river. This row of houses is called Water Street, and it was in this locality where the most terrible loss of life was occasioned. From the information^ we were able to collect, it appears that a general rumour prevailed that the reservoir (which is about miles up the valley) was in an unsafe state, but no specific information was conveyed to the unfortunate inhabitants that immediate danger was apprehended. Like the story in the fable, the cry of “wolf, wolf,” had been raised so repeatedly, and that no “wolf” had ever come, that the inhabitants generally laughed at the idea of the reservoir bursting and retired to rest in fancied security. Fatal security!

In order to appreciate the dreadful scene to which we are now about to introduce our readers, it must be borne in mind that the six cottages to which we have alluded as being erected on the opposite bank of the river to which the mill is erected, faced sideways to the stream, the dam head being immediately opposite. These cottages were occupied respectively by Eliza Marsden, Joseph Dodd, Jonathan Crossland, John Charlesworth, James Metterick, and Joshua Earnshaw, with their families. In all, 44 individuals retired to rest in that clump of houses on Wednesday night, and soon after they had gone to sleep, — or at all events retired to bed, — 86 of them met a watery grave. The following is the sad record:—

Eliza and Nancy Marsden and two sons — all lost 4
Joseph Dodd, wife, and two daughters — all lost 4
Jonathan Crossland, and seven children — all lost 8
John Charlesworth, wife, and eight children — seven lost 7
James Metterick, wife and twelve children — nine lost 9
Joshua Earnshaw, son, grandson, and grand-daughter — all lost 4

Thus out of this terrible catalogue four families have been clean swept away! The whole of the houses were carried away by the flood, and when we visited the scite upon which they stood, an old rusty can was the only article we saw. Houses, furniture, beds, and inmates—all were swept away. A person who saw the houses go, described the scene thus, — “I was looking out of the window and saw the water coming rolling down the valley. In a minute after I saw the six houses wobble a bit like, on the top of the water, and then they all went away.” With regard to the three first families on the list nothing can be said, excepting that one or two bodies have been recovered, — the rest were carried along by the mighty torrent. Three of Charlesworth’s children by some means made a miraculous escape. They ran to the door of a neighbour named Ellis, and were fortunately taken in by him only just in time to make their escape out of the top of the house. Other two children of the same family had escaped as far as the top of the fold, leading into the turnpike road, but returned to rescue two hens which they kept, and by so doing were caught and drowned.

In the family of the Metterick’s two remarkable circumstances occurred. The eldest son (William), who does not live there, had been for a warp, and the evening being so very wet and stormy he decided to stay all night at his father’s rather than encounter the storm in going home to his family. He was drowned. Another son, 24 years of age, was washed out of his bed-room, but fortunately got astride a small beam, on which he managed to balance himself, and was carried with tremendous impetuosity down the foaming waves. Fortunately the end of the beam pointed itself in the direction of the dam adjoining Mr. Harpen’s mill, and borne up by the beam he swam into the harbour of refuge, and was rescued from his frail life-boat in a state of extreme exhaustion.

Immediately in the rear of the scite upon which these cottages formerly stood in another row, the lowermost of which is occupied by Robert Ellis. It was to this man’s door that three of Charlesworth’s children ran when the flood first approached. He heard their knock, and immediately opened the door — let them in — and the moment after he had closed the door it was burst open — and the house inundated. Some stockings had been hung up to dry on the bread creel, and when he saw them on Thursday they were marked with sludge half way up the leg, showing the height of the water in the house. Ellis had a most miraculous escape; he ran up stairs with his children, and those of Charlesworth’s, and fourteen of them made their escape out of the top of the house. The great rise of water in this immediate locality and sudden destruction of an entire row of houses, probably arose—first, from the narrow confined water course opposite the houses; and secondly, owing to the bursting of the mill dam immediately in their front. A double force would thus be brought to bear against this pile of buildings. It is seldom that we have read before of such direful destruction of life and property as this we have just narrated.

The next building higher up the stream is a mistal, where a valuable cow was drowned; and above this building stands another row of cottages, in continuation of Water Street. A great loss of life was occasioned in this row of houses. But several wonderful escapes are narrated. The cottage occupied by Joseph Brook, wife, and child, was perfectly inundated. The wife and child were lost, but Brook was saved. Brook gives a most affecting account of the loss he has sustained, and of his own narrow escape. He says that he and his wife slept “in the house,” and his little daughter up-stairs. The child awoke about half-past one o’clock and came down stairs, exclaiming, “Father, father, I am frightened by the wind.” The father at once leaped out of bed, hearing a strange, unearthly sort of noise. He ran to the window, and the next moment exclaimed, “Its not the wind, its water, and the water is on the door-stones; run up stairs.” He says he did not know but that they were all running up-stairs; but when he got in the chamber he found himself alone. In a moment he heard the water rush through the door of his house, his daughter gave a shriek, he heard a few sighs, and all was still. He then got into the lobby, went to a window, and cried out for assistance. Some men brought a ladder and he escaped, with no other article of clothing save his shirt. When the water subsided, his wife and daughter were found in the bed, and it appeared as though the poor child had run to her mother for safety.

The next door neighbour, George Crossland, had a more marvellous escape. His family escaped, when he was caught by the water down stairs, which rose to the height of 7 feet in a few minutes. Fortunately, the room was still higher, and as he had learned to swim, he managed to keep his head above water for some time, but soon became thoroughly exhausted, and was nearly suffocated, and swam round the room in the vain hope of catching hold of something. At last he caught hold of a “sampler” hung up in a frame to the wall, and the nail very fortunately having been hammered into the wall a little faster than usual, he managed to keep afloat until the flood passed away, and thus was rescued.

In another adjoining house occupied by James Booth, his wife, and a lodger named William Heeley, the whole family were lost.

In a house in the same street occupied by Jonas Wimpenny, a whole family of eight persons had a most marvellous escape. The oldest son, hearing the rushing of the water, wanted at once to open the door, but owing to the presence of mind of a member of the family he was prevented, and the door kept too until the whole family had escaped. The next moment the door was burst open by the flood. In all, 41 persons have met an untimely death at Hinchliffe Mill. Of these, all were washed away except seven. Their names are as follows:—

James Booth, and wife.
William Heeley.
Lydia Brook, and her daughter,
Elizabeth Dodd, and
A daughter of John Charlesworth.

None of the bodies appear to have been greatly mutilated.

The woollen mill is greatly injured. The lower windows are all stove in, and a considerable number of those in the second story have also been carried away. The water has swept through the machinery, doing much damage, and a considerable sum will have to be expended in repairing the mill-dam. The mill being broadside across the valley, a great amount of wreck was lodged against it.

Harpen and Victoria Mills.

Progressing lower down the stream, we come to Harpen Mill, occupied by Messrs. Barber and Co.; and Victoria Mill, occupied by Messrs. Harper and Co. At the latter place three dwelling-houses were entirely washed away; but fortunately the inmates escaped. Both mills have suffered great damage.

Sandford Mill.

This Mill was occupied by Messrs. Sandford and Co.; on the left-hand side of which a small mansion had been erected, and was occupied by Jonathan Sandford, jun., Esq.: his family consisting of two daughters, (the one about ten, the other five years of age), and his housekeeper. The house was completely swept away, and nothing left standing except a portion of one of the walls. It is said that Mr. Sandford had been informed the evening previous that a report had spread about the unsafe state of the reservoir; and that it would be hardly safe for him to sleep at home; and it is rumoured that he did not believe there was sufficient danger to justify the removal of his whole family; he therefore retired to rest with them; but not one now remains to tell the events of that terrible night! Such a tragic event has created an unusual amount of sympathy in the neighbourhood; which was not a little heightened by the almost frantic offers of reward to any amount by his distracted father (who resides in the neighbourhood) for the recovery of any of the bodies. According to our latest reports only one of the bodies had been discovered, and with numberless others the rest may have been washed out even to the sea, the rivers being so greatly swollen by the late heavy rains. Not a particle of the property has been found, that we are aware of, except a deed of some property belonging to Mr. Sandford, which was found embedded in Mr. Floyd’s garden. Two houses in the immediate vicinity of Mr. Sandford’s residence, were also swept away, but the inmates were saved.

Upper and Lower Mill.

The mill called Upper Mill, occupied by Mr. John Farrar, was washed into, the engine greatly damaged, “the whole of the dyehouse nearly swept away, and a great amount of “mungo” or “devil’s dust” carried down by the flood. In addition to the injury done to the machinery, Mr. Farrar has sustained a still more serious loss. On Wednesday he had payments made to him amounting to nearly £700, which he had deposited in his counting house. The whole of this amount was swept away.

At Lower Mill, occupied by Mr. J. H. Farrar, nearly all the windows were broken, the machinery greatly damaged; and what is remarkable, the boiler was lifted clear off its seat and carried away, rolling on the surface of the water like an immense porpoise. How far down the valley this boiler was carried we have not ascertained; but several boilers have been left high and dry in the fields by the retiring waves. The mill dam was also burst.

It appears that some person had run down the valley when the embankment first gave way to give an alarm, for in the neighbourhood of Lower Mill or Upper Bridge several young men who were returning from Holmfirth met a young man who was running and crying “flood, flood;” but was unable to utter one single syllable more. Mr. Tedbar Earnshaw and Mr. Geo. Littlewood, in company with some others met this young man at Holmfirth, and by a sort of instinct at once concluded that the reservoir had burst, but the young man who thus brought the alarm sank thoroughly exhausted to the ground. Upon the strength of the supposition they had come to, they commenced kicking at all the doors, and in less than five minutes the flood was upon them. Earnshaw says that he saw a bed with two little children in it come out of one of the houses, and roll down the stream; the shrieking children were lost. Mr. Littlewood says that he handed about 20 women and children out of houses, and knocked up several of the inhabitants who in the utmost consternation and bewilderment beheld their dwellings surrounded by water.


The first news of the fearful doom which had befallen so many of the inhabitants in the Holme valley, and of the terrible approach of the flood, reached Holmfirth about half-past 1 o’clock, and we believe the two parties just alluded to along with one or two of their companions, were the first to rouse the inhabitants; at all events they acted in a praiseworthy manner in their heroic exertions to save life and property. Among others whom they aroused was Mr. Lomax, surgeon, who upon running to his bed-room window was horror-struck at seeing the water surging in the road beneath. Looking across the valley he saw the toll-bar house carried away at one fell swoop. Thinking it time to escape, he and his wife and family managed to squeeze themselves through one of the windows on the back part of the house, and ascended one of the neighbouring heights for security.

Perhaps the most affecting spectacle which the dawn of the morning revealed in this valley of desolation was the number of dead bodies, and especially females, which were laid in the mud and upon the banks of the river. They were all carefully removed by the special constables and others engaged for the occasion, and taken to the nearest public houses.

Considerable damage was done at Upper Bridge, where the valley is very much confined. The door of a dwelling-house, occupied by a poor man named Joseph Hellawell, was burst open by the destructive current. He was in bed at the time with his wife; his four children were also asleep in bed. Hellawell made his escape by climbing into an upper room, from whence he was taken into another dwelling by the inmates and saved. His wife and four children were all drowned. In the next house two children, named Alfred and Sarah Woodcock, were drawn into the current, and perished. A house adjoining the bridge, occupied by Enon Bailey, was swept away, and his wife and children carried away. The toll-bar house in Hollow Gate, kept by Samuel Greenwood, was entirely swept away; and the inmates, three in number, drowned. Two houses a little lower down the river, occupied by Mr. Ashall and his family, were completely carried away, not a vestige remaining; the family, five in number, were all lost. In an adjoining house two females named Kaye were drowned.

In Victoria Street the work of devastation was equally great; every building in that recently erected street being literally deluged with water, and the goods of every shopkeeper damaged to a serious extent. It would occupy the whole of this book to enumerate the various a-mounts of damage sustained by each individual shopkeeper and inhabitant, inasmuch as this terrible visitation has involved nearly the whole of the village in indiscriminate ruin. We may mention a few cases in Victoria Street. A young man of the name of Edward Williamson, was just about commencing business as a linen draper in this street, and for that purpose had purchased goods to the amount of £700. They were partly unpacked on the evening of Wednesday, but on Thursday morning all washed away. The shop of Mr. Woodcock, draper and tailor, Victoria Street, completely devested of its contents, and the stock, said to be worth nearly £700, carried away. The premises of Mr. Gutteridge, confectioner, and those of Mr. Dyson, druggist, in the same street, also sustained considerable damage. A portion of the premises of Mr. Charles Boocopk, who recently commenced business as a grocer and provision dealer, were swept away, and various kinds of provisions rendered unsaleable. Mr. Lawson, tinner, and Mr. Harrison, grocer, have each had their stocks damaged to the extent of £100.

At the end of Victoria Street, two houses, occupied by Mr. Whiteley and Mr. Marpies, were partially destroyed. The inmates, ten in number, escaped by means of a skylight on to the roof of the houses, and were rescued by means of ladders.

In Town Gate the water entered the premises of Mr. Garside, ironmonger, and caused damage to the extent of between £200 and £300.

A warehouse, occupied by Mr. Bower, at Holmfirth Mill, was clean swept away. It is estimated that wool to the amount of £2000 was stowed in the warehouse at the time it was washed away. A portion of the mill was also destroyed, and the machinery damaged to a dreadful extent. The engineer, or foreman (Mr. Sidney Hartley), and his family, consisting of eight children, were lost; thus adding another family to the terrible list of families swept away by this awful catastrophe. The next house swept away was occupied by Richard Shackleton. The family consisted of four persons, all of whom were swept out of their beds in a moment, and carried down the valley. The dye-house and other outbuildings were completely demolished, and a person of the name of Lee, who resided in his own dwelling house in the neighbourhood, was also drowned. The rest of the inmates had an hairbreadth escape.

Great damage was done to the Church, and also to the Wesleyan Chapel. Several graves were burst open in the grave yard attached to the Wesleyan Chapel, and coffins were floated away from what had been considered to be their last resting place.

At Cuttle Bottom, a most miraculous escape is stated to have taken place in a dwellinghouse adjoining Mr. Wimpenny’s house, in which a servant of Mr. Floyd’s solicitor, and a little boy was sleeping. When the water rushed into the house, the man seized hold of the boy and made for the staircase; but just as he reached the door, it was closed by the force of the water, and the boy was separated from him. As a matter of course it was expected that the boy was drowned. It turned out, however, that the little fellow, when borne up by the force of the water, had caught hold as with a death-grip, of one of the joists, and held fast for a weary long hour, until the water subsided, when he made his escape.

At Bridge Mill the force of the current washed down the embankment of the dam, doing considerable damage to the mill and machinery. A building at Bridge Fold, occupied by Mr. Exley and his family, was completely destroyed, and the inmates pulled out of the house before it went to complete ruin. Their escape is miraculous. The harrowing recital of scenes which will never be effaced from the memory of those who witnessed them, might be continued to an indefinite extent, but we are obliged to limit our description.

Several of the magistrates had a narrow escape of their lives. The residences of Messrs. Charlesworth and Moorhouse were greatly damaged, the boiling and foaming waters literally surrounding their houses for some time. They were all ultimately rescued.

At Thongs Bridge Mill the water effected an entrance, and did immense injury to the machinery and the property deposited therein. The scene of devastation in this neighbourhood beggars description. The torrent forced its way through the lower part of the mill of Messrs. Wimpenny and Woodhead, situated on the opposite side of the river, and destroyed the dry-house and other buildings. An affecting incident occurred at this place. The cottage of the engine man, attached to the premises, was filled with water; and, finding his position to be one of great danger, he rushed to the window, for the purpose of effecting his escape, when it at once flashed across his mind that he had left his child behind. Fortunately, he observed the little fellow floundering about, and grasping him by the arm, saved his life.


Below the immediate neighbourhood of Holmfirth, the whole line of the river is one scene of wreck for many miles; as the course of the river is pursued, scarcely a field, garden, or building on its confines but has suffered more or less. At Smithy-place, the dyehouse and mill of Messrs. James Robinson has suffered severely, part of the dyehouse with its contents being washed away; at a rough calculation, the damage done is about £1,500. The strong walls on the road side and surrounding many of the gentlemen’s houses on the Honley Road, are razed to the ground, and the houses at the lower part filled with sludge and sand. At Steps Mill, some ravages have been sustained; and at the mansion of John Brooke, Esq., Armitage Bridge, considerable damage has been done, his entire pleasure-grounds and gardens being buried in water for several feet.

At Lockwood, the gardens of Mr. Thewlis, are again a scene of complete wreck. The force of the waters appears to have cut up every thing in the grounds. The loss to this poor man is somewhere between one and two hundred pounds. The most singular circumstance is, that this is the second disaster he has sustained at his garden; on that very day two years since, his entire grounds were destroyed by a storm of wind and hail, he was but just recovering his loss, by the aid of a liberal public, when this second calamity has again blighted all his hopes and prospects.

At King’s Mill, such was the force of the torrent, that a new bridge was torn up, which had lately been erected at considerable expense, by Mr. James North, for his own convenience, in running by a tram road, his grain, &c., from the Canal across his field and to the mill, without the slow process of having the whole to cart from the Canal warehouse. This bridge was swept away like match or cork wood, and a large portion of it was found, during the forenoon, down below Mirfield. The stout and strong piers, of solid masonry, supporting the recently erected bridge leading from the new road and Commercial Street, to King’s Mill, erected at considerable expense by the trustees, were swept away as if it had been a loose brick kiln, and the bridge now hangs like a half broken reed, and is dangerous to pass over. Several other bridges, &c., below, have suffered materially, and men were engaged nearly the whole day up to their breasts in water, at various parts of the stream, fishing out those portions of wreck they could get hold of.

At Mirfield, the bank was one heterogeneous mass of broken furniture, wearing apparel, parts of buildings, arid every other moveable or floating article. At an early part of the day, a very handsome piano-forte was got out, and the next article was a press bedstead complete. The bodies of two horses were seen to go over the dam stones near the station; and they were followed by the carcasses of pigs and cows. Early in the morning, the body of a young woman was taken out near to Low Mills. She was in a state of nudity, was apparently about 22 years of age, and had a ring on the marriage finger. We are informed that somewhere about £20 of property was fished out of the river in the course of the day.

The Flood Came and Took Them All Away (1852) - Appendix: Awful Catastrophe at Holmfirth


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