The Holmfirth Flood (1910) - Reminiscences

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The following is a transcription of a historic book and may contain occasional small errors.

The Holmfirth Flood (1910)



There were anxious watchers of the rising of the waters in the Bilberry reservoir on that fateful morning early in February. Probably of that little party all have passed away except one — Mr. James Brook, of Waterloo, who is well-known as the fulling miller at Washpit Mills. Interviewed by an “Express” reporter, Mr. Brook states that he was an apprentice with Mr. Roebuck, of Flush House, at the time of the flood, and worked as fuller and miller at Bilberry Mill, where country work was done. He lived with his brother-in-law, Mr. Charles Battye, in the house at the end of the mill, next to the dyke. Mr. Battye was then drawer of the shuttle, and Mr. Brook regularly went to the reservoir to turn the shuttle. Mr. Brook said just before the flood something went wrong with the shuttle, as they could neither wind it up nor down. This matter was reported to the Commissioners at the time. Many people thought that a tree root was embedded in the shuttle. Mr. Brook’s idea is that if copings had been removed from the bye-wash it would have provided sufficient egress for the water that would have prevented the disaster. The water rose to the height of the enbankment and washed over the middle portion. Mr. Battye removed his wife and children to some relatives at Brown Hill. The night prior to the flood Mr. Brook says he and his friend Ben Hirst went down to Hinchliffe Mill mill and to Water Street, and advised the people not to go to bed as the reservoir was unsafe. The reply they got was: “We have heard that tale before.”

The weather had been very wet, and on the morning of February 5th, 1852, Mr. Brook with other watchers saw that the reservoir enbankment was settling in the middle until it was lower than the culvert. By and bye it started washing earth away.

Mr. Battye had got in his house a fortnight’s groceries from Mr. John Hoyle’s, of Upperbridge, and he and the apprentice James Brook emptied the meal and flour into two barrels. They were on Lumb Bank when they saw that the flood was inevitable. Battye said to the youth: “We may as well go down and take the corn out of the house.” Battye helped to place one barrel on to the back of the youth Brook and was bringing the other barrel himself. Mr. Brook said he had not proceeded far with his load when he felt the flow of water about his body. Instantly he dropped his load and ran for his life. Battye said; “Thou should not have thrown it down.” Barely were the words spoken before Battye had to release his hold of his load and make good his escape. Prior to that Mr. Harry Beardsell had run down the valley to Digley to his wife’s mother, Mrs. George Hirst, the widow of the owner of Digley. She lived in a house in the path of the flood, and when her son-in-law told her of the danger, she was loth to leave her home. Report had it that she said if it was going to swim the place away she might as well go with it. She was, however, removed from the danger. At Middle Digley bailiffs were in possession of Mr. Furniss’s property. Mr. Brook saw the flood take away the house he had lived in and sweep away the gable end portion of Mr. Furniss’s homestead. The bailiffs were at a portion that was left and were shouting excitedly from a bedroom: “We shall lose our lives!” Those bailiffs escaped with their lives and quickly left the district. Mr. Brook said his possessions were but few. He owned a drake and two ducks, but near Thongsbridge he afterwards regained a duck and a drake which he sold to Mr. Barber, of Holme Bridge. He had a long broad scarf which went with the flood. He valued this and searched for it and thought he had found it in some wreckage. It was, however, a good piece of cloth that he found which more than recompensed his loss. After the flood he returned to his mother’s house at Upperthong and began working at Brow Bottom old mill. He recalls the thousands who, on the following Sunday, viewed the havoc wrought by the flood. He will never forget some of the “tall stories” told by the guides to the visitors. He heard a resident of Malkinhouse tell a party of visitors that the chimney on the hill side at Lower Digley had swum out of the bottom. The incidents of the flood will live with Mr. Brook as long as life lasts.


Water Street, Hinchliffe Mill, was one of the death-traps at the time of the flood. One of those who escaped was Mrs. Seth Coldwell, now of Brockholes, who has a vivid recollection of that night of terrors. She was then only a child of five, but the tragedy of that February night was indelibly fixed on her memory. Seen by an “Express” reporter, she stated that she was a daughter of Robert Ellis, who lived at the top end of Water Street. On the eve of the flood they had not retired as early as usual owing to the visit of a man who was “fresh.” They had heard him coming, and her mother had said to her father, “Turn the light out, there is ——— coming.” The light was turned down, but they heard the man say, “You are not in bed; I shall not go till you open the door.” Thus it was late when they went to bed. They had been in bed very little when a man’s voice was heard outside shouting “Flood! Flood! God bless you folks, get up, the reservoir has burst.” Mr. and Mrs. Ellis had twelve children. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis slept downstairs in a turn-up bed, and Mr. Ellis at once rushed upstairs to the children, and bade his wife to bring the youngest child and follow him. Instead of following her husband, Mrs. Ellis opened the house door, and the “back-wash” of the flood sent her on to the flags at the back of what are now the Co-operative buildings. She there clutched to one of the door handles till the door was burst open. Thanks to Mr. Ellis’ exertions eleven of his children were taken from one of the upper windows, and one child was left in bed. The twelfth child was afterwards rescued in a remarkable manner. The child was in the room with the debris, which rose with the water in the house. The moans of the child attracted attention, but it was with some difficulty she was rescued. Two of the child’s big brothers broke the window frames, and reached the child out. The child — in her night dress — was in a collapsed condition, and was conveyed to the New Inn, and was put in a hot bath, and brandy forced through her teeth. Eventually she “came round.” Mrs. Coldwell well recalls the work of rescuing the children, and said a man they knew as “Ned of Sneck’s” took three children out of Water Street. Mrs. Coldwell remembers that the calamity was a very severe shock to her mother. Mrs. Ellis was taken to Mr. Hobson Greensmith’s, and could not tell who she was, but said she had lost a husband and twelve children. No doubt Mrs, Ellis had been “badly used” (these are Mrs. Coldwell’s own words) by the flood. She could only express herself with the aid of a slate and pencil. Mr. Ellis had to identify his wife by a birth-mark, and it was 12 months before she was “herself again.” The Ellis family escaped with their lives, but had little else left. All their clothes were gone, and one of the little boys walking with bare feet down Water Street got some glass in his foot. The doors and the windows had gone, and every drawer had gone. Mrs. Coldwell remembers seeing the water go nearly to the top of the field they called Long Tongue, on the far side of Hinchliffe Mill dam. A boiler came down and took part of the mill end, and did sad havoc with the buildings in Water Street. Mrs. Cold well recollects the crowds that came to Water Street to view the havoc there wrought by the flood.


Mr. Andrew Kinder, a clever old man well past his three score years and ten, of Station Road, Brockholes, can tell a vivid story of the flood as it reached Brockholes. Mr Kinder is a Holmfirth native who knows every inch of his native district. At the time of the flood he was a fulling miller at Smithy Place Mills. Talking to a representative of the Holmfirth “Express,” he said that they had heard at Brockholes that Bilberry reservoir was unsafe. It had been talked of for weeks and weeks again. He was working at Smithy Place Mills and was sleeping there on the night of the flood. He explained that in those days they ran their machines night and day, and it was a regular practice to sleep at the mill. On that eventful February night they were playing because of “back water.” They could not run the wheel because there was too much water after the heavy rains. He worked for Messrs. Heap Brothers (of Oldfield), and Messrs. Beardsells (of Hagg), who were tenants of Mr. Robinson’s, at Smithy Place. They turned out at the public house at 11 o’clock and went to see the dyke which was very full. There was a small dyehouse belonging to Messrs. Heap, and there was a tub there in the water. They were watching to see if the tub was shifting. They were expecting a bigger flood because they had been warned about the reservoir. He went into the mill and laid on some pieces in the press shop. They were on the floor with their backs to the presses. As soon as ever they were awakened by the noise of the water they knew that the reservoir had burst. He saw the water coming in the back windows of the mill and he and his mates went on to a higher landing and sat on an “ack.” They then heard a voice “Pull the slates off and let me out.” It was a bright moonlight night and three of them at once ripped off the slates and saw a man named Fred Whitehead, who implored them, “Pull me out by the hair of the head.” The man was a teazer and fettler, who had been sleeping there instead of going home. A woman named Kelly was drowned at Brockholes. Two low houses near Smithy Place Bridge were in the track of the flood. Mr. Allen Kaye’s parents lived in the mill yard, and little Allen was swimming in a drawer, but the boy was rescued by his father. In the morning they heard the news that scores and scores had been drowned at Holmfirth. They found the almost nude body of Mrs. Sidney Hartley, of Holmfirth Mill, in the ash tree at Brockholes, near the bridge. Mr. James Haigh, a millwright at the top of the hill, said “This is a maunce at any rate. There’s many a score drowned. There’s a woman yonder in the ash tree on the other side of the bridge.” Mr. Kinder said he went to the place and saw the body wrapped round the tree and a great turnip was fast in the woman’s arms. Her feet were above 2ft. from the foot of the tree. The water had never blocked up the bridge at Smithy Place. Mr. Kinder knew many Holmfirth worthies of the days of the flood, and particularly Mr. Henry Beardsell, of Holme, who died in New Zealand, not many years ago. Mr. Kinder believes it was Mr. Beardsell who went down the Holme Valley warning people of the flood. “Like all the Beardsells, of Holme, he was a fine athlete,” added the veteran.