The Holmfirth Flood (1910) - The Holmfirth Flood

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The Holmfirth Flood (1910)

The Holmfirth Flood

On the 5th of February, 1852, there occurred in this district one of the direst calamities upon record, when Bilberry Reservoir burst its banks, and spread death and destruction for miles down the Holme Valley. Up to that year, it may be safely affirmed, nothing more terrific and destructive had ever happened in England. This calamity attracted at the time the attention of the whole nation, and aroused the benevolent sympathy of all classes, from the Queen on the throne to the humblest persons in the realm who had a heart to feel for the sufferings of their fellow-men.

To the older inhabitants of this district, this republication of the details of that calamity will prove somewhat interesting, but we anticipate that it will be more so to a younger generation, who have heard only disconnected incidents, from time to time, from the lips of their fathers or grandfathers.

Before proceeding with the details of this truly melancholy catastrophe, it may be convenient, and will materially facilitate the reader’s comprehension of the narrative, if we give some preliminary particulars respecting Holmfirth, its population, its trade, and the construction of the three reservoirs, named respectively: The Holmestyes, Boshaw Whams, and Bilberry, the bursting of the latter being the cause of such a great loss of life and destruction to valuable property.

Holmfirth and the Holme Valley in 1852

The name of Holmfirth, it will be safe to say, had not up to 1852 been heard at any great distance from its own obscure neighbourhood, except, perhaps, for the merits of its well-known woollen cloths, the quality of which was held in high estimation in the country at a time when the word “shoddy” was not to be found in a woollen manufacturer’s dictionary. But since that year it has been, and henceforth will continue to be, held in remembrance because of the havoc which was caused in its then busy valley by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir.

Although nearly 60 years have passed since the event took place, Holmfirth has not recovered the blow it then received, the many — alas! too many — empty mills being a standing proof in support of this statement.

The town of Holmfirth, as the reader may be aware, is situated in the valley of the Holme, and the appearance of the place is such as will impress the mind of a stranger by its rugged grandeur. The town is situate at the foot of three great hills, and climbs partly up their rugged sides. The locality is diversified by beautiful extensive valleys, and sloping moor and woodlands, stretching out to the borders of Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Lancashire, reaching their highest point in that immense range of hills known as the “Backbone of Old England,” and sometimes called “The English Alps.” These wild and precipitous hills, which are covered with heather, the happy hunting ground of the sportsman and follower of the hounds, are broken by deep doughs or glens, which drain the wild tracks of moorland, the latter extending from the summit of their ridges for miles, their beds being washed by small streamlets, which, augmented in their course by many a waterfall, gradually widens at the termination of the doughs, and become the source from whence the larger streams of the valleys are supplied.

The Holme Valley is one of the most extensive in the locality, terminating in the high lands known as Holme Moss on the west, and Black Moss and Ramsden Edge on the south — a distance of three miles above Holmfirth. A small river — called the Holme — formed by the confluence of the Holme and Digley streamlets, which empty themselves into it near to Holmebridge Church, and by the Ribbleden streamlets, which drain the hills lying to the south-east, runs down the valley, affording every facility for steam and water power. These facilities led to the erection of mills for the manufacture of fancy woollens, which had for many years been successfully carried on in the valley by the “Master Clothiers,” as they were then called, and a trade of great importance had gradually grown, which found employment for a large population. The concentration of this industrial spirit in the locality soon led to an increase in the population of the district, which is covered with six or seven villages, having the town of Holmfirth for its centre.

Holme, the first village at the head of the valley, is of great antiquity, and lies on the slope of Holme Moss, in a wild, secluded nook, away almost from all human ken. About a mile lower down, at the confluence of the Holme and Digley streamlets, is situated the village of Holmebridge, whose beautiful little Church of St. David’s had been only just erected before the event we are recording took place. The village stands chiefly on the left bank of the Digley streamlet. A few hundred yards lower down, and within about a mile-and-a-half of Holmfirth, is situated the village of Hinchliffe Mill, which extends mostly along the left bank of the river. At this point the valley is dotted with many woollen factories.

The town of Holmfirth is most picturesquely situated on the banks of the river which flows through its centre, and was crossed in 1852 by four bridges, called Upper Bridge, Victoria Bridge, Norridge Bridge, and Lower Bridge, each having a span of about seven yards. On the cliffs and along the ridges are many habitations which were then occupied by an industrious population, and on the east high lands slope gradually from the valley, and which at the time were covered with all the evidences of industrial activity. The greater portion of the town lies in the valley, and abutting on the river were several extensive woollen manufactories and dye works, which all gave to it that appearance of activity and industry which a manufacturing town generally presents.

The next village to Holmfirth is Thongsbridge, which was then built chiefly on the river Holme, where there are also several woollen manufactories. After leaving Thongsbridge, the river continues its circuitous route down the valley, until it falls into the river Colne near Huddersfield, and ultimately empties itself into the river Humber.

In the year 1850, Holmfirth had been connected with the neighboring town of Huddersfield by a branch railway, which had proved to be of immense benefit to the thriving valley. “Dotted here and there, all up the valley, some on sites apparently the least adapted for their object, were mills, manufactories, dyehouses, shops, and dwellings, the owner of each (says a writer at the time) having been actuated only by consideration of his own means and requirements. Where the valley contracts to a gorge and the stream deepens as it narrows, there the little space by the side of the stream is blocked up with a mill, and a row of cottages with their ‘wall-race’ in the very bed of the stream, perched on the precipitous bank on the other side which did not allow room for another mill. The Parish Church, a handsome modern edifice, with a tower containing six bells, sinks into insignificence beneath the neighbouring houses on the cliff, where the beholder looks down upon its highest pinnacle.”

Such is a general description of the Holme Valley as it appeared in 1852 before the flood, and it is safe to say that with the exception of the havoc caused to buildings by the flood, its appearance has changed little from that day to this.

At the time of which we are writing the population of Holmfirth was stated to be 2,347, and with the outlying districts at 17,000. The mills were employed in the manufacture of black and fancy woollens of the very finest description, and these goods have given the valley a world-wide fame for the excellence of their finish.

Why the Holme Reservoirs were Constructed

Before the reservoirs under the control of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners were constructed, it was found that the ordinary supply of water which ran down the various valleys was inadequate to the necessities of the manufacturers who plied their busy machinery by the motive power of the water accumulating in their mill dams. Hence the necessity of constructing larger reservoirs, which were formed for the purpose of treasuring up the water which runs so abundantly in these mountainous districts, so that, when needed, they may be let off into the different mill dams, to turn the large water wheels which were then the chief motive-power in the various mills in the valley.

In 1837 the Act of Parliament was passed, and on the 8th of June in that year it received the Royal assent. The preamble of this Act recites that there are many mills, etc., situate on or near the line or course of the flowing of the waters of the Holme and Colne, and of other streams in the West Riding of Yorkshire flowing into the same; that the supply of water to such mills, etc., was very irregular, and during the summer months frequently insufficient for effectually working the wheels, engines, etc., in connection with the same; and that the irregularity and deficiency might be greatly remedied by the construction of an embankment on the Digley Brook, at Bilberry Mill, and at seven other points named in the Act; powers being thus given by the Act to construct eight reservoirs altogether. The Commissioners to be appointed under the Act were ordered to be mill-owners, or owners or occupiers of falls of water in the district, to the annual value of £100 a year and upwards. Powers were given to raise by subscription £40,000; and the Commissioners subsequently erected three of the eight reservoirs intended, — one at Bilberry, one at Holme Styes, and one at Boshaw Whams, the cost of the whole being £70,000, of which £40,000 were raised by share capital, this being the maximum fixed by the borrowing clauses, and the remaining £30,000 were borrowed on mortgage of the water rates.

The Construction of Bilberry Reservoir.

Bilberry Reservoir was constructed in the year 1840, at the head of a narrow gorge or glen, leading from Holmebridge to the high bluff of land called Good Bent, and is supplied by two streams flowing through the doughs, running to the north-east and south-east of Good Bent, and draining the moors of Holme Moss on the one side, and the hills running up to Saddleworth on the other, including some thousands of acres of moorland. The extent of the surface drained is estimated at 14,000, acres, which, reckoning at two inches of rain in twenty-four hours, would give 101,640,000 cubic feet of water. The confluence of the two streams takes place between two large hills, called Hoobroom Hill and Lumb Bank, and which run parallel with each other for a distance of about 150 yards, when they open out, and form an extensive oval basin of not less than three hundred yards in diameter. The reservoir was formed by blocking up the valley below this basin, so as to enclose some fifteen or twenty acres of surface. Situated as it is, at the top of a narrow gorge or glen, it presented engineering difficulties of no common character.

These difficulties were taken into consideration to begin with, and Mr. George Leather, C.E., was engaged to prepare the plans and specifications. The construction of the reservoir was let to Messrs. Sharp & Sons, of Dewsbury, for £9,324, and the construction was proceeded with under this contract. The embankment was so formed that it was presumed it would constitute a barrier secure enough against any accumulation of water the heaviest rains could supply. The embankment was about three hundred feet across, and about sixty-seven feet high, and was formed of earth, stones, etc., such as the district supplied, with a wall of what is called “puddle” through its centre, sixteen feet thick at the bottom, and eight feet thick at the top. This puddle was composed of clay, gravel, etc., and the object of introducing it was to render the embankment watertight, and so prevent leakage of the water. The bye-wash, or waste-pit, which was a circular chimney about five yards in diameter, was on the south — or the right-hand — side of the reservoir, and was sunk through the embankment near to its junction with Hoobroom Hill, and communicating with a tunnel, emptying itself on the lower or outer side of the embankment. Its height from the bed of the reservoir was fifty-nine feet. The outlet of water was by an open culvert, along the bed of the reservoir, communicating with the tunnel referred to by two patent trap-doors, or shuttles, situated directly parallel to each other at the bottom of the chimney. These traps or shuttles were placed the one inside, and the other outside of the east wall of the chimney, and were worked by perpendicular rods, raised by a common screw on a platform at the top of the chimney. In the event of the trap-door being insufficient to carry the surplus water away during extraordinary supplies, the water, on rising to the level of the chimney or bye-wash, would meet with a source of escape presumed to be adequate to all contingencies.

At a subsequent period the embankment considerably settled in one or two places near the centre, and its surface was thus lowered below the level of the bye-wash, which was thereby rendered useless for the taking away of surplus or flood water. Whilst the embankment was being constructed, a dispute arose with Messrs. Sharp & Sons, and the contract with them was broken. Messrs. David Potter & Brothers undertook in 1848 to complete the work. It was stated at the time that in blasting the rock for the purpose of getting a firm foundation for the puddle-wall, the workmen struck into a spring about the thickness of a man’s arm, and instead of this being carried off so as not to interfere with the work, an attempt was made to carry it up the embankment, and force it into the inside. This injured the puddle by keeping it too soft, and it appears to have been the first great error in the construction of the embankment. Mr. Leather, the engineer, however, on the other hand, declared on oath before the coroner’s jury (as we shall presently see) that he never heard of the spring; but the workmen declared that they waited five or six weeks for him to come and look at it, and that this delay cost the contractors £200 or £300. When Messrs. Potter took the work in hand, they opened the embankment, and put in a great amount of material, with the view of preventing a rupture. When the work had been going on for some time, they informed the Commissioners that they had got low enough, and that a further opening would have to be made, and more puddle put in if the evil was to be remedied. But the Commissioners declined to go to further expense, as the construction of Holmestyes and Boshaw Whams reservoirs, and sundry law expenses, had been so heavy.

Thus the embankment from the first was leaky, and these leaks increasing in number and power, caused the embankment (as we have previously shown) to sink below the water-pipe. Sometimes (as the drawer testifies) these leaks were so serious that they would supply the mills without his having to attend to the shuttles.

In February, 1852, one of these shuttles was under repair, and the workman had suspended the work until he could learn who was to pay him his wages; and the other shuttle was so blocked up with stones, ling, &c., that very little water could escape. This was the condition of the shuttles on the night of the 4th of February, 1852.

Management of the Reservoirs

Before proceeding to describe the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir and its consequences, we quote the 86th clause of the Commissioners’ Act, which provides for the “management and regulation of the sluices.” The clause recites as follows:—

“That for the purpose of regulating and insuring the supply of water from the said several and respective reservoirs for the use of mills, factories, dyehouses, and other premises upon the said several and respective streams, rivulets, brooks or rivers, the said Commissioners shall, and they are hereby required, at their first meeting after the completion of the said reservoir and works, or any of them, or before the completion thereof, or any of them, when the same or any of them shall become useful, though only partially completed, and at their general annual meeting in each succeeding year, to appoint twelve of the said commissioners, of whom four shall be both owners and occupiers, and eight shall be occupiers only, and not owners of the said falls (in case there should be so many of such characters from time to time capable of and willing to accept the office, but in case there shall not be so many of either of the said characters respectively capable of and willing to accept the office, then the deficiency shall be made up from the other of the said characters) as a committee who (subject to the direction of the general or adjourned meeting of the commissioners) shall have the entire management and regulation of the said sluices and other works for regulating and insuring such supply of water, and shall have the power of regulating at all times the flow of water from the said several and respective reservoirs, so as best to insure at all times, by day and night, a constant and regular supply of water in the said several and respective streams, rivulets, or brooks and rivers, for the use of the said mills, factories, dyehouses, and other premises; provided always, that such a flow of water from the said several and respective reservoirs shall be so regulated as that the quantity of such water which shall be allowed to flow in the night-time (such night-times to be computed from eight of the clock in the evening to six of the clock in the morning), shall always be one-half at least of the quantity which, under such regulations shall be allowed to flow therefrom in the day-time; and for enabling the said committee more effectively to accomplish this object, such committee are hereby authorised and empowered to appoint a proper person or persons as keeper of the said reservoirs and works, with competent salaries (to be paid by the said commissioner or their treasurer, on producing an order for payment from the said committee) for the protection and management of the said reservoirs, and works connected therewith, or any of them, who shall be entirely under their authority, and shall constantly reside in the dwelling-house or dwelling-houses to be built or provided near the said reservoir, or some of them aforesaid.”

As to the responsibility of the Commissioners, the 89th clause of the Act enacts:—

“That if any person being a commissioner under this Act, or any other person, shall sustain any damage in his lands or property, by reason of the execution of any of the powers given by the Act, or by reason of the breaking down of any of the embankments, or of any of the works hereby authorised to be made, or if any public bridge or the road belonging to the same, shall be therefore destroyed or damaged, then in every such case full compensation and satisfaction shall be made by the said commissioners for all such damages; and in case of non-payment of the amount of such damages for the space of thirty days next after the same shall be demanded, the same shall and may be recovered, together with full costs of suit by action or debt or on the case or by the plaint or information in any of His Majesty’s courts of record at Westminster.”

The Reservoir before the Flood

Having now described the situation and construction of the reservoir, we will proceed to give a description of its condition a few days before it burst its embankment. For two or three weeks before the 5th of February much rain had fallen in the district, particularly on the Saturday night and Sunday morning before the accident. Monday and Tuesday were fine days, but on the Wednesday a heavy and continuous fall of rain took place during the whole day, which naturally filled the reservoir very rapidly. Added to this, strong winds prevailed all day and into the night. “The water in the reservoir,” says one eye-witness, “was some little higher on Wednesday than I have seen it before.” As no gauging of the rainfall had been taken at Bilberry in the first week in February, we quote from a report made to the Manchester Corporation by Mr. J. F. Bateman, C.E., who was then superintendent of the Woodhead Reservoirs, which are situated but a short distance on the other side of a chain of hills. Mr. Bateman said that on the first nine days in February, little less than 10 inches of rain had fallen, and that between 11 a.m. on Wednesday the 4th, and 11 a.m on Thursday the 5th February, two inches and four-tenths had fallen. So greatly did these rains swell the streams feeding the Woodhead reservoirs, that, instead of an ordinary run of from fifteen to thirty cubic feet per second, he found the stream at Woodhead on the Wednesday (the day before the Bilberry Reservoir burst) pouring into those reservoirs an average of no less than 1,730 cubic feet per second; and after that time the stream rose at one period to from 3,600 to 4,000 cubic feet per second. This will give the reader some idea of the heavy fall of rain which had taken place, and will account for the fatal accumulation of the waters in the Bilberry Reservoir.

We have already shown how ill prepared the outlets were to dispose of the surplus quantity, and how weak the embankment had become, from the errors of its original construction, and the casualities and wear and tear of about a dozen years from its completion.

Anxiety as to the Reservoir

On the Sunday before the flood fears as to the safety of the reservoir were expressed, and attempts were made to work the valves for ejecting the too fast accumulating water, but these were found to be out of order, and would not work, although, during the previous three years, about £1,500 had been spent to remedy the defect. At six o’clock on Wednesday evening, the 4th of February, the water had risen to within eight feet of the top of the embankment; at nine o’clock it was only two feet, and at midnight it had washed over: at first gently, but at the same time it was noticed that a current had made its way under the embankment, in the very bed of the river, the place which had been considered unsafe, and which had received the repairs before spoken of. At this time (one hour before the reservoir burst), it was estimated that the quantity of water in the reservoir would not be less than eighty-six millions two hundred and forty thousand gallons, or the enormous and fearful amount of three hundred thousand tons in weight.

The insecurity of the reservoir was thoroughly understood in the valley, and there were those who did not hesitate to say that during some heavy pressure on its embankment the latter would give way. Still, the cry of “Wolf! Wolf!” had been so often heard that on the night of February 4th most of the residents had gone to sleep without any dread, whilst others had removed their families, furniture and effects to a place of safety. Some who lived all but under the embankment were hardly convinced of the nearness of the catastrophe when it was close at hand, and narrowly escaped the death which befel those who lived a mile or two down the valley. Two men from Holmfirth (who had business in the neighbourhood of the reservoir), paid a visit to it in the evening, but on their return they gave no alarm, and retired to rest in their accustomed security. Those, however, who had the reservoir in charge, and a few others also, were more alive to their peril and that of their friends and neighbours. On the hills at midnight a few scattered figures stood watching in the brilliant moonlight the wind-beaten waters rush over the top of the reservoir, their terror and their concern for the slumbering thousands away down in the valley rapidly increasing.

The Night before the Flood

When the sun went down over the picturesque and romantic valley of the Holme on the night of the 4th of February, 1852, a scene of comparative stillness and repose was presented to the industrious community which tenanted the deep valley and craggy acclivities around. Heavy rains had prevailed for some days in the district. On this one day there had been a long and steady downpour, but before nightfall the rain-clouds had moved away, and although the swollen waters came tumbling down the stream with somewhat unusual force from the mountainous range of hills and bleak stretches of moorland above, a certain calmness seemed to follow the cessation of the rain, and when the moon rose over the rugged landscape, a soothing influence took possession of the hearts of the people, and as they betook themselves to their homes, after the labours of the day were over, they little thought of the impending disaster which was to disturb their hours of rest. As the night advanced, the lights began to disappear one by one from cottage windows on the hillsides, and long before midnight the village of Holmfirth and the struggling hamlets by which it is surrounded were wrapt in slumber. Could these sleeping villagers have had made visible to them at that solemn hour the gathering wrath of waters upon which the moors then looked down at the head of the Holme valley, their slumbers would have been broken with cries of horror, and a thousand lights would have burst upon the night. But they slept on unconscious of the fact that by the neglect of those whose duty it was to protect them from harm was now about to culminate a disaster which would stir all England with the deepest sorrow.

As the wind and water beat upon the embankment, and the latter was washed over, a considerable portion of the outer embankment was swept away. Large fissures were immediately made down the grass-covered sides of the embankment, tons of loose earth and rubbish being carried away. It was now too late for those on the heights to give the alarm to their more unfortunate neighbours who were quietly sleeping in the valley below.

The Embankment Gives Way

Just before the stroke of one, whilst the moon was shining brightly over the varied romantic landscape, the ponderous embankment, with a roar as loud as a peal of thunder, burst outwards, and the pent-up waters escaped on their mission of death and desolation. One eye-witness who saw the embankment give way, described the scene as the rising of an immense sheet of mist, accompanied by a rumbling sound like thunder. In about thirty minutes the immense reservoir was emptied of its waters.

On rushed the waters, roaring with renewed fury as they swept down each successive obstruction, carrying with them amongst the wreck of houses, mills, and other buildings, struggling men, women, and children, and the air was filled with death-shrieks, which were heard above the roar of the waters. From statements made at the time, it would seem that the whole body of accumulated waters had tumbled down the valley together, sweeping all before it, throwing a four-storey mill down like a thing of nought, tossing boilers about like feathers, and carrying death and destruction in its progress. The passage of the waters down to Holmfirth, a distance of three miles, occupied about twenty minutes.

In consequence of the narrowness between the mountain bluffs on either side, a vast volume of water was kept together to spread its force upon Holmfirth, where the mass of shops, houses, and other buildings might have been expected to present a formidable barrier to its further progress. The check, however, was but momentary, for the flood, with the mass of floating wreck which it carried in its bosom, shot through buildings, gutting some and tumbling down others, until it found a further outlet, and passed on, doing more or less damage lower down the valley at Thongsbridge, Honley, and Armitage Bridge. After passing the latter place the flood got more into the open country, spreading itself out in the fields, and swelling the rivers down below Huddersfield, and even so far away as Mirfield and Wakefield.

The Effects of the Flood

Having given our readers a general description of the condition of the reservoir, and the bursting of the embankment, we will now endeavour, as far as we can with the materials at our disposal, give details of the havoc made in the valley. Taking the reservoir as the starting point, we ask our readers to follow us down the valley, noting the damage at each point on our journey.

Bilberry Mill.

Just below the reservoir embankment stood Bilberry Mill, a three-storied stone building, about twenty yards long. This was used chiefly as a fulling mill, and was tenanted by the executors of Messrs. Broadhead and Whiteley. The mill was built a little out of the direct course of the water, so that the building did not receive the full force of the flood. About ten feet of the gable end nearest the stream was carried away. In a cottage adjoining lived Charles Battye, the miller, who also had the charge of the shuttles of the reservoir. He was so impressed with the conviction that a fearful catastrophe was impending, that he had sent his wife and family away from the house, and had even removed his furniture, as he thought, to a place of safety. At the time the embankment gave way he was in the house, and had a narrow escape with his life. He rushed out, and saw his furniture washed away from the spot upon which he had removed it for safety. At the other end of the mill was a cottage, occupied by the engineer, Joseph Charlesworth, but this proved to be clear of the flood’s course. Altogether, it was estimated that at least £1,000 damage had been done, and about 20 people thrown out of employment. Some idea of the force of the torrent about this spot may be gathered from the fact that for a considerable distance on the valley side of this mill the ground was covered eight or nine feet deep with stones and rubbish, principally the remains of the reservoir embankment. Piles of these stones can be seen at the present, just as they were left by the flood. In some parts the debris blocked up the ground fully as high as the second floor of the factory. At the time of the flood there was a stone bridge crossing the stream a little below the mill, called

Bilberry Bridge,

but this was clean swept away, and its site covered with debris. The bed of the river at this place was turned completely out of its course. A small cottage built below this bridge was also partly demolished.

Upper Digley Mill.

About 300 yards below Bilberry Mill stood Upper Digley Mill, which had been worked by Mr. John Furniss, as a woollen manufactory, but at the time of the flood his affairs were in the hands of the Leeds Bankruptcy Court, and two bailiffs, named Thomas Miles and Wm. Crompton, were in possession of the place on behalf of the Court. The buildings consisted of a stone mill, a large house, farm buildings and outhouses. The end of this mill was washed away; a quantity of machinery and a large amount of property in the shape of pieces of cloth, warps, &c., were destroyed, and the gable end of the house, which was comparatively new, and the whole of the farm buildings were swept away. All the lower storey of the mill was completely gutted, and the front of the mill was strewed with long pieces of cloth and broken machinery. In the house were Mrs. Furniss and Mrs. L. Furniss, and family, besides the two bailiffs above mentioned. The family were alarmed at the rapid rise of the water about half-past twelve o’clock, and left the house for a place of safety, but the bailiffs, who were in bed, had a narrow escape. Crompton had barely time to put on his clothes and get on the rising ground, before the final bursting of the reservoir took place. He had to wade up to the middle in water before he could land on terra firma, and gain the mountain side. Mrs. Furniss saw the bursting of the reservoir, and described it as “the rising of an immense sheet of foam, or mist, accompanied by a sound like reverberating thunder.” The miller employed in the factory had been confined to bed for seven weeks, and he with his wife and three children remained in the house at one end of the mill until the following day, when he was taken away in a cart, he not having sustained any personal injury. Between this mill and Lower Digley Mill appeared to be one mass of sand and loose stones after the flood had spent its fury, some of the stones being estimated to weigh over 4 tons, and these had been tumbled forward by the waters like so many bits of moss.

Digley Mill.

A heavy loss of property by the flood occurred at this point. What ruins remain to-day give but a faint idea of what Digley was in February, 1852, before the flood swept it away. The property, which belonged to the exors. of the late Mr. George Hirst, consisted of a stone-built mill, 30 yards square, besides a large weaving shed, containing 34 power looms and other machinery, two good dwellinghouses, seven cottages, farm, and other outbuildings, altogether making a compact little village. Adjacent to it, in the valley and on the hill side, were several fields of rich and fertile land; the whole forming a secluded and compact estate, variously estimated to be worth from £15,000 to £20,000. In one of the houses, built on the river side, dwelt Mrs. George Hirst, widow of its late owner, and in another house lived Mr. Henry Beardsell, son-in-law of Mrs. Hirst. The cottages were in the occupation of various workpeople. The factory, which was filled with machinery and cloth, was driven by a steam engine and water wheel, and the mill, being built directly across the valley, was in a position to receive the full force of the flood as it dashed along between the rocks on either side. On the left of the Digley stream some extensive dyeworks were erected. As we have said, the buildings formed a mass of solid stonework, but the torrent swept it away like a straw; carrying its ponderous machinery down the valley, and tossed its boilers about with the greatest ease, one of them, weighing ten or twelve tons, being carried down the valley nearly to Hinchliffe Mill. Part of the engine was also carried from its place, and became embedded in the mud lower down the valley. The Halifax Guardian of February 7th, in describing the wreck at this place, says:— “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 embedded in the river are unmistakeable tokens of extensive works having recently been planted there. No pen can describe this terrible wreck of property. Some of the dye-pans remain, but all the machinery and valuable store of goods are 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 has seldom been witnessed by man. Fortunately, Mrs. George Hirst and family were saved, having been made aware of the extreme probability of the 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 river, and shall give it much in their own words.”

Statement of Peter Webster.

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, it’s 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.

Statement of James Armitage.

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 dyehouse, 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 named James Wood, who had been confined to his bed by an attack of rheumatism. Fearing that the flood would come, Armitage, along with three other men, wrapped the sickly man in blankets, and conveyed 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 men 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 these 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.

The Leeds Mercury published the

Statement of Mr. Henry Beardsell,

son-in-law of Mrs. Hirst, as follows:—

“Mr. Beardsell had become somewhat alarmed at the rapid rise of the water in the reservoir, and began to fear that the embankment would not be able to resist the immense pressure. He accordingly determined to make an examination of it the last thing before retiring to rest on Wednesday night; and for this purpose he walked up the valley to the top of the embankment, taking his stand on the side opposite the funnel. The weather had cleared up, and the moon being at the full, shone bright, so that an inspection could easily be made. As he stood on the top of this embankment, at an elevation of more than sixty feet, he saw the water roll over its topmost 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 his family and the family of his mother-in-law, all the members of which he had left only a short time previous in their houses at Digley. It occurred to him that he might out-run the flood; and he 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 water-course. 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 premises 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 amazement and delight, very soon his friends and domestics surrounded him on the hill-side. What a moment of ecstacy and joy must that have been to find himself again in the presence of those who 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. Beardsell, Mr. Edmund Barber, a step-son of Mrs. Hirst, who resided 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. Beardsell at the reservoir, and insisted upon everyone leaving the houses; and through this most providential interference, the lives of these two families, and also of the families of the cottagers, were saved, with some of the furniture of 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.’”

The ruling passion in the solitary state of widowhood is often that of lingering attachment to the home of wedded joys, and to anything associated with blighted bliss. This was remarkably exhibited in the conduct of Mrs. Hirst, of Digley Mill. The following is

Mrs. Hirst’s Account

of her conduct under apprehension of the flood:—

“I went into the house and opened my Bible, and thought I would read a little about the troubles of Job. After this I went to bed. By-and-bye I was again alarmed by my neighbours, who urged me to fly for my life. The members of my family said they would go in different directions to my relations and friends, and they did so. I put, as I thought, many things out of harm’s way by taking them from the lower rooms into the chambers. The heavy pieces of furniture, such as the piano, table, and chairs, were left below. I got into the cellar, and there I thought of staying for safety. By-and-bye two of my neighbours came and urged me to run, but I refused, and clung to the cellar-stone; but they forced me away. I then seized my youngest child, who was in bed, wrapped it in a table-cloth, and we fled for our lives, the men carrying us along; and as soon as I got over the wooden bridge I looked and saw the water coming in great force, mountains high, and dashing in the windows of the house. I just saw the white window blinds floating on the water, and then remembered no more. Another minute and I had been lost. The reservoir burst before I left the house. All I had was swept away”

Here was a widow, the mother of a large family, who but an hour before was possessed of a respectable home, an excellent furnished house, a well-stocked farm, a large and most valuable mill, with well-appointed machinery, suddenly bereft of all she possessed. Scarcely a vestige of property — estimated as we have before said at between £15,000 and £20,000 — remained after the flood had done its work.

Mrs. Hirst had about £50 in old gold and silver coins in the house at the time.

By the destruction of Digley Mill, about one hundred hands were thrown out of employment.

A Wonderful Chimney.

With regard to the tall chimney which was left standing, and remains so to this day, an amusing story is told to the effect that one of the numerous guides who conducted visitors over the ruins used to draw the attention of visitors to this chimney, whilst he averred that when the full force of the flood beat down the mill and adjoining buildings, the workmanship of this chimney was so good that the waters made no impression upon it beyond removing it bodily a distance of ten yards backwards from its original position! If any doubt was expressed as to the truth of this statement, he clinched the matter by saying “he had seen it himself!” Thus competition amongst guides led Joel to make strange statements.

Bank End Mill.

At the time of the flood this mill, which was the next below Digley Mill, was in the occupation of Messrs. John and William Roebuck, and was used as a woollen mill. It was a substantial four-storey building of stone, with one end abutting on the river. Previous to the bursting of the reservoir, Messrs. Roebuck had removed from their mill a large number of cloth pieces to a place of safety. A portion of the end of the mill abutting on the river (some yards in breadth) was carried away, the iron spinning mules and weaving looms being torn asunder, and left projecting from the ruins. “The sharpness with which so large a portion of this structure was cut off would hardly be credited except (says the Leeds Intelligencer) on viewing the ruins; and it almost leads to a belief that there is some truth in the assertion that a very large portion of Digley Mill was brought down in a body.” The lower storey was a complete wreck, and most of the machinery there disappeared, whilst the machinery in the upper storeys was thrown together in heaps. The dye-house and stove, about 60 feet long, were completely cleared away, leaving no portion standing above the ground. To add to the accumulative force of the destructive current, the mill dam gave way, and thus a fresh body of water was added to the furious torrent. The loss of property at this place was estimated at from £2,000 to £3,000. About forty people were here thrown out of employment.


Leaving Bank End Mill, the valley commences to widen until it reaches Holmebridge, and the water, therefore, was spread over a much greater surface, but left sad evidences of the ravaging velocity with which it swept along. The stream at Holmebridge was crossed by a bridge of one arch, about thirty yards to the east of which stands the Church of St. David’s, which had been erected only a few years before the flood. The church steeple faces up the stream, and stood about the centre of the graveyard. On the Cartworth side of the river stood a toll-bar and a number of dwellinghouses. The foundations of the bridge were washed completely bare, and the stream flowing from Bilberry reservoir for some weeks after the flood passed through a large opening washed away in the road outside of the bridge, which was about ten yards wide, ten feet deep, and had to be crossed by a plank. The wall surrounding the church was washed away by the current, and the few trees planted in the yard were uprooted and carried down the stream. The interior of the church and the graveyard presented a most awful spectacle. Inside the church the water rose to about five feet. The floor was torn up, some of the pews were lifted bodily and floated in the water, and the floor was covered with sand and mud several inches thick; cushions, prayer books, etc., were washed away in great numbers. A goat, which had previously been seen feeding in the graveyard, was found dead in the middle aisle of the church, having been washed there by the flood, which stove in the church doors. Within a few feet of the goat, and resting on one of the pew seats, lay

The Coffin and Remains of a Full Grown Man,

which, with others, had been washed up from their graves by the whirlpool formed by the headlong current as it passed over the churchyard. Immediately after the flood had subsided, the churchyard was to a great extent covered with broken machinery, pieces of cloth, yarn, furniture, stones, hay, and various other articles. The gates of the toll-house were lifted from their position and swept along by the fury of the torrent, but the bar-house itself escaped. The houses of the inhabitants bordering upon the stream at this point were inundated, their property either destroyed or spoilt; and such was the quantity of mud and filth which had accumulated in and about the dwellings that a most; awful stench was occasioned. That the church itself was so little damaged comparatively is due to the fact above stated — that the valley being at this point much wider than it is above and a little below, enabled the waters to spread over a greater surface. The Rev. Eldred Woodhead, rector of St. Lawrence, Southampton, and formerly vicar of Holmebridge, in a letter to the Leeds Intelligencer, dated 7th February, alluding to the unsafe state of the reservoir, says, “I would not build my school low in the valley, as that unfinished work (the Bilberry Reservoir) was always regarded by me with fears and suspicion.”

Hinchliffe Mill — Great Loss of Life.

Up to Holmebridge no loss of life had occurred, but we now reach the village of Hinchliffe Mill, 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 mill, situated on the right bank of the river, and which gives the name to the village, was owned by Messrs. Joseph, Edwin, and Thomas Butterworth, and, like the rest of the mills, was used as a woollen mill. A large dam extends on the side of the mill, and on the other side of the stream stood six cottages, immediately opposite the mill. 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 cottages was called Water Street, and it was in this locality where the most terrible loss of life was occasioned. The cottages were tenanted respectively by Eliza Marsden, Joseph Dodd (steam tenter), Jonathan Crosland, John Charlesworth, James Mettrick (clothier), and Joshua Earnshaw (master clothier), with their families. In all, 44 persons retired to rest in that clump of houses on the fateful evening of the flood, and soon after they had gone to sleep — or, at all events, retired to bed — thirty-six of them met a watery grave. A man who happened to be within sight of these houses when the flood came rushing down upon them, said he saw the water come rolling down the valley; in a minute after he saw the cottages tremble, as it were, on the top of the water, and the next moment they were clean gone!

The whole of the houses were carried away by the flood, and (says a writer at the time), when we visited the site upon which they stood, an old rusty can was the only domestic article we saw! Houses, furniture, beds, bedding, and inmates — all were swept away.

Another person who saw the houses go, said: “I was looking out of a window, and saw the water come 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.”

Three of Charlesworth’s children, by some means, had a most miraculous escape. They ran to the door of a neighbour named Robert Ellis, and were fortunately taken in by him 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 by the waters and drowned. In the family of the Mettricks, two remarkable circumstances occurred. The eldest son — William — who did not live at the house, had been for a warp. The evening being so very wet and stormy, he decided to stay all night at his fathers house, rather than encounter the storm by returning home to his family. He was drowned with the others. Another son, 24 years of age, named James, was washed out of his bedroom, but fortunately got astride a mill beam, on which he managed to balance himself, and was carried with tremendous velocity down the foaming stream. Fortunately one end of the beam pointed itself in the direction of the dam adjoining Bottoms (or Harpin’s) Mill; and, borne up by the beam, he swam into this harbour of refuge, and was rescued from this heaven-sent lifeboat in a state of extreme exhaustion.

Immediately in the rear of the site upon which Water Street then stood was another row of cottages, in the lowermost of which resided Robert Ellis. It was to Ellis’s door that three of Charlesworth’s children ran when the flood first approached. He heard their knock, and immediately opened the door and let them in. The moment after he had closed the door it was burst open, and the house became inundated. Some stockings had been hung up to dry on the bread-creel, and when the waters had subsided, these were marked with mud and dirt half-way up the leg, thus showing the height to which the water reached in the house. Ellis himself had a most miraculous escape; he ran upstairs with his children and those of Charlesworths, 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 from the bursting of the mill dam immediately in their front; a double force would thus be brought to bear against this pile of buildings. We may here add, that the body of James Mettrick (senior) was not found until five months after the flood, on the 2nd July, when it was discovered on the river bank at Castleford, a distance of thirty miles from Hinchliffe Mill.

In the mistal previously referred to, above Water Street, a valuable cow was drowned, and in the row of cottages in continuation of Water Street a great loss of life was occasioned. A cottage occupied by Joseph Brook, with his wife and child, was perfectly inundated. The wife and child were lost, but Brook was saved. Brook gave a most affecting account of the loss he had sustained, and of his own narrow escape. He said that he and his wife slept in the house, and his little daughter upstairs. The child awoke about half-past one o’clock, and came downstairs, exclaiming: “Father! father! I am frightened by the wind.” The father leaped out of bed, hearing a strange unearthly noise. He ran to the window, and the next moment exclaimed: “It’s not the wind, its water; and the water is on the door-stones; run upstairs.” He said he did not know but that they were all running upstairs, but when he got into 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 the window, and cried out for assistance. Some men brought a ladder, and he escaped with no article of clothing save his shirt. When the water had 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 Crosland, had a marvellous escape. His family escaped, whilst he was caught by the water downstairs, which rose to the height of seven 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 the water for some time, but soon became thoroughly exhausted, and was nearly suffocated. He swam round the house 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.

The house adjoining Croslands was occupied by James Booth, his wife, and a lodger named William Heeley, the whole of whom lost their lives. A house in the same street was occupied by Jonas Wimpenny, and here a whole family of eight persons had a narrow escape. The oldest son, hearing a rush of water, wanted at once to open the door, but owing to the presence of mind of some member of the family, he was prevented, and the door was kept to until the whole family had escaped. The next moment the door was burst open by the water, and the house became flooded almost to the ceiling. Altogether, in Water Street, thirty-six persons met with a watery grave, a list of whom we append:—

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; lost — 7
James Metterick, wife, and twelve children; lost — 9
Joshua Earnshaw, son, grandson, and grand-daughter; all lost — 4

In addition to the above, five others lost their lives at Hinchliffe Mill, making a total of forty-one in the village, being one-half of the whole lives lost by the flood.

In addition to the loss of lives and property previously given, we may add that Hinchliffe Mill mill sustained some damage. The engine house and its contents, a barn, stable, and hay stacks, and several cattle belonging to Mr. Bower, were swept away, and the bridge which crossed the stream was completely destroyed.

James Mettrick’s Statement.

“There were ten of us in the house — my father, stepmother, and eight children. Somebody came and roused us just at one o’clock. I put on my trousers; my step-mother and I stood on 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 step-mother came downstairs, and my father handed us the children who were asleep in the house part (the lower room) for us to lift into the chamber. The water burst in at the window and through the door, and half-filled the chamber. I ran with the rest into the garret, except my father and one child, who we expect 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 (previously described) I caught hold of a piece of wood, and sprang up. I got a good sob of breath, and then went under 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 small piece of wood, and paddled it towards the side. A gust 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 the water; but I managed to scramble out, and after falling several times I got to a house, and stripped off my trousers and shirt (all I had on) and went to bed. I was nearly exhausted.”

Bottoms Mill.

Progressing down the stream, we come to Harpin or Bottoms Mill, then occupied by Messrs. Barber & Co., as a woollen mill. Here the country widens out, and consequently the waters became more spread; but still the mill, which stands in a central position, was damaged, but here no lives were lost, though the inmates of three cottages adjoining had a very narrow escape from death. The alarm having been given, the inmates of the house nearest the river, seeing the danger, burst through the parpoint walls, and got into the house farthest off, where a ladder was got and placed against the chamber window, from which all the inmates succeeded in escaping; but scarcely had they reached the road when the whole pile fell with a loud crash, and was swept away by the resistless torrent. Here, also, five workmen had miraculous escapes. It was usual for the fullers to sleep in the mill, and in Bottoms Mill there were five of them, who were aroused from their sleep by the loud noise and crashing of machinery. They rushed upstairs, and succeeded in climbing upon the rafters; but even here they were pursued by the relentless waters, and for upwards of an hour they were nearly covered, but after that time the waters subsided, and they all escaped. Here, also, a temporary wood bridge was swept away.

Pogson’s Foundry, Victoria Mill, and Dyson’s Mill.

After leaving Bottoms Mill, the torrent assailed the machine shops and works of Messrs. Pogson & Co., at Bound Bottom Mill, doing damage to the machinery.

Victoria Mill, occupied by Messrs. Harpin & Co., sustained considerable damage. Machinery was broken and damaged, and several cottages and outhouses were swept away. At the time of the calamity twenty persons were in the cottages adjoining Victoria Mill, and these were only rescued by a communication being opened up through the walls with the end house, which was rather higher up away from the flood. Here in one chamber twenty poor creatures were huddled together, expecting momentary death, when at last the water abated sufficiently to allow of their being removed, which was scarcely effected ere the house fell. Joseph Pogson occupied the first house, John Howard the middle one, and Eli Sanderson the one nearest to Holmfirth.

Here is the statement of a young man named Haywood, who had a narrow escape of his life: “I lived with my grandfather, John Howard, in the house nearest the river. The next was occupied by Eli Sanderson and family; and the house furthest from us by Joseph Pogson. Over our house was a warehouse, which was partitioned off from Pogson’s by a thin wall. We heard no alarm, and found the water about us. Pogson, I believe, got his family up into the garret by a ladder, after which he pulled the ladder up after him, and broke into the warehouse through a door which had been closed up. He then broke a hole through the floor, and putting the ladder down, enabled Sanderson to get into the warehouse also. Both the families were then over our heads, but we could not get to them. When the water had subsided, I got a lad on my back and tried to escape to the road, but I could not, and I turned back and put the lad on the mill step; after which nine of us who were in the house escaped when we placed a ladder against the end of the wall, and enabled the other families to escape. Immediately after the roof fell in. The greater part of the building came down.”

Another account says: “At one end of the buildings at the side of Sanderson’s house, there used to be a flight of steps reaching to the upper storey or attic, which was used as a warehouse or warping room. When the flood came, Pogson, with some heavy instrument, made a way into Howard’s house by breaking through the kitchen wall. Immediately afterwards, Pogson’s house fell, and then a further way was made through into Sanderson’s house, but scarcely had this been accomplished when the second house gave way. The angry flood, as if longing for the life of these twenty persons, was gradually taking away the remaining cottage. In this imminent position the affrighted beings remembered the stairs at the end of the premises, and, with the object of reaching these, made another passage through the outer wall. To their horror, however, they found the steps had already been washed away. Returning to the house, the whole twenty huddled together in one corner, and watched the flood displace stone after stone, until there was only just room for them to stand close together. Fortunately, this corner of the building withstood the force of the torrent, and thus the three families were saved from what seemed at one time certain destruction.”

At the mill last mentioned £1,500 damage was done.

Sandford’s Mill.

Not far from Victoria Mill stands another factory, called Dyson’s Mill, which at the time of the flood was occupied by Mr. Jonathan Sandford, who resided in the mill yard with his two daughters, aged ten and five years, and a housekeeper named Ellen Wood. The house was completely swept away, and nothing left standing except a portion of one of the walls. On the evening of the 4th February, Mr. Sandford had been informed of the unsafe condition of the reservoir, and was advised not to sleep at home; but Mr. Sandford did not consider the danger sufficient to remove his family, and they all retired to rest, but in the morning not one of them remained to tell the tale. Mr. Sandford was a person of considerable property, and it was said had a sum of £3,000 or £4,000 in the house at the time of the deluge. Just before the flood he had been in treaty for the purchase of a considerable estate near Penistone, and only that same week had given instructions to a Huddersfield sharebroker to buy for him a large amount of London and North-Western Railway Stock. It was also stated at the time that his life was insured for £1,000.

Finding Mr. Sandford’s Body.

Two or three days after the flood the bodies of Mr. Sandford’s children and the house-keeper were found, but it was not till the 20th of February — 15 days after the flood — that Mr. Sandford’s body was found at Thongs-bridge, although a reward of £100 was offered for its recovery.

The machinery in Sandford’s mill was damaged, and two houses swept away. Of Mr. Sandford’s property above mentioned, not a particle was found with the exception of some title deeds, which were found embedded in Mr. Floyd’s garden at Sands, one mile away from the mill.

For two or three days preceding the 20th February there had been a sharp dry frost, which had lessened the streams and rendered the water in the river Holme much clearer. About nine o’clock in the morning of Friday, the 20th February, a carter named Joseph Bray, while passing over the river at Thongsbridge with a horse and cart, observed something in the goit of the mill then run by Messrs. Robinson, but did not stop to examine it, and casually mentioned the same to a youth named William Broadhead. Mr. Broadhead went nearer to look at it, and came to the conclusion that it was bacon. He tried to draw it out, but not proving strong enough he went for John Crosland, and a companion of his fetched Hiram Earnshaw, two men who were employed by Mr. Godfrey Mellor. These two went into the stream, and upon removing a portion of the mud surrounding the object they discovered it to be a human body, and from certain marks on the back they at once identified it as that of Mr. Jonathan Sandford. The body was deeply embedded in the mud, as though it had been puddled in, and occupied fully half-an-hour before it could be released from its position. On being taken out of the water it was found to be dressed in a flannel shirt, linen shirt with a stock round the neck — the shirt being washed over the head, and wound tightly round the neck.

At the inquest on the body, Broadhead gave the following evidence:— “On Friday, the 20th February, I went to the river Holme for some water. I put my pail down, and then went on the bridge. I saw part of a body laid in the water. His feet would reach into the tail-goit of Mr. Robinson’s mill. I went home and fetched a muck-drag. There had been no one near the body whilst I was away. On returning I went down Mr. Robinson’s yard and called Hiram Earnshaw’s sons. They followed me to the place. I went into the water so as to put the drag over the body. I could not pull him out. Hiram Earnshaw’s son was coming, and I sent for John Crosland, the constable. I remained with the body till he came. It was not removed. Crosland, Hiram Earnshaw, Jonathan Brook, and two other masons removed the body into Hiram Earnshaw’s house, and it was afterwards removed to the Royal Oak, and afterwards to the Crown. When it was some men said it was Jonathan Sandford.”

A writer at the time of the flood thus gives his impressions of the appearance of the bodies as he saw them:— “The children seemed to have suffered little, and to have made but little resistance to the overpowering flood, but the adults appeared to have struggled and suffered much. The faces were flushed; they exhibited bruises on various parts, and in some cases the expression seemed to be that of surprise and consternation. This was remarked to be the case especially with Mr. Sandford. Though living actually under the mill dam, and in the very course of the current, and warned of the danger impending over him and his family, he had retired to rest in his usual security, and the next time he was seen, it was above a fortnight after the catastrophe by which he had been surprised and destroyed. Well might his very remains exhibit the surprise of the moment in which he was awoke to a sense of danger, and called to meet death in such an awful form!”

Mr. Sandford and family attended the Wesleyan Chapel at Holmfirth, and there his two wives had been interred. His family-tomb, being somewhat further from the river, and protected by the chapel, had escaped the violence of the flood by which so many others were destroyed; and it was ready to receive his two children and himself, as successively they were rescued from the retiring flood.

The Halifax Guardian of March 6th, contained the following account of Mr. Sandford’s funeral, which was conducted by the Rev. W. Firth:— “The funeral of Mr. Jonathan Sandford (for the recovery of whose body, it will be remembered, the reward of £100 was given) took place last Saturday, in the Wesleyan Burial-ground at Holmfirth. This unfortunate victim to the ‘raging waters’ was followed to the grave by a large retinue of sorrowing relatives and friends; and after the solemn sermon of interment the officiating minister took occasion to address those present in a very affectionate manner, touching upon the awful catastrophe by which so many homes had been made desolate, and endeavouring to impress the subject practically upon the hearts of his hearers.”

Upper Mill.

Next on the route of the stream comes Upper Mill, then occupied by Mr. John Farrar. Here the flood washed into the mill, did serious damage to the engine, and swept nearly all of the dyehouse away, together with a great amount of mungo or “ devil’s dust.” One of the boilers was carried away, calculated to weigh 6 tons, and this was swept down by the flood to Berry Brow, fully four miles from its original position. On the day previous to the flood Mr. Farrar had drawn about £700, which he deposited in the counting house of the mill, and this sum was swept away by the waters. The damage was estimated at about £3,000.

Lower Mill.

A little below Upper Mill stood a factory called Lower Mill, which was built across the river Holme. When the flood came upon it a great portion of the building was swept away, the two ends being almost all that was left standing. The mill dam was also burst. A bed with two little children upon it was swept out of one of the houses, and the poor creatures were drowned in the factory yard. A little further down a third child was discovered dead.


Leaving Lower Mill we come to Scarfold, and here we record another loss of life. The course of the stream being somewhat narrowed at this place, Scarfold received the full force of the waters, and the debris was hurled forward by the flood. Scarfold then, as now, consisted of the lower storeys of a row of houses, the topmost storeys of which abutted on the turnpike road, at a much higher level. A number of steps led down from the Huddersfield road to the fold. One of the first houses attacked by the flood was occupied by John Charlesworth, his wife, and two children. The house was swept away, but the occupants made their escape up the steps. Charlesworth’s wife had only been confined about a month, and was in a very weakly state. Having removed his wife and two children to the turnpike road, Charlesworth turned back to fetch some furniture, and had reached the bottom of the steps when the house was taken by the flood and swept entirely away. Had he got into the house there is little doubt he would have been carried away with it.

The next house to Charlesworth’s was occupied by Richard Woodcock, his wife, and seven children. Woodcock, with two children, escaped, leaving his wife and two children behind.

Here we will give Richard Woodcock’s interesting statement of his escape. He says:

“When I was aroused by the cry of those who gave an alarm, there were nine of us in the house — myself, my wife, and seven children. On hearing the alarm I ran up a few steps leading to the road to see what was the matter; but, on hearing the roar of the water, I ran back to see for my family. I met my wife at the door with two of the children. I took one under each arm and carried them up into the road, and told my wife to follow me. When I took these children I was up to my knees in water. My wife, instead of following me, ran upstairs to see after the children. These were five in number, and they all slept in the garret — three in one bed and two in another. The bed containing the three was washed away, but the other stood. Two out of the three sleeping in the bed washed away — or that fell with the part of the floor into the flood — awoke and got up, a girl five years old, and a boy of seventeen. This boy went downstairs, but returned to put his trousers on. The girl was coming down the ladder by which they went from the chamber into the garret, to her mother, who by this time was standing in the chamber up to the neck in water. The ladder, with the child upon it, was washed away; but the mother caught her as she fell, and held her up above the flood. In the garret was one child still asleep, the boy who had returned to dress, and two other children. While the boy was putting on his trousers, by the side of the bed, that part of the floor gave way, and the bed with his sister dropped into the flood, carrying him along with it. The other part of the floor stood, and the children were safe. My wife had got into the corner of the chamber, where she was sheltered from the sweep of the flood by the chimney; and here she stood holding up the child until the water had subsided. The two children (one fifteen and the other eight years of age) clung together in the corner of the room that stood, and with the mother, and child she held above the flood, were rescued.”

In a row of houses just below this place, all the inhabitants escaped except the occupiers of one house, in which a weaver named Joseph Hellawell, his wife, and five children resided. They all slept in the room on the ground floor, and when the water burst upon them they were overwhelmed. The affrighted wife and children were all drowned in their beds. Hellawell himself had just time to run upstairs, and was only rescued by being dragged through the floor of the house above.

Upperbridge and Hollowgate.

The flood now dashed impetuously upon Holmfirth. A young man was seen running down the valley giving warning by crying “Flood! Flood!” and here and there a few sleepers were awakened by the ominous sound; but at last this herald of woe sank exhausted to the ground, and others had to take up the alarm. Mr. Lomax, surgeon, heard the warning, and jumped out of bed Running to the window he was horrified to see the water surging and boiling in the road in front of his house. He saw the toll-bar house carried clean away before his eyes. He at once alarmed the house, and he, his wife, and family escaped by a back window to the neighbouring heights. At Upperbridge, a house occupied by Aner Bailey was swept away, and, in spite of all his efforts to save them, he saw his wife and two children carried away by the flood, and the furniture was served the same fate. Bailey himself grasped hold of a beam which was floating down the stream, and by a sudden sweep he was brought safely to the left bank of the river, and scrambled out into the turnpike road. Hollowgate, a long street on the right bank of the river Holme, suffered severely. The bed of the river at this point being hemmed in on both sides, was completely blocked with the accumulating ruins of mills and houses, and the current was consequently diverted from its usual course. The toll-bar previously mentioned was situated in Hollowgate, and was occupied by Samuel Greenwood, his wife and child, all of whom perished. Greenwood had been seen to come to his door with a lighted candle in his hand, evidently to ascertain what was the matter. He at once closed the door, but the rushing torrent washed the building away, with its occupants. On the same side of the street an extensive warehouse occupied by Messrs. Crawshaw, of Dewsbury, leather curriers, was completety destroyed, and the manager and his family all lost their lives. Two cottages a little lower down were occupied by John Ashall, his wife and child, and John Kaye, with whom resided his daughter, her husband, and their child. All these persons were carried away by the flood and drowned, with the exception of John Kaye, who was driven by the force of the current into Victoria Square, a little lower down the street, near to the Rose and Crown Inn, the landlord of which from a window saw Kaye floating in the water, and he put a pole out of the window, which was grasped by Kaye, and by this means his life was spared.

The premises occupied by Mr. Thomas Ellis, plumber, were inundated by the water, and the lives of the persons sleeping on the premises were placed in great jeopardy. Mr. Ellis had the presence of mind to force open a small portion of the ceiling of his workshop with a crow-bar, and by this means he got into an upper room, which was on a level with the road at the back. Richard Tolson, one of his workmen, lived on the premises, with his “wife and four children, and a lodger named James Roberts. These occupants, on seeing the water already up to the lower edge of their bedroom, and having witnessed the destruction of three houses opposite, made their way up the narrow bedroom chimney and got into the house above them, and all were saved.


At Rotcher, a continuation of Hollowgate, a tailor named James Lee, and his grandson, Job, were engaged in the lower room making some clothes for a funeral, when the water rushed upon them. The flood burst open the door, and the elder Lee, being unable to help himself, was drowned. Job, however, managed to swim around the house until his cries were heard by a man and his wife who lodged in the house, and were then in the bed upstairs. They ran to his assistance, bnt were unable to open the chamber door. They managed, however, to force open one of the panels of the door with their feet, and the lad, being of a thin nature, was dragged through a small aperture of only five inches, and thus his life was saved.

Victoria Bridge, Holmfirth, as shown in one of our illustrations, was dismantled, and the whole of the shops in the locality were flooded and suffered much damage, and the County bridge was greatly injured.

In Cuttell Bottom stood a dwellinghouse in which a young man, a servant to Mr. Floyd, solicitor, and a little boy were sleeping. When the water burst into the house the man took up the boy and attempted to pass up the staircase, but, unhappily, just as he passed the threshold himself, the door was closed by the force of the water and separated them, leaving the boy in the lower room to drown, as was expected. Providentially, however, the boy was borne up by the force of the water, and, catching hold of the top of the joists, he held by them until the water had subsided. He had to remain about an hour in this position, with the water nearly up to the ceiling.

Holmfirth Parish Church sustained no very serious damage, but a most remarkable proof was afforded in the churchyard of the amazing power of the flood. One of the massive pillars of the gateway was lifted from its bed, twisted half-way round, and yet, singularly enough, left to maintain its perpendicular.

On the left bank of the river opposite Towngate (or Station Road as it is now called) stands Eldon House, then the residence of Joseph Charlesworth, Esq., J.P. The premises, being at a low level, were flooded to a great height, and at one time was completely surrounded by water. The damage done here was considerable, but no lives were lost. The residence of Joshua Moorhouse, Esq., J.P., in Victoria Yard, was also flooded, and the extensive warehouses, dyehouse, &c., belonging to that gentleman, were entirely destroyed.

The Holmfirth Mill sustained very serious damage. A little above the mill, and between that building and the stable, stood two small cottages, one of which was occupied by Sidney Hartley (engineer to Messrs. Nathan Thewlis & Co,), and his wife and eight children, and the other by Richard Shackleton, joiner, and his wife and three children. Both these families, except four members, and the cottages also, were swept away. Mrs. Hartley had heard that the Bilberry Reservoir might burst, and she put her eight children to bed and waited up in the hope that if the catastrophe did occur she would receive sufficient warning to ensure the escape of herself and family. She sat up until one o’clock, and then becoming more hopeful went to bed; but soon afterwards the flood was upon them, and all were drowned except three of her children and an apprentice boy named John Dearnley. When the devoted mother found that they could not escape she held her infant child above the water outside the window, hoping to save it, but, finding the front of the house giving way, she bade her family farewell, and was swept away by the foaming torrent. Three of her little daughters and the apprentice lad caught hold of the rafters in the roof and clung to them, and when the flood began to abate, the lad got out upon the roof and helped the girls out also, and there they remained for about twenty minutes. The plucky lad afterwards carried them one by one into the portion of Holmfirth Mill yard which was out of the way of the flood, where, in their nightclothes, standing up to their knees in mud, they were exposed to the inclemency of the night air and to the falling rain.

Mr. W. Dyson, the landlord of the White Hart Inn, had a narrow escape from drowning, but, escaping miraculously, he was able to render much assistance to some of his neighbours.

Immediately opposite the White Hart Inn stood the dwelling occupied by Mr. Shackleton (a retired publican), his daughter and granddaughter. The flood did great damage to the house and furniture. A desperate attempt was made to rescue the inmates.

On the opposite side of the river to Holmfirth Mill stood the old Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1810, surrounded by a graveyard. Damage was done to the latter, and also to the vestry near the river. The Chapel was flooded to a depth of about three feet, reaching nearly to the top of the pews. The residences of the ministers, the Rev. Benjamin Firth and the Rev. Thomas Garbutt, were also flooded, although they stood at a little higher level than the Chapel. Their wives and families ran out of the houses in their nightdresses, and took shelter on the hillside.

Several strange sights were to be witnessed in the graveyard. Several coffins were washed up and floated away from their resting place. The vault in which the body of the late John Harpin, Esq., sen., of Birks House, was interred about ten years before, was torn open, and the coffin, with the remains of the deceased, was carried away. What made this more remarkable was the fact that Mr. Harpin was one of the chief promoters of the “Holme Reservoirs” scheme.

On the right hand side of the river (opposite to where Albert Mills now stand), there was an old fulling mill worked by Messrs. Broadbents (who also carried on business at Bridge Mills), and this was completely wrecked.

On leaving Holmfirth the river is crossed by a County bridge leading to the railway station. Great damage was done to this bridge, the whole of the battlements being carried away. Near to the bridge on the right hand side stood the cottage of George Exley, the front of which was washed away, together with some outbuildings. The family had a narrow escape.


The water swept through the lower part of the mill occupied by Messrs. Wimpenny & Woodhead at Thongsbridge, and carried away the dyehouse and other buildings. The engineer lived in a cottage on the premises. This was filled with water, and gutted. In the moment of peril he sprang to the window to escape, but, before he left it, it occurred to him to look back for his child, and, on turning round, he saw it just floating out of the door beside him. He had only just time to catch hold of its leg, and thus save its life.

Mytholmbridge and Smithy Place.

At Mytholmbridge Mill serious damage was done.

At Smithy Place Mill (a village about two miles below Holmfirth), the water rose to a fearful height, and, but for the alarm which had been given, the loss of life must have been great. Whole families had to leave their beds and betake themselves out of the way of the flood, with no other covering than what they slept in, some quite naked; and the shrieks and cries of the children for their parents, and parents for their children, were heart-breaking. The damage done in this village was very great.

Honley and Armitage Bridge.

From Honley to Armitage Bridge the wreck was fearful, the front and back walls of St. Paul’s Church at the latter place being completely destroyed. Two children were found dead above the Golden Fleece Inn, one of them on the water side, the other washed into a tree. These were conveyed to the Inn, and afterwards identified. A young woman, about 18 years of age, was found dead and naked in a field near Armitage Fold. Beyond this point little damage was done to property, and no lives were lost.

The valley from Holmfirth to Lockwood forms a fine sweep of meadow land; the hills rising rather precipitately on each side, richly clothed with wood, and along the valley are several handsome residences and stately factories. On this fatal morning it presented a most deplorable aspect, being overspread with timber, broken machinery, dead cattle, human bodies, mud, stones, and all kinds of debris.

Estimated Damage to Property

The estimated damage and summary of property, in addition to the loss from devastated land under tillage, was as follows:—

BUILDINGS DESTROYED. — 4 Mills, 10 Dyehouses, 3 Drying Stoves, 27 Cottages, 7 Tradesmen’s Houses, 7 Shops, 7 Bridges crossing the river Holme, 10 Warehouses, 8 Barns and Stables.

BUILDINGS SERIOUSLY INJURED. — 5 Dyehouses, 17 Woollen Mills, 3 Drying Stoves, 129 Cottages, 7 Tradesmens Houses, 44 Large Shops, 11 Public-houses, 5 Bridges crossing the river, 1 County Bridge, 4 Warehouses, 13 Barns, 3 Places of Worship, 2 Ironfoundries.

TOTAL 244.

Of land seriously damaged by the inundation, there were no fewer than 200 acres. The total number of persons dependent on the property destroyed was estimated at 10,000.

HANDS THROWN OUT OF WORK. — Adults, 4,896; Children, 2,142; total, 7,038. The average weekly earnings of these was £3,748.

The total loss of property was estimated at the time at £250,000, but later this figure was found to be much below the real loss.

Collecting the Dead

On the morning following the flood the inhabitants at once set about collecting the dead and assisting the impoverished.

The following is a list of the drowned whose bodies were taken to the various public-houses named:—

New Inn, Hinchliffe Mill. — James Booth, 60; Nancy Booth, his wife, 44; Lydia and Hannah Brook; Elizabeth Dodd, 7; Sarah Hannah Dodd, 17 months; a child named Martha Hinchliffe; Nancy Marsden, 53; and Charles Crosland. Total 9.

George Inn, Holmfirth. — Jonathan Crosland, 39; Joshua Crosland, his son, 21; Mary Hellawell, 28; George Hellawell, 9; Sarah, 6; Elizabeth, 4; John, 2; and Ann, 10 months; and Hannah Dodd, 30. Total 9.

Elephant and Castle, Holmfirth. — James Lee, 65; Joe Marsden, 18; William Exley, 31; Eliza Matthews, of Shepley, and servant of Mr. Greenwood, at the Tollgate, 12; and Lydia Greenwood, 45. Total 5.

White Hart, Holmfirth. — Hannah Crosland, 17; Ellen Wood, 22; James Charlesworth, 14; Alfred Woodcock, 17; Emily Sandford, and a female unknown. Total 6.

Shoulder of Mutton, Holmfirth. — Amelia Fearns, 23; Joshua Charlesworth, 16; and a boy unknown, about 11. Total 3.

Rose and Crown, Holmfirth. — Eliza Marsden, 46. Total 1.

King’s Head. — Abel Earnshaw, 6. Total 1.

Waggon and Horses. — Joe Mettrick, 1; and female unknown, about 4. Total 2.

Crown Hotel. — Sydney Hartley, and his son George, ten weeks; Charles Earnshaw, 36; John Ashall, 32; his wife, 30; Sarah Jane Sandford, 9; Martha Crosland, 15. Total 7.

Rose and Crown, Thongsbridge. — Hannah Bailey, 30, and an infant supposed to be hers, a few days old; Hannah Shackle-ton, 8£. Total 3.

Royal Oak. Thongsbridge. — Joshua Earnshaw, 72; Tamor Shackleton, 33, and her son James, 1; Elizabeth Hartley, 4; and a girl unknown, about 4. Total 5.

Rock Inn, Smithy Place. — William Mettrick, 31; and a daughter of Matthew Fearns, 6 months. Total 2.

Travellers’ Inn. Honley. — Mary Ann Hartley, 39; James Hartley, 14; Alfred Mettrick, 8; and a boy unknown, about 4. Total 4.

Jacob’s Well, Honley. — Martha Hartley, 16; Charles Thorpe, 3; Betty Heeley, 7; and a boy unknown, about 6. Total 4.

Golden Fleece. Armitage Bridge. — A little girl identified by Aner Bailey as his daughter, and a little boy unknown. Total 2. The little girl was first stated to be one of Mettrick’s, but was afterwards sworn to as one of Hartley’s, and the inquest was opened upon it as such. It was, however, ultimately claimed by Aner Bailey as his child and was interred by him.

Oddfellows’ Arms, Big Valley. — Rose Charlesworth, 39. Total 1.

The Sunday after the Flood.

Sunday, February 8th, was a sad and gloomy day in the Holme Valley. About 60 bodies were removed for interment at different periods of the day, mostly in the villages on the adjoining hills or up the valley. Seven bodies were taken for interment to Holmebridge Church, but the graves had become filled with water during the night, and the churchyard, being one which the flood had swept over in full force, was altogether in such a state of devastation and disorder, from the disturbance of graves, the destruction of the churchyard walls, and other damage, that it was found expedient to place the bodies in a temporary resting-place in the church itself for interment later on.

Thousands upon thousands of people from all parts visited the scene of the catastrophe for weeks after the flood.