The Holmfirth Flood (1910) - The Inquest

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The Holmfirth Flood (1910)

The Inquest

The Inquest was opened before Mr. Geo. Dyson, of Halifax, the then coroner for this division of the West Riding of Yorkshire, on the bodies found, before a respectable jury, on the 6th of February, and it was adjourned from time to time until the whole of the bodies found had been seen by the jury. On Friday, February 27th, after a sitting of five days’ duration, the following emphatic verdict was handed in to the coroner by the foreman, on behalf of himself and fourteen fellow-jurymen:—

We find that the deceased persons came to their deaths by drowning, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry reservoir. We also find that the Bilberry reservoir was defective in its original construction, and that the commissioners, the engineer, and the overlooker were greatly culpable in not seeing to the proper regulation of the works; and we also find that the commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry reservoir to remain for several years in a dangerous state, with a full knowledge thereof, and not lowering the waste pit, have been guilty of great and culpable negligence; and we regret that, the reservoir being under the management of a corporation, prevents us bringing in a verdict of manslaughter, as we are convinced that the gross and culpable negligence of the commissioners would have subjected them to such a verdict had they been in the position of an individual or firm. We also hope that the Legislature will take into its most serious consideration the propriety of making provision for the protection of the lives and properties of her Majesty’s subjects exposed to danger from reservoirs placed by corporations similar to those under the charge of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners.

The evidence of the various witnesses disclosed the existence of so large an amount of neglect and carelessness, that the severity of the above finding could be no matter of surprise; indeed, it is impossible to avoid a feeling of regret that the Commissioners could not be made legally responsible for the heavy suffering and loss which had been entailed upon innocent individuals through their fatal recklessness. Of the degree of blame attached to these gentlemen a fair estimate may be gathered from the very clear and valuable report made by Captain Moody, the Government Inspector (upon which, no doubt, the verdict of the jury was in a great measure framed.) After expressing his opinion that the immediate cause of the catastrophe was the middle portion of the embankment, or dam being lower than the top of the waste water pit, the gallant Captain said:—

This waste pit is designed to carry off the waste or flood water, but the top of the embankment having sunk below the top of the pit, and being suffered to remain so, the flood waters had no proper or sufficient escape, but went over the dam, which, as a necessary consequence, gave way. In the evidence before you mention has been made of a spring, of different leaks, and defective workmanship, but so long as the level of the dam was below the level of the waste pit, and the flood suffered to pour over the top of an embankment of this kind, it would give way, though there were no springs, no leaks, and though the best quality of ‘puddling’ was put in as watertight as possible. It would give way, though not so simultaneously, from top to bottom; it would be slower in its operation, but still quick enough to form a flood of terribly destructive effects in its course.

After describing the mode of constructing reservoirs of a similar character to the “Bilberry,” and pointing out, in the formation of the dam, that the best materials only should be used, Captain Moody said:—

In the construction of the Bilberry dam this careful selection has not been made. The material is similar on both sides, and loose in its nature. The inner portion is permeable throughout; and, instead of the part next to the puddle-dam being closely rammed, and almost puddle in its character, a dry, open, rubble wall, or backing, appears to have been carried up from the bottom, on both sides of the puddle-dam, inviting the water, as it were, to act on the whole inner surface of the puddle, and to escape with greater ease at any leaks or fissures arrising from settlement or bad execution of the work. In flowing over the top of the dam (which it ought not if the waste pit was in a position to act), the water would flow down through this dry rubble to the very bottom, and acting on any cavities, or porous or weak portions at that part of the enbankment, would act with immense hydraulic pressure — in fact, on the principle of a hydraulic ram. In the case before us you have it in evidence, that the water, before passing over the outer surface of the dam did pour down thus for half-an-hour, and also acting on the water which was forcing its way through leaks and a spring at the bottom, the dam boiled up in the centre, as the witness stated, and burst out from the bottom almost simultaneously with breaking away in masses from the top. It was thus the whole dam gave way, and the volume of water in the reservoir burst forth at once.

Referring to the spring stated to have been discovered in the trench under the embankment, Captain Moody referred to the fact proved in evidence, that it was not led away by any of the usual and necessary modes, but

That very objectionable plans were resorted to in the hope of choking it up, or ‘weighting it down.’ But it was not to be ‘weighted down;’ it rose as the work rose, materially infusing the lower portion of the puddle, making it weak and bad, of a nature easily to be worked away with the water of the spring, as the latter forced itself through the outer part of the enbankment like a little rill of water issuing from the foot. At times this rill was clear, and at times muddy and yellow. The muddiness varied with the head of water in the reservoir. To the weak nature of the puddle at the base, and the washing away from time to time by the continuous run of water from the spring under the bottom of it, the great settlement of the puddle dam in the centre is to be attributed, a settlement which continued to go on during the construction, and after the dam had been raised to the height required in the specification. Of late years the settling down appears to have gradually ceased; doubtless the soft puddle had been nearly all squeezed out, and then would probably commence a different mode of action, leaks increasing in size, and unequal settlements causing fractures.

Captain Moody concluded his observations with this emphatic warning to the inhabitants of Holmfirth:—

In this neighbourhood there are many mountain reservoirs receiving floods of waters, impounded by lofty dams; pray don’t look upon them and treat them like mill-dams or fish-ponds. They are engines of mighty force, strong in aid of your industry to augment your wealth, and terrible in their power to destroy if mismanaged or neglected. The fact must be indelibly impressed on the minds of all the dwellers in Holmfirth.

At the conclusion of the gallant Captain’s observations the audience broke out into a general buzz of approbation.

Widespread Sympathy

It will be inferred that the scenes of the dreadful catastrophe were visited daily by thousands of persons from almost all parts of the kingdom, and meetings were held in many of the principal towns in Yorkshire and Lancashire in aid of the sufferers. Meetings also were held in London, Birmingham, Derby, Glasgow, and many other places for the same purpose. But to the gentlemen of Huddersfield and its neighbourhood, the inhabitants of the Holme Valley were under special obligations, not only for the munificent sums subscribed for the relief of the sufferers, but for their active and untiring efforts in enlisting the sympathies of others in the more distant towns. Amongst them particularly were John Brooke, Esq., J.P., Armitage Bridge, chairman of the United Committee of Huddersfield and Holmfirth, which was formed to deal with the matter; W. Leigh Brooke, Esq., J.P., of Meltham Hall, chairman of the Holmfirth Committee; and Messrs. J. C. Laycock and J. Freeman, solicitors, hon. secretaries.

Munificent Subscriptions

The wants of the homeless and destitute were attended to at once. Committees and sub-committees were appointed to visit the sufferers and report as to their necessities; and the most active exertions were made to relieve the pressing wants which had arisen out of the sudden and calamitous visitation. The response of the nation resulted in £69,422 8s. 4d. being subscribed, affording a splendid instance of spontaneous public charity. A number of sufferers by the flood sent in no schedules of their loss, and made no claims upon the fund. The mortgagees’ claim to a share in the benefit of the national liberality was first negatived by the Central Committee, but it was afterwards agreed to appropriate £7,000 “for the repair of the Bilberry reservoir.”

The United Committee, in reply to an application to Parliament by the Committee of the Holme Reservoirs for increased powers for the restoration of the reservoirs, sent a statement of their views as to the provisions needful to be inserted for the protection of the public against a similar disaster, and for settling certain differences between the Commissioners and mortgagees. Eventually the matter was arranged as above stated. The committee were placed in the novel position of having to deal with funds virtually committed to their care which amounted to a sum beyond what the necessities of the case were deemed to require. The committee, in their report to the Central Committee, dated 27th January, 1854, stated: “In presenting their final report and bringing their labours to a close, your committee desire to express the deep sense they entertain of the munificent liberality manifested by all classes of the British public in order to alleviate the sufferings occasioned by this sad accident. In the arduous duties which have devolved upon them your committee have endeavoured to do justice to the sufferers, and carry out the views of the subscribers with all possible fairness and discrimination. In apportioning the grants your committee are aware that they have not altogether escaped the charge of illiberality. But they could not divest their mind of the fact that the subscriptions were raised in the first instance in consequence of the statements made during the excitement of the moment, and, after much careful investigation turned out to be much over-estimated, and the losses in many instances to have fallen on those who were not properly objects of public subscription. The parties who had subscribed thus liberally looked to your committee to see that their bounty was conferred on proper objects, and several of the towns placed only a portion of their subscriptions in the hands of your committee, reserving to themselves the appropriation of the remainder. These circumstances entailed on your committee a large amount of responsibility, which they have endeavoured to discharge according to the best of their judgment, and though the labour has not been small, the pleasure of becoming the medium of administering comfort to the sufferers in their extremity and preventing the ruin of great numbers of tradesmen, has amply compensated your committee for all the labour they have undergone.”

How the Funds were dealt with

The sum distributed among the sufferers amounted to £31,344 18s., exclusive of the aforesaid £7,000 granted for the restoration of the reservoir, and a balance of £31,011 11s. 1d. was returned to the subscribers.

“The Old Genn”

This old stone monument in Town Gate, which now-a-days is called the Flood Memorial, bears a plate denoting the height of water at the flood of 1852. This is the site of the old village stocks, and is known as “Th’owd Genn.” It is very probable it derives its name from an old village constable named James Genn, of Longley, who is frequently mentioned in Capt. Eyre’s diary (1647.) Capt. Eyre resided at Hazlehead, and was an officer in the Parliamentary Army.

The brass plate fixed on the pillar of “Th’owd Genn” contains the following inscription:—


A carved stone is also inserted in Victoria Square, at the side of Mr. Quarmby’s butcher shop. This always attracts the attention of visitors, as it shows the height of the flood at that place. The inscription is as follows:—

FEB 5TH, 1852

Holmfirth Monumental Almshouses

A surplus of the funds was left in hand after relieving the distressed sufferers, part of which, along with the proceeds of a bazaar, was devoted to the erection of five Almshouses to commemorate the disaster. These are situated above the Railway Station, on the New Mill Road.

The Foundation Stones were laid in 1856. The Freemasons formed a prominent part of the procession. Mr. C. S. Floyd performed the ceremony of laying the first stone, in the unavoidable absence of the Provincial Grand Master (The Earl of Mexborough), and the Deputy Grand Master (Mr. Charles Lee), through illness. Mr. Floyd gave an address, and afterwards a dinner took place at the Elephant and Castle Inn.

In a niche in the tower a tablet is placed, bearing the following inscription:—

These Almshouses built and endowed by Public Subscription, and by the proceeds of a Bazaar promoted by the Ladies of the neighbourhood, as a memorial of the Holmfirth Flood, caused by the bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir on February 5th, 1852, by which 81 lives were lost, and an immense amount of property destroyed; and as a further memorial of the National Munificence for the alleviation of that calamity, are dedicated to the Poor of the townships of Holme, Austonley, Cartworth, Wool-dale, Upper-Thong, Nether-Thong, and Honley for ever.

Inscription over the entrance gateway:—

The following are the names of the 14 original Trustees appointed by the Deed of Trust made between Cookson Stephenson, the donor of the land, of the one part, and the several gentlemen whose names are appended, on the other part:—
WILLIAM HILL, Architect.