The Observer (09/Feb/1852) - Frightful Occurrence at Holmfirth

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The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.



On Thursday last a terrible and destructive calamity occurred at Holmfirth, a large manufacturing village, six or seven miles from Huddersfield, by the bursting of a reservoir. A more complete wreck, or more melancholy scene, than Holmfirth presents to the thousands who have visited it, has never been beheld. Upwards of one hundred lives are believed to be lost, and an immense amount of property is destroyed. The narrative of the occurrence up to the present time is as follows :—


About the year 1840 a body of gentlemen were incorporated by an act of Parliament, under the title of the Holme Reservoir Commissioners, with powers to impound and dam up the waters of the river Holme and other streams in the valleys a few miles above the town of Holmfirth, so as to supply the woollen and other mills below with turning power. The owners of these mills had been subject to great inconvenience in periods of drought, and the conservation of the waters in reservoirs, so as to ensure a regular supply, was regarded as likely to be very advantageous to all parties ; and the scheme met with so much favour from the public that little or no opposition was made in Parliament. The company were to repay themselves by levying rates on the mill-owners, according to a fixed scale. The company started with a capital of £40,000 subscribed, and raised £30,000 on mortgage. One of the reservoirs was called the Bilberry Reservoir, and was formed by impounding the water of the river Holme in a deep mountain gorge about three miles above the town of Holmfirth. An embankment was thrown across the valley, probably 200 yards wide, and 90 feet deep, thus banking up the stream till it became a lake containing many millions of cubic feet of water. The embankment was constructed by Messrs. George Leather and Sons, engineers, of Leeds. The mode of discharging water from the reservoir was by allowing it to fall into an upright funnel, at one side, to the level of the bed of the reservoir, from whence it escaped through a culvert — opened and closed by a trap-door — into the bed of the river. The speculation is said to be a losing one to the commissioners. It did not pay a dividend. A disputed construction or the act as to the rating had involved them in litigation, and the works had been neglected, and become dilapidated.


Such is the current report, and it seems to be borne out by the fact that during the early part of this week the commissioners entertained such apprehensions of the effect of the rains as to place men on the embankment to watch the result. The alarm gradually increased till Wednesday evening, when men were stationed there to watch all night; and such was the public anxiety in the neighbourhood, that, till a late hour, great numbers of people remained voluntarily with the watchers, braving the inclemency of the weather and all other inconveniences. Soon after one o’clock on Thursday morning the long-dreaded and anticipated catastrophe became, alas! a too true and awful reality. The embankment for something like a hundred yards in width was torn away from the front of the reservoir, and the immense body of water rushed from its bed a resistless and mighty torrent, sweeping away all obstacles to its progress — spreading death and desolation before it in a manner which defies description.


To have an idea of the awful calamity, the reader must imagine such a body of water rushing for miles through a deep narrow valley, thickly studded with mills, cottages, populous towns, and hamlets, over a space of many miles in length, with an inclination or fall in the nature of the ground sufficient to add an immense impetus to the rush of the water. The town of Holmfirth contains a population of 6,000 souls on either bank of the river. The great bulk of the inhabitants were in bed — for it was the dead hour of night ; and the only warning given was by a few of the watchers, who started off when it was seen that the reservoir was really about to burst its bounds, running down the river side, shouting, casting stones through bed-room windows, and startling people from their sleep as best they could. But even this brief warning extended only to the entrance of Holmfirth ; for there the flood overtook them and rendered further efforts of no avail.

We proceed to give a brief detail of the fearful havoc made of life and property so far as could be gleaned from the particulars passing over the scene of desolation.


The property over which the torrent first rushed was Bilberry Mill, a woollen manufactory at the foot of the reservoir, on the right hank of the River Holme. It was a stone building of three stories, and something like twenty yards long, with a cottage at the gable end towards the river, in which C. Batty, the fuller, resided. The cottage and greater part of the mill were swept away, with the heavy iron machinery of the mill, and the property was almost a wreck in a moment. Batty had been so convinced of what was coming beforehand that he had sent his wife and family away from the house, and had even removed his furniture. He himself had been one of the watchers on the embankment all night. About a quarter of a mile lower down the river was the residence of Mr. John Furness, which, with a barn, cow-house, three cows, and a stack of hay worth £50, were all swept away from the left bank of the stream. Mr. Furness and his family had received warning, and hastened to a wood up the side of the valley for shelter. The Digley woollen mills, the property of Mrs. Hurst, occupied both banks of the river, half a mile below the reservoir. On the right bank was a fine stone erection of four stories, forty yards long, for scribbling and spinning, with valuable mule frames; and on the left was an extensive weaving mill, dye-house, and Mrs. Hurst’s dwelling. All that now marks the spot is a tall chimney, which alone escaped the wreck. It is extraordinary to think that the heavy machinery, steam engine, huge boilers, and everything, should have been floated away like toys before the torrent of water. Mrs. Hurst was warned in time ; but, either from incredulity or terror, would not move from the house till something more than gentle impulsion was used. Her family also of course escaped. The destruction of this property is estimated variously at £20,000 to £30,000. The Bank End woollen mill, the property, or at least in the occupation, of Messrs. John and William Roebuck, stood about three quarters of a mile below the reservoir, on the left bank of the river Holme. It was a substantial stone erection of four stories, with one end abutting on the river. Some yards of this end have been carried away, the iron spinning mules and weaving looms being torn asunder, and left projecting from the ruin. The damage will probably be from one to two thousand pounds. At Holme Bridge, a little further, the church was inundated. The pews were lifted from their position and thrown transversely in rows across the aisles ; the walls round the yard were torn down ; the gravestones were swept away, and coffins with their corpses lifted from the new graves and floated down the river. The water made a clean breach across the bridge itself, and swept away its stone battlements entirely. Hinchliffe woollen mills, the property of Messrs. Butterworth and Co., a mile and a half below the reservoir, stand upon a firm, rocky foundation, and escaped destruction ; but the water made a clean breach through the windows of the first and second story, and probably has destroyed and damaged property of the value of £500. On the opposite side of the water was a row of ten two-story cottages, occupied by operatives ; these were on the left bank ; there is not a stone of them remaining. The houses and their occupants were taken away at one fell swoop. From one of these houses ten human beings, composing one family, were sent to their account as with a blast of wind. Altogether it is supposed nearly forty persons, residing in these houses, surprised in their sleep, perished in the flood. One man only was rescued, and he was floated down a quarter of a mile lower, into a mill dam ; his escape appears to have been almost a miracle. The Bottoms mill, further down, belonging to Messrs. Barber and Co., was inundated with water, but, standing some distance from the direct course of the river, it escaped destruction. Two or three mechanics were at work in the mill, and had a narrow escape. One of them resided in Water-street, and he probably owed his escape from the melancholy fate of his wife and family, who had already perished, to the necessity of working during the night. The Victoria woollen mill, belonging to the representatives of the late Mr. John Harper, magistrate, is a mile and three quarters below the reservoir. It was flooded, and a good deal of damage sustained. Four cottage houses on the opposite side of the river were swept away, but the inhabitants fortunately had escaped. Messrs. Dyson’s woollen mills, also on the opposite side of the river at this point, occupied by Messrs. Roberts and Sandford, were flooded, and a good deal of property destroyed. Jonathan Sandford, the engine-driver, lived in a cottage by the side of the mill, and that was swept away, Sandford and his two children and servant girl all perishing in the flood. Their bodies were afterwards found three miles down the river. We now come to Prickleton, at the entrance of Holmfirth, two miles and a half from the reservoir. Here the extensive dye-works of Messrs. G. Farrar and Co. were carried away, and considerable damage was done to the spinning machinery. Probably the loss will be £3,000. The spinning and weaving mill of Mr. James Hobson Farrar is on the right bank of the river. The engine-house, steam-engine, and immense boiler were swept down before the torrent. Here also the water swept through a row of fourteen cottages, known by the name of Scarr Fold. The buildings consist of two-story cottages fronting to the river, with a second row of two-story cottages on the top of them, fronting the opposite way, and on a level with the highway. From the lower tier of cottages the occupants of the first escaped. In the second Richard Woodcock, aged 18, and his sister, aged 14, were drowned. The father and mother and two children broke a way through into the houses above, and escaped. In another of these houses Joseph Helliwell’s wife and five children all perished; but he escaped in the second story by floating on the top of his weaving-loom till the water went down. The furniture of the poor people in all these cottages was wrecked, and those who escaped with life had nothing left but their night clothes. Near the middle of Holmfirth, at Upper Bridge, the flood burst through the Elephant and Castle public-house, and made a complete wreck of the furniture, but the occupants escaped. The battlements of the bridge were entirely destroyed. A three-story house adjoining the bridge, with its owner, Mr. Haner Bailey, tailor, and his wife and two children, were all swept away. Mr. Bailey was afterwards rescued, but Mrs. Bailey and the children perished. The next house, occupied by Mr. John Hepworth, was partly destroyed, but he and his family escaped. On the opposite side of the river to these is a street called the Hollow-gate. A row of three-story houses and shops here was gutted, and the occupants are very severe losers. Mr. M’Clellan, bookseller, occupied one of them, and his entire stock in trade was swept out of the shop by the flood, not leaving him a shilling’s worth. The doors, window, window shutters, and everything were swept from the front of the building. Mrs. Woodhead, grocer ; Mr. Abraham Hayley, grocer ; Mr. Henry Swyer, clogger ; Mr. Briggs, greengrocer ; and Mr. Joel Haigh, draper, who are the other occupants of these shops, all shared in the destruction of their property, but they and their families escaped with life. In fact the debris of rained houses and property here choked up the bed of the river, diverted the current, and Hollow-gate-street is now the channel for the waters of the Holme. The tollgate and tollhouse on the opposite side of Hollow-gate, close to the river, were swept away, and the gatekeeper, Samuel Greenwood, together with his wife and child were carried away with the house, and all perished. Mr. Parsons, a clogger, had his house gutted, but escaped with his family by the back door. The premises of Messrs. Crawshaw and Son, carriers, were swept away, together with a cottage in which his servant, who had charge of the premises, resided. The servant man, his wife, and children, all perished. A cottage adjoining these premises, in which John Kay resided, was also swept away. Kay and his family were also carried down with the flood, but a stick was held out to him from a window, which he seized, and he was rescued. His daughter, grandchild, and another member of the family, however, perished. Mr. Henry Firth’s shop was carried away, but he and his family escaped. On the left bank of the river, the drying stove, warehouse, barn, and stabling, of Mr. J. Morris, were destroyed — loss about £3,000. The battlements of Victoria Bridge were next carried away. The houses and shops in Victoria-street were almost gutted, some of them losing stock to the amount of £500 to £1,000. The sufferers include Mr. Joshua Woodcock, draper ; Mr. Robert Gutteridge, confectioner ; Mr. John Hargreaves, shoemaker ; Mr. Dyson, druggist ; Mr. Edward Williamson, draper ; Mr. Charles Bocock, grocer ; Mr. Lawson, tinner ; Mr. Harrison, grocer. Some cottages at Higgin Bridge, in Holmfirth, were flooded, and in one of them an old man, named James Lee, was found drowned. A number of shops, also, here were completely gutted. The river Ribble here fells into the Holme. The church of Holmfirth was flooded, but no great damage done. Seven coffins and bodies were floated out of the graveyard. We could give a list of more than 30 other shops, the owners of which sustained great loss. Messrs. Thewlis and Bower, spinners and dyers, sustained damage to the extent of over £2,000 we were informed. Sidney Hartley, who slept on the premises, was carried away and drowned. Richard Shackleton, his wife, and children, also living on the premises, were swept away with their cottage, and perished. The wool warehouse of Mr. John Wood was swept away. The battlements of the bridge at Brigg were swept away.


It is said that the body of water passing through Holmfirth was at one time seven or eight yards deep. The destruction caused by the flood further down the valley has not yet been ascertained ; but it is said that three bodies had been taken out of the river as far below Huddersfield as Mirfield, 15 miles thence. The loss of life is still estimated at upwards of 100 ; but to this time only 64 bodies have been recovered here, and four telegraphed as found at Hull, in the Humber, 70 miles distance, make 68.


The following is a list of the dead :—

At the Waggon and Horses, Holmfirth : A male child one year old, and a female four years, both unknown, and both much mutilated.

George Inn : Jonathan Crossland, Joshua Crossland, Mary Hellawell and her children, George, Sarah, Elizabeth, John, and Ann, varying from one to 10 years old.

Crown Hotel : Henry Hartley, Charles Earnshaw, John Ashell, Margaret Ashell, Miss Sandford, a young woman and a child unknown.

Oddfellows’ Arms : Rose Charlesworth.

Golden Fleece : Abel Earnshaw and Jane Metterick.

Jacob’s Well, Honley : Martha Hartley, Charles Thorpe, Betty Healey, and a boy unknown.

Travellers’ Inn : Mary Ann Hartley, James Hartley, and a boy unknown.

Rock Inn : Elizabeth Hallalwell, William Metterick, and a girl named Pheance.

Rose and Crown, Thong’s Bridge : Anna Bailey, Richard Shackleton (a boy), and an infant unknown.

Royal Oak, Thong’s Bridge : Joseph Earnshaw, Tamar Shackleton, a boy two years old (supposed to be a Shackleton), a girl 2½ years old, and a girl a year old (supposed to be a child of Hartley’s).


It appears that the act of Parliament constituting the commissioners a corporation received the royal assent in July, 1837. The contract to make the Bilberry reservoir was let in 1810, but it occupied about three years in completing. An error was committed, it has been allied, by the contractor in placing the embankment across a spring, so mat the foundation was insecure from the first. The embankment, gave way perceptibly, and the contract was taken from him, and given to other parties, which led to a Chancery suit, and protracted litigation. After that, a cofferdam was sunk through the embankment to the spring, and measures adopted in the hope of remedying the imperfection in the foundation. These measures were never considered very satisfactory, the perpendicular cylinder or funnel described above gave way, and got twisted, so that the valve at the bottom could not be lifted. Could this valve have been lifted on Wednesday night, to let off the water, it is thought the catastrophe might have been avoided.


The whole amount of loss has been estimated at £600,000; and. besides this, many families in wealthy and easy circumstances have been entirely ruined. The mills, it is thought, cannot be started again anywhere down the valley for four months; and thus great numbers of the working classes have been thrown out of work, and will probably be dependent on the poor-rates. The bed of the river has been in places choked up and diverted. It is not known by whom or how the expense is to be borne.

Mr. Dyson, coroner, of Halifax, visited the town on Friday morning and swore a jury, but they were occupied all day in visiting the bodies at different public houses over a distance of several miles, for the purpose of proving identity; and after that they were to adjourn.


Great numbers of people have crowded into the town and up the valley. Every railway train is loaded with fresh thousands, and the streets in every direction are full of strangers and of townspeople, for there is no business going forward. There are very few of them who have not to deplore the loss of some relative or friend. Bodies of special constables keep the roads, and keep the crowds back from the labourers who are engaged in removing the debris and wreck from the streets choked up and impeded. The bridges and roads have been destroyed nearly in all directions. Great fear has been entertained that another reservoir, said to be in a dangerous state, would come down, but the water has been discharged to the depth of two yards, and this course has much quieted apprehension.


The coroner and jury having viewed the bodies of the unfortunate sufferers, proceeded to inspect the reservoir, which is about 650 yards or nearly three furlongs in length, and covers altogether about eleven acres. At the dose of the inspection the coroner adjourned the inquiry until Wednesday, in order that the Government engineer might be present, and to afford time for collecting the necessary evidence.