The Times (16/Feb/1852) - The Holmfirth Flood

This page is part of the Holmfirth Flood Project and its content is believed to be in the Public Domain.
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.



Prepared as we are to hear of disasters by sea and land involving the loss of life and property, it is only occasionally that those take place on a scale and under circumstances which powerfully arrest public attention and sympathy. The destruction of the Amazon was an event of this kind, and its tragic incidents readily impressed themselves on the imagination. Not less terrible is the recent catastrophe called “the Holmfirth Flood,” and, though occurring at a moment when public interest was strongly directed in other channels, it is now beginning to claim the full measure of consideration which it deserves. The magnitude of this disaster will be better understood the loss inflicted by it be for a moment dwelt upon. If is believed that upwards of 100 lives have perished, and 71 dead bodies have already been found. That is a fearful destruction to overwhelm the few thousand inhabitants of one small valley in a single night. But the loss does not stop here. There have been 4 mills, 10 dye-houses, 10 drying-stoves, 27 cottages, 7 tradesmen’s houses, 7 shops, 6 bridges, 1 county bridge, 10 warehouses, 18 barns and stables, totally destroyed ; while 5 dye-houses and stock, 17 mills, 3 stoves, 139 cottages. 7 tradesmen’s houses, 44 large shops, 11 public-houses, 5 bridges, 1 county bridge, 200 acres of land, 14 warehouses, 13 barns, 3 places of worship and 2 iron foundries, are partially destroyed. Such is the return made to a committee, appointed to institute inquiries on the subject. The number of adults thrown out of employ is stated at 4,986, the number of children 2,142 — altogether, 7,128, whose earnings, when at work, amounted to £3,748 per week The total loss caused is, according to the most moderate calculation, estimated at not less than £250,000, and very competent authorities do not hesitate to place it as high as £600,000. While one manufacturer, Mr. Sandford, was, with his entire family, hurried to destruction by the overwhelming waters — the house where he had lived for many years being carried away, a widow lady named Hirst, the owner of two fine and extensive mills, had her valuable property so completely annihilated, that only two tall chimneys remain. Mr. Sandford’s body has not yet been found, and £10 reward is offered for the recovery of it. Mrs. Hirst was with difficulty prevailed on to save her life, so completely was her fortune committed to the descending flood. The mill property destroyed, great as it is, is not the only matter to be considered. The reservoir which caused the mischief cost a large sum of money, which is gone. The numerous roads and bridges which intersected the valley, and which the inundation has swept away or damaged, must be restored. Besides the houses and shops demolished, there has been an extensive loss of furniture and stock, which must be replaced, and beyond all this, the irreparable injury to the soil in the bottom of the valley for several miles from the reservoir must also be taken into account. From the manufacturing prosperity of the neighbourhood, land there had become extremely valuable, as much as 7s. 6d, a yard being not infrequently paid for it. The wreck and ruin of the flood may be supposed to give an exaggerated aspect to the mischief done, but no doubt can be entertained that it is so extensive as to merit a widespread demonstration of sympathy, and that the humane and benevolent spirit of the country will be suitably exercised in relieving the suffering thus caused.

In the manufacturing districts this calamity has excited a sorrow which, when all the circumstances are considered is not surprising. That part of England is the chosen region of mills, and the whole population is closely hound together by the ties of kindred pursuits. Whatever affects the working of their mills is felt in every family as a private affliction, and thus within the last few days the trains have hardly been able to accommodate the influx of visitors from every quarter to the scone of the recent disaster. From an early hour in the day till nightfall the course of the inundation is traced, and the havoc which it committed examined, by large numbers of people, and women as well as men display their interest in a calamity which, from the distribution of factory labour, appeals equally to the sympathy of both Boxes. Nor is the interest displayed a mere idle curiosity. Holmfirth has already subscribed nearly £2,000 towards a relief fund. Very little short of £10,000 has been raised in Huddersfield alone for the same purpose, and it is expected that all the large manufacturing towns in the north will come cheerfully and liberally forward to mitigate a calamity so extensive and terrible. Perhaps the country generally may be induced to join in this effort when the nature of the catastrophe and the loss which it has caused are placed fully and clearly before the public. To contribute as far as possible to that desirable result we shall endeavour to describe the locality in which the disaster occurred, the way in which it took place, and the terrible evidences of its character which it has left behind it.

The range of hills running north and south on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire form a portion of what is called “the backbone of England.” They abound in narrow valleys, which during winter are abundantly supplied with water power from the heights. This water power has tempted manufacturers to build mills in most of the valleys, and, as one of these establishments paved the way for the construction of others, manufacturing villages have grown up, by which the eye of the traveller is pleasantly arrested as he passes eastward from Manchester across the elevated chain alluded to. On the western side cotton prevail ; in the hollows and dales opening eastward, woollen-manufactories ; but both have a similar external character, and have been attracted to those nooks and picturesque retreats among the hills by the supply of a cheap motive power which a moist climate secures to them. In summer, however, the streams run low, and, the mills being always on the increase, the formation of large reservoirs becomes requisite. Accordingly, these have been formed, and it is sincerely to he hoped, in all other instances, formed with greater care and in situations less dangerous than that which caused the Holmfirth flood. Reservoirs constructed in such a locality are especially liable to become overcharged. Heavy falls of rain are frequent there, and, from the hilly character of the country, the natural drainage becomes so rapid as to produce the most startling results. Any one at all experienced in the violence of river floods in mountainous districts must be struck with the danger to which manufacturing villages, like Holmfirth, are exposed from that cause alone. But, when to this danger is added that of an ill-constructed reservoir at the head of a valley in which the village itself lies, the risk and the peril to life and property become appalling. Looking back at the accident which has just happened, the only wonder is that the mischief done, great as it is, was not far more extensive. Let the reader picture to himself a narrow dale, five or six miles long, and varying below, at different points, from 30 to 100 yards in breadth. Let him imagine the lowest parts of this dale, close by the watercourse which runs through it, built over with mills and cottages at intervals; the little town of Holmfirth in the centre; another village higher up, and at the very top of the dale, where it debouches-from the hills, a huge reservoir containing an immense accumulation of water. The reservoir is formed by a dam thrown across the narrow valley, and this dam is imperfectly constructed. It has a spring in it, which is not eradicated. It consists mainly of loose earth and stones, and has not been properly puddled with clay. The water oozes through it, and it sinks from time to time in a manner which clearly shows that it is not safe. The reservoir has two modes provided for letting off the water in case of a flood — one a large stone drain or canal, acting by means of a “shuttle” or valve, the other a “by-wash” or funnel, into which the water may overflow, instead of spilling over the embankment. But the sinking of the embankment has left the top of the “by-wash” above its level, and therefore useless, and the “shuttle” is so arranged that it either does not act or the aperture which it leaves open is immediately blocked up by rubbish. To add to the causes of alarm, the commissioners to whom the reservoir belongs are in debt and in Chancery. Many of these facts were well known in the valley for years, and the dangerous state of the reservoir was especially a matter of perfect notoriety. Yet people lived contentedly, and invested large capital in business, blindly trusting that the inevitable result of so much infatuation would not follow, and that the accumulated waters which they had imperfectly dammed up would not, sooner or later, come down upon them. Even at the last moment this mad confidence was indulged. There had been tremendous falls of rain, the reservoir was filling fast, and the means for relieving the pressure of water had proved useless. There were people on the embankment during the night watching for the moment when it would burst, and expecting it to happen, yet in the valley below the inhabitants went to their beds as usual. No authoritative warning appears to have been given, though the emergency imperatively required it, and there was ample time for it. For the loss of life, therefore, a fearful responsibility rests somewhere, which the inquiry before the coroner will, no doubt, develope.

It is not easy to realize the features of such an inundation, even after having personally examined the astounding traces of the violence which it has left behind it. Occurring in the middle of the night, few could see much of it, and perhaps the panting messengers who carried the tidings down the valley that the reservoir had given way may be able to give the host account of its commencement and progress. Some say that the water was spilling over the embankment and washing away the earth on the other side of it before it burst, and that then it gave way bodily. Others give a slightly different account, but all agree that it took place very suddenly, and, judging by the immense gap through which the waters passed when the first crash took place, the spectacle must have been terrible indeed. The reservoir was brim full, and covered several acres of ground, with a depth, in some parts, of at least from 70 to 80 feet. It must, therefore, have been truly awful to see that liquid avalanche discharge itself from its bondage. The moon was shining brightly at the time, It may, perhaps, assist one’s conception of the accident, and of the power of water under such circumstances, to state that the entire mass of the embankment, which filled up the valley from side to side, and had a pyramidal base, prolonged on the outer side in order to resist lateral pressure, was not only burst, but completely swept away. The action of the flood is visible immediately beyond it, high up on the sloping sides of the valley, tearing away the soil, and oven loosening huge stones from their beds near the surface. These, with the débris of the broken embankment, are now seen strewn in wild confusion down the dale, which looks exactly as if some great river had suddenly passed through it, and, having done all the mischief it could, as suddenly left its channel deserted. The first building which the rushing torrent met was the Bilberry-mill. Of course it all went except an end sheltered by the hill side. There you see a few remnants of machinery twisted and upset, and a fragment of the interior still preserved in connexion with the end wall. The valley expands a little beyond this point, and the great bulk of the liberated waters appeared to have passed on either side, leaving |Furness-mill and a house adjoining it seriously injured, but still standing. The mill suffered least, but the house had a narrow escape, and its bulging walls indicate with almost scientific accuracy the manner in which the mechanical force of water is exercised. Lower down, the valley again converges, and, as will be readily understood, of the two large Digley mills which stood at the narrowest point, not a vestige, except the chimney stacks, remains. Even the foundations cannot be distinguished, and the same complete destruction overtook nearly all the houses and cottages adjoining. The only thing that escaped the general wreck and retained its position was a small portion of the machinery, the open character of which presented no great resistance. The Roebuck-mill, which was the next property to Mrs. Hirst’s encountered by the flood, had all the exposed portion of it swept away. A part remains, and proves strikingly enough the furious strength which could snap a huge building asunder as a man snaps a biscuit. Here, as elsewhere, the visitor cannot avoid being struck by the height to which the flood rose before it gained the ascendancy. Indeed, there is much reason in this respect to believe that its progress down the valley was a simple repetition of what took place at the outset, that it was dammed up imperfectly at certain points for a moment ; accumulated till it acquired the necessary momentum, and then, carrying all before it, proceeded till it was again obstructed. The fact that persons who started from the embankment when it first gave way had time to reach Holmfirth on foot before the flood, seems to justify this view. Leaving Roebuck’s-mill, the track of the inundation widens, yet on every side are seen the evidences of destruction, — masonry and unhewn stones mingled together — roads overlaid with rubbish, or completely cut up by the rushing water ; bridges, either entirely destroyed or their parapets swept away, or a single arch left standing. Holmridge church and the graveyard adjoining it were swept ; and, though the building stood its ground, all the internal fittings have been more or loss injured. The seats and desks of the pews have a thick deposit of mud upon them. Hinchcliffe-mill and Bottom’s-mill resisted the flood, though invaded by it, and though much damage was caused in both. Here it was that a whole row of cottages was swept away and 35 lives lost. A little further down the valley may be soon a small portion of Mr. Sandford’s house, and, just beyond the influence of the flood, his mill, which has thus escaped the destruction that overtook him and his family.

The various other establishments that suffered present a greater or less amount of damage according to their position and degree of exposure when the waters burst upon them. Some have their windows smashed in up to the second story ; in other cases of low structures the torrent swept away the roof. The small reservoirs and mill-falls appear to have been a protection to some, an aggravation of the disaster to others. In nearly every instance these have been either injured or destroyed. Nearly all the mills had their boilers, which were in exposed situations, and not fixed down, swept away like corks. These carried along with the current must have greatly added to its destructive power. One of thorn lies right in the channel of the stream above a bridge in Holmfirth, and several appear to have travelled a surprising distance. The heavy timber floated along must have also done immense damage. Within the last few days great exertions have been used to recover all the property that was worth preserving, but the lamentable traces of the inundation are not removal, and lintels, window-frames, fragments of furniture, pieces of gearing, and many other objects bespeaking human use, all twisted and broken, lie intermingled with the general wreck. Where the valley contracts the damage caused is greatest, and the unfortunate village of Holmfirth suffered most, because to this source of mischief was added the obstructions offered by all the buildings in the low ground. Indeed the wonder is that every house there within reach of the flood, which seems frequently to have risen from 20 to 30 feet high, was not entirely demolished. The number of buildings swept away, the loss of life caused, the glimpses caught of interiors, the inmates of which have been carried off in the portions that gave way, the basement stories of dwellings still filled with mud and filth, enclosures and graveyards polluted ; open spaces filled with every description of rubbish ; a row of shops flooded, and the goods in them destroyed ; the parapets of bridges washed away ; the inhabitants assembled in little knots about the streets, or going timidly about the work of reparation, — all complete a picture of local misfortune as sad and afflicting as it is possible to imagine. The inundation at Holmfirth is described as not having lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes, in which brief space of time all the mischief was done. It is about two miles and a half from the reservoir, and very extensive damage has been inflicted on property down from that village to within a short distance of Huddersfield, though the evidences of it are not so marked and conspicuous. Two circumstances are worthy of notice as contrary to what might have been expected — comparatively few trees have been dislodged by the force of the flood, and several stacks of hay, more or less exposed to it, have retained their ground. The property recovered has been brought to the town-hall, and is, as may be supposed, of a very miscellaneous character. Among the more conspicuous articles has been a quantity of wool packs. It will be long, even with the most liberal aid from the benevolent, before this neighbourhood recovers from the shock which its industry has received, and perhaps the only consolatory reflection to the public with reference to so deplorable an event is, that the attention which it is so well calculated to excite will probably lead to the adoption of effectual precautions against any similar calamity elsewhere. The disaster occurred at a moment when the trade of this little valley was in a very prosperous state, and the reverse of fortune now falls upon it with double severity. The manufacture carried on is chiefly that in fancy trousering, and handloom weaving is a part of the system. Want of employment under such circumstances, therefore, for any considerable time, must entail great misery. The handloom-weaver cannot move about in search of work like the regular factory operative ; he is bound to the spot in which he lives, and must suffer patiently when from any cause his usual supply of work is curtailed.

Amid the destruction which has overtaken the district, its inhabitants are exerting themselves manfully in repairing, as far as possible, their losses. They have begun to restore the bridges, to clear the watercourses, and the roads, to collect in piles the scattered fragments of machinery and of wood, and even to attempt the restoration of the serious damage done to the mills.

A correspondence has passed between Sir George Grey and the magistrates, from which we gather that the Home-office intend to send some one down to the adjourned inquest on Wednesday next, and also that steps have been taken to place another reservoir, about the safety of which suspicions were entertained, in a state of security.