The Holme Valley has always been susceptible to flooding, with the earliest recorded flood dating back to 1738 in which severe rainstorms caused the River Holme to burst its banks and flood the valley. Luckily on that occasion damage was limited to farmland and no lives were lost.
But on 5th February 1852 the Holme Valley and indeed Holmfirth experienced the worst flood in its History.
The Bilberry reservoir was built in 1840 over a stream that had not been properly diverted, because of this the reservoir wall was weakened over the years. Following nearly a fortnight of storms and heavy rain, on 5th February 1852, the reservoir banks broke releasing 86 million gallons of water down the River Holme, down the Holme Valley and into Holmfirth.
The force of the water swetp away Mills, cottages, animals and people, even tearing up graves in the graveyard at Holmebridge.
In total the flood caused some 81 deaths, destroyed included four mills, ten dye houses, three drying stoves, 27 cottages, seven tradesmen’s houses, seven shops, seven bridges crossing the River Holme, ten warehouses, eight barns and stables.
An inquiry after the disaster concluded that the reservoir was “defective in its original construction” and that “the Commissioners, in permitting the Bilberry reservoir to remain in a dangerous state with the full knowledge thereof, and not lowering the waste pit, have been guilty of great and culpable negligence”.
Here are two eyewitness accounts from the floods of 1852 and 1944:
Holmfirth Flood of 1852 – Story 1
Once in 1852 Mrs Pots the waiter who worked in the elephant and castle was just going to sleep. But just as she closed her eyes she heard a big bang!!! She went to look and she couldn’t believe her eyes because the street was full of water. So she went to the kitchen table and broke the top off it and then the water gushed in through the window and she climbed on the table top and floated out the window. When the flood was over she went to the pub where she worked and it was wrecked, the walls, tables, every single thing and it took along time to repair the pub.
Holmfirth Flood of 1944 – Story 2
On Whit Monday May 29th 1944 after a hot, sunny afternoon a sudden storm with a violent cloudburst at about 6:30pm caused the Bilberry reservoir to burst its embankments again. It released even more water than in the 1852 flood and had a devastating effect along the Holme valley and into Holmfirth.
Some people were returning to their homes after the Whit Monday processions and singing in Victoria Park, others were in the local Valley Theatre when a flood warning flashed onto the screen.
Bridges were washed away, shops and other buildings were damaged or swept away. Thirteen factories were seriously damaged and 107 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Three people lost their lives.
The river in Holmfirth rose to a height of 18 feet.
Holmfirth Flood of 1944 – Story 3
On Thursday Sarah’s grandma came to visit us. She talked to us about the flood and she told us her story. She was in her house. Suddenly it started to rain very heavily. An old lady was having trouble getting out of the house. A boy named Geoffery Riley came out to her rescue. Geoffrey’s dad saw that he was having trouble and he went to help. Suddenly the rain stopped and they all got swept away. Geoffery’s dad and the old lady drowned but a man spotted Geoffery’s hand and threw a rubber pipe in to rescue him. He got awarded.
Holmfirth Flood Timeline 1738 – 1944:
1738: Heavy rain caused the River Holme to burst its banks causing flooding in the Holme Valley. Damage was limited to farmland and no lives were lost.
1777: The River Holme burst its banks again on Wednesday 21 July 1777 following more severe weather. A stone church built in 1476 was swept away and 3 people drowned in the flood. The following year money raised from local clothiers helped to rebuild the church.
1852: The Bilberry reservoir burst its banks due to severe weather and faults in the reservoirs wall. 81 people died in the flood with countless homes destroyed by the flood.
1944: On Whit Monday, 29 May 1944, a severe thunderstorm and flash floods caused the deaths of 3 people in the Holme Valley. Due to reporting restrictions in place because of World War II, it was not widely reported and was overshadowed by the invasion of Normandy a week later. This led to some confusion as to the exact cause of the flood but it was confirmed that Bilberry reservoir was not to blame. It was suggested that the reservoir prevented the flood from being more severe. German prisoners of war, housed in the area, assisted with the rescue of local residents and property. There was extensive damage to properties in the valley: 17 mills, 61 shops and 109 homes were flooded.