George Hirst's account of his life and of the Holmfirth Flood

George Hirst's Story

In 1915, George Hirst the author of the Red Memo Book was interviewed by the Huddersfield Examiner and gave an account of his experiences as an eye witness to the disaster, and of his own life history. It was published on Saturday 6th February 1915. The following text is a transcript of the complete article:

February 5th, 1852, is a date which will be long remembered in the Holme Valley, for it was on the early morning of that day that the pent-up Waters in the ill-fated Bilberry reservoir swept away the embankment and carried ruin and disaster to the sleeping inhabitants in the valley below! Sixty-three years have elapsed since then, and those who witnessed the pitiful scenes caused by the flood are now comparatively few in number. Of those eyewitnesses who survived  few can tell a more vivid story than Mr George Hirst, of Holmebridge, whose portrait we give.
Mr. Hirst was born in 1833 at Digley, in the township of Holme, within a short distance of the Bilberry reservoir. At the time of the flood be was an active young man of 19, and today, despite his 82 years, he thinks lightly of a day's trudge of 20 to 30 miles. The events connected with the flood had such a bearing upon the fortunes of his family that they were indelibly imprinted upon his memory, and in the course of a short interview with our representative he easily called to mind the circumstances.
Mr Hirst's family lived in the Digley Valley. It is interesting to note that his sister married the Rev. T. W. Holmes of Sheffield, the veteran Congregational minister, whose early pastorates were at Holmfirth, when he was pastor of the United Methodist Free Church, and Marsden. The Digley Mill estate was bought by Mr Hirst's grandfather, from Mr. Joshua Wimpenny, of Arunden, the father of the late Mr. Samuel Wimpenny, and after putting up a smaller mill they built a larger factory that was swept away by the flood, leaving the tall chimney standing erect in the midst of the ruins. Thousands of visitors have been drawn to notice this chimney during the past half century, because of the tree or shrub that grows on its summit.
Higher up the valley was the Digley Bridge mill, and at the foot of the reservoir bank was Lumb Bank mill (or Bilberry mill, as it is sometimes called).
At the time of the flood Bilberry mill was owned by Mr. John Whiteley, of Green Alders, and Mr. John Broadhead, of White Walls. A Mr. Roebuck, of Bank End, rented the fulling mill. Mr. Chas. Battye was the fulling miller, and with his nephew, Mr Jas. Brook (who died only recently) had a lucky escape. They were attempting to carry away loads of provisions on their backs to a point of safety, when the on-rushing water made them discard their loads and run for their lives.
Mr. Hirst states that, long before the flood, people had their suspicions about the safety of Bilberry reservoir. When the reservoir was constructed it was said the embankment sank in the middle. Mr. Hirst well remembers that his father often went up to the reservoir whenever there was a "fresh" on.  
On the day before the flood Mr. Hirst said that he himself went up several times to look at the reservoir embankment, and by 6 p.m. on February 4th he heard that it was "damming up".
The Hirsts' homestead was near their mill in the Digley valley, and on that fateful night the family did not go to bed. Mrs. Hirst, sen., was taken to the house at Bank Top occupied by Mr. James Green, brother of the late Mr. Anthony Green, of Scholecroft. Mr Uriah Tinker had also a presentiment of the coming disaster, as he advised young George Hirst to remove their five cows and one horse to a place of safety. Mr. Hirst says he was in the act of carrying out that advice when he saw the flood coming down the narrow valley with tremendous force, and he at once ran up Sykes's Brow on the Austonley side of the valley. Says Mr. Hirst: "As I was standing there I saw the water damming round our houses; I saw our mill go down, leaving the chimney undamaged. Never shall I forget it."
Mr. Hirst said that all their family escaped the disaster. His sister (Mrs. Holmes) and a grandson had gone away to Mr Jonas Roebuck's at Spring Grove. Another sister (Mrs Hy. Beardsell) had gone to Hoowood. Seven houses went down with the mill, beside the laithe and the stabling, which was amongst the finest in the graveship of Holme. Mr Hirst's neighbours were also saved; one man, John Wood, afflicted with rheumatism, was helped out just in the nick of time. Mr. Hirst's father had died in the previous March and the trustees were carrying on the business at the time of the flood.
"After the waters had flowed on" continued Mr. Hirst, "I went on Bank Top and there met John Cuttell and Joseph Greaves. I went and saw my mother at James Green's, and she knew that the mill had gone. There was a big open space, just like a dock after the ship had taken the water. I went as far as Bottoms with Joseph Whiteley and Joshua Charlesworth, and we there saw Jas. Mettrick, who had got out of the water at Bottom's Mill dam. Mr. Mettrick lived a long time after his lucky escape, which was effected through his getting on a floating beam.
At Lockwood's mill we met Jonathan Midgley and Charles Cromack, who said that the houses in Hollowgate, Holmfirth, had gone down. I then returned to Hinchliff Mill, but had no home to go to. At Hinchliff Mill bridge the battlement had gone down, and the space between the teasing room and the mill was blocked up with timber. I went to Mr. John Roebuck's (my adopted father), and found that his slubbers were cleaning out the sludge.
"Next morning I had breakfast at the house of my uncle, Mr George Barber, who lived on the right hand side of Hinchliffe mill. I had been to Digley to see what I could save from our ruins. We recovered a lot of lead, and some pieces of cloth. On the Saturday afternoon I went to see the ruins in Holmfirth, and found there were crowds of people. On Sunday also the town was crowded with visitors. I never saw a dead body, as they had all been removed to the public-houses. A big mill boiler had been brought down by the flood, and had settled itself in Hollowgate. All the three of our mill boilers had been left by the flood opposite Pogson's foundry at Bottoms. We afterwards sold two for old iron, and the third was bought by Mr. Hinchliff, who then worked Washpit Mill."
Mr. Hirst, proceeding, stated that he apprenticed himself to Mr. John Roebuck, scribbling engineer, but Mr Roebuck died in July of the flood year. He then went to Mr. John Tinker, who was engineer for Mr. Joseph Hirst, at Wilshaw Mill. Afterwards he went to work for Messrs. Barber at Holmebridge Mill. After the flood it would appear that Mr. Hirst found a difficulty in settling down, as in 1857 he emigrated to Australia, where he worked at a saw-pit, and became a "jack-of-all-trades. He returned to England, and in those days the voyage each way occupied three months. He again emigrated to the Antipodes, and remained there seventeen years before his return to Holmebridge.
On returning home this time he was impressed with the great changes that had been wrought in the lives of the people. In the olden times the "manufacturers", or clothiers, used to think nothing of walking from Holmebridge to Holmfirth, or to Huddersfield. He found that whilst he had been away they had begun to ride instead of walking. He recalls the time when twenty-four manufacturers from above used to cross Holmebridge on the way to their markets. Some of them used to carry their pieces to Huddersfield, and before the Cloth Hall was built they used to go to Kirkgate, and throw their pieces over the churchyard wall and so expose them for sale.

One of the elders of the Beardsell family at Holme was known to some as "London Jimmy", because he used to sell his pieces of cloth in London, where the Beardsells were noted for selling a good article. In those days the staple lines in cloth were kerseys, drab and black doe-skins, sometimes a little check of black and white, but nearly all plains.
Mr. Hirst has attended the chief meetings of the Unionist party in the Holme Valley, and he keeps up his record in that respect. He states that in 1841, though he was but a boy of eight, he took a great interest in the election of two members for the South West Riding. He states that the Conservative candidates were Messrs. Wortley and Dennison, and the Liberals brought out Lord Morpeth and Lord Milton.
The Conservative candidates addressed the Holmfirth electors from the window of the White Hart Inn.  Mrs. John Roebuck had given the boy George Hirst a bunch of blue ribbons, which he was proudly wearing. A procession of Holmfirth Conservatives was formed near the Green Dragon Inn (now the Friendship Inn), and Mr. Joe Tinker, of White Wells, who was on horseback, pulled up on to the horse the youthful Hirst. The candidate's vehicle, with its outriders, led the way up Greenfield Road, and at Sand Bed, on the way, Messrs. Wortley and Dennison observed the boy Hirst on Mr. Tinker's horse and they took him into their carriage and gave him a well remembered ride as far as the Isle of Skye. Mr. Hirst said that his father went all the way with the candidates to  Saddleworth.
Mr. Hirst's concluding word was that many of the old families are not now actively interested in the Holme Valley manufacturing firms. The Charlesworths, the Hobsons, the Farrars, the Hinchliffes (formerly of Washpit and Newfold mills), the Harpins, the Greens, and the Beardsells are gone; but there are still the Butterworths, the Robertses, the Barbers and the Tinkers - all typical Holme Valley names.

My thanks to Mrs Kathleen Bell of Marsh, Huddersfield, for supplying the photo of George Hirst