Extracted from “It’s Water under the Bridge”
by Molly E. Sunderland
FRIDAY 20TH SEPTEMBER 1946
The year after World War II saw people all over the country trying to get back to leading a normal life after the many difficulties and traumas of the previous six years but for the people of the Calder Valley peacetime was to be interrupted by yet another event over which they had no control. On the morning of Friday the 20th September 1946, incessant rain flooded the small village of Mytholmroyd, creating havoc and upset for the shopkeepers and householders of this small community. Mytholmroyd had been flooded before and will no doubt be flooded again due to the low lying land but this was the worst flood in living memory and for many people this flood was nothing less than a calamity. Several feet of filthy water invaded shops and houses alike damaging and ruining possessions and in some cases causing heavy losses. Places that had never before been flooded were under water, a total of 425 properties being affected in the Mytholmroyd district alone.
The locality adjoining the river in Mytholmroyd was deeply submerged, and nearly twelve hours passed before the water went away. For about eleven hours the main road through the village was impassable. The water overflowed upstream of Caldene Bridge and rushed down the road like a raging torrent, re-entering the river opposite Midgley Road. The river rose so swiftly that shopkeepers and householders had very little time to get their goods and furniture out of harm's way. There was water in the roadway in the early morning and although the early buses managed to get through, by eight o'clock it was three feet deep and continued to rise until it reached a depth of six or seven feet. Not only was the main road filled, but the land and streets on both sides of the river. Viewed from the hillsides, the district had the appearance of a lake extending from Hawksclough to Brearley.
BRAVE RESCUE BY POLICE
Personal experiences were many, some known only to those who took part in them. One, however, was witnessed by all who were watching the floodwater in the main road - a courageous rescue by the local police of a lorry driver and his mate from their vehicle which had stopped opposite Clough Mill at the bottom of Midgley Road. Wm. Burrill, Ltd, Haulage Contractors of Bradford, owned the vehicle and the driver J. T. Burrill and his mate J. Boyd remained on the lorry after it had stopped, eventually having to climb on to the top of it as the water rose and started to enter the cab.
Police Sergeant Cooper and PC McCollum from the local constabulary decided to try to rescue them. A raft was made out of an old door and some pieces of wood, which was then paddled out of Midgley Road into the main road, but it began to sink. They then noticed a motorcar trailer floating in the water, the balloon tyres making it buoyant so they decided to tie the raft to the trailer and make a second rescue attempt. The sergeant was on the raft and the constable pushed it along at the side, having to paddle and swim. In the main road they entered a strong current of water and P.C.McCollum found that he was unable to touch the bottom, as there was now about seven feet of water beneath him. The raft began to sink again but the police officers struggled on managing to wedge it between the wall and a telegraph pole.
The lorry driver and his mate, assisted by the police sergeant were then able to step on to the raft and get on to the windowsill of the office of Watson's Mill, where in the weaving shed water was up to the height of the looms. P.C. McCollum climbed through the window of the engine-house and waded through a few feet of water to get a rope with which to haul the sergeant and the other men through the window. The rescue called for initiative and courage, as there was the risk of being carried away by the strong current.
The mill referred to was demolished in the 1960s; Midgley Road was widened and the Home Furnishing showroom, which trades under the name of Russell Dean now stands on the site where Clough Mill once stood.
Mr & Mrs Milton Sunderland lived at 9 Burnley Road and owned Sunderland's Confectioners shop now known as Waites. There were three steps at the entrance to the shop and Clive, the Sunderland's eldest son recalls that the water soon rose above this level and at the same time was also entering their living quarters which were at the rear of the building. In these living quarters he and his father, Milton, placed their settee on top of the sideboard but the water rose so rapidly that they had to raise it higher by placing lib loaf tins underneath the feet until the top of the settee touched the ceiling. Even then, the water lapped the bottom of the settee and completely covered the sideboard. Clive being only 13 years old was chest high in water. Incidentally, this same sideboard, still in use today, is in excellent condition despite its complete submersion in floodwater no less than three times!
Clive's mother, Mrs Ellen Sunderland and her younger son Max, aged nine at the time of the 1946 flood were upstairs watching the events from a window that overlooked the main Burnley Road and the river Calder. Max recalls that as soon as the flood reached the main road everything had to be cleared from his parents' shop. He remembers helping to carry tins of biscuits, sweets and other consumables to the safety of the upstairs rooms. The shop till however, being the old-fashioned ornate type made of brass, was too heavy to move so inevitably filled with water when the flood level rose above the shop counter. In the downstairs living quarters, carpets were lifted, drawers were removed from the sideboard and piled high with food from the cupboards and these too were carried to a higher level. One image that has remained with Max is the sight of coal and ashes from the living room fireplace floating about in murky water.
But perhaps the most vivid image that remains in Max Sunderland's memory is the sound of a huge "cracking " noise as two wooden shops on the opposite side of the road which were built on stilts over the river, were completely washed away. He remembers being very frightened and recalls asking his mother if the flood was going to wash their house away next.
Later in the day this bridge gave way and at the same time took away the side of the engine-house of the mill. A wall two storeys high fell down, and the floor above collapsed. The Company also sustained enormous damage in the works.
The flooding in Mytholmroyd was by no means confined to the main road. It caused great damage and inconvenience in many other parts.
The floor of St. Michael's Church, the lower rooms of the Church Institute and the Sunday School were under water, and after it had gone away it was seen that chairs and tables had been floating. The graveyard was flooded to a great depth and soil was washed out of the top of the graves to a depth of several inches. All the surrounding land was under water, including that of the Institute Bowling Green, and houses in Church Lane and Dale View were badly affected.
The Elphin Brook rose to an extraordinary height - to the level of the new footbridge at the rear of The Shoulder of Mutton Hotel. The water rushed into New Road and the surrounding district and also into houses and shops in great depth.
Mrs Barbara Dean with her family lived in a small stone cottage on New Road opposite to the Shoulder of Mutton. She related the story of how the water rose quickly, covering the stepping-stones in the Elphin Brook and then rapidly filling the roadway near to where she lived. The pressure of the water forced itself in at one door washed its way through the house at ground floor level before forcing its way through another door, taking ornaments and anything else in its pathway with it. Barbara remembers being very frightened and recalls that when the water subsided it horrified her to see dead hens lying in the road. These had floated across from where Elphaborough Close is now situated but where the hen cabins of Thornber Brothers were sited then.
Barbara also recalls that there were "the gawpers " as she put it, and she could never understand why they didn't offer a helping hand to clear up the mess that had ruined their home - the slimy, smelly grime, half way up the walls in the downstairs rooms, which was the trademark of the subsided floodwater.
She remembered that one of "the gawpers " was the wife of a Councillor who lived at Stocks Gardens and who nonchalantly commented that it was only an "Act of God", a remark which didn’t t go down too well with Barbara's mother at a time when she was surveying the devastation of her proudly kept home, coming to terms with the loss of some of her own and her family's personal possessions and envisaging the vast amount of hard work required to clean up the "stinking mess " in order to try and get back to some form of normality as soon as possible!
The report went on to say that the houses at Elphaborough Hall were isolated as well as flooded and it was not possible to get to the occupants until evening. Clarice Knowles who lived at Elphaborough Hall remembers this day only too well. The family had only been in residence for six weeks, the house being newly decorated throughout just before they moved in.
Clarice recalls that it was raining heavily as her husband Denis left for work that morning and soon afterwards she noticed that the water was coming up through the drains in the field that surrounded Elphaborough Hall. It then encroached, quite quickly and unexpectedly, on to the path surrounding the building. She said that Denis must have been alerted because he returned home, along with other employees of Thornber Bros, and they carried furniture and anything else that they could to a higher level.
One of Clarice's vivid memories is of the door bursting open and the water raging in, eventually rising to 4 feet deep all through the downstairs living quarters and being level with the top of the fireplace.
She also recalls that it was so cold that she and daughter Christine had to get into bed to keep warm. All they had to eat during the day were the buns that she had baked the previous evening in readiness for the party!
During the early part of the evening when the water had abated it was obvious that they could not remain in their home. Denis's mother lived on Caldene Avenue so they prepared themselves to go to stay with her but the only way to get there was via the railway embankment. Denis carried daughter Christine on his back and Clarice followed in close proximity slipping and sliding as they went. They climbed up on to the embankment, walked alongside the railway lines and made their way to the safety of his mother's home, where the three of them remained until their own house was habitable once more.
Clarice said that on the following morning it was so sad to see a lot of their damaged possessions and household items piled up in the mud outside their home - it looked like a slum. The firemen however, were on hand to pump out Elphaborough Hall and with the help of Clarice's two brothers who managed to obtain leave from the R.A.F. the clearing up was done and they eventually moved back in. The walls had been hosed down to get rid of the filth but being very thick they took months to dry out - no central heating of course, but the Knowles' were issued with extra coal which was still rationed then. From early October - when they returned home - until December, Clarice recalls that they had to use the upstairs as their living quarters but they were determined to have a downstairs room ready in which to enjoy the Christmas festivities - and this they did!
Lower down the road at Hawksclough there was water in the houses varying from a few inches to two feet. The water went down the main road as far as Calder Terrace. All the dwellings at White Houses had water in their lower rooms. The cornfield opposite was completely ruined, stacks of corn being washed away. The schoolyard in Burnley Road had the appearance of a cornfield on Friday night. The yard wall was partly felled. Water inside the school was over a foot deep, and it has not been possible to re-open this week. Westfield Mill was flooded, and Messrs. Roberts' garage was surrounded by water. The river wall collapsed in a few places between White Houses and Caldene Bridge, there being gaps several yards wide. On the opposite bank of the river the gardens in front of the houses in Calder Grove were in a state of devastation, as was the War Memorial Garden.
AFTERMATH - A TRAGIC SIGHT
The Salvation Army came into Mytholmroyd with a travelling canteen, and supplied tea and cakes to people who were working day and night cleaning their premises.
Despite the efforts to bring things back to normal, the damage to property was extensive. The houses at Pall Mall at the bottom of Pismire Hill next to The White Lion were particularly badly affected. Pall Mall consisted of twenty-six cottages and these were built in 1796. When first built they bore the name of "New Houses". They were demolished in late 1946, possibly as a result of the flood damage, and the site is now occupied by The White Lion car park.
The Hebden Bridge Times reported "So far as Mytholmroyd is concerned it is impossible to give a full description of the scenes during the day and the great losses involved. When the water was at its highest point the main road was covered from White Houses to the bottom of Pismire Hill. The depth may be judged by the fact that the top of the telephone kiosk outside the Post Office was only just visible. None of the houses on either side of the road escaped, and in some the water rose to five or six feet. So suddenly did the river water enter that it was quite impossible to clear away the stocks and furniture and the losses of tradesmen and householders along Burnley Road alone must amount to thousands of pounds."
The report carried on by saying "A tour of the Mytholmroyd district on Friday night revealed a tragic scene. Pitiable as it was to see people in other districts coping with the disagreeable task of clearing the filth, emptying cupboards and drawers of dirty water, and setting out articles to dry, their plight was not comparable to that of the Mytholmroyd people. In the majority of cases relatives and friends gave welcome help. Every shop and house along both sides of Burnley Road was in a state of ruin. Many residents worked all night cleaning their premises and furnishings, and even on Saturday morning the work was not finished. It will be some time before everything looks neat and tidy again.
Some householders and shopkeepers piled up their furniture and goods outside while they mopped and cleaned their floors. Inside the rooms could be seen the "tidemarks" on wallpaper and paintwork, showing that the rooms had been flooded to varying depths, some up to 6ft. Foodstuffs were ruined as well as fittings, carpets, and furniture. The pressure of the flood broke the windows of three or four shops.
In New Road there were similar scenes, though not all the houses and shops were as badly affected as those in Burnley Road. In some cases the electricity supply failed, and this made matters worse, for as darkness came the occupiers of these premises had to use candles.
A visit to St. Michael's Church found the Rev. E. Price, Vicar, and a band of helpers "swilling" out the rubbish. It was impossible, however, to get the church ready for Sunday's services, and the harvest festival had to be postponed.
In the daylight on Saturday one saw more clearly the damage. All the roads and streets, which had been flooded, were covered with a thick layer of mud and slime, showing what the residents had had to contend with in their shops and houses. Some of the shopkeepers attempted to do business, and one fruiterer sold his goods from a cart in front of his shop."
© Molly E. Sunderland 2003 to present, Reprinted with permission