Deluge and Downpours

The Valley Under Water

By Issy Shannon

A thoroughly water-logged Mytholmroyd in 1954, when flash floods suddenly struck in August. Passengers in the stranded bus were given shelter in Mount Zion Church.Floods, often of awesome dimensions, have been a regular occurrence in the Calder Valley since time began. By the 19th century reports of these natural disasters were featuring in the local press. The first newspapers appeared in the Upper Valley around 1830, only too happy to give readers a good dollop of gloom, doom and devastation! And what could be better than the heavens unleashed?

Earliest reports were terse: one dated November 16 1830, simply noted “A great flood at Todmorden.” By coincidence, 36 years later on exactly the same date, the town was hit by an even more disastrous deluge, by which time press reports were a little more colourful and informative.

On December 22 1837 Hebden Bridge suffered “the highest flood recorded” when water levels reached a massive nine feet in places. Reported an observer: “The water was within half an inch of reaching the surgery of Mr John Thomas.” (This, presumably, was unusual). “The arches of the canal viaduct at Black Pit were unable to take the waters which consequently rose to the height of the canal and ultimately flowed over it.

The waters thus dammed back formed an immense lake out of which many of the houses stood up in a pitiable condition. It is said that someone passed in a boat from the canal over the walls of New Road to the White Horse Inn.

The 1830s were afflicted not only with floods but other natural disasters including a hurricane in January 1839 – “one of the most awful and destructive ever known to have occurred” - which was so ferocious it brought a Todmorden mill chimney crashing down, demolishing a workshop nearby, and uprooting trees. “Every description of building was injured by the devastating storm.”

Early in 1831 the walls in the lane leading to Christ Church were washed away in a deluge and on November 29 1834 a “great flood did considerable damage in Todmorden and neighbourhood.”

Relative calm ensued until August 1855 when Todmorden suffered a “severe and lengthy thunderstorm” during which “vivid flashes of lightning were quickly succeeded by loud claps of thunder.” Around 5pm “the rain poured down in torrents filling the different brooks which wind their way through the valley.” Terrifyingly, a 15-yard high “wall of water” then rushed down the turnpike road, inundating homes and properties including the National School. “The meadows in the neighbourhood presented the appearance of a vast lake.”

Flooding on Burnley Road, Todmorden 1916. The building on the extreme left, formerly the Freemason's Arms, was known as the 'red house', and is now apartments. The next 2 buildings have since been demolished, the next is now a cafe known as No 72 Burnley Road. 1916As if that wasn’t bad enough two months later, on October 26, “Todmorden was visited by one of the largest floods within the recollection of the oldest inhabitants.” A wall opposite Wadsworth Mill came crashing down and the overflowing Calder turned Burnley Road into a river. Hebden Bridge escaped relatively lightly but at Mytholm “the water rose to the exact height as during the flood of 1837.” Green’s Mill, Portsmouth, suffered serious damage in the torrential downpour and a joiner’s shop at Gauxholme was “swum away.”

A child drowned on August 6 1857 in the swollen River Hebden followed a week later by a “considerable rise” in the River Calder resulting in “great damage” in Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. Two years later, on August 7 1859, another catastrophic rise in the Calder caused devastation in Hebden Bridge when the river rose “ a foot in less than ten minutes,” turning open ground from Salem Mill to the White Horse Hotel into a vast lake.

The same floods also wrought havoc in the Cheapside, Pavement and Salford areas of Todmorden – “nearly covering the looms in Mr Chambers’ mill;” on November 6 the following year there was “notable flooding in the town and below,” heralding a decade in which it never seemed to stop raining.

A year later, on September 8 1861, the whole of the Upper Valley suffered “one of the greatest floods ever experienced” and there was further flooding in 1869 – but worse was yet to come. In July 1870 three people lost their lives when Burnley

Valley and areas as far afield as Bacup were inundated. This was generally accounted the worst flood of the century. Cobden was singled out five years later – “visited by one of those floods which are of frequent occurrence in that locality,” according to the Todmorden and Hebden Bridge Historical Almanack, noting that on December 8 1874 “some of the dwellings were flooded to a depth of from 4 or 5 feet.”

King Street, Mytholm. In the 1930's floods were almost an annual occurrence. The houses, left, were eventually knocked down.

Flooding continued to plague the Upper Calder Valley throughout the closing years of the 19th century – on July 15 1877 “dangerously high” floods spread from Blind Lane down through Roomfield and Sandholme to the centre of Todmorden, filling basements rooms. “The area over which the water spread was probably wider than in any known flood in Todmorden.” In October of that year unlucky Cobden residents remained under water for nine days. A “very heavy thunderstorm” was recorded on May 17 1879, but not, apparently, followed by the dreaded floods. These struck 18 months later, however, in December 1880, when “serious flooding” was reported in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd: the Hole in the Wall, Hebden Bridge, was inundated to a depth of four feet and the Dusty Miller, Mytholmroyd, to 3ft 8ins – “only eight inches lower than the great flood of 1837,” it was noted. A month later, on January 1 1881, heavy rains caused a landslip on the hillside above the railway line between Todmorden and Dobroyd.

The twentieth century started with heavy snowfalls and blizzards after which 1901 wilted in sizzling summer temperatures up to 90F. As the heat soared and drought gripped the district, people prayed for rain. They got it, in bucket loads, in November. Folk waited a further 19 years for the next really serious floods which arrived with a vengeance on February 10 1920.  In the meantime the weather continued to play nasty tricks: the first three weeks in May 1903 were the coldest on record since 1841 and exceptionally heavy snowfalls in January 1919 caused havoc in Todmorden, virtually cutting the town off.

A year later the whole of the Calder Valley suffered when the heavens opened so suddenly people were taken completely unawares. Hillside streams turned into raging torrents and low-lying land from Luddenden Foot to Todmorden was inundated. The water subsided as quickly as it had risen and a massive mopping-up operation began: it was noted that the Calder appeared to be subject to serious flooding every 10 years or so.

Mytholmroyd got the worst of it in the 1920s, floods occurring in 1922, `23 and again in 1928; the decade ended with a drought in 1929.The next serious onslaught occurred in 1935, a year that went down as one of the most freakish on record. March was the warmest for 124 years, there were keen frosts in May and June – and after a November in which temperatures topped 70 and 71oF, December was the coldest since 1929. On top of all this floods in August wrought havoc, especially in Todmorden.

The floods of 1946 were generally regarded as the worst of the 20th century. Shown is the centre of Mytholmroyd beside the river where a wagon got trapped leaving the driver stranded trying to get onto the roof.

What were generally agreed to be the worst floods in living memory, however, occurred in 1946 when entire districts were cut off after torrential rains struck out of the blue in September. The massive surge of water which then thundered down the valley swamped hundreds of properties, leaving widespread destruction in its wake.

Since then floods have struck with depressing regularity, most recently in 2000 when hundreds of homes and businesses were devastated in the sudden June downpour. The flood defences now set in place appear to have tamed the mighty River Calder and its tributaries but, as the climate pundits warn; global warming could well pose the next threat to our verdant valley.

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a Pennine Heritage Publication