And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 10 December 2015


The Holmfirth disaster of 1944
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
H. G. Wells

During the last week of May 1944 an anticyclone developed over the south western Mediterranean, bringing cloudless skies and above average temperatures. Further north the system created an increase in humidity and storms developed over southern England. As the air currents were pushed northwards in a clockwise direction they brought with them a phenomenon known now as an atmospheric river, which expressed itself (for want of a better description) over the Holme Valley in Yorkshire. None of these events were especially unusual; the fog and drizzle that defines the English summer can be attributed to similar effects. In this case however the rains brought flash flooding to Yorkshire on Whit Monday, a public holiday. That was probably fortuitous. A lot of people would have travelled to nearby coastal resorts like Blackpool so missed the full impact. Three people were killed in the floods but the real damage was measured in the destruction of property, which was enormous.

 Holmfirth, a town on the edge of the Pennines better known today as the location for a quaint, rustic sitcom called The Last of the Summer Wine, received the brunt. These photographs were taken by Bray And Son, a photographic company set up in Holmfirth by Harry Bray after World War 1 and continued by his son, Trevor. They were published by the Bamforth Company. Neither Harry nor Trevor Bray considered themselves news photographers as such but realized they had to go out and document the destruction of the Whit Monday Floods, just as the Bamforth Company understood the importance of publishing them. Importantly however, the floods struck just a week before D-Day, when the British Government was heavily censoring all information concerning conditions inside Britain. Very little information on the floods was released at the time. These postcards would have been published months later, if not after the end of the war.   

What they tell us about then is not so important as what they say about today. This week storms struck the same area, and wider parts of central and northern Britain. So far another three people have also lost their lives and the damage is estimated in the hundreds of millions of pounds. The real difference is that when these floods struck in 1944 they were half expected as a once in a century event. Storm Desmond as the present catastrophe is called, should be understood as part of what has now become an annual cycle. But although it was seen on the horizon, so to speak, nothing much was done about that.

Despite the Government apparently being caught by surprise, events have unfolded along a predictable course. Firstly, defences against flooding prove inadequate. Reports emerge that standard procedures can’t be enacted because government funding to the responsible departments has been slashed. TV cameras zoom in on the faces of people who have lost everything. The army steps in. A Captain or Colonel tells reporters he can’t believe basic, sensible steps weren’t taken. In a few weeks official reports will, yet again, outline a woeful response by a careless administration. Next year the process will begin again. In 1944 the Government could present a case as to why it was not prepared for the Holme Valley floods, this being a time of war and an era when available technology could at best only suggest something might happen. Seventy one years later all such excuses are indefensible.

 These photographs aren’t just a reminder from the past of Britain’s future today.    During the war the chimes of Big Ben everyone heard on the BBC were recordings played to prevent the Germans from interpreting weather conditions: the more humid the atmosphere the more muffled the sound would have been. This was the level of sophistication the weather bureau was able to exercise. Today meteorologists can not only see atmospheric rivers developing, they can also reasonably predict how much water will be dumped and where. This raises the obvious question of why the British Government is always unprepared for weather disasters. Consistent failings defy common sense. Not to push the conspiracy argument too far, but you could be forgiven for thinking someone sees some kind of advantage in scenes like these.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting post - it reminds me of the photographs of the "Great Sheffield Flood" (11 March 1864)where the horrific aftermath was photographed by the appropriately named James Mudd.

    All the best, Alan


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