West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History






Pontefract had its full share of the heavy downpour which began yesterday evening week end with almost negligible fine periods, continued until Sunday morning, during which period there was nearly three inches of rain – a fall in 20 hours of much more than is normal in 20 or 30 days.

The fact that Pontefract stands mostly on hilly ground naturally proved to be an incalculable advantage, for although the flooding which occurred within the Borough was in truth of sufficient severity, when considered in comparison with that which occurred in other towns not very distant, one cannot but be left with feelings of profound thankfulness. The floods were at their height in the earlier hours of Sunday, but subsided rapidly during the morning.

As may well be imagined, by far the greater part of the town was immune from flooding, and it was pleasing to find that at Town End, where on other occasions heavy rains have caused cellars to be flooded to a depth of several feet (notably the cellar of the Robin Hood Inn), the improvements which have within recent years been carried out by the Town Council, had the good effect of preventing any appreciable accumulation of water.

In the Friarwood, Old Church and Skinner Lane districts of the town, however, flooding occurred of a severity without precedent in living memory.

The most serious damage was probably that at the liquorice factory of Messrs. Ewbank, Ltd., Friarwood, where the water surged to a depth of from one to two feet, the beck near the works being hopelessly overfilled. Hundred’s of sacks of sugar were affected by the muddy water, and stocks of liquorice confectionery were spoiled, along with thousands of empty cardboard boxes; and a slimy deposit, half an inch thick, was left everywhere the water reached. The damaged materials were made quite unfit for use and have had to be consigned to the firm’s boiler fires.

Similarly serious was the damage which occurred in the Old Church district. The beck which runs from Friarwood, past Baghill Station, and alongside the playing field of the Baghill Boys’ School, is turned into a very old culvert to pass beneath Baghill Lane and out into Mr. E. Smith’s orchard on the other side, and the culvert was totally inadequate to deal with the tremendous rush of water. The result was that the very low-lying field alongside which it runs, and beside which the Boys’ School is situated, became flooded until it resembled a lake, which was probably 10 or 12 feet deep near the road. The water mounted the school walls to a depth of three or four feet, and flooded to a similar depth the adjacent malt kiln belonging to Messrs. Robinson. Children could not attend the school until Wednesday morning and in the kiln many tons of malt were spoilt and the boiler fires extinguished. Between the malt kiln and Baghill Lane, the field is bordered by a stone wall about eighteen inches thick, topped by iron railings, and the pressure of water about it became so great and the foundations of the wall so softened, that the wall was overturned for about thirty yards.


The restriction imposed upon the flow of water by the very narrow culvert under Baghill Lane at first helped in a considerable degree to modify the flooding in the properties adjoining the lower levels of the watercourse, but this state of affairs did not last long, for soon the water had filled entirely the space above the dam formed by the Baghill Lane embankment and, overflowing at the gateway, rushed in a torrent into South Baileygate and down the hill.

About eight o’clock, however, the water was found to be trickling through the earth of the Baghill Lane embankment, where it was subsequently discovered that there had been a collapse of the roof of the culvert under the road, which now appears to have been subjected for years to an entirely unsuspected scouring of its foundations. The new breach was soon very much enlarged, with the consequence that the water dammed up in the school field, was very quickly released, resulting in a fresh surge in the gardens and houses nearer the Old Church.

The first orchard and property to suffer was that belonging to Mr. E. Smith, of Baghill Lane, on the side of the road just opposite to the flooded field. The scene was almost unbelievable, and MR. Smith states that in half a century, he has never seen anything like it. Heavy boulders much more than a man or perhaps two men, could life and scores of smaller ones were washed from the culvert for several yards into the orchard. The water level then mounted rapidly, for although at about 4-30 on Sunday morning everything seemed to be safe, a few hours later the whole orchard and garden was submerged by water varying in depth from two to about six feet. Almost all Mr. Smith’s garden produce was swept away, and at the eastern end, barrels were carried over a hedge nearly six feet high. Mr. Smith had to remove his car from his garage, and had then to endeavour to save his poultry, of which he had 45. Twenty-five chickens perished in the water, but he succeeded in saving the remainder by wading nearly waist deep. One shed, containing 31 bantams, began to float, but fortunately was kept upright by the surrounding wire netting.

The houses further up the lane, occupied by Messrs. R. Birkby and H. Higgins, had their cellars flooded to a depth of about two feet. Mrs Higgins states that during the quarter-century she has lived in that house she has never before known the cellar to be flooded.


Between the bottom of Baghill Lane and the C.W.S. Skinyard, several properties suffered extensively. At Messrs. Pickersgill’s brewery, the water surged into the back of the premises and floated loose several of the sleepers with which the brewery yard is paved and washed them nearly to the main gates opening on to the street, whilst barrels were set floating about the yard. The water also extended to the boilers, but was not of sufficient depth to reach the fires.

Between Messrs. Pickersgills’ brewery and the skinyard, the property bordering South Baileygate and Waddington’s Yard suffered badly. Here the muddy malodorous torrent caused havoc. At 5-40 on Sunday morning one of the residents, Mr. M. H. Groom, awakened to find that his poultry in the orchard at the rear were in dire danger of being drowned. Water was everywhere to a depth of between two and three feet, and hen coops and chicken runs were floating about, with their occupants struggling desperately to save themselves. Mr. Groom lost twenty February-hatched chickens but succeeded in saving twenty-three others and fifteen older birds. In conversation with an Advertiser reporter, Mr. Groom ruefully remarked that he had not had any luck since he “came here”, adding that at Christmas his chicken houses were raided and thirty-five head of poultry stolen. In the same orchard, Mr. Birkby, of Baghill Lane, had a sow with a litter of eight young ones nine weeks old, and Mr. Groom also helped to remove these to safety, the animals being housed temporarily in a wash house. Mr. Birkby’s hay and bran was saturated. By 9-30am the pressure of water in the orchard was so great that it swept away the two heavy gates at the entrance and carried one of them out on to the Knottingley Road and down to the bottom of Box Lane, more than a hundred yards away. In the rush of water, Mr. Groom had about a dozen coops and many chicken runs washed away, and all of them had not been recovered two or three days later.

Parallel with the entrance to Waddingtons’ Yard are four houses having only one entrance each, and in these the water, being unable to drain away, reached a depth of three or four feet, the occupants being marooned in the upper storey. Downstairs the lighter furniture and rugs were floating about, and most of the provisions in the pantries were ruined. Rugs and linoleum were also spoiled, although perhaps what was most perturbing to the tenants was the fact that the dirty water had a distinctly unpleasant stench; and was seen to have flowed through the adjacent ash-middens and similar places. Also flooded were other houses bordering South Baileygate, but not to such an extent as the four previously mentioned.


From Old Church to Bubwith House, a distance of about half a mile, the road was impassable, and for a considerable period traffic had to be diverted via Nevison’s Leap.

On the side of the road opposite to the Skinyard is the Robson Playing Field, and the beck, which runs along the low side of this, also overflowed its banks and flooded the lower part of the field, the disposition of the ground and culvert being very similar to that in the School playing field.  Fortunately here, as everywhere else locally, the water subsided almost as quickly as it had risen, and on Monday morning there was no interference with the unemployment relief work which is proceeding on the Robson Playing Field.


So far as householders were concerned, however, the worst sufferers were the occupants of Prince of Wales Terrace. Here the houses were flooded several feet deep, and many of the people living in them were marooned, some being confined in the upper storey until the water level was lowered by the Pontefract Fire Brigade operating their motor appliance. Pumping at the rate of 9,000 gallons an hour, the Brigade worked from half an hour after noon until 10 pm., lifting the water into a beck on land on the opposite side of the road, and thus hastening it on its journey down to the Robson Field and Knottingley Road.

Pontefract Park Lake presented a rare sight, for at what is commonly called “the deep end” the water overflowed the full width of the surrounding path and lapped against the grass verge, whilst it also came over the top between the overflow and the “deep end”. The unusually high level of the water could well be gauged from the overflow, down which the surplus water formed such a cascade that the drain was unable to cope with more than a fraction of it, and thousands of gallons poured across the already sodden Park to the beck alongside the Leeds Road.

Large stretches of the Park were little better than marshes, and about a third of the Little Park itself was inundated.

Away from the town itself the lanes were flooded, and Monument Lane, running from the top of Swanhill Lane, Carleton, to Baghill, which is now much used in consequence of its convenience to residents of Willow Park and Harewood Park, was flooded up to three feet deep between the Isolation Hospital and Moverley Flatts Farm.

Floods in other districts were responsible for slight disorganisation of rail traffic running through Baghill Station. On Sunday, trains which normally travel through Pontefract to Sheffield and the south, were diverted via Selby and Doncaster, owing to flooding at Wath; and on Monday and Tuesday, trains from the south were diverted via Sheffield and Pontefract, because of flooding at Doncaster. On Monday morning the 8-53 from Sheffield succeeded in ploughing its way through, but it was 9-30am before it steamed into Baghill Station, well soaked.


Flooding also occurred at Purston, where the cellars of the Travellers’ Hotel contained about six or seven feet of water; and at Featherstone, where a beck which runs into the Little Went, inundated nearby allotments up to a depth of nine feet and caused the deaths of many poultry. The lower rooms of many houses also had water flowing into them, and at the bottom of Station Lane the water covered the Wakefield to Pontefract Road to a depth of more than a foot – as it did the main road at Whitwood.

The most serious single piece of local damage is probably at Smeaton, where the stone road bridge over the Went on the direct route from Little Smeaton to Norton and Askern was partly washed away during Sunday, although it was still possible to reach either Little Smeaton or its neighbour, Kirk Smeaton, by other routes. The footbridge alongside the ford between Kirk Smeaton and Little Smeaton was well under water; the ford being probably 6 feet or more deep, compared with its usual six inches or so. In nearby Wentbridge, the Great North Road, close to the bridge, was covered and adjacent properties were inundated.


The floods which have occurred at the unfortunate village of Bentley have been of a much more serious nature than those which have been caused in this locality, and assistance has been sought from outside local authorities. On Tuesday evening a request was received at Pontefract for the loan of boats from the Park Lake for use in rescuing 600 marooned families or for carrying supplies to them or others, and twelve boats were sent to the stricken area on Wednesday morning by four lorries.

Contrary to general expectations there was no flooding at Knottingley, the River Aire remaining well within its proper course, and there was very little inundation at Ferrybridge. Here, one of the chief sufferers was Mr. A. Bell, of The Square, who has a chicken farm in Foundry Lane. He found early on Sunday morning that his chicken runs were flooded to a depth of about two feet, but fortunately he was able to rescue most of his stock.  A few Ferrybridge houses near to the Aire had water in them to a depth of two or three inches, but this, we are given to understand, is not exceptional.  Many farmers nevertheless have suffered damage by their young crops being immersed, though the flooding was not heavy, or even out of the ordinary, the Marsh for example, though frequently flooded, being immune. The flooding in the Ferrybridge area was perhaps worst near the Parish Church. Where by Sunday evening the water had covered the footpath approach, making it necessary to hold evensong in the Mission Room, a considerable distance away. This is not the first time that the Church footpath has been flooded, however, for a few years ago the water rose until it entered the Church itself and covered the floor to a depth of several inches.


More than a normal month’s supply of rain fell between Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the old maximum reading at The King’s School, Pontefract, Auxiliary Weather Station was more than doubled. Official readings have been taken at the School for the past seven years, and the record was one of 1.41 inches, taken last September, but from 9am on Saturday to 9am on Sunday, the phenomenal total of 2.87 inches was registered, which is thought to be a record for the town for many years before these official recordings were made. This heavy downpour was preceded by a fall of .45 inches on the previous day, and yesterday mornings reading showed a fall of .42 inches, making a total in three (not consecutive) days of 3.47 inches against a total rainfall of only 4.49 inches from the beginning of January to the end of April, these four months having had respectively, 1.25, .24, 1.32, and 1.68 inches.


We learn that the occupiers of some of the property affected by these floods have lodged claims for damages against the Corporation, but no doubt they have already discovered that they have no hope of success. The main factor in the situation is, of course, that the fall of water last weekend was so utterly exceptional as to constitute an “Act of God” against which it would be unreasonable to demand that provision should be made. Moreover, an examination of the position shows that in every case the sewers, drains, and watercourses performed their duties entirely efficiently to the limit of their capacity, all the flooding being due solely to the extraordinary fall of water. Further, even if it should be found desirable to enlarge the water courses in the lower part of the town such work would be a liability devolving upon the owners of the land drained by the watercourses, the Corporation having, in fact, no more right of entry upon these watercourses and their banks than an ordinary individual – unless they happen to be the owners of any land adjoining the watercourse, in which case their position would be no more or less than that of any other owner of the land bordering a stream.

The Borough Engineer (Mr. W.H. Newton) had a busy day on Sunday, but had the satisfaction of discovering that all the drainage works under his care did all that could have been expected of them. The sewage pumping stations at Ackworth Road, Pontefract and Townville, worked to their full capacity during the whole period of pressure, the electric pumps sending away as much water as their delivery pipes would take.


At the main sewage disposal works, in Knottingley Road, the beck which ultimately receives practically the whole of the drainage of any kind from Pontefract had sent down to it such an enormous quantity of water that it was unable to take it all, the bridge under the Great North Road at Ferrybridge providing a restriction such that the water at one time flowed over the newly-widened road at the crossroads which was flooded to a considerable extent and depth. The severity of the flood may well be gauged from the fact that the depth of water at the sewage works was such that at one time what was intended to be, and unusually serves as an outlet, by means of which storm-water brought down by the sewers is turned direct into the beck without being subjected to any of the usual sewage treatment, was actually serving as an inlet by which flood water from the beck was entering the sewage works. The significance of this will be appreciated when it is added that the customary definition of storm water is that flow which is in excess of twenty times the normal dry-weather flow. The humus tanks at the sewage works were a couple of feet under water. Proof of the efficiency of the sewerage system is found in the fact that as soon as the water at the sewage works and the beck there had fallen in level sufficiently to permit them to operate the sewers and town drains commenced to take away such flood water as remained in the areas they were designed to serve.

As far as has been discovered so far the worst piece of damage to Corporation property is the collapse of the Baghill Lane culvert.

A fortunate feature of this flooding is that the rain on Saturday, whilst not in itself heavy enough to cause flooding, was sufficient to give the sewers a thorough cleansing, so that there was a minimum of offensive matter in them when, on the following day, their flow was in some cases reversed. Nevertheless, the Sanitary Inspector (Mr. A.B. Jackson) was early on duty on Sunday to issue disinfectant for use as a precaution in the flooded areas as the water subsided.

The weekend draws attention to one circumstance which may perhaps be bettered by action against offenders. In one or two places it has been a common practice for some people to leave old cans, buckets, clothing, and even mattresses, and so on, in the little ditches in certain parts of the town, and this rubbish is swept along in times of storm to points where the channel is restricted. Here, it lodges and forms a blockage, with effect which is familiar to those living or working near certain points in these ditches, which, being chiefly on private land, are not within the range of the Corporations workpeople.

The above account, reproduced from the Pontefract Advertiser 28th May 1932 was kindly loaned to us by Mr. John O.E. Holmes.


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