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...He opened the door and saw the flood almost upon him. The house took the full force of waves and debris and it crumbled and was swept away, with him, his wife and daughter in it...

Emma Cookson continues her dramatic tale which is based on a 19th Century disaster in a Yorkshire mill valley.

The river condensed again as it came into Helston. Houses and businesses, inns and mills were packed along its length as it cut through the steep sided valley town. Four substantial stone bridges crossed it but proved flimsy barriers. Boulders, wooden beams and iron boilers were tossed along like battering rams.

Samuel Smith, who had enjoyed a pleasant evening in The White Hart with Arnold Pallister and Henry Bird, came to the door of the Toll Bar House that abutted the first bridge. He held a lighted candle in his hand and had been sent by his wife, who was still snug in bed, to investigate the far off noise and the rowdiness of a handful of people in the street.

He opened the door and saw the flood almost upon him. The house took the full force of waves and debris and it crumbled and was swept away, with him, his wife and daughter in it.

Two other families were swept out of their homes in Hollowgate, and neighbours in upper windows of houses higher up the slope, saw a woman waving frantically for help that was impossible to give, as she swirled down river at an incredible speed. An apprentice leather worker had better fortune when he was diverted by an eddy into the yard of The Rose And Crown and the landlord fished him out with the aid of a flagpole. The houses and shops of Hollowgate were inundated and shocked and desperate people jumped out of high windows at the back or broke through roofs to escape the rising waters.

Henry Bird, the tailor, had also enjoyed a convivial evening in The White Hart and had got up to relieve himself in the pot beneath the bed when, whilst still in a kneeling position, he heard running footsteps in the street and a shouted warning.
He went to the window and saw the Toll Bar House smashed as if matchwood and he screamed in shock, which caused his wife, Elizabeth, to sit bolt upright.

"Flood! Flood!" he yelled, as it struck the front of the house and they heard the downstairs windows crash inwards and water begin to bubble and rise.

His wife unfortunately leapt out of bed on the side recently vacated by her husband and stepped in the pot he had just used but, instead of complaining, she ran into the next room where their four children slept and Henry Bird ran after her as the bedroom window caved in and spray soaked him.

This room had a small window that looked onto an alley that led to the river and afforded no escape. The children screamed and his wife was beginning to panic when Henry thanked God for making him birdlike in nature as well as Bird in name and pushed his eight-year-old son to the fireplace.

"Up the chimney," he said, and his wife looked at him as if he had gone insane. "Go on."

The flood battered at the door and the boy took the lesser of two evils, bent into the wide chimney place and straightened up inside. He disappeared in a fall of soot and Bird sent in the next who, emboldened because his brother had already gone, didn’t hesitate. His two daughters went next and his wife looked in horror at the prospect but the door creaked and there was a crash elsewhere in the house.

"For God's sake, Elizabeth, we are about to drown."

She was shaking with fright but crawled into the chimney and Henry crouched by her feet waiting for her to ascend when the door broke under the pressure and water gushed in. He thrust himself into the chimney and his head came closer than was dignified to his wife's nether regions, causing a muffled scream, another fall of soot and her to move with a little more alacrity.

He scrambled after her, trying to block the chimney with his body as the water rose around him and wondering if this had been a good idea after all. What if the chimney narrowed and they became trapped? What if he was drowned before he found out? What if …?

Suddenly, his wife was no longer above him and the water had stopped rising. The chimney took a dog leg and, as he negotiated it, he fell down onto the still warm embers of someone else's fire and rolled onto someone else's hearth.
His family, black enough to have spent a week down a coal pit, similarly sat or sprawled around on the floor while, sitting up in bed and scrutinising them in the light of a candle, was Mrs Eastwood, the old widow who lived in the house higher up the hill. He thanked God their chimneys had been connected.
Elizabeth coughed and attempted to brush some of the soot from her nightdress, and said, with total incongruity, "I hope you will pardon the intrusion, Mrs Eastwood."

Henry Bird laughed. He couldn’t stop himself after their close escape and the politeness of his wife. His laughter became contagious and his children began to roll about in giggles and yelps. Only Elizabeth attempted dignity.

"Gibber monkeys," said Mrs Eastwood, wide-eyed and shocked. "Gibber monkeys up my chimney."


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