Life in Haworth in the time of the Brontes

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The appalling sanitation at Haworth, and its impact on living conditions, illness and death, was revealed in Benjamin Babbage’s shocking health report of 1850.

There was opposition to reformation, often based on the financial cost, while some blamed poor health on mists descending from the moors. But reformers, including Patrick Bronte, successfully fought a bitter battle against ignorance and opposition, and the local council set about improving sewers, drainage and reducing public nuisances; removing nighttime dirt, emptying cesspools and cleaning the streets.

Philanthropists and factory owners such as Titus Salt in Saltaire and John Crossley in Halifax improved the housing and environment of the working classes during the 1850s.

Haworth Parsonage and its once overcrowded cemetery

In Haworth, Patrick Brontë complained of the ignorance of many locals. Religion played an important role during the 40 years he was curate at St Michael’s. In 1851 there were potentially 500 attendees, but three times as many attended the three Wesleyan and Baptist chapels. The Methodists opened a school in 1821 and the Church of England founded a national school in 1832. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell taught there.

Despite widespread ignorance, there was a Philosophical Society, established in 1784. There were orchestras and choral groups performing in the church and the Black Bull. There were brass bands associated with the mills, and these led to the formation of the Haworth Brass Band in 1854. There was a mechanics institute, which became more popular when it was upgraded to house a library, a reading room, a classroom and a conference room. . In 1853 it moved to new premises on the main street.

There were Chartist demonstrations and meetings in the 1840s, and the Keighley area was very active. Archibald Leighton was well known in Haworth for his speaking engagements, and Patrick knew him. One took place at Farnhill Moor at which Leighton spoke. In the middle of the 19th century there was much discontent about the “state of the question of England”. Men like Patrick Bronte and WE Forster spoke out against poor living and working conditions.

For some, education was seen as the key to improvements. For others, he was considered dangerous by putting ideas in the heads of the masses. It could also be seen, like religion, as a means of social control. Patrick wished to see more enlightenment and literacy, but it is alleged that he slept with a gun next to his bed for his safety, for fear of extreme political activists.

For the Brontë children, school was primarily at home. Patrick was from an illiterate Irish family, but he was good enough to go to Cambridge. He was well educated and widely read. He had an extensive library which the children had access to. They were brought up on the classics. Books were borrowed from the local library, but because women were barred from entering, Branwell obtained them. Charlotte and Emily attended a school in Cowan Bridge where the conditions were terrible. They were then educated at home, where they nurtured each other’s imagination and creative skills. This is where they wrote their little books and created imaginary countries and characters, while developing their passion for storytelling.

Many unmarried middle-class women had to work as teachers or governesses. The three Bronte sisters were employed as teachers and governesses, and their novels later featured schooling. It is said that Emily preferred animals to humans. It has been claimed that when she was teaching at Low Hall School, she told the pupils that she preferred the school dog to them. Emily was a talented artist and much of her work featured animals.

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an attack on Victorian society and was a study of alcoholism and its effects on the family. She was deeply influenced by her brother’s drinking experiences.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Crowds at the launch of the Bronte Parsonage Museum.  Photo: Bronte Society Crowd at the launch of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Photo: Bronte Society

Charlotte’s novel Shirley was influenced by the Luddite riots and political unrest.

The depth of character reflected in Emily’s Heathcliff, Charlotte’s Rochester and Anne’s feminist classic The Tenant of Wildfell Hall indicate that the Brontës were influenced by the people of Haworth and the times and experiences they had. They were far from uneducated and isolated girls and, like many exceptional writers, they were inspired by their life experiences and the environment in which they lived.

l Dave’s full article on Haworth will be in The Bradford Antiquary (No. 83) edited by Dave Pendleton, August/September.

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