Friday, July 03, 2009

A Visit to Haworth and the birth place of the Brontës' novels.

From my house to Haworth Parsonage it is precisely 86 miles. Google maps calculates that if I were to walk it would take around forty hours. By the British convoluted railway system it took four and a half hours: five trains which zig-zagged across the countryside, going south in order to go north, then east to go west, culminating in this, from Keighley to Haworth:


a steam train arranged by the Society of Authors. This was yesterday's 'Authors North' summer social meeting and, following the meeting in Carnforth last year, a railway theme seems to be developing.

Haworth is something I'd never heard of before: 'an industrial village'. In the early part of the nineteenth century the industrial revolution took over the place, and turned a small agricultural settlement into a miniature version of Manchester. From the railway station


it is a short walk to the mill (photo below). According to Maurice Baren (a member who kindly provided us all with a sheet of information about Haworth) Haworth mill still does what it was built to do: house the looms that weave ribbons and braid. Inside this small block-like building various military paraphernalia is produced: officer ranking braid, sashes and chevron lace - all sorts of insignia to rank and designate, a way of establishing pecking order within the strange closed societies of the armed forces.


The Haworth Parsonage, I discovered, during the excellent talk given by the curator of the museum, was also a badge of honour. Parsonages and Vicarages are, traditionally, grand buildings - usually one of the largest in the village. It was to accord rank and respectability to the office of 'Minister' or 'Vicar' - a kind of medal from the parish. Since they tend to be built adjacent to the place of worship, which in turn tend to be built in the most prominent places possible, vicarages tend to be built on top of the local hill; and the Parsonage of Haworth was no exception.



So from the mill we had to climb a hill. Anna Ganley (from the Society of Authors) had warned us that crampons might be necessary, and I have to report she was exaggerating only very slightly. The inhabitants of Haworth much be extremely fit. From the mill we climbed one hill



and then another and then another. Half way up it was pointed out to us that during the Brontës' time these not only became a series of open sewers in times of heavy rainfall during the Brontës' time, but even worse, reportedly washed down the stinking effluent from the overcrowded Haworth graveyard.


Close to the top we passed by the 'Black Bull' pub where the Brontë brother Branwell bought his drink and laudanum (Edited from cocaine - thanks Steven Wood)


and then ducking through an alleyway past the church arrived at the Parsonage itself.


The talk was excellent and gave a surprising view of this apparently tranquil little place. The Brontës' father was a poor but outstandingly able Irishman. Although his children were brought up in style in the Parsonage the family had no money of their own which was why the girls were sent out to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. Their only hope in life was to become governesses, and for this they needed a certain education. But they hated being away from home and the moors and did everything they could to go back there. Later, they seemed to become obsessed with finding a way of supporting themselves so they could stay there: writing novels seemed to be a possible method. Even though Haworth was a squalid dirty place with an average life expectancy of 25 there were compensations. At home they had books, and in the village there were societies which encouraged the villagers to improve themselves with classes and cultural opportunities like concerts. But, most important of all, the Brontës had each other. Together they invented their own private 'second life' complete with heroines, armies, newspapers and books. And it was out of this imaginary world came the novels of the most famous literary sisters in the world: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

After the talk we had a self-tour around the house which was filled with the Brontë's furniture, including, rather ghoulishly, the sofa where Emily died. It is quite a small house, the kitchen especially so.

Then, after a lunch at the nearby Baptist Chapel (chunky delicious sandwiches, warm scones and cream) we had a talk by Juliet Barker.


Juliet used to be a curator at the Brontë museum and then became a biographer. So far she has written seven books (at least) including 'The Brontës' which was a New York Times Notable book and also a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.

Juliet's talk was highly entertaining - covering anecdotes about the business of writing biographies and the effect it has on her family (they become slightly unwilling experts on the subject in hand) to some of the possible pitfalls. For instance she prefers to write about people long dead because there is little risk of relatives being hurt when scandal is uncovered.

It was from Juliet that I heard about the mill employing 1500 people (which to me seemed an incredible number in so small a village), and how this was beneficial to the Brontës because it meant that with the industrialisation there came amenities such as adult learning.

I bought a book for my mother about the letters of the Brontës. The family tended to write about everything, and were careful to always add the date, and Juliet was able to uncover many discrepancies in the Elizabeth Gaskell*'s account of their lives. It sounds very interesting, and I intend to take a look before passing it on to my mother.

Another interesting point Juliet made was on the longevity of the Brontës. Although each of his children died before the age of 40, Patrick Brontë lived to his eighties - as did all of his many siblings (except for one). She thought that they inherited their weakness from their mother. It is a tragic tale. After the mother and then two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11, Branwell was the next to go at 31 from alcoholism, then Emily and Anne from TB and Charlotte from some form of sickness, either typhoid or maybe severe morning sickess.


It is the life of Branwell who strikes me as the greatest tragedy, however. As a child he was regarded as the most talented of the family, and yet he destroyed himself before he was able to produce very much. Charlotte, the eldest of his sisters was devastated, and Juliet said there was a word she stabbed out in a letter which indicated her distress: 'obscure'. Branwell was meant to be as successful as the rest of them, but whereas Charlotte left the world Jane Eyre, Emily left Wuthering Heights and Anne The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (generally underestimated, and well worth reading, according to Juliet) Branwell left behind a series of unexceptional paintings. It is a tale often repeated in families, I think - the tragedy of a life wasted by drink and there is little anyone can do to prevent it.

At the end of the talk Juliet sold her books in aid of a charity Caring For Life which supplies accommodation and support for the homeless and vulnerable; looking after some of the Branwells of today perhaps.

Then, after the talk, it was time to go - back onto the trains again. It was a treat of a day - much enjoyed by everyone, I thought. Thank you very much to Anna Ganley for organising it.

*Thanks to Sue Wilkes for pointing out my spelling error here (see comments).

12 Comments:

Blogger BarbaraS said...

And I almost feel as though I was there through this remarkable account. I must visit their 'homeland' here, as it's not far from where I live, just about thirty odd miles up into the North from here.

Sun Jul 05, 12:09:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I think that would be really interesting, Barbara. Patrick Brontë sounds as if he was a very interesting character in his own right, and his upbringing was clearly a very healthy one since he and nearly all of his siblings lived to such a long age.

Sun Jul 05, 12:44:00 pm  
Blogger Jud said...

Interesting tour of Haworth. it makes me wonder where the coal came from to power the mill, since most of the coal was shipped via water. Perhaps there was a local supply.

That's what reading a book about coal will do for one - I am looking at the world through a soot covered lense!

Mon Jul 06, 04:28:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jud. (Heh - about the soot covered lense)

Interesting point about the coal, but I'm wondering if it was water powered because there is a river immediately adjacent (just visible in the photo) and the wheel and its housing subsequently demolished.

Otherwise no idea, the river doesn't look the sort to take a coal-bearing narrowboat.

Mon Jul 06, 04:40:00 pm  
Blogger Al said...

On the subject of the workforce, perhaps the village was larger when the mill was operating. Mill workers may well have lived in very poor conditions, crowded into shacks not much better than those in modern shanty towns of the third world.
I have known little places in rural Australia which had substantial populations in the Nineteenth Century based on mining or timber milling. One little place I know, called Dundurrabin, had at its height a court house, police station, several pubs and five timber mills. With the closing of the mills the town melted away. By the 1970s there were only about a dozen houses left. The rest had been demolished for materials and carted away.
Dalmorton is even more extreme, it had a population of 5000 in the 1850s. Today there is no trace left of the town except the WWI war memorial.

Fri Jul 10, 03:25:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, you could well be right, Al. I suppose it is a little like a gold rush. There are still quite a few people left in the village - but I was surprised that a factory should be built in the middle of countryside. I usually associated 'industrial' with something more urban.

Fri Jul 10, 04:00:00 pm  
Blogger Kay said...

Interesting indeed. We went to Haworth in the 70s but I remember very little about it, however the smallness of the house I do recall.
Charlotte may have died of morning sickness. Really? (I remember feeling like I was going to!) And for Branwell to die at thirty, even if it was of alcoholism, seems very young somehow ... Different times.

Thu Jul 16, 12:38:00 pm  
Blogger Sue Wilkes said...

Hi Clare
It was a lovely day out! You took some nice photos on the day. Just a reminder,though, that it was Elizabeth Gaskell, not Gaitskill, who wrote the first biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Mon Aug 03, 08:53:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Sue, I'll correct it now. Glad you liked the pictures.

Mon Aug 03, 09:02:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mill you talk about is Bridgehouse Mill which now makes ribbons, braid etc.
Originally it was worsted mill like nearly all the textile mills in this part of Yorkshire.
Bridgehouse Mill dates from the late C18 and it was originally powered by water.
A half mile long goit was constructed in 1813 to bring water to a large wheel.
Steam power was added later in the nineteenth century.
There were some small coal mines on the local moors but most coal would have come by rail.
The railway reached Keighley (four miles away) in 1847 and Haworth itself in 1867.

I'm not sure where Juliet got here figure of 1500 mill workers from but it agrees well with what I know. By my count there were about 1400 textile workers in Haworth in 1851. That is virtually half the total population of Haworth at that time.

Incidentally I believe Branwell's addiction was to opiates like laudanum rather than cocaine. He is thought to have acquired these at the apothecary's shop across the road from the Black Bull - the Bull confined itself to more conventional fare!
Steam power was added later in the nineteenth century.
There were some small coal mines on the local moors but most coal would have come by rail.
The railway reached Keighley (four miles away) in 1847 and Haworth itself in 1867.

I'm not sure where Juliet got here figure of 1500 mill workers from but it agrees well with what I know. By my count there were about 1400 textile workers in Haworth in 1851. That is virtually half the total population of Haworth at that time.

Incidentally I believe Branwell's addiction was to opiates like laudanum rather than cocaine. He is thought to have acquired these at the apothecary's shop across the road from the Black Bull - the Bull confined itself to more conventional fare!

Sat May 10, 06:43:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Steven - very interesting - shall edit accordingly.

Sat May 10, 06:44:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you found it of interest - I should have pointed out that the 1400 textile workers were employed at a number of mills in Haworth not just at Bridgehouse. Some of the weavers and most, if not all, of the combers would still have been working at home in 1851.

Sat May 10, 06:46:00 pm  

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