The Brontë Grandmothers Anne And Alice

  1. As we all know, the Brontë siblings missed out on many of the familial connections that most people today take for granted. Their mother died when they were all in infancy, with Anne Brontë just one year old, and although they had lots of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family the distance between Yorkshire and their homelands of Ireland and Cornwall precluded them visiting their nieces and nephew. The exception to this being Aunt Branwell of course, who started a new life in Yorkshire to look after her sister’s children.

What is quite certain is that the Brontës knew none of their grandparents, and never knew the unique love that can form between those generations. I was lucky enough to live with my grandmother Ivy between the ages of 8 to 15, and I have her to thank for everything good in my character. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her, and I often dream of her too – and that set me wondering whether the Brontës heard tales of their grandmothers or asked questions about them, and if so, what would they have heard?

The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall
Anne raised her children at this house on Chapel Street, Penzance

Anne Carne was the maternal grandmother of the Brontës. She was born in Penzance, Cornwall, in 1744, the daughter of John Carne and his wife Anne (nee Reynolds). The Carnes were a leading family in Penzance society, firstly for their success as merchants and then for their role in setting up the first bank in the town – Batten, Carne & Carne, which opened its doors in 1797.

The Carnes were also among the early Wesleyans in this town that became such a stronghold of the emerging faith which came to be known as Methodism. The Wesleys, John and his brother Charles who became famous for his hymns, brought a new evangelicalism to the Church of England, preaching the importance of temperance but also the reality of a loving and forgiving God. They were also heavily in support of better working and living conditions for the poorest in society, which brought them great popularity in places like Cornwall.

John Wesley travelled the country, preaching outdoors to huge crowds, but at first Penzance’s minister John Borlase was less than happy to see him and threatened to have him put in jail if he visited the region again. By 1860 Wesley was writing that: ‘at Noon I preached on the cliff near Penzance, where no one now gives an uncivil word.’

John Wesley
Did John Wesley bring Anne and Thomas together?

Surely among the large crowd on this occasion was Anne Carne and her family, and also another prominent merchant family of Penzance who were firm advocates of Wesleyanism: the Branwells. It may have been this shared piety that brought Anne Carne and Thomas Branwell together, but it was also certainly a good match on financial terms, uniting as it did two of Penzance’s wealthiest families. They married on 28th November 1768 in Madron parish church.

We might also like to think that, not always the case with such weddings, this was a love match. Anne and Thomas had a very productive marriage, having twelve children, not all of whom survived infancy. Anne gave birth to her final child, her daughter Charlotte, in 1789, when she was 45 years of age. It was Anne’s eleventh child, Maria, who left Cornwall for Yorkshire and became the mother of the Brontë siblings.

Anne Carne

Thomas Branwell died in April 1808, and Anne followed him to the grave just a year later – the grief over the loss of her husband possibly hastening her own end. Anne Branwell, nee Carne, was obviously a woman of some character keeping such a large family in check – and from what we know of her daughters Elizabeth and Maria it seems that she encouraged education and independence in her children, sons and daughters alike. Maria never forget her mother’s influence, and paid tribute to her by naming her fifth daughter after her: Anne Brontë.

The Brontës’ paternal grandmother was Alice McClory (some accounts give her name as Ayles McClory or Eleanor McClory) of Ballynaskeagh, County Down, and her son Patrick Brontë remembered her thus in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell: ‘He [Patrick’s father Hugh] was left an orphan at an early age. It was said that he was of ancient family… He came to the north of Ireland and made an early but suitable marriage. His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, he and my mother by dint of application and industry managed to bring up a family of ten children in a respectable manner.’

Ballynaskeagh
Ballynaskeagh, County Down is still farming land today

We can be sure that Alice’s marriage to Hugh was indeed a love match, for they crossed a divide that was hugely important in Ireland at the time (and still is now, to a lesser extent): whilst Hugh was a Protestant, Alice was a Catholic.

A 19th century book by William Wright called ‘The Brontës In Ireland’ attempted to trace these roots. Doubt has been raised over some of the statements in the book, but he gives us a rather lovely account of the Brontë grandmother Alice:

‘On Christmas Eve Hugh Brontë drove up furiously in a Newry gig to the house of McClory in Ballynaskeagh. He was becoming a somewhat vain man, and fond of admiration; and no doubt, as he approached McClory’s thatched cottage, with his pockets full of money, and with the self-confidence which prosperity breeds, he meant to flutter the house with his magnificence. But a surprise was in store for him. The cottage door was opened in response to his somewhat boisterous knock by a young woman of dazzling beauty. Hugh Brontë, previous to his flight, had seen few women except his aunt Mary, and in the days of his freedom he had become acquainted only with lodging-house keepers, and County Louth women, who carried their fowls and eggs to Dundalk fairs and markets. He had scarcely ever seen a comely girl, and never in his life any one who had any attractions for him.

The simply dressed, artless girl who opened the door was probably the prettiest girl in County Down at the time. On this point there is absolute unanimity in all the statements that have reached me. The words “Irish beauty and pure Celt ” have often been used in describing her. Her hair, which hung in a profusion of ringlets round her shoulders, was luminous gold. Her fore-head was Parian marble. Her evenly set teeth were lustrous pearls, and the roses of health glowed on her cheeks. She had the long dark- brown eyelashes that in Ireland so often accompany golden hair, and her deep hazel eyes had the violet tint and melting expression which in a diluted form descended to her granddaughters, and made the plain and irregular features of the Brontë girls really attractive. The eyes also contained the lambent fire that Mrs. Gaskell noticed in Charlotte’s eyes, ready to flash indignation and scorn. She had a tall and stately figure, with head well poised above a graceful neck and well-formed bust; but she did not communicate these graces of form to her granddaughters. There are people still living who remember the stately old woman “Ayles” Brontë, as she was called by her neighbours in her old age.

Hugh Brontë was completely unmanned by the radiant beauty of the simple country girl who appeared before him. He stood awkwardly staring at her with his mouth open, fumbling with his hat, and trying in vain to say something. At last he stammered out a question about Mr. McClory, and the girl, who was Alice McClory, told him that her brother would soon be home, and invited him into the house.’

Hugh fell instantly in love with the ‘Celtic beauty’ Alice, and it is believed that they eloped and married clandestinely, with the help of a complicit vicar prepared to ignore the different faiths, in Magherally church. The cottage that Alice and Hugh lived in in Emdale still stands, and remains a site of Brontë pilgrimage today.

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Emdale cottage where Alice raised her children.

We have Patrick’s own words as testimony to what a remarkable and forceful woman Alice was. She was a woman who worked hard and would do anything for her children. She had that in common with Anne Carne, and the strength of their genes surely passed down into their grandchildren.

Today we say thank you to Anne Carne and Alice McClory and to grandmothers across the world, many of you reading this, I know, will have grandchildren of your own – keep on doing an amazing job and giving the unconditional love that comes with that role. Let’s remember our own wonderful grandmothers today as well, whether they are still with us or not for once somebody touches your heart they’re always with you.

Remembrance Day 2019: Captain Branwell’s Comrades

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day when we can remember the members of the armed forces, and civilians, across the world and throughout the centuries who have fought in conflicts for the country and causes they believed in. Many fought and were injured, many fought and died. Brontë relative Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell was one of the lucky ones to fight and survive.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Copyright: © IWM.

Arthur Branwell was the son of Thomas Brontë Branwell, which makes him a first cousin once removed of the Brontë siblings. His grandmother was Charlotte Branwell, younger sister of Maria Branwell and the aunt after whom Charlotte Brontë was named. Arthur was born in 1862 and had a long military career in which he fought in the nineteenth century Boer War among other conflicts. At the start of World War One in 1914 he came out of retirement and initially served as an instructor preparing troops about to be sent to the front line. Eventually his skills were needed in the front line himself and he was sent to France – as this picture of him and his fellow officers shows:

Arthur Branwell in World War 1
Captain Arthur Branwell with his four Lieutenants

This is surely a happy photograph amidst the conflict raging across Europe and beyond. Captain Branwell is seated at the front, with four fresh faced lieutenants around him. Did they, like Arthur, return to civilian life after the war? The caption on the Tatler photograph gives us a sad clue: ‘this group has, alas, suffered severely since the picture was taken.’
In fact today I reveal the tragic tale of this photograph – the truth is that everyone in it, except Captain Arthur Branwell, was killed. Here are their stories:

Lieutenant Herbert Stofford Maunsell
Herbert Maunsell was born in Ottawa, Canada – his father was Brigadier General G.S. Marshall. He died of his wounds on 1st September 1915 after fighting in the Pas-de-Calais, and is buried in Choques Military Cemetery.

Maunsell Chocques Military Cemetery
Remember Herbert Stofford Maunsell

2nd Lieutenant William Stanley Giles
William Giles was the son of J.G. Giles. Born in Cardiff he survived the battles of France and, showing the global nature of this conflict, he was sent to Palestine. He was killed in action there aged 29 on 2nd November 2017, and is buried in Gaza Military Cemetery.

Giles Gaza
Remember William Stanley Giles

2nd Lieutenant James Frederick Gamble
James Gamble was the son of Joseph Frederick Gamble of Middlesbrough. He was killed in action aged 25 at the Battle of the Somme on 25th June 1916, and is buried at Auchonvillers Military Cemetery.

Gamble Auchonvillers
Remember James Frederick Gamble

Lieutenant James Harold Elliott
James Elliott was the son of Henry and Anne Elliott of Cheltenham. He too was killed at the Battle of the Somme, on 29th November 1916. He was just 18 years old. James is buried at Beaumont-Hamel Military Cemetery.

Elliott Beaumont-Hamel
Remember James Harold Elliott

Five men posing for a photograph, ready to give their all for their country. Only one man would ever see it again – Brontë relative Arthur Branwell. Their tales are like so many, today they are just faces on a photograph but in 1916 and 1917 they were the dead sons of fathers and mothers; they were the subjects of terse telegrams that destroyed lives forever. They were men who could have had long years ahead of them, who had so much to see, so much to give, but instead they gave their lives. Let us remember them.

The Brontës, Guy Fawkes And Bonfire Night

November 5th is bonfire night, although many places now choose to hold bonfires and loose their fireworks the weekend before, so the chances are that you’ve already experienced the ear shattering screams of a thousand sky rockets over the last day or two. It’s an experience loved by children especially, and it must also have been well known to the Brontës as Haworth would have held its own bonfire on an annual basis.

Victorian bonfire
A Victorian bonfire – no parkin to be seen

We can be sure of this because, until it was finally repealed in 1859, every parish in England was beholden to comply with the Observation of 5th November 1605 Act. This act was made law in the immediate aftermath of the foiling of the gunpowder plot, and it made the lighting of bonfires compulsory to commemorate the failure of the plot, and act as a reminder to people of how close the plot had come to succeed. The country was bitterly divided along religious times at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the message behind the mandated bonfires was clear – be alert for people who are enemies of the state, and if you are one of the enemies, watch out lest you too end up on an earthly fire or in an eternal one.

The day to day violence on religious lines had long since ended by the nineteenth century, although anti-Catholic sentiment, and anti-Irish sentiment, still ran deep and this may be one of the factors behind Patrick changing the family name to Brontë from the more Irish sounding Brunty or Prunty. As his church and parsonage were at the high point of the village it would have made sense for the parish bonfire to be held nearby, and at the very least Patrick would have been expected to make an appearance at the event.

It leaves us wondering what the Brontës would have felt of bonfire night, and of Guy Fawkes? As the author of a book on Guy I’m often asked about him at this time of year, and it’s fair to say that perceptions of him have changed greatly since he was captured in the early hours of the 5th of November 1605, just hours before he lit the fuse which would have blown parliament, and the whole Westminster area, to smithereens, changing the course of history in the process.

The capture of Guy Fawkes
The capture of Guy Fawkes

He rapidly became the face of evil personified, with the Bishop of Rochester famously denouncing Guy from his pulpit as ‘the devil from the crypt’, and the word Guy quickly became synonymous with a wicked person, as in ‘he’s a complete guy!’. Over the centuries it has lost its pejorative meaning, but the use of guy as a generic term for man or person originates in the infamy attached to Guy Fawkes. Today, many see Guy as a hero and his face is among the most instantly recognisable in the world thanks to its use in the ‘V For Vendetta’ cartoons and film, and its adoption as a mask that can be found in protests across the globe.

As today, by the nineteenth century fireworks too had become synonymous with bonfire night, and we can imagine the young Brontës looking up as they exploded into the sky above Haworth’s moors. The most popular fireworks at the time were squibs and a piece known as the ‘firing pistol’, presumably because it made a cracking sound. They weren’t as spectacular as today’s fireworks but they were far more dangerous, and newspapers across the country in early November would be filled with tragic tales of adults and children maimed, or worse.

On 15th November 1838, for example, we can read of James Taylor, aged 17. He had been attending a bonfire at Mold Green near Huddersfield, and, the Bradford Observer reported, his pockets were filled with four dozen squibs and two ounces of gunpowder. A spark from the bonfire found its way into a trouser pocket, with predictably dire results.

Contemporary reports also reveal that bonfires could be a tinder box in more than one way. By the first half of the nineteenth century many people were already seeing Guy Fawkes as an example of righteous rebellion, and rallying to his cause, meaning that bonfires could be riotous affairs. Mindful of this, authorities in Wakefield, a city in the West Riding of Yorkshire, attempted to ban the bonfire of 5th November 1849. As this report in the Leeds Intelligencer reveals, a riot erupted in which police were attacked, prisoners freed, a bystander accused of being a police spy was nearly murdered, oh and the Mayor of Wakefield had his hat knocked off:

wakefield bonfire leeds intelligencer 10 Nov 1849
Bonfires could be riotous occasions

We know that Patrick Brontë was terrified of fire, and for that reason wouldn’t allow curtains in the parsonage. He probably wasn’t too enthused about riots either, so it could be that his children were left to watch the bonfire and fireworks through the safety of a parsonage window. Nevertheless, we know that the Brontës must have been interested in, or at least aware of, the story of Guy Fawkes as Charlotte Brontë refers to him in ‘Jane Eyre‘, as the young Jane recovers from her red room ordeal:

‘Bessie invited him to walk into the breakfast-room, and led the way out. In the interview which followed between him and Mrs. Reed, I presume, from after-occurrences, that the apothecary ventured to recommend my being sent to school; and the recommendation was no doubt readily enough adopted; for as Abbot said, in discussing the subject with Bessie when both sat sewing in the nursery one night, after I was in bed, and, as they thought, asleep, “Missis was, she dared say, glad enough to get rid of such a tiresome, ill-conditioned child, who always looked as if she were watching everybody, and scheming plots underhand.” Abbot, I think, gave me credit for being a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes.’

Whatever you do this bonfire night, have fun and stay safe (and of course keep your pets indoors, safe and sound). Guy was captured just after midnight on the 5th of November and by a coincidence at that exact same time this year I will be talking about him on Radio 2, so if you’re still up and need something to send you to sleep, do tune in.