Margaret Wooler: Loyalty And Love

This weekend marked the anniversary of the funeral service and then burial of Anne Brontë in Scarborough. As you probably know, Anne is buried in a graveyard to the side of St. Mary’s church, in the shadow of Scarborough Castle and looking down towards the sea she loved. The funeral service, however, took place at Christchurch on Vernon Road, as the interior of St. Mary’s was being renovated at the time. The funeral was held on 30th May 1849, and Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey had expected to be the only people in attendance. When they arrived at the church however they found one other person already there, and she was in the right place at the right time on many occasions throughout the Brontë story. We’re going to take a look at her today: Margaret Wooler.

St. Mary's, Scarborough
Christ Church no longer stands, but its altar screen (left) is at St. Mary’s, Scarborough

Margaret Wooler first entered the Brontë tale on January 17th 1831, for on that day Charlotte started life as a pupil in Roe Head School in the hills above Mirfield. Miss Wooler, as she was known to her pupils, was headmistress and, in stark contrast to Charlotte’s first school at Cowan Bridge, she ran a kindly school that provided a high quality of education. She didn’t run it alone, however, and in its early days the school was a family concern.

An advert in The Leeds Intelligencer newspaper on 25th January 1827 announced the impending opening of the school, and the ad instantly brings to mind the prospectuses that Charlotte later had printed for ‘The Misses’ Brontë Establishment’. Just as Charlotte had hoped to do, Margaret ran the school with her four younger sisters. The only surviving photograph of Margaret shows her in old age (you’ll see that later in the post), although we do have photographs of two sisters who were especially close to her, Eliza and Catharine. We do, however, have a couple of pen portraits of Margaret Wooler’s character, including one from Charlotte’s fellow pupil at Roe Head, Ellen Nussey. Ellen first describes how Miss Wooler allayed fears of a ghost at the top of the school (which will sound familiar to Villette fans):

‘The tradition of a lady ghost who moved about in rustling silk in the upper stories of Roe Head had a great charm for Charlotte. She was a ready listener to any girl who could relate stories of others having seen her; but on Miss W. hearing us talk of our ghost, she adopted an effective measure for putting our belief in such an existence to the test, by selecting one or other from among us to attend the stairs after the dimness of evening hours had set in, to bring something down which could easily be found. No ghost made herself visible even to the frightened imaginations of the foolish and the timid; the whitened face of apprehension soon disappeared, nerves were braced, and a general laugh soon set us all right again.’

Roe Head school
Miss Wooler’s Roe Head school, Mirfield, as it is today

Ellen also writes of how Margaret liked to spend leisure time with her pupils:

‘In days when out-of-door exercise was impracticable, Miss Wooler would join us in our evening hour of relaxation and converse (for which she had rare talent); her pupils used to hang about her as she walked up and down the room, delighted to listen to her, or have a chance of being nearest in the walk.’

Charlotte must obviously have impressed Margaret as she invited her back to Roe Head as a teacher in 1835. During this time she also made the acquaintance of a new pupil, Anne Brontë. Again, she must have been impressed as not only did she present Anne with a medal and a book as a prize for her good conduct, it’s also safe to assume that she must have helped Anne get her first job as governess – with the leading family of Mirfield, the Inghams of Blake Hall.

Charlotte had loved life as a pupil at Roe Head, with her best friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor alongside her, but she hated the drudgery of life as a teacher at the school. Anne’s near-fatal illness at Roe Head in late 1837, and her subsequent return to Haworth, proved the catalyst for Charlotte to let off steam – in the direction of her employer. We can imagine how volcanic Charlotte’s eruption was, as she wrote to Ellen to explain the head to head she’d had with Margaret:

‘We came to a little eclaircissement one evening – I told her one or two plain truths which set her a-crying, and the next day unknown to me she wrote to Papa telling him that I had reproached her bitterly, taken her severely to task etc. etc.’

Margaret’s beloved sisters Catharine and Eliza

Charlotte resolved to leave her school. It says a lot for Margaret’s character and kindness that she instead persuaded Charlotte to continue as a teacher:

‘Just before I went away she took me into her room and giving way to her feelings which in general she restrains far too rigidly, gave me to understand that in spite of her cold repulsive manners she had a considerable regard for me and would be very sorry to part with me – if anybody likes me I can’t help liking them, and remembering that she had in general been very kind to me I gave in and said I would come back if she wished me. So, we’re settled again for the moment, but I’m not satisfied, I should have respected her far more if she had turned me out of doors instead of crying for two days and two nights together.’

Eventually Charlotte did leave the school, and given the reproaches that Charlotte had given her we could have expected that to be the last Margaret saw of her – but in fact, as we shall see, they become firm friends.

Firstly, let’s look at what else we know about Margaret. When you want to research a person from the nineteenth century, it always makes sense to look at genealogy records first – so that’s what I did with Margaret. Here is the record of her baptism on 11th July, 1872 – can you see her?

Margaret Wooler baptism 1792

Margaret was born on 10th June 1792 to Robert and Sarah Wooler. Her father was a mill owner, and the family were wealthy. We next encounter a Margaret Wooler in rather surprising circumstances in 1811. On 29th April of that year, in Mirfield parish church a Margaret Wooler married a Michael Holcar. Could this be our Miss Wooler of Mirfield, and if so why was she not Mrs Holcar? My first thought was that she was in fact a widow, but if so why did she revert to her maiden name? Could it be another Margaret Wooler in Mirfield? Alas, we will never know, as try as I might I could find no more details of this married couple – in fact, rather surprisingly once again, I can find no other record at all of a Michael Holcar living anywhere in England at this time. It will have to remain a mystery.

After our Miss Wooler retired from teaching she offered Charlotte the lease of her own school, by then in Dewsbury, on condition that she could continue to live there too, but Charlotte chose instead to head to Brussels to further her education. In her retirement, Margaret bought and lived in a number of properties, including one at the North Bay of Scarborough. Hearing from Charlotte that Anne Brontë was desperately ill in 1849, and that she wanted to see Scarborough one last time, she offered the sisters the use of her home free of charge. Anne decided that she wanted to stay on her favourite South Bay instead but it is clear that Margaret heard of Anne’s death on 28th May, either from Charlotte or Ellen, or in the local newspaper, as she too attended the funeral service at Christchurch – paying her last regards to one former pupil, and providing support to another.

This Iceland store on Vernon Road at Christchurch House is on the site of the church

By looking at census returns we see that in 1851 Margaret was living in Dewsbury once more, this time in Dewsbury Parsonage with her sister Susanna and her brother in law the Reverend Edward Nichols Carter. Three years later she was called upon to provide a very important service to Charlotte Brontë. Just as Anne’s funeral had been, Charlotte’s wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 was a very private and low-key affair. We know from a first hand account of the service that there were only eight people present, including the happy couple, and we have Margaret’s signature on Charlotte’s wedding certificate. She had been invited to serve as a bridesmaid with Ellen Nussey, but at the last moment Patrick had decided he was too ill to attend and so Miss Wooler stepped up to assume the father of the bride role, and gave Charlotte away. I doubt that Charlotte could have envisaged that happening on that day 17 years earlier when she had given Margaret a piece of her mind.

Charlotte Bronte's Wedding certificate
Charlotte Bronte’s Wedding certificate, signed by Ellen and Margaret

Margaret’s travelling days weren’t over – the 1861 census shows that she had returned to the east coast, and was residing at Newbegin boarding house, Hornsea (the town now famous for its pottery, including a Brontë range) with a Margaret Warner. In 1871 Margaret was living with Susanna and Reverend Carter again, this time at the delightfully named Strawberry Square in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire.

The 1881 census shows us that Margaret is now a the head of the household at 248 Low Lane, Gomersal. By then nearing ninety years of age, she is living with two servants and, rather touchingly, her two sisters mentioned earlier – Catharine (misspelt Katharine on the form) and Eliza, aged 84 and 72 respectively. We have three sisters living together, but not the Brontës, the Woolers. This house in Gomersal was a short walk from where two of her former pupils were living at the time, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and I like to think they visited her on occasions and talked about the old days with Charlotte.

Wooler 1881 census
This 1881 census could have been written yesterday

Certainly, Margaret had plenty of opportunity to talk about the Brontës, for in her final years she found herself much in demand. We know this from a moving account of Margaret given in 1952 by one who still remembered her. Longevity obviously ran in the genes, for the interview was given by 91 year old Reverend Max Blakeley, the grandson of Margaret’s sister Susanna. This is the second of the pen portraits I mentioned, so let’s see what Max had to say:

‘Margaret Wooler, Charlotte Brontë’s teacher and friend, was my grandfather’s sister. To me she was always “Aunt Wooler”… My earliest recollections of Aunt Wooler and her sisters, Catharine and Eliza, take me to the time when I was about eight years old. I lived at Heaton Lodge Park, near Dewsbury, and they lived in West House, Dewsbury, in a wing of their brother’s house. I was taken by my governess to see them, and as I had up to that time only met Aunt Eliza, who, though I later discovered her to be kind, was rather austere and “proper”, I felt nervous. The thought of facing three ladies of the same sort was something of an ordeal to a small boy. I saw the three aunts all sitting together and soon, child though I was, I realised that they were all very different characters. On the table between them was a large dish of oranges. Aunt Wooler, who saw me looking at them longingly, said “Would you like an orange?” Aunt Catharine gave a chuckle. Aunt Wooler then said, “would you like an orange, or that paper knife?” I well knew which, but dare not say anything with Aunt Eliza’s seemigly stern eye upon me, but she said quickly, “Oh, of course, the paper knife. But wait till you are grown up.” Feeling in doubt I looked at each Aunt in turn, and it was Aunt Wooler who, with a kind smile, held out an orange for me. This may seem a trivial thing to remember, but it has always typified for me the kind of person she was. She was not a martinet, as some people have thought…

Late in her life reporters often went to see Aunt Wooler, and when she was over ninety and not really fit for it she was constantly being visited by Americans who came with the sole purpose of interviewing her about Charlotte and the Brontës. She said to me, “I cannot refuse to see them. It was very trying, but I will do my best.”’

Margaret Wooler
Margaret Wooler in old age, a grand old lady in every way

Margaret Wooler always did her best for the Brontës, she was always there unconditionally when needed. The 1881 census lists her as a ‘gentlewoman’, and that’s exactly what she was – gentle and kind. She passed away in Gomersal on June 3rd, 1885 aged 92. She is buried in Birstall churchyard, near to a woman she had spent many pivotal moments with: Ellen Nussey. Even in death, you can’t keep Margaret Wooler far away from the Brontë story.

A Celebration Of The Life Of Anne Brontë

On this day at two in the afternoon our beloved Anne Brontë died, aged 29. That is undoubtedly a great sadness, especially when we consider the impact it must have had on her sister Charlotte and father Patrick, and when we consider how much more wonderful writing she could have produced for posterity, and how much more happiness she could have experienced in her life.

Nevertheless, I won’t be dwelling on sadness again today. We all have far too much sadness and uncertainty in our lives at the moment, and I believe that one of the greatest medicines of all is happiness. The writings of Anne Brontë and her sisters have been making people happy for over 170 years now, so today I am creating a brief post that doesn’t mourn Anne Brontë but rather celebrates her life and work. It will have her beautiful words, and the beautiful sights of nature that she loved so much and referenced in her writing, such as the primroses at the head of this post and these bluebells:

My Favourite Anne Brontë Novel: Agnes Grey

There are only two Anne Brontë novels to choose from, but what exceptional quality they both possess. Whilst The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is the most celebrated of Anne’s novels, and I love it dearly, Agnes Grey holds a special place in my heart. The reason is simply that it’s short, perfectly written, and is in many ways autobiographical so when we read the novel we gain an understanding of Anne’s time as a governess, and of her love for William Weightman. The ending here is simple, understated and, in my opinion, absolutely beautiful. And now I think I’ve said sufficient about why Agnes Grey is my favourite Anne Brontë novel:

‘Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements: and by practising the economy we learned in harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Weston (Weightman) and Agnes (Anne) walk the beach

My Favourite Anne Brontë Poem: The Student’s Serenade

This was a tough one – after all, Anne Brontë was a brilliant poet. Should I pick one of her poems of mourning for William Weightman such as ‘A Reminiscence’, or one of her powerful nature poems, such as ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day‘, or perhaps the yearning beauty of ‘Home’? All of those came close, but in the end I opted for The Student’s Serenade – it transports us perfectly to a moment in time; we can picture the snow falling over the moors, and the narrator rushing out to wake up their beloved Maria to share the scene with them – alas, Maria will wake not from her sweetest sleep. Once again, like Agnes Grey, this is simple, perfectly constructed and beautiful.

The Student's Serenade Anne Bronte

My Favourite Anne Brontë Quote:

I could have opted for a short phrase which we can all identify with: ‘reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read’. I’m going for a longer quote though, and this time The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall emerges triumphant. How moving and beautiful is this scene when Helen, defiant and unbeaten despite all she has gone through, offers her love to Gilbert?

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

My Favourite Quote About Anne Brontë:

I love the Irish writer George Moore’s pronouncement that, ‘If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’ I’m going to go, however, for a quote from a woman who had known Anne and her sisters. My favourite part of writing Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 was delving into the archives to find first person accounts of meetings with the Brontës. They make up the final section of the book, and I love reading them, especially this one from Tabitha Ratcliffe, first printed in 1910. Her maiden name was Tabitha Brown, and she was the younger sister of Brontë Parsonage servant Martha Brown; she had also worked in the Parsonage herself, when extra hands were needed. Nearly seventy years later, Tabitha still remembered Anne with clarity and love:

‘She still preserves a few mementoes of the various members of the family: of Miss Branwell a silk shawl, of Mr Brontë a small hammer he used to use, and of Charlotte a delaine skirt and a white sprigged net veil – which latter has served as a christening veil for several of her grandchildren. Perhaps, however, her most interesting relic is a photograph on glass of the three sisters. “I believe Charlotte was the lowest and the broadest, and Emily was the tallest. She’d bigger bones and was stronger looking and more masculine, but very nice in her ways,” she comments. “But I used to think Miss Anne looked the nicest and most serious like; she used to teach at Sunday school. I’ve been taught by her and by Charlotte and all.” And it is on Anne that her glance rests as she says, “I think that is a good face.” There is no doubt which of the sisters of Haworth was Mrs Ratcliffe’s favourite.’

My Favourite Anne Brontë Artwork

Like all the Brontës, Anne was good at anything creative she turned her hand to. Her drawing of Roe Head School, created in the weeks after her arrival in 1835, is precise and excellent, and of course it’s hard not to be impressed by her ‘Sunrise Over Sea’, but my very favourite piece of Anne’s art is ‘What You Please’. Created while she was at Thorp Green Hall, I believe the woman at the centre of the picture is Anne herself, and that she had created it for William Weightman – saying ‘this is what you please’, or ‘I am what you please’. Perhaps she wanted to present it to him when she returned to Haworth? There’s no proof of this of course, but it seems to resonate with me, and it’s a nice thought to accompany a lovely and rather alluring picture.

What You Please Anne Bronte

So I leave you with a lovely picture of Anne Brontë. These were all my personal favourites, but they’re no more valid than your choices so I’d love to hear them. Let’s not be sad today, let’s celebrate a life worth celebrating. I will see you all on Sunday for another Brontë post; until then stay healthy and happy, and join me now in saying ‘Thank you Anne Brontë!’

The Brontës And The East Coast Resorts

This weekend I should have been talking about the Brontës and my latest book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 at the inaugural Filey Literature Festival. Obviously it has been cancelled due to the ongoing lockdown situation, but it would have been the perfect weekend to be there, as we shall see. This week we will look at the Brontës on the east coast.

The east coast resorts of Yorkshire

We know that Anne Brontë loved Scarborough, and I’ve looked at her time there in previous blogs. At the end of May 1849 she travelled to the east coast town for the final time, but she had spent long periods there in the years 1840 to 1844 whilst governess to the Robinson family. She loved the golden sands and fresh sea air, the music and jollity of what was then a fashionable spa town, and as expressed in her poems such as ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day‘ she especially loved the roaring sea and white foam topped waves.

Wood's Lodgings
Wood’s Lodgings, Scarborough – where Charlotte, Anne and Ellen stayed

Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey accompanied Anne to Scarborough in 1849 of course, but it was far from their first or last journey to the east coast resorts. They first journeyed there in the summer of 1839, when they spent five weeks on holiday together. The first month was spent at Easton House, two miles inland and home to the Hudson family. Their final week, however, was particularly joyous as they spent a week together in a house on Garrison Street in the resort of Burlington – what we today know as Bridlington.

It was a time of firsts for Charlotte – this was the first time she had ever travelled on a train, and the first time she ever saw the sea, which they initially did on the second day of their visit after walking to the coast from Easton House. Ellen Nussey later described the incredible effect this first encounter with the sea had on Charlotte:

‘The day but one after their capture they walked to the sea, and as soon as they were near enough for Charlotte to see it in its expanse, she was quite over-powered, she could not speak till she had shed some tears she signed to her friend to leave her and walk on; this she did for a few steps, knowing full well what Charlotte was passing through, and the stern efforts she was making to subdue her emotions her friend turned to her as soon as she thought she might without inflicting pain; her eyes were red and swollen, she was still trembling, but submitted to be led onwards where the view was less impressive; for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued, and exhausted. Distant glimpses of the German Ocean had been visible as the two friends neared the coast on the day of their arrival, but Charlotte being without her glasses, could not see them, and when they were described to her, she said, “Don’t tell me any more. Let me wait.”’

The sea washing onto Bridlington’s beach

In October 1839, Charlotte was writing to Ellen asking her if she can still see and hear the sea in her mind, and on the 28th of October Charlotte wrote to Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey stating:

‘I will not tell you what I thought of the Sea – because I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm. I may however say that its glorious changes – its ebb and flow – the sound of its restless waves – formed a subject for contemplation that never wearied the eye, the ear or the mind.’

It’s little surprise, then, that Charlotte could write of the sea with such power and emotion in Villette. In March 1845 Charlotte wrote to Ellen and showed once more the impact those five weeks in Burlington had made on her:

‘Our stay at Easton is one of the pleasantest recollections of my life – one of the green spots that I look back on with real pleasure.’

Mrs Hudson - Charlotte Bronte
While in Easton, Charlotte drew this portrait of her host Mrs Hudson

Charlotte stayed once more with the Hudson family – in 1849, in the aftermath of Anne’s passing. Knowing her love of the sea, and the restorative powers thought to belong to sea air at the time, her father and Ellen both urged her to take a break there before returning to Haworth, but this was a mournful sojourn rather than the joyous visit of ten years earlier. By this time Charlotte was in Burlington on her own, having encouraged Ellen to return to her family in Birstall, but they had first visited another east coast resort together: Filey.

This first visit to Filey for Charlotte must have passed in a quiet, mournful haze, but the town must still have captured Charlotte’s imagination for she returned three years later. In fact, it was this very weekend in 1852 that Charlotte Brontë arrived in Filey, which is why it would have been the perfect weekend to present my Brontë talk.

Charlotte stayed in Filey for a month, and on 2nd June she wrote to her father Patrick:

‘On the whole I get on very well here – but I have not bathed yet as I am told it is much too cold and too early in the season. The sea is very grand. Yesterday it was a somewhat unusually high tide and I stood about an hour on the cliffs yesterday afternoon watching the tumbling in of great tawny turbid waves that made the whole shore white with foam and filled the air with a sound hollower and deeper than thunder. There are so few visitors at Filey yet that I and a few sea-birds and fishing-boats have often the whole expanse of sea, shore and cliff to ourselves. When the tide is out the sands are wide, long and smooth and very pleasant to walk on. When the high tides are in not a vestige of sand remains. I saw a great dog rush into the sea yesterday and swim and bear up against the waves like a seal – I wonder what Flossy would say to that?’

In a letter to Ellen from Filey, Charlotte also recounted how she had attempted to walk to Filey Brigg but she had been ‘frightened back by two cows’. This brings to mind Emily Brontë’s observation on Charlotte – that she had a morbid fear of encountering unknown animals.

We have read how Charlotte was thinking upon an animal she knew well, however – Anne’s beloved spaniel Flossy. She was also thinking about Anne. It was the third anniversary of her youngest sister’s passing, and she used this holiday in Filey to make her first visit to Scarborough since 1849 – after which she paid for five corrections to be made to Anne’s headstone. I will be creating a special post on Thursday to mark Anne’s anniversary, but it will be one in which I celebrate her life and talents – I think we can all do without any extra sadness at the moment.

Filey Bronte plaque
The plaque outside what was Cliff House, Filey

It’s clear that both Charlotte and Anne Brontë loved the east coast resorts dearly. Charlotte never forgot Filey, and Filey hasn’t forgotten her. The house in which she stayed, Cliff House, now bears a plaque naming it as the ‘Brontë House’. It is now Charlotte’s restaurant, and is also home to the Brontë Vinery. It’s a pity that I can’t be in Filey as I type this but I’ll be there next year instead and it would be lovely to see some of you there – on the 26th of June, by the way, I’ll also be holding an online Brontë talk and interview as part of Felixstowe Book Festival‘s now online offering; you’ll be able to watch it for free via Facebook or Zoom so look out for more information on that in the next few weeks. Join me next week for an Anne Brontë celebration and then another new Sunday post: stay happy, stay healthy, stay alert and stay away from Durham (unless you live there of course).

Charlotte's of Filey

Home Schooling In The Brontë Parsonage

The exact date remains a mystery, but we know that in May 1832, just under a year and a half after commencing her education there, Charlotte Brontë left Roe Head School in Mirfield. Her studies were complete, but once back home in Haworth she had to step into a new role that so many are currently facing: she became a home schooling teacher to her younger sisters Emily and Anne.

Roe Head by Anne Bronte
Roe Head, drawn by Anne Bronte

In July 1832 Charlotte described a typical day as a home schooler in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, a fellow Roe Head pupil just two months earlier. The routine Charlotte describes has become familiar to parents across the United Kingdom and beyond:

“You ask me to give you a description of the manner in which I have passed every day since I left School: this is soon done as an account of one day is an account of all. In the morning from nine o’clock till half past twelve I instruct my sisters and draw, then we walk till tea-time, and after tea I either read, write, do a little fancy-work or draw, as I please. Thus in one delightful, though somewhat monotonous course my life is passed.”

Charlotte’s role of teacher to her sisters was born not out of any epidemic of course (even though Haworth suffered from them on an annual basis) but necessity. In short, Patrick couldn’t afford to send all of his daughters to school at this time, so he hoped that once Charlotte herself had gained sufficient knowledge she could pass it on to Emily and Anne.

Just what did the young sisters’ lessons consist of at the hands of teacher Charlotte? We can imagine that needlework classes were still very much in the hands of Aunt Branwell, as we looked at in a recent post, so Charlotte’s lessons would have been based on those she had sat through at Roe Head. These in turn were based upon a book that had revolutionised education in England, and it was written by a woman who herself was associated with the West Riding of Yorkshire: Richmal Mangnall.

Richmal Mangnall
Richmal Mangnall, super teacher – like a 19th century Joe Wicks

Richmal was born on 7th March 1769. There is no record of where she was born, but we know that she became a pupil at the grand Crofton Hall School in Wakefield  (that’s it at the head of this post). There she took the path which Charlotte later followed, graduating from being a pupil to being a teacher, although Richmal relished this progression. She not only taught classes at Crofton Hall, and eventually became its headmistress, she also set down the basis of a comprehensive curriculum for school children in a book entitled Historical And Miscellaneous Questions For The Use Of Young People.

Published in 1798, it contained historic and scientific facts and a series of questions and answers that pupils could learn by rote. It proved incredibly popular, bringing great fame to its author too and it didn’t take long for the book to become known simply as Mangnall’s Questions. Richmal died in 1820 but her book dominated schooling in this country throughout the first half of the nineteenth century – by 1857 Mangnall’s Questions was in its 84th printed edition.

Richmal Mangnall plaque
A blue plaque for Crofton Hall, Richmal Mangnall – and the Brontes

Crofton Hall School had a reputation as one of the best in the country, but it no longer stands. A blue plaque, however, marks its location and its famed headmistress – as well as two former pupils that are of interest to us: “On this site stood Crofton Hall School. Miss Mangnall, headmistress 1808-1820, through her world renowned book ‘Historical & Miscellaneous Questions’, informed and enthused teachers and pupils (including the Brontë children) throughout the 19th century.”

Mangnall’s Questions formed the basis of lessons at Roe Head just as it did at many schools, and therefore it would have been used by Charlotte in Haworth Parsonage too. The plaque also refers to Maria and Elizabeth Brontë who had attended Crofton Hall for a term. Alas, even with the support of Anne’s godmothers Elizabeth Firth and Fanny Outhwaite, who had attended the school themselves and probably subsidised some of Maria and Elizabeth’s fees, this excellent school proved beyond the finances of Patrick Brontë for any longer than a term.

Charlotte, like Richmal had done at her school, returned to Roe Head to serve as a teacher. It was July 1835, and under the terms of her contract she was allowed to take with her one of her sisters to receive a free education at the school. Being older, Emily was naturally first choice for this boon, but we all know how extreme home sickness soon forced her to leave Mirfield and return to Haworth. Anne Brontë took her place, and she soon excelled at her lessons. Without Charlotte returning to the school as a teacher, however, it is likely that Anne would have received no formal school-based education at all.

Nevertheless, Anne had been taught well in Haworth Parsonage thanks to the teachings of Charlotte, her aunt and her father. The Brontë sisters later tried to put their learning to good use by opening their own school based within the parsonage – the ‘Misses Brontë’s Establishment for the Board and Education of a Limited Number of Young Ladies’. No pupils could be secured, and the scheme had to be set aside to be replaced eventually by another plan that the three sisters could share: writing.

Misses Brontes' Establishment
The prospectus for the Misses Bronte’s Establishment

Compulsory state education was drawing near, and the days of home-schooling as the norm were coming to an end forever – or so we thought. Stay healthy, happy and alert and I will see you here again next Sunday for another new blog post – oh, and if you’re currently home schooling your own children and are running out of lesson ideas then there’s a highly useful book still available right now on Amazon: Historical And Miscellaneous Questions For The Use Of Young People by Richmal Mangnall.

VE Day: World War Two In Brontë Country

This week we witnessed the celebration of a very special day – the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the day on which World War Two’s European conflict was finally ended, and a major step towards the end of the war worldwide. It was commemorated in a way we could not have imagined a year ago, but I still found the sight of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall laying wreaths as a solitary piper played a very moving experience. People and communities across Europe remembered, mourned and celebrated, even if behind closed doors or in the silence of their own hearts. This included Haworth as well, so today, after a brief look at the Brontës and war, we’ll step into the archives to look at Brontë country in the Second World War (the header picture, by the way, is an actual picture of Haworth on VE Day 1945).

Haworth War Memorial
Haworth War Memorial remembers over a hundred villagers who died in World War One – including four named Bell.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a tumultuous time, with newspapers and magazines full of tales of war and conflict – and of course this was guaranteed to fire up the imagination of the Brontë siblings. The story is well known of how Patrick’s gift of twelve toy soldiers to Branwell was the catalyst for an explosion of creativity within the parsonage, and Patrick himself was equally enthralled by the stories of battle and conquest. Patrick was a very patriotic man, he had after all been inspired by Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Brontë, when he decided to change his family name from Brunty or Prunty. Ellen Nussey, who came to know him well over many years, said of Patrick that: ‘he simply had missed his vocation: he should have been a soldier, and circumstances made him a priest.’

Whilst there’s no direct Brontë involvement in the Second World War, of course, there was a family connection to the First World War. Captain Arthur Branwell had already served in the army with distinction when he came out of retirement at the age of 52 at the outbreak of war in 1914. Initially involved in troop training in England, the wholesale slaughter of the trenches and need for numbers meant that he eventually found his way to the western front. It’s often forgotten today that officers suffered the most losses per capita, as they were expected to lead from the front. We have this touching photograph of Arthur sitting with four fellow officers in France. Of these five officers, he was the only one who returned from the war alive.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1

Arthur was the son of Thomas Brontë Branwell of Penzance, who had visited his cousin Charlotte Brontë in Haworth, possibly with the aim of proposing to her. It’s incredible to think that amongst the carnage of the First World War trenches was a man who was only one generation away from the Brontë sisters.

Now lets forward to World War Two, but before we get to Haworth let’s take another look at Captain Branwell’s family, and discover a terrible material loss for Brontë lovers today. Thanks to aviation advances, citizens at home in Britain were now under threat as well as the armed forces on campaign. After returning safely from the war, Arthur Branwell made his home in London with his wife whom he’d married in 1897 – believe it or not his wife’s maiden name was Charlotte Brontë Jones! Arthur died in 1937 and his wife Charlotte died five years later. Unfortunately, as this newspaper story reveals, some of her valuable Brontë relics which had come into her possession, as well as her will, were destroyed in an air raid during the London Blitz:

Now let’s head to the moors of Yorkshire, and look at World War Two in Haworth and in the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Like many towns and villages, Haworth had its own Home Guard unit – here they are pictured in 1943. Now it’s easy when we see this to think of ‘Dad’s Army’, but these were men who were facing a very real threat of invasion and were prepared to put their lives on the line to defend the community they loved.

Haworth home guard

Of course, many Haworth men of conscription age were serving overseas, but Haworth was far from quiet. Firstly, there was an army training camp nearby, and after the entry of the United States into the war at the close of 1941 there were also American troops nearby preparing to enter the conflict on mainland Europe. The Brontë Parsonage Museum stayed open throughout the war, sometimes showing movies on a screen to members of the allied forces, as well as welcoming Brontë lovers from home and abroad.

We get a glimpse of this in this 1941 report, which shows Canadian and Polish troops visiting the museum, as well as people who had been re-homed in the Haworth district from the blitzed areas of Bradford and Leeds:

Yorkshire Post, 8th July 1941

A year later, the numbers show no signs of diminishing, with armed visitors making up a third of all visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum:

Yorkshire Post, 13th May 1942
Ellen Nussey's bridesmaid bonnet
Ellen Nussey’s bridesmaid bonnet was a new exhibit attracting visiting soldiers

This rather amusing report from 1943 shows the impact that American troops were now having in Haworth. Their love for the Brontës has become evident, as has the fact that they know more about the family than the people who hail from the area did:

Yorkshire Post, 19th May 1943

By 1944 the war was heading towards a ferocious climax, and yet amidst all this turmoil the Brontë Parsonage Museum reported record attendance figures. The visitor’s book showed that people of many nationalities had attended, including one from south London who defined themselves as ‘Croydonion’!

Yorkshire Post, 5th February 1945

We will finish with a particularly moving story from 1944 about a very special party of visitors to the Brontë museum – a group of wounded soldiers:

Yorkshire Post, 13th September 1944

These men made very real sacrifices, but whatever front the people fought on, or if they made contributions on the home front, this week gives us a perfect opportunity to remember the men and women on World War Two. These stories from the archives also carry a very important message for today – this was a period of great anxiety, when people were losing their lives, losing loved ones, and had seen their way of life completely changed. And yet, in these dark times, they found light from culture, from reading, from the Brontës. Whatever challenges the world faces, or our families face, the Brontës will always be there for us, and we can always find escape and happiness in the pages of a book. Stay happy and healthy, stay alert, and I will see you with a new Brontë post next Sunday.

The Brontës And The Merry Month Of May

We have entered May, immortalised in song as the Merry Month Of May, or as the Lusty Month Of May in a rather wonderful number from the musical Camelot. Of course this May is a May different to any other, but we can still look out of our windows, or take our daily exercise, and see the signs of a coming summer: birds are collecting nesting material and singing merrily, bluebells are springing forth in great profusion, and the sun makes regular appearances in an unusually azure sky. In short, despite our understandable anxieties, nature is thriving in a way we’ve not witnessed in our lifetimes. Free of the usual hustle and bustle, and with pollution lowered, we can see and hear nature’s beauty as never before – there have even been pictures of deer walking through Sheffield city centre and cows strolling around York in the midnight hour. It’s almost as if we’ve been transported back to an earlier time, so it’s a perfect opportunity to look at May in the Brontë writing.

cows York
Cows roaming York this week

In its natural serenity, our May reminds us of the one a young Jane Eyre encountered at her school:

‘April advanced to May: a bright serene May it was; days of blue sky, placid sunshine, and soft western or southern gales filled up its duration. And now vegetation matured with vigour; Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green, all flowery; its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life; woodland plants sprang up profusely in its recesses; unnumbered varieties of moss filled its hollows, and it made a strange ground-sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants: I have seen their pale gold gleam in overshadowed spots like scatterings of the sweetest lustre. All this I enjoyed often and fully, free, unwatched, and almost alone: for this unwonted liberty and pleasure there was a cause, to which it now becomes my task to advert.’

Of course we then learn that there is another similarity between the May that Jane encountered, and which writer Charlotte Brontë encountered at Cowan Bridge, and the one we are currently experiencing – but we will leave that for another day and happier times.

Victorian maypole dancing
Maypole dancing was popular in Victorian times, and has an ancient history

We find another similarity in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, as in this month that should be bright and happy Agnes finds herself without work and a salary, an uncertain future that many right now could sympathise with:

‘One sweet evening towards the close of May, as I was rejoicing in the near approach of the holidays, and congratulating myself upon having made some progress with my pupils (as far as their learning went, at least, for I had instilled something into their heads, and I had, at length, brought them to be a little – a very little – more rational about getting their lessons done in time to leave some space for recreation, instead of tormenting themselves and me all day long to no purpose), Mrs. Bloomfield sent for me, and calmly told me that after Midsummer my services would be no longer required.’

In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall we see Gilbert Markham enjoying a May walk, not only for the beautiful countryside but for the beautiful companionship of the mysterious Mrs. Graham. May has worked her amorous magic upon him, as she has done throughout the centuries:

‘I have a very pleasant recollection of that walk, along the hard, white, sunny road, shaded here and there with bright green trees, and adorned with flowery banks and blossoming hedges of delicious fragrance; or through pleasant fields and lanes, all glorious in the sweet flowers and brilliant verdure of delightful May. It was true, Eliza was not beside me; but she was with her friends in the pony-carriage, as happy, I trusted, as I was; and even when we pedestrians, having forsaken the highway for a short cut across the fields, beheld the little carriage far away, disappearing amid the green, embowering trees, I did not hate those trees for snatching the dear little bonnet and shawl from my sight, nor did I feel that all those intervening objects lay between my happiness and me; for, to confess the truth, I was too happy in the company of Mrs. Graham to regret the absence of Eliza Millward.’

May is traditionally a time which heralds a rebirth of nature, a time to leave sorrows behind and rouse our spirits from a long wintry slumber; little wonder then that it should be a time especially loved by Emily Brontë. She was always attuned to the changing seasons and the wheel of the year, and this cycle of life, death and rebirth which she saw every year helped to empower her own stoic attitude. This is evident in this beautiful and moving poem which Emily wrote on the first of May 1844. It’s perfect for these times – and whatever the world brings us, we always find that the Brontës have much to say to us. I leave you with Emily’s poem now; may the glory of May bring light to your hearts, and may you remain happy and healthy. I will see you next Sunday with my new Brontë post.

Linnet poem Emily Bronte