In Memory Of Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë’s Best Friend

“She is good – she is true – she is faithful, and I love her.” A simple, heartfelt and powerful tribute from Charlotte Brontë to her lifelong best friend Ellen Nussey. Ellen outlived her beloved friend by 41 years. She never married, an enduring love of Charlotte was enough to give her life meaning and happiness, and her last decades were spent keeping the Brontë story alive, and doing all she could to tell the story of the lives of Charlotte and her sisters. Almost uniquely outside of the family itself, Ellen was also a friend of Emily Brontë and she was a friend of Anne too. It was Ellen Nussey who accompanied Anne, alongside Charlotte, on her final journey to Scarborough and Ellen who carried the dying Anne downstairs on her last day so that she could sit looking out towards the sea she loved.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Ellen Nussey died in Gomersal, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, exactly 126 years ago today. It is thanks to Ellen more than anyone else that we know so much about the Brontës, as not only did she assist Elizabeth Gaskell in the writing of her biography of Charlotte Brontë she also kept hundreds of letters from Charlotte Brontë, defying instructions from her widower Arthur Bell Nicholls to burn them. It is sad that during Charlotte’s life and in the decades beyond it there was real enmity between Arthur and Ellen, the two people who loved her and were loved back in return – but this enmity led to the preservation of those magical letters Charlotte wrote.

Ellen Nussey’s later years saw her working tirelessly to preserve and promote the Brontë legacy. She hoped to leave Charlotte Brontë’s letters to a national museum, or to turn them into a book, but she instead fell victim to fraudsters who ‘borrowed’ the letters and then sold them to collectors overseas. Many of those letters and Brontë treasures have eventually found their way back to Haworth, but many remain in foreign collections, especially in America, both public and private. In her final decades Ellen was often visited by Charlotte Brontë fans, and they could be sure of a warm welcome – Ellen loved to talk of the sisters. One such visitor was American artist Frederic Yates who painted this portrait of Ellen:

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey in old age, painted by Frederic Yates

In her own neighbourhood Ellen was regarded as a quiet, private woman; a deeply devout woman who did much to help local churches and good causes. When it came to her funeral, however, few attended, although the Brontë Society sent a wreath. It was said the rainy weather had kept people away. Ellen Nussey died on 26th November 1897, and tributes were soon paid to her in local and national publications.

Yorkshire Post, 27th November 1897, “Death Of Miss Ellen Nussey: Friend Of Charlotte Brontë”

‘The death took place yesterday at Moor Lane House, Gomersal, of Miss Ellen Nussey, the schoolmate and friend of Charlotte Brontë, at whose marriage she officiated as first bridesmaid. Miss Nussey, who was born at the Rydings, Birstall, lived in the neighbourhood all her life, and at her death was 83 years of age [born a year after Charlotte, she was in fact 80]. The authoress was in her fifteenth year when she met Ellen Nussey at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, and the friendship was a case of love at first sight. In the following year Charlotte paid her first visit to the Rydings, and their acquaintance ripened during the assistant-teachership period which followed. It was not, however, until July, of 1836, that Miss Nussey visited Haworth; and it was two years later (her brother’s proposal of marriage rejected meanwhile [Henry Nussey had proposed to Charlotte]) that they paid a visit together to Mr. Hudson’s, at Easton, near Bridlington.

Six years passed before they had much converse again [in fact, as the letters show, they were in constant correspondence], and then Charlotte was at [Ellen’s home] Brookroyd; nor was there another important meeting until just before the marriage in 1854. Thus it cannot be said that in a friendship unbroken during 24 years they spent a great deal of time together. Nevertheless, it is to Miss Nussey that the public owe the greater part of their knowledge of Charlotte Brontë’s life. The friends kept up a correspondence, in which there were 370 of Charlotte’s letters. When she died and Mrs. Gaskell undertook to write the biography, these were placed in her hands; and her Life Of Charlotte Brontë contains extracts from more than 100 of them, although Miss Nussey’s name is not mentioned. Afterwards Sir Wemyss Reid had access to them, and lastly they were placed in the hands of Mr. Clement Shorter [one of the men who defrauded Ellen] for the preparation of his brilliant book on Charlotte Brontë And Her Circle. Mr. Shorter, indeed, seems to say that the book was begun at Miss Nussey’s suggestion…

Her own personality has always been modestly kept in the background; but one receives from the correspondence a strong impression of her homely good sense, affectionate nature, and admirable simplicity.’

We will pass over the obvious inaccuracies in this obituary, except for the article’s assertion that there was no ‘important meeting’ between Ellen and Charlotte for 12 years between 1842 and 1854. In fact there were many visits between the two in those years – many of them hugely significant, including their month in Hathersage together which was pivotal to the creation of Jane Eyre and their 1849 journey together to Scarborough with Anne Brontë to be there with Anne at her passing. The same newspaper provided a more personal tribute to Ellen two days later:

Yorkshire Post, 29th November 1897, “A West Riding Lady’s Interview With Miss Nussey”

‘A West Riding lady sends us the following notes of a recent interview she had with the late Miss Nussey:

“Like thousands of your readers, I read with much regret the news of the death of the venerable Miss Nussey, so intimately associated with the Brontë family. Miss Nussey has been waited upon by many persons for literary purposes, but I believe an interview I had with her during the autumn just passed was the last she was able to grant. It was in a state of great nervousness that I found myself at the inner door of Moor Lane House, Gomersal. With my heart in my mouth I saw Miss Nussey come forward to the door. All nervousness, however, vanished under the charming manners of this gracious old lady. Taking me into the drawing-room, I noticed she wore an old-fashioned brown silk dress and a rather modish cap of black, and white silk over her thick white hair. A noticeable feature was her bright eyes when she removed her spectacles. One of the first questions Miss Nussey asked was, ‘What religion are you?’ ‘Church of England, and from a long line of Church-people,’ I replied. My answer gratified her, and I soon found that she was an ardent, nay a passionate Church-woman.

One of the chief objects of my visit was to obtain her opinion on a portion of a letter said to be written by Charlotte Brontë to a correspondent unknown to me and all others to whom the document had been shown. What I had with me was a photograph. Upon inspecting it she said, ‘Undoubtedly the original is Charlotte’s handwriting.’ She soon decided to whom the letter had been addressed – Miss Leah Brooke, of Aldams House, Dewsbury, a former schoolfellow. Miss Nussey gave some interesting particulars about the then girl and her relatives. This led to a chat about Charlotte’s god-parents,the Rev. Thomas Atkinson and his wife, he the successor of Charlotte’s father in the vicarage of Hartshead. In Charlotte’s childhood she was a frequent visitor at their home. There was no vicarage house at Hartshead in those days, and the pair, who loved Charlotte dearly, bore the expense of her education at Roe Head…

Speaking of the Rev. P. Brontë, Miss Nussey said he was very fond of horses and dogs, but not to the extent his girls were; also that in his later years he became somewhat boastful of his conquests with ladies, a failing which much annoyed Charlotte, and which she always tried to check. He was a high-spirited man, full of courage.

In connection with her correspondence with Charlotte, Miss Nussey said she had often been badly treated, and I quite agreed with her when she informed me of the circumstances. This led me to tell her I had heard something of the kind before, and that I had felt diffident about seeking an interview, but that at last I had yielded, the suggestion being that I should ‘beard the lioness in her den.’ She laughed heartily, and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly what I am, a lioness. I have to be, because of the way I have been treated.’ To me she was all kindness, and the interview throughout seemed to be mutually satisfactory. We parted, but she called me again to the house door, and then with a nervous air said, ‘Remember! All who have anything to do with the Brontës have had great trouble.’

I parted from the venerable lady with much admiration for her mental powers and great manners.”’

Yorkshire Post, 29th November 1897, “Ellen Nussey’s Last Moments”

‘Up to the very last Miss Nussey retained possession of her intellectual faculties. She had been ill for seven weeks with pleurisy, but on Thursday she was able to sit up a little. She was conversing quietly with her lady companion when the end came next day. A sudden spasm, and the long life was over.’

Ellen Nussey, aged 65

London Illustrated News, 4th December 1897

This photo hangs on my wall, I believe it to be the last picture of Ellen Nussey.

I leave you with a final obituary which really sums up who Ellen Nussey was. Thank you Ellen Nussey from all Brontë lovers, and for always being a kind and generous woman to those who needed it most. My biography of Ellen and Charlotte has been long delayed, for which I apologise to you all, but work now continues on it apace, so look out for it next year. I hope to see you again next week for a new Brontë blog post.

The Short Incumbency Of Reverend Samuel Redhead

A plaque within St. Michael and All Angels church in Haworth lists the parish priests of the village, and the date that they entered service there. There are some illustrious names on there, including the long serving Reverend James Charnock and the celebrated Reverend William Grimshaw, an important figure in the history and formation of Methodism – famed for his long and passionate sermons that could last all day, he was said sometimes to head to the nearby Black Bull Inn and quite literally whip the inhabitants into his church!

On one occasion Grimshaw fainted during his sermon, but revived enough to tell the parishioners to wait in the church until he returned. He fainted again and was carried to his house, and when he came round his first words were, ‘I have had a glorious vision from the third heaven’, after which he went back to the church and preached until seven in the evening! Robert Southey, the poet laureate perhaps most famous today for his advice to a young Charlotte Brontë to give up writing, wrote a biography of William Grimshaw in which he opined: ‘In his unconverted state this person was certainly insane; and, had he given utterance at that time to the monstrous and horrible imaginations which he afterwards revealed to his spiritual friends, he would deservedly have been sent to Bedlam.’ Nevertheless, Reverend Grimshaw was hugely popular, and crowds would flock to hear him preach so that he sometimes had to deliver his sermons on the moors rather than inside his church. Aunt Branwell was a fan of his, so much so that she had a William Grimshaw teapot bearing his name and his favourite quote: ‘To Me, to live is Christ, to die is Gain.” The teapot is now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection.

Aunt Branwell's teapot
Aunt Branwell’s teapot, the reverse of which is inscribed ‘Wm Grimshaw, Haworth’

Because of Grimshaw’s celebrity, the parish of Haworth gained a fame too, and to be its rector was a coveted position – even though Church of England politics meant that its rector was not actually a vicar in their own right but subservient to the Vicar of Bradford who appointed Haworth’s curate alongside the parish panel of trustees. This was a delicate balancing act – and led to the delayed introduction of the man whose fame would eclipse that even of Grimshaw. The man who would serve as Haworth’s rector for over forty years, but whose greatest claim to fame was being the father of three daughters he raised in Haworth Parsonage. The man was the Reverend Patrick Brontë of course who served as parish priest from 1820 until 1861. He was the longest serving priest of Haworth, but today we are going to look at its shortest serving priest Reverend Samuel Redhead – Patrick’s direct predecessor.

After the passing of Reverend Charnock in 1819, Patrick Brontë had been approached by the vicar of Bradford to leave his position as curate of Thornton and became the new rector of Haworth. The parishioners of Haworth, or at least their trustees, however, had not been consulted and made their opposition known. This was no slight against Patrick, who had officiated in Haworth on numerous occasions during Reverend Charnock’s decline, but simply an assertion of what they saw as their rights to choose their own priest. When Patrick heard of this opposition he stepped aside, and the vicar of Bradford, Reverend Henry Heap, repeated his earlier mistake and once again announced his intention to unilaterally impose a priest on Haworth. Samuel Redhead was installed as priest, but on this day in 1819 he announced his resignation – his official term as Haworth’s priest which earned him his place on the church plaque had lasted just three weeks.

Ministers of Haworth
The ministers of Haworth, displayed within the parish church

What happened? Chaos happened, as two fascinating accounts show. We will first turn to the account given by Elizabeth Gaskell in her The Life Of Charlotte Brontë:

‘In conversing on the character of the inhabitants of the West Riding with Dr. Scoresby, who had been for some time Vicar of Bradford, he alluded to certain riotous transactions which had taken place at Haworth on the presentation of the living to Mr. Redhead, and said that there had been so much in the particulars indicative of the character of the people, that he advised me to inquire into them.  I have accordingly done so, and, from the lips of some of the survivors among the actors and spectators, I have learnt the means taken to eject the nominee of the Vicar.

The previous incumbent had been the Mr. Charnock whom I have mentioned as next but one in succession to Mr. Grimshaw.  He had a long illness which rendered him unable to discharge his duties without assistance, and Mr. Redhead gave him occasional help, to the great satisfaction of the parishioners, and was highly respected by them during Mr. Charnock’s lifetime.  But the case was entirely altered when, at Mr. Charnock’s death in 1819, they conceived that the trustees had been unjustly deprived of their rights by the Vicar of Bradford, who appointed Mr. Redhead as perpetual curate.

The first Sunday he officiated, Haworth Church was filled even to the aisles; most of the people wearing the wooden clogs of the district. But while Mr. Redhead was reading the second lesson, the whole congregation, as by one impulse, began to leave the church, making all the noise they could with clattering and clumping of clogs, till, at length, Mr. Redhead and the clerk were the only two left to continue the service.  This was bad enough, but the next Sunday the proceedings were far worse.  Then, as before, the church was well filled, but the aisles were left clear; not a creature, not an obstacle was in the way. The reason for this was made evident about the same time in the reading of the service as the disturbances had begun the previous week. A man rode into the church upon an ass, with his face turned towards the tail, and as many old hats piled on his head as he could possibly carry.  He began urging his beast round the aisles, and the screams, and cries, and laughter of the congregation entirely drowned all sound of Mr. Redhead’s voice, and, I believe, he was obliged to desist.

Hitherto they had not proceeded to anything like personal violence; but on the third Sunday they must have been greatly irritated at seeing Mr. Redhead, determined to brave their will, ride up the village street, accompanied by several gentlemen from Bradford.  They put up their horses at the Black Bull – the little inn close upon the churchyard, for the convenience of arvills as well as for other purposes – and went into church.  On this the people followed, with a chimney-sweeper, whom they had employed to clean the chimneys of some out-buildings belonging to the church that very morning, and afterward plied with drink till he was in a state of solemn intoxication.  They placed him right before the reading-desk, where his blackened face nodded a drunken, stupid assent to all that Mr. Redhead said.  At last, either prompted by some mischief-maker, or from some tipsy impulse, he clambered up the pulpit stairs, and attempted to embrace Mr. Redhead.  Then the profane fun grew fast and furious. Some of the more riotous, pushed the soot-covered chimney-sweeper against Mr. Redhead, as he tried to escape. They threw both him and his tormentor down on the ground in the churchyard where the soot-bag had been emptied, and, though, at last, Mr. Redhead escaped into the Black Bull, the doors of which were immediately barred, the people raged without, threatening to stone him and his friends.  One of my informants is an old man, who was the landlord of the inn at the time, and he stands to it that such was the temper of the irritated mob, that Mr. Redhead was in real danger of his life.  This man, however, planned an escape for his unpopular inmates. The Black Bull is near the top of the long, steep Haworth street, and at the bottom, close by the bridge, on the road to Keighley, is a turnpike.  Giving directions to his hunted guests to steal out at the back door (through which, probably, many a ne’er-do-weel has escaped from good Mr. Grimshaw’s horsewhip), the landlord and some of the stable-boys rode the horses belonging to the party from Bradford backwards and forwards before his front door, among the fiercely-expectant crowd. Through some opening between the houses, those on the horses saw Mr. Redhead and his friends creeping along behind the street; and then, striking spurs, they dashed quickly down to the turnpike; the obnoxious clergyman and his friends mounted in haste, and had sped some distance before the people found out that their prey had escaped, and came running to the closed turnpike gate.’

Charles Longley
Charles Longley, later Archbishop of Canterbury

Another account is given by an impeccable source – Charles Longley, at the time Bishop of Ripon but later Archbishop of Canterbury:

‘There is an ancient feud between Bradford and Haworth… the people of Haworth can by the trust deed of the living, prevent the person appointed by the vicar [of Bradford] from entering the Parsonage or receiving any of the emoluments, if he does not please them… in the case of Mr. Redhead, the inhabitants exercised their right of resistance and opposition and to such a point did they carry it, that they actually brought a Donkey into the church while Mr. Redhead was officiating and held up its head to stare him in the face – they then laid a plan to crush him to death in the vestry, by pushing a table against him as he was taking off his surplice and hanging it up, foiled in this for some reason or other they then turned out into the Churchyard where Mr. Redhead was going to perform a funeral and were determined to throw him into the grave and bury him alive.’

Given the circumstances, it’s little wonder that Reverend Redhead declined to return to Haworth for a fourth week! Realising he was at an impasse the vicar of Bradford Reverend Heap finally sat down with the elders of Haworth and in early 1820, just weeks after the birth of his youngest daughter Anne, a new parish priest was announced that was this time approved by both sides: Reverend Patrick Brontë. His move changed the fortunes of Haworth forever, so that it is now a centre of worldwide fame and literary tourism. 

What became of Samuel Redhead? It may seem incredible, but he became a regular understudy to Patrick Brontë and officiated in Haworth many times, but on those occasions he was welcomed with friendship and not a little laughter by the parishioners – and donkeys were kept well away from his pulpit. Reverend Redhead, unlike Patrick, came from a wealthy family and he was one of the people who came to Patrick’s aid after the death of his wife Maria – helping Patrick pay off the debts and medical bills he incurred during his wife’s long illness.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte was incumbent for over 40 years longer than Samuel Redhead

Haworth was a remarkable place then and now, but visitors to this steep and beautiful moorside parish today are assured of a rather warmer welcome than Samuel Redhead first received! I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post – all are welcome, even donkeys and chimney sweeps.

Remembrance Day 2024: Remembering Lieutenant Branwell

On this Remembrance Sunday we think of those who have lost lives, those who have lost loved ones, in conflicts around the globe past and present. As children, the Brontë siblings loved to read stories of war, and after the purchase of twelve toy soldiers by their father Patrick they progressed to writing youthful stories of war and adventure. This was a catalyst for the creative genius that led to novels we all know and love, but the Brontë family itself was not immune to the costs of war in a very real sense.

In previous years we’ve looked at the story of Captain Arthur Branwell. His father had once travelled from Penzance to Haworth to propose to his cousin – Charlotte Brontë. The proposal was rejected by Charlotte, but it’s incredible to think that the son of a cousin of the Brontës was in the frontline of World War One.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Copyright: © IWM.

After a successful career in the army, Captain Branwell was a reservist who was called out of retirement when war was declared in 1914. Initially involved in training troops who would be going to France, he eventually made the journey himself. This photograph shows Captain Branwell seated at the centre of four fellow officers. All the other officers were killed in action, this first cousin once removed of the Brontë sisters was the only one who made it back to Britain alive.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1

In today’s post, however, we’re going to go two generations further back from Captain Branwell – to a first cousin of Maria Branwell, mother of the Brontës. Here we find a man who was lost in action whilst serving his country on the seas, and it may have been a particular blow to somebody who was very close to Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Elizabeth Branwell was elder sister to Maria, and as Aunt Branwell she became a second mother to the Brontës after the death of Maria. She was devoted to her nephew and nieces, but never married. One of her special treasures was a monogrammed box – the kind of box which might be gifted by a lover.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell miniature

As we saw with the proposal Charlotte received, it was not uncommon for cousins to fall in love and marry at the time – indeed Charlotte Brontë herself was named after another aunt, Charlotte Branwell the youngest sister of Elizabeth and Maria. Charlotte Branwell kept her surname on her wedding day as she married her cousin Joseph Branwell. Perhaps it was another cousin who had caught Elizabeth’s eye? It has been suggested that she may have been in love with a dashing young cousin named Thomas, an officer in the Royal Navy.

Thomas Branwell, the third son of Richard Branwell and his wife Honour (although Richard also had an illegitimate son from an earlier relationship with  a woman named Catherine Veale), had become the pride and joy of the extended Branwell family after building a successful naval career. By 1811, the 33 year old had risen to the rank of First Lieutenant, but on Christmas Eve of that year he died in the cold winter winters off the Danish coast as his shop HMS St. George sank in a gale at Nazen near Ringkøbing. 731 of the 738 man crew perished, and the bodies that were carried ashore were buried underneath the sand dunes of Thorsminde, now called ‘Dead Men’s Dunes’. Over 500 souls were lost on board the HMS Defence that sank in the same storm. Lieutenant Branwell was remembered in the Navy Chronicle of 1812, although his name was recorded incorrectly:

 ‘The St. George, Defence, and Cressey, kept the North Sea five days, in a dreadful gale from the W.N.W. west and south; but, at length, had to combat with a terrible tempest from the N.W. until they were lost. The following is a list of the principal officers who were on board the St. George and Defence when those vessels were wrecked – In the St. George Admiral Reynolds, Captain Guion, Lieutenants Napier, Place, Thompson, Brannel, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell miniature, painted alongside his cousin Elizabeth

This was a terrible blow to his father Richard, and may have hastened the illness that claimed his life three months later in March 1812. It could also, of course, have been a crushing moment for Elizabeth if it was indeed Thomas who had gifted her the monogrammed dressing box she treasured. If this was the death of a true love it could help to explain why a woman who would seemingly have been a highly eligible choice of wife for many in Penzance instead remained single for the rest of her days.

Let us too remember Elizabeth Gaskell, genius author and friend and biographer of Charlotte Brontë who died on this day in 1865. We know exactly how she did thanks to a letter that her daughter Meta Gaskell sent to Ellen Nussey – the woman who has been Charlotte Brontë’s best friend and who had been a principal help to Elizabeth Gaskell during the writing of her groundbreaking biography.

Letter from Meta Gaskell to Ellen Nussey


Let us remember Elizabeth Gaskell; let us remember Captain Arthur Branwell and his colleagues; let us remember Lieutenant Thomas Branwell and the 731 men who perished terribly in the icy, unforgiving seas. We will remember them.

The Brontës, Bonfire Night And Countdown To Treason

On this night fireworks will be fired into the night sky, excited young voices will squeal and (where the weather permits) bonfires will be lit across the country. The occasion of course on this November 5th is Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes night – not, as some see, a celebration of what could have been the greatest terrorist loss of life in this nation’s history but a commemoration of it. It was something I was talking about on TV this week, and something that the Brontës would also have remember, remembered on this day.

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 (the header image shows a Victorian bonfire) 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.

A Victorian fireworks display in London

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.

My own book The Real Guy Fawkes

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:

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). If you want to know more about the gunpowder plot (modesty forbids me promoting my own book The Real Guy Fawkes) then you can watch ‘The Gunpowder Plot: Countdown To Treason’ on My5 and repeated on Channel 5 next week. It was a pleasure to take part in this show with Tracy Borman and Xand van Tulleken, but of course next Sunday I’ll be focusing once more on all things Brontë with a new Brontë blog post – I do hope you can join me then.

Myself and historian Tracy Borman in The Gunpowder Plot: Countdown To Treason