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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.