Tabby Aykroyd: Servant, Friend and Inspiration

Haworth is a beautiful, magical place at this time of year, but its steep Main Street (known as Kirkgate when the Brontës first arrived there in 1820) can also be treacherous in icy conditions. The road is cobbled to help hooves and feet cling onto it, so those in the know walk down the road rather than on the pavements. Even so, it’s easy to slip, and one winter’s morning in December 1836 that’s exactly what happened to a pivotal character in the lives of Anne Brontë and her family: Tabby Aykroyd.

With a large family and a busy parish to look after, Patrick Brontë needed some hired domestic help in his Parsonage. At Thornton the Garrs sisters, Nancy and Sarah, had fulfilled the role, but by 1824 Patrick and Aunt Branwell decided that a more mature woman would be an asset in the children’s upbringing.

Nancy Garrs
Bronte servant Nancy Garrs

Tabitha Aykroyd, always known by the shortened form of Tabby, entered the Parsonage as the new servant in 1824, and she would fulfil the roles of cook, cleaner, and crucially storyteller, from that day on. Little is known of her life before she entered the Haworth Parsonage, except that she was unmarried and had two sisters Rose and Susannah, and that she was born in approximately 1771, putting her in her early fifties when she moved in with the Brontës. For many years she was the only live in servant, although in later years the younger servant Martha Brown, daughter of the sexton John, also moved in.

Patrick and Aunt Branwell would have given careful consideration to their choice of housekeeper, and so we can certainly assume that Tabby already had experience in a similar role, and she was probably well known to them as a frequenter of St. Michael and All Angels church.

Tabby seems to have been a forthright no-nonsense Yorkshire woman of the type still readily found today, but also typically she could be very warm and loving. Elizabeth Gaskell, who had met Tabby, described her thus:

‘She abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded.’

A strong bond formed between Tabby and the children, although we have one story of how the young Brontës delighted in frightening her on one occasion. They were acting out a play, as they liked to do, and in this particular one they must have been pretending to be demons or monsters. So good were they at this role that Tabby fled the Parsonage in terror and ran to her nephew William Wood, a coffin maker. Branwell’s friend and biographer Francis Leyland described what she said:

‘William! William! Yah mun goa up to Mr Brontë’s for aw’m sure yon chiller’s all gooin mad, and I dar’nt stop ith house ony longer wi’em; and aw’ll stay here woll yah come back!’

William went to the Parsonage and was greeted with a great cackle of laughter from the Brontë children, delighted at how successful their trick had been.

Nevertheless the children doted on Tabby, who had become a grandmother-like children to them. She not only baked them cakes that they loved, and gave them the hugs and praise that any young child needs, she also told them tales of Yorkshire folklore that had been passed down through the centuries: tales that the Irish Patrick and Cornish Aunt Branwell would have been oblivious to.

Tabby, in the broad Yorkshire dialect that we encountered above, would tell them tales of ghosts, goblins and gytrashes, and of fairies, or feys as they were called in that area, who roamed the moors and would sometimes swap children for fey changelings. These wild stories enthralled Anne, Charlotte and especially Emily, and the influence upon Wuthering Heights is plain to see (where Tabby is an obvious model for the narrator Nelly Dean).

Tabby was around 65 when she slipped over on the Haworth ice, and her leg was badly broken leaving her unable to carry out her duties, temporarily at least. Aunt Branwell insisted that with finances tight as always Tabby had to be removed from her post, but the Brontë teenagers were equally vehement. They insisted that Tabby was part of the family, and not simply someone who could be removed when no longer in full health, and they even refused to eat until the decision had been made that Tabby could stay.

Their kindness won out, and Tabby remained at the Parsonage even though her mobility would be limited for the rest of her life. Emily Brontë stepped up to the plate, taking on many of the domestic duties that Tabby had carried out, and doing them excellently.

Tabby Aykroyd in the 1841 census
Tabby Aykroyd in the 1841 census

In 1839 Tabby moved in with her widowed sister Susannah, and it is at their shared house on Newell Hill that she appears in the 1841 census of Haworth. Nevertheless we know that by 1842 she was back at the Parsonage, and she would remain there until her own death in February 1855, having outlived all the children except Charlotte Brontë who herself had only months to live at the time.

Tabby is buried just over the wall from the Brontë Parsonage garden, a fitting tribute to the good and faithful servant who did so much to encourage the Brontë’s great works, and to bring happiness to the lives of the Brontë siblings.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
Tabby Aykroyd’s grave

Aunt Branwell and Anne Brontë

In last Sunday’s blog we took a first look at Aunt Branwell, revealing a woman who sacrificed much to step into the void left by her younger sister Maria’s death. Putting self aside she became a surrogate mother to the Brontë children, and by looking at her attitudes to them, and their attitudes to her, we can gain a bigger picture of what this dutiful Cornish woman was like.

The tragic death of her sister soon after Elizabeth Branwell moved to the Haworth Parsonage in 1821 meant that she found herself in an unfamiliar role: she was no longer just aunt to six young children, she had in effect become a substitute mother to Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë. It was a big task, but one that she was ready for.

As we saw last week, it’s easy to get a somewhat false impression of Aunt Branwell as being stern, cold, dogmatic, but if there is one word that truly sums her up it’s this: dependable. The Branwell family was a large one, and yet it seems that she was often the person that her siblings turned to and looked to. When we look at the weddings of the Branwells in Cornwall (a contemporary picture of Penzance is atop this page), one name keeps turning up as witness to the marriage: Elizabeth Branwell. When called upon by her siblings, she would always be there, and so it proved when Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, needed one of her sisters to fulfil the most important task of them all: taking her place after her death, and raising her children as she would have done.

When we look at Aunt Branwell’s relations with the Brontës one in particular stands out – it is quite clear that Aunt Branwell doted upon Anne Brontë, and that she loved her back. Ellen Nussey stated of Anne: ‘She was her Aunt’s favourite’, but why was this?

There are many possible reasons. One being that Elizabeth’s latent maternal instincts were roused by the helpless one year old infant Anne. It also must be remembered that Anne shared the same name as Aunt Branwell’s own dearly missed mother. Another possible reason is that Anne’s delicate features, clear complexion, lighter hair and blue eyes may have made her look more like a Branwell than her dark haired, brown eyed sisters.

Aunt Branwell would have also found the infant Anne a blank canvas, a child to raise as she saw fit. They shared a bedroom for much of Anne’s time in Haworth, and it is to Aunt Branwell that we can attribute much of Anne’s deep seated religious faith, with its good and bad implications. Aunt Branwell was herself a very religious woman, with one of her prized possessions being a teapot on which is written: ‘To me to live is Christ, to die is gain’. On the reverse side is etched ‘William Grimshaw, Haworth’.

Aunt Branwell's teapot
Aunt Branwell’s teapot

Grimshaw had himself been a predecessor to Reverend Patrick Brontë as Haworth’s parish priest, and he was also at the forefront of the new evangelical movement that grew within the Church of England in the mid 18th century. Along with the Wesley brothers he is one of the figures who helped to form Methodism. He became an immensely popular preacher, and so many would come to hear him that services had to be held on the wide open moors. He was also famous for the length of his sermons, and his hellfire delivery. It is said that he would go into the Black Bull Inn and whip people who were in there rather than attending his church.

It may be, then, that Aunt Branwell herself could be a bit of a Grimshaw like preacher – especially as the Branwell family had been pillars of the Methodist church in Cornwall. Certainly she would have seen the learning and interpretation of the scriptures as the most important subject of them all. Could this have seeped into Anne Brontë’s mind at an early age, and been one of the factors that led her to have a mental and physical breakdown when she was at Roe Head School? Anne struggled with dark thoughts of hell and damnation throughout her life, off and on, although she eventually conquered these doubts and fears thanks to her own belief in a loving God offering ‘universal salvation’. Whilst Aunt Branwell would have helped to form Anne’s religious beliefs, it’s more likely that the harsh and unbending preaching of Calvinist priests she heard, such as Reverend Carter at Mirfield, created Anne’s youthful breakdown.

Aunt Branwell could be exacting with the Brontë children, we hear how she made them carry out needlework lessons over and over again for hour on end, but for her it was a means to an end – she wanted to equip these children for the future lives as governesses and housewives that she thought awaited them. It must not be forgotten, however, that she was at heart a kind woman who did have a real affection for her nephew and nieces, and we do have evidence of this.

The references to a ‘mother’ in Anne’s Agnes Grey are without doubt references to Aunt Branwell, who she treated as her mother. Sharing a bedroom with her aunt gave her the love and security that she needed as a child, and that would create the kind and loving woman she grew into. In one passage of Agnes Grey, the heroin remembers:

‘In my childhood I could not imagine a more afflictive punishment than for my mother to refuse to kiss me at night: the very idea was terrible. More than the idea I never felt, for, happily, I never committed a fault that was deemed worthy of such penalty.’

Aunt Branwell silhouette
The only portrait of Aunt Branwell – a tiny silhouette

Anne, like any girl, was not above talking back to her aunt or being mischievous on occasion however. In the 1834 diary paper Emily records such an incident:

‘Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said ‘where are your feet Anne?’ Anne answered, ‘on the floor Aunt.’

Whilst putting an emphasis on needlework and bible studies, Aunt Branwell was also happy to indulge the love of reading that her nieces displayed, at a time when many people would have frowned on such an activity as being wasteful. We hear how at Christmas 1828 she gave the girls a book by Walter Scott entitled ‘Tales Of A Grandfather’. There could not have been a better present. It’s a collection of Scottish tales and folklore that Anne and her sisters loved, and its influence can clearly be seen in their youthful writings and especially in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Aunt Branwell, who had brought a legacy with her to Haworth, could also be called upon for financial support when needed. When the sisters were planning to start their own school, Charlotte turned to her aunt for support. Having already intimated that she would back them in this venture, Aunt Branwell was called upon again to fund Charlotte and Emily’s journey to Brussels. On 29th September 1841, Charlotte wrote to her (from Rawdon where she was at that time a governess):

‘You will see the propriety of what I say; you always like to use your money to the best advantage; you are not fond of making shabby purchases; when you do confer a favour it is often done in style; and depend upon it £50, or £100, thus laid out, would be well employed. Of course, I know no other friend in the world to whom I could apply on this subject except yourself.’

Aunt Branwell did indeed fund this trip, and she still offered to back Charlotte, Emily and Anne in setting up their school as well, although it was a dream that came to nothing.

There was to be one final gift from Aunt Branwell to four of her nieces. She died suddenly, and unexpectedly, on October 25th 1842, with Emily and Charlotte in Brussels. Anne was at Thorp Green Hall, and only Branwell was there. He was devastated, as he too had seen his aunt as a mother figure. He later wrote: ‘I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

Here too we see how Aunt Branwell could be kindly and caring with the Brontës. As the only make she had held high hopes for Branwell, and he had become a favourite almost to the extent that Anne was. In latter years, however, she had despaired of his drinking and inability to secure a position for himself, but he would never forget the debt he owed her. Without this stabilising influence in his life, Branwell’s decline accelerated.

I have seen Aunt Branwell’s will, drawn up in 1833 and granted in 1842, which shares her estate valued at approximately £1500 between Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, and also Elizabeth Kingston, one of the Brontë’s cousins in Penzance, who Aunt Branwell had presumably been concerned about. Anne was also left a gold watch and chain, and an eyeglass that we can imagine must have fascinated her as a child. Branwell Brontë was left nothing but a ‘japanned dressing case.’

The sums passed to these four girls were very considerable at the time, and we have this legacy largely to thank for the Brontë novels that we all love today. It alleviated the immediate necessity for them to take any job, any source of income. It also provided the funds that the sisters used to pay for the publication of their first book: ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.’ This book was far from an instant success, but it led directly to Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.

In Agnes Grey, the eponymous heroine eventually founds a school alongside her kind, wise and resilient mother. This is Anne Brontë’s final tribute to Aunt Branwell, a woman she loved and who loved her back just as a mother would have.

Aunt Branwell – A Second Mother To The Brontës

Anne Brontë was just one and a half years old when her mother Maria died in Haworth, becoming just a name that Anne would carry around rather than a memory. Over the years her eldest sister, also called Maria, and then Charlotte would become mother like figures, but there was one woman above all else who filled that void in her life: Elizabeth Branwell, forever known as Aunt Branwell. In this and the next of our Anne Brontë blogs, I’ll be taking a look at this complex woman and her relationship with the Brontës. It may be different to the image that many people have.

Anne’s mother Maria was the eight child from eleven from the large and relatively wealth Branwell family of Penzance, Cornwall. Her father Thomas Branwell was a successful merchant and prominent in the politics of the area, but after he and his wife Anne Branwell (formerly Carne) died within a few years of each other, the family began to disperse from their Cornish origins. The picture at the top of this post is of the Branwell family home in Penzance.

Maria followed her Aunt Jane to Yorkshire, where she fell in love with the local clergyman Patrick Brontë. They had six children, and looking after them all must have been a struggle, but she did receive help in those early days – from her sister Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Branwell was born in 1776, making her seven years older than Maria. After the death of her parents, Elizabeth was left with an annuity of fifty pounds per year – a significant sum whose economic worth (rather than simply looking at the inflation figures) equates to around £60,000 per annum today. She would have been a central figure at balls and dinners across Cornwall, and yet she never married.

Penzance in the 19th century
Penzance in the 19th century

In 1815 she travelled to Thornton near Bradford to help her sister Maria look after her young family. In total she remained there for around a year before returning to Penzance, but she was soon to be back with the Brontë family again.

Shortly after moving to Haworth in 1820, just after the birth of their youngest daughter Anne, Mrs. Brontë fell gravely ill. It is often thought she had uterine cancer, although in 1972 Professor Philip Rhodes, one of the United Kingdom’s leading obstetricians and gynaecologists, said that the evidence ruled that out as a possible cause of death, and stated that chronic pelvic sepsis with anaemia was the likely cause.

As Maria became increasingly ill and unable to look after her children, her sister Elizabeth once again stepped up to the plate. She arrived in Haworth in the summer of 1821, and she was never to leave there until her own death twenty one years later.

In some ways this was a great sacrifice for Elizabeth: she had left a town where she was well known and well regarded, a town with genteel entertainments and a beautiful climate, and swapped it for a hillside village where the weather could be dreary, wild and unpredictable. Elizabeth found herself an outsider among people who neither looked like her, nor spoke like her.

She was also, in effect, shutting off her hopes of being married for ever, but did she harbour such thoughts anyway? She was by this time in her mid forties, and she had already seen what marriage and childbirth could do to her beloved sister Maria. As an alternative view, she may have been glad to have the opportunity to look after and raise children that would otherwise have been denied to her, although not of course of the circumstances that had brought this about.

Elizabeth Branwell was soon firmly part of the Haworth Parsonage fixtures, and became known as Aunt Branwell to the six young children she would care for. How did she treat the children, and how did they treat her? It’s an intriguing question, and like much of the Brontë story, there isn’t a huge amount of evidence. What we do have has created contrasting views of Aunt Branwell.

It is commonly thought that Aunt Branwell was a stern, rather humourless woman, who resented being trapped in what had become the prison of the parsonage. She was cold and clinical with the Brontë children, and a strict disciplinarian. Whilst there may be some elements of the truth in this, I can’t believe that this is a wholly fair picture of the woman who put her personal ambitions aside and diligently acted as a surrogate mother to the Brontës until the day of her death.

Johanna Sang
This picture of Johanna Sang was for long thought to be a portrait of Aunt Branwell

One view above all else has prevailed when it comes to Aunt Branwell, and it was supplied by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë:

‘Miss Branwell was, I believe, a kindly and conscientious woman, with a good deal of character, but with the somewhat narrow ideas natural to one who had spent nearly all her life in the same place. She had strong prejudices, and soon took a distaste to Yorkshire.’

We have another abiding description of her, this time from Ellen Nussey’s first visit to the Brontë home in 1833:

‘Miss Branwell was a very small, antiquated little lady. She wore caps large enough for half a dozen of the present fashion, and in front of light auburn curls over her forehead. She always dressed in silk. She had a horror of the climate so far north, and of the stone floors in the parsonage… She talked a great deal of her younger days… she gave one the idea that she had been a belle among her home acquaintances. She took snuff out of a very pretty gold snuff-box, which she sometimes presented to you with a little laugh, as if she enjoyed the slight shock and astonishment visible in your countenance… She and Mr Brontë had often to finish their discussions on what she had read when we all met for tea. She would be very lively and intelligent, and tilt arguments against Mr Brontë without fear.’

These descriptions are often used to present an Aunt Branwell that is unremittingly stern, with an archaic dress sense from which must follow archaic views on everything else. If we take a closer look, however, we can get a rather different picture.

Elizabeth Gaskell never knew Elizabeth Branwell, and so her views of her are second hand (and presumably based upon what Charlotte had told her of her aunt). Even here, however, we see her described as being ‘kindly and conscientious’.

Ellen too gives a rather different portrait of Aunt Branwell to the one most people have. She likes to laugh and enjoys a joke, she even enjoys shocking people by taking snuff. She may dress in an old fashioned way, but she also enjoys the pretty things in life – as evidenced by her gold snuff box and the collection of jewellery that we know she treasured.

If we take these two views perhaps we get a truer picture of Aunt Elizabeth Branwell: she disliked the cold climate of the north, her fashion was rather out of date, but she was kind, she had a sense of humour, and above all she was bright and intelligent.

All of these attributes could also, to a greater or lesser extent, be conferred upon the Brontës: and is that any wonder, when it was she who raised them just as a mother would. In next week’s blog we’ll take a further look at Aunt Branwell, by looking at perhaps the most pertinent evidence of them all: the views of the Brontë siblings themselves.

We’ll see how Aunt Branwell held a very special place for one special Brontë, and how she influenced her life and her work. Again it was hinted at by Ellen when in her description of Anne Brontë she says:

‘Anne, dear gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite.’

Anne Brontë’s 197th Birthday

The 17th of January, 2017, marked the 197th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë – in my opinion not only one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, but of all time.

Anne has never been afforded the attention, the plaudits, that her talent deserves, which was the main reason I decided to write my biography In Search Of Anne Brontë. It was a labour of love, and I’m glad to see that the recent drama To Walk Invisible also helped to put Anne in the spotlight where she belongs.

Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible
Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible

Anne’s brilliance, and that of her sisters Charlotte and Emily came in spite of family tragedies that seemed to follow upon another in cruel succession: she was a one year old baby when her mother died, and just an infant when her eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of the tuberculosis they had contracted at school. In later life she lost the Aunt who had become a surrogate mother to her, and William Weightman the man she loved, within the space of weeks whilst she was away working as a governess. Finally, she lost her only brother Branwell and her beloved sister Emily at the end of a year, 1848, that should have been a triumph for her, before succumbing to tuberculosis herself just months later.

Sudden and early deaths were a way of life in the early Victorian period in a manner that is unimaginable today, but that doesn’t mean that the bereaved felt their loss any less. And yet, it is out of these tragedies that Anne Brontë forged her great work.

It was the loss of their mother that forced the young Brontë sisters together, creating their own world of the imagination and the close bonds that would last a lifetime. Weightman’s death led Anne to seek solace in poetry, and her many poems of mourning and loss are among her greatest verse. Above all, they led Anne to seek the truth in all she did, and to make honesty the most important cornerstone of her life and her writing. Anne knew how fragile life on this earth could be, so she scorned the critics who called her work coarse and brutal. To Anne, there was no early critic who could make her change her course.

Anne’s novels were truly ground breaking in the way that they addressed real problems facing real people: the unfairness of the class system, the rights of women, alcoholism, drug dependency, abusive relationships, frustrated love, extra-marital affairs, hypocritical preaching. Anne’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ has been described as one of the first works of feminist fiction, and suffragette and writer May Lewis said that Helen’s slamming of the marital door against Huntingdon reverberated across Victorian England.

As well as that, however, they often have touches of lightness and levity that to my mind outshine examples found in other Brontë novels. In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, for example, Fergus is a terrific comic character, and even the hero Gilbert has his pomposity pricked in amusing fashion.

George Moore
George Moore, novelist and Anne Bronte fan

Above all, Anne’s books are a pleasure to read. Anne was a brilliant wordsmith, a superb technician whose pages almost turn themselves. George Moore, himself a brilliant novelist, stated that when you read ‘Agnes Grey’ you know you are reading the work of a genius, and said that if Anne Brontë had lived longer her reputation would have matched Jane Austen, and perhaps even surpassed it.