Inside Thornton Parsonage – Birthplace of the Brontës

There are two buildings that all Brontë fans should, if they get the chance, visit. One is the Haworth Parsonage that the Brontë children grew up in, and the place where they wrote their masterpieces. Now of course known as the Brontë Parsonage Museum it has become a place of pilgrimage for visitors from across the globe, but many fail to realise that a journey of just a handful of miles would take them to another parsonage and another must see location: Thornton Parsonage, four miles from the centre of Bradford. The picture at the top of this post uses a mirror image of the left side of the building to show how it would have looked in Patrick’s time, before the extension currently to the right of the entrance was built.

Anne Brontë was born in Thornton Parsonage in January 1820, and it had also been the location for the earlier births of Charlotte, Patrick Branwell and Emily Brontë (the elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë were born in Hartshead near Mirfield). The family moved from Thornton to Haworth in April 1820 so whilst Anne would have no recollection of it, it was an essential part in the childhood of her elder sisters and brother.

Fireplace Charlotte Bronte
The fireplace by which Amme Bronte was born ( I didn’t place my book there – honest!)

Thornton Parsonage was bought by local businessman Mark de Luca in 2013, an act that all Brontë lovers should be thankful for. It is now a fine delicatessen named Emily’s, but before being bought it had been running into disrepair as a series of bedsit flats before being repossessed, and its future looked bleak. Visitors to Emily’s today will not only be assured of excellent coffee and food, they can also see the original fireplace by which the Brontë children were born, and there are other tributes to the sisters throughout the café.

Now, thanks to photographs taken by Mark, we can see parts of the building normally out of bounds to the public, and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce some of them here.

Thornton Parsonage fireplace
The historic fireplace that witnessed the birth of the Brontes
Wardrobe in children's bedroom
Wardrobe in children’s bedroom, dating from the time of the Brontes
Patrick Bronte's writing desk
This desk may have been used by Patrick Bronte, although another of his desks is in St. James’ church, Thornton
original timber floor
The original timber floor that the Bronte sisters walked, and crawled, upon
stone staircase from scullery to servants' room
The stone staircase from the scullery to the servants’ room
view from Garrs bedroom
The servants’ room window, where Nancy and Sarah Garrs looked out

I urge everyone who has the chance to visit Emily’s in Thornton, for they may not always have the opportunity to do so. Family commitments and a successful hair salon business means that Mark has had to make a big decision – Thornton Parsonage is now on the market again.

rear of Emily's
The rear of Emily’s, where Charlotte and Branwell once played

This really will be a fantastic opportunity for somebody, whether to keep the business going or simply to live in the building the Brontës lived in, and hopefully they will treat the building with the same deference and sensitivity that Mark has. This building really is a building like no other, and of huge historical and literary importance – now, I just need to check what’s in my piggy bank and down the back of my sofa! In the meantime if you know somebody who may be interested in purchasing the business or property, or both, you can find more information and Mark’s contact details here.

William Morgan: Christenings, Funerals and More

199 years and one day ago, the 19th of August 1818, witnessed a special event at St. James’ Church, Thornton: the baptism of the parish priest’s fourth daughter, Emily Jane Brontë. Presiding over the ceremony was a man who was a great friend of Emily’s father, the Reverend William Morgan. Morgan would be present at many Brontë family events, some happy and some not so happy, and to Charlotte Brontë he would be known as Uncle Morgan to his face and the ‘Welsh windbag’ behind his back.

Emily Bronte's christening cup
Emily Bronte’s christening cup

The beautiful Christening cup created for this auspicious event of 1818 can still be seen in the Brontë Parsonage Museum today, and you can also buy a replica of it in the shop. A year and a half after Emily’s christening he also presided over the christening of the final child in the family, Anne Brontë. This event took place in Thornton’s church on 25th March 1820, with Morgan presiding and Elizabeth Firth and Fanny Outhwaite acting as godmothers – a month later the family would leave Thornton behind and head to their new parish of Haworth. There would be no more christenings for Morgan to preside over in Haworth, but, alas, he was all too soon and all too frequently called upon to carry out the funeral services of the children he had christened.

William Morgan was born in Wales in 1782 and entered the priesthood at the same time as Patrick Brontë. Their paths first crossed in 1809, when they were both assistant curates in the town of Wellington, Shropshire in the English Midlands. When Patrick later moved to Yorkshire to become assistant curate in Dewsbury he found there were already two of his friends from Shropshire in the vicinity. Morgan was already a curate in Bierley, near Bradford, and John Fennell, who they had both known from Wellington, was now running Woodhouse Grove School.

This was an auspicious event, as Patrick, probably at Morgan’s suggestion was employed at the school as an examiner in the classics. Morgan already had an interest in the school as he was in love with John Fennell’s daughter Jane who worked there. Patrick himself soon fell in love with another member of the school’s staff – Jane’s cousin and John’s niece Maria Branwell who had recently arrived in Yorkshire from Cornwall.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan

On 29th December 1812 a triple wedding took place. Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell at St. Oswald’s church Guiseley (that’s it at the top of this post), with William Morgan officiating, and at the same ceremony William Morgan married Jane Fennel, with Patrick officiating. John Fennel, who himself had taken holy orders and could have carried out the ceremony, gave both brides away. This unusual, yet very happy, event was reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine at the start of 1813:

‘Lately at Guiseley, near Bradford, by the Rev. William Morgan, minister of Bierley, Rev. P. Brontë, B.A., minister of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, to Maria, third daughter of the late T. Branwell, Esq., of Penzance. At the same time , by the Rev. P. Brontë, Rev. W. Morgan, to the only daughter of Mr. John Fennell, Headmaster of the Wesleyan Academy near Bradford.’

As you can imagine, this dual ceremony cemented bonds of friendship that lasted a lifetime. I mentioned a triple wedding, for the joining together of these two couples was also linked to another wedding taking place 400 miles away. On the same day, 29th December 1812, Maria’s younger sister Charlotte Branwell married her cousin Joseph Branwell in Penzance. Acting as witness to the marriage in Cornwall was the elder sister of Charlotte, Elizabeth Branwell, who would later play a huge role in the Brontë story. This triple wedding at two locations was no coincidence. Charlotte’s daughter, also called Charlotte Branwell, later recollected her mother telling her how the three women had corresponded with each other on the subject and arranged it so that the two ceremonies, and three weddings, coincided.

William Morgan was a stout, in more ways than one, and reliable friend to Patrick, and it is likely that he was among the people who cleared Patrick’s debts after the death of his wife Maria, debts that had been incurred in a fruitless attempt to find a cure for the woman he loved. To the Brontë children however he became something of a figure of fun. This may have been because of his sing-song Welsh accent, or his increasingly rotund figure, but it was most likely because of his reputation for preaching sermons that went on, and on, and on.

It was not only in church that he liked to talk interminably, as the Leeds Intelligencer of 12th March 1836 noted his presence at a meeting to discuss the Factory Act, at which ‘Rev. William Morgan spoke at considerable length.’

Charlotte Brontë especially had little time for a man who had done so much for her family. Never the most patient woman, nor one to hide her true feelings, she wrote to Ellen Nussey on 17th March 1840, discussing William Weightman listening to William Morgan:

‘It was amazing to see with what patience and good temper the innocent creature endure that fat Welshman’s prosing.’

Thirteen years later, in another letter to Ellen from 1853, we see that time had not made Charlotte feel any kindlier towards her father’s best friend:

‘My visit to Manchester is for the present put off by Mr. Morgan having written to say that since Papa will not go to Buckingham to see him he will come to Yorkshire to see Papa – when I don’t know yet – and I trust in goodness he will not stay long… I must wait however till the infliction is over.’

Morgan’s wife Jane, cousin of Maria Brontë of course, died in 1827, and in 1836 he married again to a woman called Mary Gibson. William himself died in 1858, and we should not let Charlotte’s opinion of him cloud ours. When Patrick needed a friend he was there, and he was present at some of the most vital moments of Brontë family life, the christenings and funerals.

Conwy Castle by Charlotte Bronte

In 1854 Charlotte Brontë visited the homeland of William Morgan, as she travelled through Wales on her honeymoon en route to Ireland, the land of her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls. She loved the country’s rugged landscapes and its magnificent castles, as we can see from this drawing that she made of Conwy Castle. Maybe at last her thoughts turned with some fondness to her Uncle Morgan?

Anne Brontë – Memory and the Haworth Heather

I am in London at the moment, a city that Anne Brontë visited in July 1848, in the company of her sister Charlotte. It was the only occasion that Anne ever travelled outside of Yorkshire, and she quickly fell in love with the city’s magnificent architecture and the beautiful music that she heard on a visit to the opera house in Covent Garden.

This was the occasion on which Anne and Charlotte abandoned their facade of Acton and Currer Bell to disprove the suggestion, spread by Anne and Emily’s unscrupulous publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, that the Bell brothers were one and the same person. It was a stressful time for the shy sisters, but it led to some of the happiest days of Anne Brontë’s all too short life.

Euston 1839
Euston Station, London in 1839 – Anne and Charlotte Bronte arrived there in 1848

The sights and sounds of London were far removed from those she knew so well at Haworth, although that too was a place she loved. I also visited Haworth this week to undertake further research on Aunt Branwell, a pivotal figure in the Brontë story. The Parsonage Museum was enchanting as ever, but I also witnessed a delightful scene on the moors that surround the Parsonage, as it is at this time of year that the often bleak moors take on a royally purple hue.

Heather season is starting in Haworth, a time that would have seemed magical to the nature loving Anne and Emily. She looked back fondly at her childhood moors in her poem ‘Memory’, written in 1844. Next week’s blog will look at one particular London building that Anne Brontë visited, but for now I leave you with the joyous, yet at the same time melancholic, ‘Memory’:

Brightly the sun of summer shone
Green fields and waving woods upon
And soft winds wandered by.
Above, a sky of purest blue,
Around, bright flowers of loveliest hue
Allured the gazer’s eye.
But what were all these charms to me
When one sweet breath of memory
Came gently wafting by?
I closed my eyes against the day
And called my willing soul away
From earth and air and sky;
That I might simply fancy there
One little flower – a primrose fair
Just opening into sight.
As in the days of infancy,
An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight.
Sweet Memory, ever smile on me;
Nature’s chief beauties spring from thee,
O, still thy tribute bring.
Still make the golden crocus shine
Among the flowers the most divine,
The glory of the spring.
Still in the wall-flower’s fragrance dwell,
And hover round the slight blue bell,
My childhood’s darling flower.
Smile on the little daisy still,
The buttercup’s bright goblet fill
With all thy former power.
For ever hang thy dreamy spell
Round mountain star and heatherbell,
And do not pass away
From sparkling frost, or wreathed snow,
And whisper when the wild winds blow
Or rippling waters play.
Is childhood then so all divine?
Or, Memory, is the glory thine
That haloes thus the past?
Not all divine; its pangs of grief
Although perchance their stay be brief,
Are bitter while they last.
Nor is the glory all thine own,
For on our earliest joys alone
That holy light is cast.
With such a ray no spell of thine
Can make our later pleasures shine,
Though long ago they passed.

A Little While – The Brontës On Holiday

Anne Brontë and her sisters lived in a very different society to ours, and yet they had pressures and strains that we would recognise today. Like us, they needed on occasion to get away from the demands and mundanity of everyday life, an escape to a place of joy and relaxation – a holiday:

‘A little while, a little while,
The noisy crowd are barred away;
And I can sing and I can smile,
A little while I’ve holiday!
Where wilt thou go my harassed heart?
Full many a land invites thee now;
And places near, and far apart,
Have rest for thee, my weary brow –
There is a spot ‘mid barren hills,
Where winter howls and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.
The house is old, the trees are bare,
And moonless bends the misty dome;
But what on earth is half so dear –
So longed for as the hearth of home?
The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The garden-walk with weeds o’ergrown,
I love them – how I love them all!
Shall I go there? or shall I seek,
Another clime, another sky,
Where tongues familiar music speak,
In accents dear to memory?
Yes, as I mused, the naked room,
The flickering firelight died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom,
I passed to bright, unclouded day –
A little and a lone green lane,
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreamy, dim blue chain,
Of mountains circling every side –
A heaven so clear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And, deepening still the dream-like charm,
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere –
That was the scene – I knew it well;
I knew the pathways far and near,
That winding o’er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering deer.
Could I have lingered but an hour,
It well had paid a week of toil;
But truth has banished fancy’s power:
I hear my dungeon bars recoil –
Even as I stood with raptured eye,
Absorbed in bliss so deep and dear,
My hour of rest had fleeted by,
And given me back to weary care.’

Emily Brontë wrote this poem in December 1838, during her brief spell as a teacher at Law Hill near Halifax. It shows that for her there was only one place for a holiday – the old, familiar Haworth. Whilst Emily would become increasingly attached to the Parsonage and its surrounds, becoming a virtual recluse after her return from a year in Brussels, she could find relaxation and stimulation whenever she needed it, simply by walking across the moors she knew so well.

Moors by Dave Zdanowicz
The Haworth moors loved by Emily Bronte (photo c. Dave Zdanowic)

Out of all the Brontë sisters it was Charlotte who had the greatest yearning to travel. Even during the months and years that she resided at Haworth she would often journey to spend time with her friend Ellen Nussey at Birstall or at Hathersage, where her brother had been made vicar. These last sojourns proved particularly fruitful, as Hathersage was later recreated on paper as the Morton of ‘Jane Eyre’.

Charlotte’s love of travel developed in childhood. All of the Brontë siblings were fascinated by the tales of exploration and adventure that they read about in their father’s newspapers and magazines – this after all was a time of great exploration, led by people like Mungo Jerry and Hugh Clapperton. These tales were the catalyst for the creation of the imaginary lands of Angria and then Gondal, whose little books were the result of a ‘scribblemania’, as Charlotte put it, that would later find release in the novels we love so much today.

Whilst the other Brontës were happy to confine their adventures to the page, Charlotte wanted to explore in real life. This wanderlust was the reason that Charlotte jumped at the opportunity to head to Belgium at the beginning of 1842. Ostensibly travelling, with Emily beside her, to learn languages that would help attract pupils to their proposed school, she was really journeying to fulfill her dream of seeing new faces and places in a new country.

The Crystal Palace
The Crystal Palace from ‘Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition’

Charlotte’s Belgian adventure did not end well, returning to England with little more than a broken heart. She later found holiday-like enjoyment in her visits to London. After the death of her sisters, Charlotte began to appear within the London literary scene, and this gave her the chance to experience sights and events that were far removed from those she knew in Yorkshire. One event that had a particular impact on her was the Great Exhibition which ran in London’s Hyde Park from May to October of 1851. The huge structure in which it was held was christened the Crystal Palace, and within it were held treasures of science, art and culture from around the world. To Charlotte, and the millions of others who attended, it was a magical experience. She visited on numerous occasions, and gave a vivid description of what she saw:

‘Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.’

This was one of the greatest moments of Charlotte’s life, and a perfect holiday experience for her. Whilst she was captivated by the living tide, the sea of humanity, it was a very different tide that charmed her youngest sister Anne Brontë. From her earliest days, Anne loved the sea. The crashing, roaring waves with their white topped sprays held the same place in her heart that the wild purple moors held in Emily’s. We get a glimpse of Anne’s love of the sea in her 1839 picture ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. In this picture the sea is a vision of beauty, gilded by the golden rays of the sun, and at its centre is a woman with her back to us. With her characteristic long curled hair, it seems that this is a picture of Anne herself.

Sunrise Over Sea
Sunrise Over Sea by Anne Bronte

What is remarkable about this picture is that it was created before Anne had ever seen the sea, but a year later that would change. In June 1840 she made her first visit to Scarborough on the east coast of Yorkshire, spending around a month in Wood’s Lodgings in company with the Robinson family of Thorp Green, for whom she was working as a governess. She would make five such visits in all, and then one further visit in company with Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey in May 1849 – this was of course Anne’s final journey, as she had chosen to die in the place that meant so much to her.

Just what did Anne Brontë love so much about Scarborough? She liked the exciting new spa building and the grand bridge crossing to it, she loved the regular musical concerts given in the town, but most of all she loved to walk the sands and look out to the vast expanse of the sea. As she did so, she imagined two other women looking out to the sea from a similar beach in their childhood: her Aunt Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, the mother she had never known. Aunt Branwell was immensely proud of Penzance, and we know that she often talked about it. For Anne, who shared a room with her aunt throughout her childhood, these tales were magical, and they gave her a glimpse into the happy childhood her mother had spent by the Cornish coast. Anne would never travel to Penzance, it was after all further from Haworth than Brussels was, but Scarborough became her own substitute for it. Anne’s love of Scarborough, then, was a symbol of her love for her aunt and of her longing to have known her mother.

Anne Brontë’s idea of a holiday coincides with what many of us think ideal today – sand, sun and entertainment. August is the month when many of us take a holiday, and next week I will be taking a few days break myself. I’m not going to the coast, London is my destination. As I walk the streets I’ll be thinking of the journey Anne herself made there in July 1848. The noisy crowds may not be barred away in the capital’s bustling streets, but I’ll certainly find time to relax and smile (if not sing).

A Brontë Yorkshire Day & the Halifax Piece Hall

August 1st 2017 is Yorkshire Day, and so of course it’s the ideal day to remember the Queens of Yorkshire: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë! This Yorkshire Day is of special significance in Halifax, as it marks the grand re-opening of one of the county’s most beautiful, and historically important buildings, the Halifax Piece Hall.

Halifax Piece Hall at the time of the Brontes, but John Wilson Anderson
Halifax Piece Hall at the time of the Brontes, by John Wilson Anderson

The Piece Hall dominates the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, but for years it has lain unused, a ghostly reminder of the past. After an extensive refurbishment it re-opens today, and will be home to food stalls, artisan craft shops, and independent traders of all kinds. The picture at the top of this post is actually of the crowds waiting to enter this morning. First opened to the public in 1779 it was a grand symbol of municipal pride, and an imposing reminder of how much the town of Halifax was growing. It was the woollen industry that was making the towns of Halifax and nearby Huddersfield wealthy, and the hall’s initial function was as a place for hand loom weavers to sell pieces of cloth.

This connects the Piece Hall with Haworth, ten miles to the north, as the village’s growth at the turn of the 19th century was largely thanks to an influx of hand loom weavers and woolcombers. It was hot and laborious work, and contributed to Haworth’s unsanitary conditions, as the government inspector Charles Herschel Babbage found when he inspected Haworth, at Patrick Brontë’s request, in April 1850:

‘In order to obtain the proper temperatures for the operation [woolcombing] iron stoves are fixed in the rooms where it is carried on, which are kept alight day and night and the windows are seldom, if ever, opened excepting in the height of summer. In some cases, I found that this business was carried out in bedrooms, which consequently became very close and unhealthy from the high temperatures maintained by the stoves and want of ventilation.’

The Piece Hall has another link to the Brontës, as it would certainly have been well known to both Emily and Branwell Brontë. In 1840 Branwell became assistant clerk at Luddendon Foot Railway Station, and Halifax became his regular drinking haunt – often alongside his sculptor friend Joseph Bentley Leyland and his brother Francis. One pub known to be frequented by Branwell was the Old Cock Inn, and it stands in the shadows of the Piece Hall.

Halifax was also the haunt of Emily Brontë between the autumn of 1838 and the spring of 1839, a time when she served as a teacher at Miss Patchett’s school known as Law Hill at Southowram. The village of Southowram is on the outskirts of Halifax, and as it’s surrounded by moors it was surely to Emily’s liking. It is also at a significant elevation, and the road leading up to it is far steeper and longer than the famous climb of Haworth’s Main Street. It offers a fine view down into the valley of Halifax itself, and the building that stands out above all others is the Piece Hall.

Piece Hall view
Emily Bronte’s view of Halifax (the Piece Hall is the rectangular building)

It is hard to give a precise end date to Emily’s time as a teacher, but it is generally accepted now that she lasted little more than half a year in the role. Nevertheless, these were pivotal months – both the building known as High Sunderland, a short walk from Law Hill, and the bizarre history of Law Hill itself would remain imprinted in Emily Brontë’s memory until they came to play central parts in ‘Wuthering Heights‘.

Celebrations will be going on all day and night at the Piece Hall today, and part of the celebrations involves brass band music that we know Anne Brontë and her siblings enjoyed at Haworth. Celebrations will also be taking place across the county of the Brontës, and of course my own county as well, to mark Yorkshire Day. You don’t have to know what ‘Ee bah gum, has tha put wood in t’oil?’ means (answer: ‘excuse me, have you closed the door?’) to celebrate Yorkshire Day – if you love the works of the Brontë sisters then you can count yourself as an honorary Yorkshire person (though I can’t guarantee you’ll get a Yorkshire passport).

Yorkshire passport
Yorkshire passport