Three Events In The Life Of Patrick Brontë

The last week in February witnessed some of the most momentous events in Reverend Patrick Brontë’s professional life. We know him, of course, as the father of Charlotte, Anne and Branwell Brontë, genius writers all and three of the six Brontë siblings. His nature could be idiosyncratic at times, and he freely admitted:

‘I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentric. If I had been numbered among the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world I should not have been as I now am. And I should in all probability never have had such children as mine have been.’

Young Patrick Brontë
Portrait of a young Patrick Brontë

We must thank him for having the courage to bring up his children as he did, and allowing them to become the towering figures that they did. He was much more than that as well, though, so let’s take a look at three late February events that bookended his remarkable career within the Church of England.

On the 25th of February 1820, little more than a month after Anne Brontë’s birth, Patrick Brontë was officially granted the perpetual curacy of Haworth, leaving behind his previous parish of Thornton. He was entering a parish made famous by a previous incumbent William Grimshaw, but also one where the villagers could be vociferous, and who weren’t afraid to stand up to their priest.

It had been a long road to Haworth for Patrick, as he had been offered the post a year earlier but declined it when locals opposed his appointment, as reported in the Leeds Intelligencer of 14th June 1819:

‘We hear that the Rev. P. Brontë, curate of Thornton, has been nominated by the vicar of Bradford, to the valuable perpetual curacy of Haworth, vacated by the death of the Rev. James Charnock; but that the inhabitants of the chapelry intend to resist the presentation, and have entered a caveat accordingly.’

It is well known now that the Haworth elders were objecting to the Vicar of Bradford appointing their priest without consulting them first, contrary to an ancient right they had. This was shown by the appalling treatment meted out to Samuel Redhead when he was appointed by Henry Heap, Bradford’s vicar, after Patrick’s retreat. Elizabeth Gaskell tells with some drama how Redhead was received, but the truth was even more incredible, as we see from a letter that the Bishop of Ripon, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley wrote to his wife:

‘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.’

Redhead managed to flee, but could obviously no longer continue in his post. A compromise was reached in which the Haworth elders would nominate a curate who would then be rubber stamped by Heap, and it was this compromise that saw Patrick appointed to the post after all in February 1820.

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte in old age

Patrick Brontë was entering a parish where the congregation had tried to murder the previous incumbent, how long would he endure? The answer to that is testimony to his resilience, his courage and the good standing he rapidly achieved among the people of Haworth.

The next event from this week occurred on the 22nd February 1837, when we find, once again via a report in the Leeds Intelligencer, that Patrick is chairing a meeting to protest against the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act. This cruel act introduced workhouses in which to house those who needed benefits to survive, but the conditions inside were appalling, with husbands separated from wives, mothers from children.

Patrick was opposed to workhouses, and he chaired what could have been a fiery meeting with aplomb, leading the newspaper report to conclude:

Patrick Bronte poor law
The Leeds Intelligencer paid Patrick Bronte fulsome tribute

It is worth noting of course that whilst the reporter states that Reverend Brontë is ‘far advanced in years’, he would serve the parish for another 24 years after this date, despite the ill health alluded to (primarily his increasing blindness). The meeting was held in the school rooms that Patrick himself had had built, next to the church and the parsonage he called home. It was another of the many socially aware acts carried out in Haworth by Patrick Brontë; perhaps the greatest of all was his work in securing improvements to the water supply of Haworth. It was largely thanks to Haworth that a reservoir was built on the moors near Haworth, lavatories were installed, and that sanitation in general was greatly improved. There can be no doubts that Patrick’s tireless efforts in this cause saved thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to diseases such as cholera.

Old School Rooms Haworth
The Old School Rooms, Haworth were built on the orders of Patrick Bronte

This last week in February also marked an end to one of Patrick Brontë’s duties as parish priest, for on this day, the 24th of February, in 1857 he carried out his final marriage service. Now approaching his 80th birthday he turned for the final time to a bride and groom and asked if they would take each other in sickness and in health. Patrick had certainly served Haworth in sickness and in health, and so it is fitting that these words he would have said hundreds upon hundreds of times throughout his decades in the parish form the title of the new exhibition in his memory at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – I look forward to visiting it next month.

After 1857, Patrick was no longer able to carry out the daily duties demanded of a parish priest, and these were instead undertaken by Charlotte Brontë’s widow, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Nevertheless, he did from time to time take or assist in a service at the church until his well earned rest came in June 1861, meaning that he had served Haworth with distinction for more than 40 years. We know this from the last report of him, and fittingly it comes in a letter sent by his niece Eliza Kingston in Penzance, Cornwall. This letter dated March 1860 is proof of Patrick’s loyalty to the church, but also of the lifelong fidelity of his love for his wife Maria. It was nearly four decades since she had died, and yet he still cherished his memory so much that he obviously continued to write to members of her family over 400 miles away, perhaps because when doing so he felt close to her once more. I will leave you with Eliza’s words, the last words we have on Patrick Brontë, and say thank you to a great father, a great priest and a great man:

‘I had a letter from my Uncle Brontë last June. He says he was in his 83rd year, but, though feeble, was still able to preach once on Sunday, and sometimes to take occasional duty; his son-in-law, Mr. Nicholls will continue with him. He says strangers still continue to call, but he converses little with them, but keeps himself as quiet as he can. I understand the Brontës were beloved in their own neighbourhood.’

They are still beloved in all neighbourhoods.

In Loving Remembrance Of Tabby Aykroyd

In 1855 Charlotte Brontë Nicholls (as she termed herself) was celebrating her first Valentine’s Day as a married woman. On the 15th February she wrote to her friend Laetitia Wheelwright, saying:

“At present I am confined to my bed with illness and have been so for 3 weeks. Up to this period since my marriage I have had excellent health. My Husband and I live at home with my Father… no kinder better husband than mine it seems to me can there be in the world. I do not want now for kind companionship and the tenderest nursing in sickness… I cannot write more now for I am much reduced and very weak.”

It was to be the first and last Valentine’s Day as a married woman for Charlotte, she was to find, as Anne and William Weightman had before her, that tragedy often followed close on love’s heels in that Haworth parsonage. As she blotted the letter she could not have known this, nor that death was already waiting in those familiar rooms, for just three days later, on this day in 1855, the long standing Brontë servant and friend Tabby Aykroyd died.

June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd
June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd in To Walk Invisible

Tabitha Aykroyd, always known by the children as Tabby, had taken up her role as servant more than three decades earlier in late 1824, as a cost-cutting replacement for the sisters Nancy and Sarah Garrs. 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 no children but two sisters Rose and Susanna. 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. Patrick alluded to Tabby’s appointment in a letter to his bank on 10th November 1824:

‘I am going to send another of my little girls to school [Emily], which at the first will cost me some little – but in the end I shall not lose – as I now keep two servants but am only to keep one elderly woman now, who, when my other little girl is at school will be able to wait I think on my remaining children [Anne and Branwell] and myself’

This ‘elderly woman’ as Patrick described her, was in fact just six years older than himself. She seems to have been a forthright no-nonsense Yorkshire woman of the type still readily found today, but behind a bluff exterior she could also be very warm and loving, which is another Yorkshire trait which endures. This is confirmed by Elizabeth Gaskell, who had met Tabby:

‘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.’

Tabby Aykroyd actress
Actress playing Tabby Aykroyd outside Haworth Parsonage

A strong bond formed between Tabby and the children, although we have a 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. This shows that Tabby was a central part of the Brontë children’s development and play time, and it also reveals the Pennine Yorkshire dialect that she and many others in the Haworth area spoke, and which Emily Brontë later put into the mouth of Wuthering Heights’ Joseph, much to the confusion of non-Yorkshire based readers ever since.

In December 1836, Tabby suffered a terrible accident which could have changed the course of her life. Haworth’s steep main street can be treacherous in winter, then and now, and Tabby slipped on ice, badly breaking her leg and leaving her with a walking impediment for the rest of her life. Aunt Branwell recommended that Tabby should be let go, not merely because she could no longer perform all her duties but so that Tabby could be looked after by her sister. The Brontë siblings, however, were having none of it. They insisted that they would look after her just as she had looked after them when they were young, and they even refused to eat until the decision was reversed, and under these circumstances Tabby was allowed to stay. It is clear that to the Brontë siblings, Tabby was an essential part of the family.

Nevertheless, Tabby’s leg injury flared up from time to time, and in 1839 she moved into the house of her sister Susanna Wood. It must have been a lengthy convalescence for she was still there when the 1841 census was taken (that’s it at the top of this page, can you find her?), but by 1842 she had returned to the parsonage. Emily Brontë had become fiercely loyal to Tabby, and she took on many of the household duties that were now a struggle for her; a far cry from Emily’s diary paper of 1834 when she had to be cajoled into helping in the kitchen:

‘Tabby said on my putting a pen into her face, “Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate”’.

Tabby of course would outlive Emily, and she and Martha provided comfort to Charlotte after the death of her sisters and brother, but a letter to Ellen Nussey of 14th September 1849 revealed a particularly distressing day for Charlotte and Tabby:

‘Both Tabby and Martha are ill in bed. Martha’s illness has been most serious, she was seized with internal inflammation ten days ago; Tabby’s lame leg has broken out – she cannot stand or walk – I have one of Martha’s sisters to help me and her mother comes up sometimes. There was one day last week when I fairly broke down for ten minutes – sat and cried like a fool. Martha’s illness was at its height, a cry from Tabby had called me into the kitchen and I had found her laid on the floor – her head under the kitchen-grate – she had fallen from her chair in attempting to rise. Papa had just been declaring that Martha was in imminent danger, I was myself depressed with head-ache and sickness – that day I hardly knew what to do or where to turn… Life is a battle May we all be enabled to fight it well.’

Martha and Tabby both recovered, and Tabby also recovered from a bout of ‘English cholera’ that Charlotte reported in 1852 (this was the less serious, less usually fatal, form of the disease). We have final news of Tabby however in a simple line from Charlotte to Ellen of 21st February 1855:

‘Write and tell me about Mrs. Hewitt’s case, how long she was ill and in what way. Papa thank God! is better. Our poor old Tabby is dead and buried. Give my truest love to Miss Wooler. May God comfort and help you.’

This letter shows both sides of life at the Parsonage. Mrs. Hewitt was a mutual friend who had suffered morning sickness when pregnant, so this line and a later letter in response to Mrs. Hewitt’s reply, is proof that Charlotte too was pregnant. And then we have a simple brief tribute to Tabby Akyroyd who had taken her final breath four days earlier. Charlotte was herself, although she didn’t know it, rapidly approaching her final day, she would have been too weak to hold the hand of the woman who had loved her so much for more than thirty years, and who had been loved back in return. Nevertheless, Tabby doubtless could feel the love around her as she left this world, and she still deserves and receives our love today.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
Tabby Aykroyd’s grave is at the perimeter of the parsonage garden

Tabby Aykroyd brought practical and emotional support to the Brontë siblings whenever they needed it, she could always be relied upon, and it is her tales of Yorkshire folklore that helped shape the sisters’ writings. On this day, as we remember the life of Tabby Aykroyd, I can’t help but bring to mind the words from Matthew that Patrick must have read in many a sermon:

‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant!’

What Was In The Brontë Valentine’s Day Cards?

If only we knew the content of the Valentine’s Day cards that William Weightman sent to the Brontë sisters on this day in 1840! What we do know for sure is that Weightman had arrived in Haworth the previous year to serve as Assistant Curate to Reverend Patrick Brontë, and he quickly charmed all in the village, including the three young women resident in the parsonage: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Weightman was astonished to find that none of the sisters (then aged between 20 and 23) had ever received a Valentine’s card and so he decided to put that right. He sent four cards, because faithful friend Ellen Nussey was also in the parsonage at the time, and he walked from Haworth to Bradford to post them so the postmark wouldn’t give the sender’s identity away too easily. From a letter from Charlotte Brontë we also know the title of three of the poems. ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ is obviously for Ellen Nussey. ‘Soul Divine’, I conjecture, is surely fitting for Emily Brontë who would later write ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine.’ ‘Away Fond Love’ must be for Anne Brontë, as she was at that moment trying to secure a new position as a governess that would take her away from Haworth – and that two months later would see her begin a new post at Thorp Green Hall. I believe William and Anne were already smitten by each other, and the sending of the cards allowed him to express his true feelings for Anne without rousing suspicion.

One card title we do not know, and I believe that’s because Charlotte was too modest to reveal the title of the card sent to her. We also, of course, don’t know the wording of the verses themselves, so what could they have been? We hear that Weightman was an excellent scholar, and he knew the poetry loving Brontës would be hard to impress, so maybe he took inspiration from some of the poems he knew and loved and adapted them to his needs? That’s just what I’ve done below, and so I apologise in advance to Messrs Spenser, Marvell and Keats (and Weightman) as I try to conjure up the kind of verse that could have charmed the Brontës and Ellen Nussey on that cold February day:

early Valentine's card

Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen

Men call you fair, Ellen, and you deserve it,
For that yourself you daily do see:
But the greater fair of a gentle wit,
And virtuous mind’s more praised by me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to nothing and lose its hue:
But your soul is permanent and free
From failures which with time ensue.
That is true beauty: that does show you,
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Born of that fair Spirit, from whom all true,
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only is fair, and fair Ellen He has made,
All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.

Valentines cherub

Soul Divine

Oh soul divine, now learn to wield,
The weight of your immortal shield.
Place on your head thy helmet bright.
Ready your sword against the fight.
For see – an army, strong as fair,
With silken banners breaks the air.
Now, if you beat that thing divine,
In this day’s combat let it shine:
And show that you have all the art,
To conquer this resolvèd heart.

Valentine swans

Away Fond Love

Away fond love, would I were steadfast as you are –
Not in lone splendour hung awake the night,
And watching, with eternal lids afar,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless hermite,
The moving waters at their silent task,
Washing these all too human shores,
Or gazing anew on a soft-fallen mask,
Of snow upon those oft trod moors.
No, stay – my steadfast unchangeable guest,
Could I but gaze upon my love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever by thy side and well,
Still, still to hear so near her tender breath,
And by a word live on – or swoon to death.

Well that’s my light hearted take on the Brontë Valentine’s cards, but in all seriousness we can thank Weightman for bringing some joy into the sister’s lives. Whether you have a dozen cards and two dozen red roses on your mantelpiece, or look upon a card from the Dog’s Trust dog you sponsor, have a good day and remember – you’re never completely alone when you have a good book or poem within reach.

A Brontë Journey To Brussels, February 1842

This week 177 years ago saw the commencement of a major Brontë journey in a physical and a metaphorical sense, as on 8th February 1842 Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë embarked upon a voyage from Haworth to Brussels – but Anne Brontë was left behind.

It was a journey, travelling first to London as they did, of around 430 miles – a major undertaking in the first half of the nineteenth century, although it’s easy to forget that this journey was still shorter than the one from Penzance to Haworth that their mother and Aunt Branwell had taken.

Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, painted in 1799
Elizabeth and Maria Branwell had already taken an even longer journey

It was, in fact, Aunt Branwell that made the journey, and Charlotte and Emily’s stay in the Belgian capital, possible, but just what was it for? We gain a clue from Anne’s diary paper of 30th July 1841:

“We are thinking of setting up a school of our own but nothing definite is settled about it yet and we do not know whether we shall be able to or not – nothing is settled about it yet.”

At the time Anne wrote this she was in her second year of employment with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, and Charlotte was in Rawdon serving as governess to the White family; a year earlier Emily had left her short held, but later influential, position as a teacher in Law Hill near Halifax. It seemed obvious to all three sisters that their only hope of making a living for themselves was as governesses or teachers, but they all, to a lesser or greater extent, found the demands of working in these roles difficult. It seemed obvious that they would fare better if they set up their own school and worked for each other, and by the middle of 1841 plans had begun to be made in earnest.

At this point fate seemed to be smiling on them, for Margaret Wooler, former teacher of the Brontës and employer of Charlotte, had decided to retire from teaching, and she offered Charlotte the chance to take over the running of her school in Dewsbury Moor. Heald’s House, as it was known, would have been furnished and ready to put into action, and pupils were already in place, but Charlotte was never keen on the idea, possibly because of painful memories of her own teaching days there after the school had relocated from Roe Head. By November 1841, Charlotte was writing to Ellen Nussey describing it as ‘an obscure and dreary place – not adapted for a school.’

Heald's House
Heald’s House, Dewsbury could have become the Bronte school – and it’s on the market today!

It is clear that Charlotte had another thought developing in her mind, and she laid out her new plans in a letter sent to Aunt Branwell from Rawdon in September of that year:

“Dear Aunt, I have heard nothing of Miss Wooler yet since I wrote to her intimating that I would accept her offer. I cannot conjecture the reason of this long silence, unless some unforeseen impediment has occurred in concluding the bargain. Meantime, a plan has been suggested and approved by Mr. and Mrs. White, and others, which I now wish to impart to you. My friends recommend me, if I desire to secure permanent success, to delay commencing the school for six months longer, and by all means to contrive, by hook or by crook, to spend the intervening time in some school on the continent. They say schools in England are so numerous, competition so great, that without some such step towards attaining superiority we shall probably have a very hard struggle, and may fail in the end. They say, moreover, that the loan of £100, which you have been so kind as to offer us, will, perhaps, not all be required now, as Miss Wooler will lend us the furniture; and that, if the speculation is intended to be a good and successful one, half the sum, at least, ought to be laid out in the manner I have mentioned, thereby insuring a more speedy repayment both of interest and principal. I would not go to France or to Paris. I would go to Brussels, in Belgium. The cost of the journey there, at the dearest rate of travelling, would be £5; living is there little more than half as dear as in England, and the facilities for education are equal to or superior to, any school in Europe… These are advantages which would turn to vast account, when we actually commenced a school – and, if Emily could share them with me, only for a single half-year, we could take a footing in the world afterwards which we can never do now. I say Emily instead of Anne; for Anne might take her turn at some future period, if our school answered. I feel certain, while I am writing, that 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 the subject except yourself. I feel an absolute conviction that, if this advantage were allowed to us, it would be the making of us for life. Papa will perhaps think it a wild and ambitious scheme; but who ever rose in the world without ambition? When he left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, he was as ambitious as I am now. I want us all to go on. I know we have talents, and I want them to be turned to account. I look to you, aunt, to help us. I think you will not refuse… Believe me, dear aunt, your affectionate niece, C. Brontë”

Bronte plaque in Brussels
The Brontes can still be found in Brussels if you look hard enough

This was a masterful letter, but then again Charlotte Brontë was a consummate letter writer. Charlotte had been receiving letters from her great friends Mary and Martha Taylor who were already at school in Brussels, and her lust for travel, exploration and adventure, first evident in her juvenilia, was aflame once more. She needed a significant sum to turn this dream into a reality, but she also knew that her aunt had access to that kind of money.

The letter is also evidence of what Ellen Nussey had earlier reported, that Anne Brontë was her aunt’s favourite, and so Charlotte knew that she would have to explain why it was her aim to take Emily with her rather than Anne.

On the face of it, it might seem a strange choice – Emily’s time as a pupil at Roe Head had been a complete disaster, as she became so homesick that she was sent home within three months in fear of her life. It would not be so easy for her to return home from Brussels if the same problems recurred.

Charlotte knew however that Emily had become a different woman in the intervening seven years, and she also knew that she herself would be in need of Emily’s strength, fortitude and dependability in Belgium. Some have seen the decision as a snub to Anne, but in fact I believe Charlotte was being pragmatic and sensible. Anne had already received a longer education than either of her sisters, and she was an accomplished scholar who already knew the languages they wished to learn. Emily, on the other hand, whilst possessing a brilliant mind still had little formal education, and this could make it harder to attract pupils to a school at which she was to teach.

Charlotte’s letter, which carefully appealed to both her aunt and father, did the trick. She secured funding and best wishes, and thus it was that they climbed into a carriage for the first leg of their journey on that early February morning. Patrick was alongside them, for his innate sense of adventure had also been fired up, and he’d decided to accompany his daughters on their journey. He carried with him a little notebook in which he’d written phrases in English and French, along with a guide on how to pronounce them, so that one entry read: “Demain = de mang – tomorrow”

Patrick Bronte's French phrasebook
The opening page of Patrick Bronte’s French phrasebook

We can be sure that Aunt Branwell, and the friends and servants Tabby and Martha waved them au revoir, but Anne was only there in her mind. She was now entering a sad and lonely period, where the daily grind of a governess became ever more of a drudge. Doubtless she received letters from Brussels that must have seemed endlessly exciting when compared to the life she was compelled to live.

We will turn to what happened next in another post – but Charlotte finally returned from Brussels in January 1844 clutching a certificate from the Pensionnat Heger (that’s it at the top of this post) and a terrible burning unrequited love in her heart. It would haunt her for the rest of her life, it must find release – it did find release in the only way Charlotte knew how, in her writing. Thus it was that the pain of Brussels drove Charlotte on to write more than anything else, and this is why that February morning was the start of a journey that would change everything for Emily and Anne too, and for readers across the globe until the end of time.

Nancy Garrs: Confessions Of A Brontë Servant

We all love Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and thankfully there are many good, or at least good intentioned, biographies that expand our knowledge of them. There are many others, however, who had a huge impact on the Brontë sisters about whom relatively little is known. That’s why we should always remember the influence of the servants who were around the children day by day, such as the Garrs sisters.

Nancy Garrs joined the Brontë family in July 1816, at the age of 12 or 13, arriving at Thornton Parsonage to help the day to day running of the building which had just seen the addition of baby Charlotte. By August 1818 two further Brontë children, Patrick Branwell and Emily Jane, had arrived and a further nurse was taken on. Nancy must have impressed in her role, because her sister Sarah, aged 12 was chosen. Both remained in the service of the Brontë family until 1824. That much is known, but little else. However, many mists are clearing and once hidden figures are coming again into the light. Trawling through the newspaper archives recently, I found many articles about, and interviews with, Nancy. They are revelatory, fascinating, and give first hand accounts of Patrick and Branwell that show them rather differently to how they’re often portrayed, and we also see yet another now forgotten tale of Charlotte Brontë’s generosity. So, let’s no longer look through a glass darkly but instead find out more about Nancy Garrs.

Nancy Garrs
The loyal and faithful Bronte servant Nancy Degarrs

One other thing widely known about Nancy Garrs is that she attended the Bradford School of Industry, a school that trained girls from poorer families to become domestic servants. It may be thought, then, that she was from a very poor background, but in fact previously hidden 19th century reports show that this isn’t so – and, indeed, that she wasn’t called Nancy Garrs at all.

Nancy and Sarah were children of Richard Degarrs, who owned a shoemaker’s shop in Westgate, Bradford. Richard was himself the son of a French man, and the Bradford locals had trouble pronouncing his surname, so he became known as Dicky Garrs instead. Therefore, like a mirror image of the Bruntys becoming the Brontës, the cordwainer’s daughter Nancy Degarrs became Nancy Garrs.

Westgate Bradford
Westgate, Bradford where the Degarrs lived

Nancy married twice, her first marriage was to a Pat Wainwright who was a foreman, and after his death she became Nancy Malone after marrying John Malone who worked in a wool warehouse in Bradford’s cheapside. After his death she lived firstly at Cheapside, but she was rarely lonely as she was often visited by Brontë lovers who wanted to hear first hand tales of the family she had known and still loved. In a way, the Brontës never left Nancy, and she had a number of possessions relating to them. Prized chiefly among them was a letter from Patrick Brontë that she showed to a reporter from the Leeds Mercury in the 1870s:

‘Continuing her pleasant chat, Nancy then brought out her Brontë relics. First she took down from the wall and laid before me a letter, framed and glazed like a picture. It was dated 1857, and at the foot was the signature of Mr. Brontë. In Mrs. Gaskell’s book, Nancy and her sister are spoken of as wasteful. In her next conversation with Mr. Brontë, Nancy complained of the charge, whereupon the kindly old gentleman comforted his servant’s heart by writing the document which she had suspended against the wall for the confusion of all gainsayers. The letter runs as follows:—” Haworth, August, 1857. I leave to state to all whom it may concern that Nancy and Sarah Garrs, during the time they were in service, were kind to my children, honest, and not wasteful, but sufficiently careful in regard to food and all other things entrusted to their care. P. Brontë, A.B., Incumbent of Haworth.”‘

After John Malone’s death, Nancy found herself in increasing difficulty financially, and she spent the last years of her life at the Bradford Workhouse – that’s it at the top of this post. Workhouses could be a terrible place for those who have been abandoned by society or who have no means of supporting themselves, a place to be punished for being poor, a place to be hidden away and to die. Her fate was discovered and on December 12th 1884 it led the Pall Mall Gazette of London to contend:

“A few months ago there was received into the Bradford Workhouse an old woman who, for the sake of the precious memories she cherishes, and the associations with which she is the last remaining link, ought to have been saved from such a fate. Her name is Nancy Wainwright, and her claim to public sympathy rests on the fact that she was the nurse of Charlotte Brontë, her sisters Emily and Anne, and the intractable Branwell.”

This story was noticed worldwide, and the New York Times ran a similar article saying that a fund should be raised for her. In fact, Nancy Malone as she was then (although for some reason she was known by her former known of Wainwright) received a number of offers of accommodation and help, but turned them all down because she enjoyed living in the workhouse. Nancy’s workhouse experience was not the same as most others met; she was given her own room, a comfortable life, good food and treated deferentially because of her Brontë connection, and was allowed to receive visitors who still came to see the former Brontë servant.

Her death was reported in a fulsome obituary in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 27th March 1886:

“This morning Mrs Nancy Malone, better known as Nancy Wainwright, died at the Bradford Workhouse at twenty minutes to one o’clock. The old lady, who was in her eighty-third year, enjoyed a considerable amount of notoriety amongst admirers of the Brontë family from the fact that in her younger days she acted as nurse for Charlotte and her talented sisters, with whom for the whole of their lifetime she continued on terms of intimacy… Admirers of the Brontës, not only local but from distant parts of the country, visited her at the workhouse, and she had repeated offers of a home outside of the workhouse gates, but she declined to avail herself of them… Notwithstanding her great age she enjoyed fairly good health up to a fortnight ago, but from that period has failed rapidly. Her condition during the past few days was seen to be hopeless, and she expired peaceably and quietly at the hour named.”

The article then goes on to mention her sister Sarah who had emigrated to Crawfordsville, Iowa, and who had a son who was a doctor in the American army (Sarah died in 1899, aged 93), and that Nancy had a brother still living who was a master tradesman in Sheffield. As we shall see, he perhaps had another ambition.
The most remarkable tribute to Nancy was made two years earlier in the Pall Mall Gazette article. It is a long interview containing a delightful picture of Nancy at this time. The article is incredibly moving, not least for a description of a scene playing out in the workhouse that could have come straight from Dickens, but was in fact from real life:

“The cry of a baby drew my attention to a pale-faced woman who sat on one of the beds. I inquired about her, and was informed that she had been forced there to taste life’s bitterness because a worthless husband had deserted her for a worthless woman, leaving her to bring her child into the world within the walls of the poorhouse. The woman had been rendering return for shelter by scrubbing the floors, and now, as she pressed her infant to her breast, I sat and talked with Charlotte Brontë’s nurse. I shook the hands which had fondled and caressed the Brontë children in their infancy.”

Workhouse mother and baby
Life in the workhouse could be awful for a mother and baby

In the interview, Nancy waxes lyrical about many members of the Brontë family:

“Nancy never tires of talking of the Brontës. The remembrance of them is as sunshine to her declining years… She has many stories to relate of the kindly disposition of Charlotte, the wilfulness of Branwell, the hot temper of Emily, and the tenderness of Anne.”

The article is long and fascinating with too many tales to relate here, but I am happy to send a PDF copy of it to anyone who emails me as I think it’s an article that deserves to be remembered. Let’s take a look at some highlights.

On Charlotte, Nancy says:

“When distinguished visitors came, it was always a matter of difficulty to stop Charlotte from silently-stealing into the drawing room, and when they had gone she would criticise their appearance, manner and speech with such cleverness that her father would often laugh heartily in spite of the utmost efforts to restrain himself.”

On Branwell, we hear:

‘”Branwell was a good lad enough until the serpent beguiled him”, and she thinks he has been “made out to be a good deal worse than he really was.” Nancy could “manage him” better than any one else when his fits of fury were upon him, and Branwell seemed to have a real affection for his old nurse. He often wanted to paint her portrait, but she declined on the score that she did not consider herself good looking enough.”’

Nancy’s affection for Patrick is clear:

“A kinder man than Mr. Brontë never drew breath.”

In an earlier interview, Nancy had also said “Mr. Brontë was one of the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own.”

Nancy was the chief mourner at Patrick’s funeral, alongside Arthur Bell Nicholls, and was by his side as he died. The Pall Mall Gazette says that the reverend presented her with a final gift, a roasting jack, on his deathbed.

Nancy Wainwright
Nancy Wainwright in the Pall Mall Gazette

We can now see a rounder picture of Nancy Garrs, or I should say Nancy Degarrs. From a mercantile family of French origin, she was an intensely kind, loving and fiercely loyal woman. There are doubtless many more contemporary tales of Nancy and others in the Brontë story, and I’ll keep looking for them. We’ll close by turning to a man mentioned earlier, Nancy’s brother in Sheffield. You may recall an earlier post that brought to light Charlotte’s generosity to a man who had no boots. Well, Charlotte is at it again – it seems that she was quite a philanthropist, even if she was also characteristically honest with people too. Sorry, Charlotte, whilst this story has remained hidden within for over 130 years within pages of the Pall Mall Gazette that have long since been unturned. I’m going to reveal it once more and leave you all today with the story of Charlotte Brontë, the poet and the Earl of Carlisle!:

‘Nancy tells a story which shows Charlotte’s goodness of heart in a strong light. Nancy had a brother who had literary aspirations. He wrote some poems, and went over to Haworth to to submit them to the author of ‘Jane Eyre’. This was in the summer of 1853, when she was at the height of her fame. Immediately she saw the young man she said, “Why, you are Nancy’s brother”, although she had never seen him before. She read his poems, heard all his plans, and after telling him how she and her sisters had published poems at a loss, did her best to dissuade him from this project. The next day she sent him a letter, again urging him not to publish. A few weeks later, the young man received a letter bearing the crest of the Earl of Carlisle, an earnest patron of literature. The letter contained an enclosure of £5. The connection between the visit of Nancy’s brother to Haworth and that letter was not far to seek.’

Earl of Carlisle
George Howard, Viscount Morpeth, 7th Earl of Carlisle, literary benefactor and friend of Charlotte Bronte

According to the Measuring Worth website that £5 has a purely inflationary value of £500 today but an actual income equivalent value of £5,317. A very generous gesture from the Earl (by the way if any modern Earls want to repeat the gesture I can let you have my address), a typically kind gesture from Charlotte, and another enlightening revelation from Nancy Garrs. Have a good day, and let’s all try to spread a little kindness ourselves.