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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.’
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.