The Changing Face Of Anne Brontë’s Headstone

Some Brontë memories and anniversaries are happy, some not so happy; unfortunately this week has marked the anniversary of a particularly tragic event in the Anne Brontë story, for Anne Brontë died in Scarborough on 28th May 1849.

Today is the 172nd anniversary of the funeral and interment of Anne, as she was buried on 30th May in the churchyard of St. Mary’s churchyard in Scarborough – above her final resting place looms the castle hill topped by fortified ruins; below it the road runs down to the sands, with the pebbles and shells Anne loved to collect, and the ever ebbing sea.

Anne Bronte pebbles
Anne Bronte’s pebble collection

We have also just passed another sad anniversary, for on the 28th May 1852 Charlotte Brontë returned to Scarborough for the first time since her sister’s death there exactly three years earlier. It was the first time that she’d seen Anne’s headstone, and what she saw appalled her: we’re going to take a look at that in today’s post.

We get our initial information of both the visit and the errors in a letter Charlotte sent from Filey on 6th June 1852 to her great friend Ellen Nussey:

‘Dear Ellen, I am at Filey utterly alone. Do not be angry. The step is right. I considered it and resolved on it with due deliberation. Change of air was necessary; there were reasons why I should not go to the South and why I should come here. On Friday I went to Scarboro’, visited the church-yard and stone – it must be refaced and re-lettered – there are 5 errors. I gave the necessary directions – that duty then is done – long has it lain heavy on my mind – and that was a pilgrimage I felt I could only make alone.’

Anne Brontë's final resting place at Scarborough
Anne Brontë’s headstone underneath Scarborough Castle

One error still remains today; the original headstone is greatly eroded now, but on the ground nearby is a plinth bearing the inscription, placed there by the Brontë Society in 2011: ‘Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, Daughter of the Revd P Brontë, Incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire, She died Aged 28 May 28th 1849.’

Anne was, of course, 29 at the time of her death, but Charlotte Brontë was never good at remembering ages or birthdays (including her own). A monument to Anne that was placed in Haworth church, no longer extant, read: ‘This stone is also dedicated to the memory of Anne Brontë, youngest daughter of the Rev. P. Brontë, A.B. She died, aged 27 years, May 28th, 1849, and was buried at the old church, Scarboro’

So we know that the stonemasons recorded Anne’s age incorrectly, but what were the other four errors (or, more probably, five errors as Charlotte didn’t seem to have spotted the age error)? There is no record of them, so we shall never know. Obvious possibilities include the spellings of Anne (perhaps the ‘e’ was ommitted), Brontë and Haworth. With little else remaining on the inscription it seems they must have recorded the date of death incorrectly too. Indeed, with five or six errors out of a total of 24 words, it is probable that every fact recorded on the stone was wrong in some way.

St. Mary's, Scarborough
St. Mary’s, Scarborough. Anne lies in its side churchyard

Returning to Scarborough and seeing Anne’s headstone for the first time in three years must have been incredibly tough for Charlotte, so we can easily imagine her heartache upon seeing a headstone full of errors.

Unfortunately, time and the saline air of Scarborough have taken their toll on Anne’s headstone. Year by year it becomes less legible, and further scraps of its facing break away. Even in the 1870s, however, people were noticing the erosion of the inscription and poor condition of the headstone, as this extract from the ‘Dundee Evening Telegraph’ of 28th August 1878 shows:

As we see from this letter in the Leeds Mercury of 3rd June 1895, the council took steps to improve the headstone – by painting it. It was less than successful:

The inscription on Anne Bronte’s headstone will soon be completely lost to the elements, but her true memorial is her novels and poems, and they will endure forever. Let us look then not with sadness at these tragic anniversaries, but with happiness and gratitude for all Anne left us.

These images show the deterioration between 2014 (left) and 2018 (right). The condition is now considerably worse.

I will see you next Sunday for a special Brontë blog post, as thanks to Sotheby’s I can share with you some of the treasures of their Brontë auction taking place this summer.

William Dearden’s Defence Of The Brontës

I had a long and fulsome post planned for today’s Brontë blog, but unfortunately life throws us curve balls sometimes. A family emergency has thrown my plans, hopefully temporarily, into turmoil, and so today’s post will be shorter than usual – I hope you don’t mind too much and that you still find it interesting; in today’s post we look at a steadfast defence of the Brontës from a man who knew them well: William Dearden.

The account of the Brontë family also appears in my recent book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë at 200 published by Valley Press. The book features a concise biography of Anne Brontë, along with a never before published in book form essay which I believe is Anne’s final written work, and then a selection of first person accounts of meetings with the Brontës – the section I particularly love, as it lets us see the Brontës as they were in everyday life. Valley Press, based in Anne’s beloved Scarborough, have found times tough during the pandemic, as have many small publishers, so if you head over to their website and make a purchase from them (it doesn’t have to be my book of course) I’m sure they would be grateful.

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland

Before we look at this particular account, let’s look briefly at who William Dearden was. Dearden was a schoolmaster whose long career had seen him take charge at schools in Huddersfield, Bradford, Keighley and Halifax, where he was for 28 years master of the Grammar School. He was also a poet who received some acclaim in his day, with his works ‘The Vale of Caldene’ (1844) and ‘The Star-Seer’ (1837) particularly well received. It has to be said that the style of the latter is a little over-wrought, but his ambition can’t be doubted in this epic fantasy poem spanning well over a hundred pages followed by seventy pages of notes. Here’s a typical extract:


‘The MAGIAN waves his hand: the elf retires:
Now, while above him, play the livid fires.
And roars the hollow thunder, from its home
Of adamant, the SEER the Fatal Tome
Lifts high in air; then, with his bloody blade.
Severs the curse-denouncing, golden braid;
And thus, erect, with upturned gaze, he cries.
While from the last leaf’s awful mysteries
He tears the final seal, “Dark fiends! let fall
Your utmost vengeance! I will brave it all!”
Dread sight! from out the north, whose swarthy brow
Begins to show an ashy paleness now.
Descends a flash, which, like an arm of fire,
Launched from the riven clouds, with thunderings dire.
Smites down the SEER, and, in his blasted hand.
Consumes the Book of Fate! As from a land
Of everlasting winter, issue forth
From the oped portal of the gleaming north,
Cloud-charioted, and fast-careering on.
Two shapes, on whom no summer ever shone!
Their visages are thin, and ghastly pale;
Dim are their eyes, as ne’er to close, yet fail
Through infinite watching; and their lips are sealed
Close, as for ages they had not revealed
Aught save a sigh!’



More pertinently for us, Dearden became a close friend of Branwell Brontë and then of the family as a whole. He was nothing if not loyal to their memory; after the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë he wrote a string of letters to local newspapers attempting to correct some of the errors he saw in it. So regular and strident were these letters that at one point Patrick Brontë himself wrote to Dearden asking him to stop writing them.

William Dearden was undeterred however, as this extract from his letter published in the Bradford Observer on 27th June 1861 shows. Written less than a month after Patrick Brontë’s death, it’s a very interesting account of the Brontë family, if a partial one:

‘It is a duty I owe to the memory of my late venerable friend, and in fulfilment of a sacred promise, to place his character in a true light before the world; and this is the more imperatively necessary, because – though Mrs Gaskell has, in her later editions of Charlotte Brontë’s life, toned down some of its harsher features in obedience to conviction of their distortion and untruthfulness – it still stands prominently forth in repulsive stoical sternness and misanthropical gloom. My acquaintance with Mr Brontë extends over a long series of years. In the early portion of that acquaintanceship, I had frequent opportunities of seeing him surrounded by his young family at the fireside of his solitary abode, in his wanderings on the hills, and in his visits to Keighley friends. On these occasions, he invariably displayed the greatest kindness and affability, and a most anxious desire to promote the happiness and improvement of his children. This testimony, it is presumed, will have some weight, especially with whose who wish to form a correct estimate of human character.

It will be remembered that Mr Brontë’s children were deprived of their mother when they were at a very tender age. We are led to infer from Mrs Gaskell’s narrative, that their father – if he felt – at least did not manifest much anxiety about their physical and mental welfare; and we are told that the eldest of the motherless group, then at home, by a sort of premature inspiration, under the feeble wing of a maiden aunt, undertook their almost entire supervision. Branwell – with whom I was on terms of literary intimacy long before his fatal lapse – told me, when accidentally alluding to this painful period of in the history of his family, that his father watched over his little bereaved flock with truly paternal solicitude and affection – that he was their constant guardian and instructor – and that he took a lively interest in all their innocent amusements. Such – before the blight of disgrace fell upon him – is the testimony of Branwell to the domestic conduct of his father. “Alas!” said he to me, many years after that sad event, “had I been what my father earnestly wished and strove to make me, I should not have been the wreck you see me now!” Poor Branwell! May his sad example prove a warning to others to shun the gulf of misery into which he was prematurely plunged! If Mr Brontë had been the cold indifferent stoic he has been represented, the perpetual outflow of love and tenderness in regard to him from the hearts of his children, could not have been naturally expected. An unfeeling father ought not to complain, if he reaps but a scanty harvest of filial duty and affection in return for what he has sown. Love begets love – a saying not the less true, because it is trite.

As Mr Brontë’s children grew up, he afforded them every opportunity his limited means would allow of gratifying their tastes either in literature or the fine arts; and many times do I remember meeting him, little Charlotte, and Branwell, in the studio of the late John Bradley, at Keighley, where they hung with close-gazing inspection and silent admiration over some fresh production of the artist’s genius. Branwell was a pupil of Bradley’s, and, though some of his drawings were creditable and displayed good taste, he would never, I think, on account of his defective vision, have become a first-rate artist. In some departments of literature, and especially in poetry of a highly imaginative kind, he would have excelled…

The cold stoicism attributed to Mr Brontë was apparent only to those who knew him least; beneath this “seeming cloud” beat a heart of the deepest emotions, the effects of whose outflowings, like the waters of a placid hidden brook, were more perceptible in the verdure that marked their course than in the voice they uttered. God, and the objects to whom that good heart swelled forth in loving kindness – and the latter only, perhaps, very imperfectly – know the depth and intensity of its emotions. He was not a prater of good words, but a doer of them, for God’s inspection, not man’s approbation. Every honest appeal to his sympathy met a ready response. The needy never went empty away from his presence, nor the broken in spirit without consolation.’

William Dearden obituary, Bradford Weekly Telegraph

May we all have friends like William Dearden to defend us when the hour comes. And, may I see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.