The 12 Days Of Brontë: Happy Christmas

The day has finally arrived! As I type this I’m listening to festive songs while munching on some breakfast shortbread. It’s Christmas Day! In today’s special Christmas post we’re going to look at my Brontë themed 12 days of Christmas countdown and finish, as always, with Anne Brontë’s poem ‘Music On Christmas Morning’.

Over on Twitter (where I’m @Nick_Holland_) I’ve been tweeting a 12 days of Brontë every day leading up to today, so lets take a look at the twelve daily ‘gifts’, along with brief explanations of what they are:


A Merlin in a bare tree!

‘Nero, body of a merlin’, a portrait by Emily Brontë of her tame hawk.

"Nero, body of a merlin" by Emily Bronte

Two knitted gloves

These knitted gloves, with a subtle decoration, are part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection. They are 185mm long and 100mm wide, a medium in today’s sizing. That leads me to think they belonged to Emily – the tallest Brontë.

Three French lessons

These pages are from Patrick Brontë’s own French phrasebook. He copied relevant sections out before journeying to Brussels with Charlotte and Emily in 1842. Phrases are presented in English, then French, and then phonetically. ‘Must be fully mastered’, Patrick has written to himself.

Four tiny books

These are among the tiny books written by Charlotte Brontë between 1829 and 1837 and clearly show the progression in her handwriting and her writing ability. They are part of the Honresfield Blavatnik Library which was recently saved for the nation!

Five old rings

These five rings were all worn by the Brontës. We see, top left, Charlotte’s tiny gold, diamond and garnet ring; top right, a ring which opens to reveal a lock of Emily’s hair; bottom left, a mourning ring containing the hair of Anne and Emily; bottom right, Charlotte’s pearl ring; in the centre is Charlotte Brontë’s gold wedding ring.

Six Brontë pets

The Brontës (like anyone sensible) loved animals. first, Anne’s picture of her spaniel Flossy; second, Emily’s picture ‘Keeper from life’; third, Emily’s ‘Grasper from life’; fourth, ‘Brontë Pets’ by brilliant artist Amanda White: as well as Flossy (again) it features Dick the canary and Brontë geese (a laying) Adelaide and Victoria. The original of this hangs proudly on my wall.

Flossy by Anne Bronte

'Keeper from life' by Emily Bronte

The Bronte Pets by Amanda White

Seven Brontë novels

The seven Brontë novels in order of publication: Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights (published jointly with Agnes Grey), The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, Villette and The Professor (written earlier but published posthumously).

Eight Janes A Eyreing

Which is your favourite screen Jane? Here we have Virginia Bruce (1934), Joan Fontaine (1943), Susannah York (1970), Sorcha Cusack (1973), Zelah Clarke (1983), Samantha Morton (1997), Ruth Wilson (2006), Mia Wasikowska (2011). There was lots of support for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 1996 portrayal too, but alas the song limits us to eight!

Nine Brontë-inspired ladies dancing

Here I paid tribute to two wonderful Brontë ballets. The first four images are from Northern Ballet’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the last four from Northern Ballet’s ‘Jane Eyre’. The middle image, of course, is from the unforgettable Kate Bush dance to her great song Wuthering Heights.

Ten Brontë Friends

The first five friends pre-date Charlotte’s fame: Mary Taylor, Martha Brown, Arthur Bell Nicholls (who became more than a friend of course), Margaret Wooler and Ellen Nussey; the second set of five are literary-related friends of Charlotte: Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Smith, W. S. Williams, and Harriet Martineau.

Eleven Heathcliffs Sniping

We’ve had Jane, but who was your favourite Heathcliff? Choose from Milton Rosmer (1920), Laurence Olivier (1939), Charlton Heston (1950), Richard Burton (1958), Keith Michell (1962), Ian McShane (1967), Timothy Dalton (1970 – he also played a brilliant Rochester opposite Zelah Clarke’s Jane 13 years later), Ralph Fiennes (1992), Cliff Richard (1996), Tom Hardy (2009) and James Howson (2011).

Twelve Brontë Treasures

There are so many Brontë treasures that I absolutely love, so picking just a dozen was tough. Here they are, and I’m going to describe them in top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right order for the following three squares:

Anne Bronte’s handkerchief: embroidered with her initials by Anne, this is a sad item as it bears her blood. Nevertheless, I always think it could be used to clone her one day! Onto more cheery items now.

The pillar portrait by Branwell Brontë – showing Anne, Emily and Charlotte as teenagers with (probably, or could it be his father?) Branwell himself painted out behind a pillar.

Smelling salts bottles of Maria Branwell and Elizabeth Branwell; ornate and with beautiful gilding they show the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed in Penzance by the Brontës’ mother and aunt.

Brontë toys that were found under the parsonage floorboards; the selection includes a tiny china doll, alphabet blocks and a toy iron. Keeper’s huge collar also makes an appearance on the right!

‘Sunrise Over Sea’ by Anne Brontë; this beautiful painting is full of optimism, and was painted by Anne before she ever saw the sea that she came to love.

A first edition of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the first Brontë book – and the rest is literary history!

A dress of Charlotte Brontë, complete with gloves, stockings and parasol. It should be noted that I had to squash (technical term) this image slightly to fit in the square, so it’s a bit longer and narrower than this in real life, but just as beautiful and evocative.

Maria Brontë’s needle case, which she presented to a school friend at the Clergy Daughter’s school, Cowan Bridge. It contains the only handwriting we have of the eldest Brontë sibling.

Brontë writing desks; these beautiful writing desks, or slopes as they are also called, could be used to hold pens, nibs, pencils, ink, cutting tools and paper, and were used to write some of the greatest books the world has ever seen.

A captivating Brontë bonnet collection. Particularly lovely are Charlotte’s wedding bonnet (top left), and the tiny bonnet worn on the big day by her bridesmaid Ellen Nussey (centre right).

Anne Brontë’s jewellery. I especially love the orange carnelian necklace as Charlotte drew her youngest sister wearing it.

Anne Brontë drawn by Charlotte Brontë. Anne was drawn three times by Charlotte, but this is my favourite. To the right of the picture you can see where Charlotte has also drawn Anne’s eye looking upwards.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my twelve days of Brontë rundown; I’ve certainly enjoyed all your support and comments over the last year, it’s meant a lot to me. I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog posts and Deo volente there will be lots more to come in 2022, so until then I wish you a very merry, peaceful and love-filled Christmas day, and leave you, as per my tradition, with Anne Brontë’s ‘Music On Christmas Morning’. I’ll see you next Sunday, in a new year, for another new Brontë blog post.

“Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.”

A Tribute To Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Christmas is nearly upon us, and of course an extra reason for celebration has arrived as we got the news this week that the Honresfield library collection of literary treasures has been saved for the nation rather than being sold to the highest bidder. Great news, but this day in 1848 brought tragic news to Haworth Parsonage: it was at 2pm on this day 173 years ago that Emily Brontë died.

We will not dwell too long on Emily’s final illness, on her brave determination not to be cowed by consumption; that is something Emily’s family had to struggle with. Instead, let us pay tribute to Emily’s life and work. If her life seemed, on the surface, unremarkable, her work was truly remarkable. In today’s new post we’re going to look at what some of those who knew Emily Brontë had to say about her, as well as showcasing some of her artistic productions.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Emily, right, next to her beloved sister Anne

Charlotte Brontë

‘In Emily’s nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero.’

Tree by Emily Bronte
Tree by Emily Bronte

Ellen Nussey

‘Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption…

I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no woman of greater or more incontestable genius.’

Flossy by Emily Bronte
Flossy, Anne’s spaniel, by Emily Bronte

John Greenwood

‘Patrick had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily that he resolved to learn her to shoot too. They used to practice with pistols. Let her be ever so busy in her domestic duties, whether in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand, or at her studies, rapt in a world of her own creating – it mattered not; if he called upon her to take a lesson, she would put all down. His tender and affectionate “Now, my dear girl, let me see how well you can shoot today”, was irresistible to her filial nature and her most winning and musical voice would be heard to ring through the house in response, “Yes, papa” and away she would run with such a hearty good will taking the board from him, and tripping like a fairy to the bottom of the garden, putting it in its proper position, then returning to her dear revered parent, take the pistol which he had primed and loaded for her. “Now my girl” he would say, “take time, be steady”. “Yes papa” she would say taking the weapon with as firm a hand, and as steady an eye as any veteran of the camp, and fire. Then she would run to fetch the board for him to see how she had succeeded. And she did get so proficient, that she was rarely far from the mark. His “how cleverly you have done, my dear girl”, was all she cared for. “Oh!” He would exclaim, “she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!”

"Nero, body of a merlin" by Emily Bronte
Nero, Body Of A Merlin by Emily Bronte

Sarah Wood

‘“Do I remember the Brontës?” was her greeting. “I should rather think I did. Miss Charlotte was my Sunday-school teacher. She was nice. But Miss Anne was my favourite: such a gentle creature.” “And Miss Emily?” Miss Parry asked. “Oh, you see, ma’am, I don’t know much about Miss Emily, she was very shy; but Martha loved her: she said she was so kind.”’

'Keeper from life' by Emily Bronte
Keeper From Life by Emily Bronte

Martha Brown

‘Many’s the time that I have seen Miss Emily put down the tally-iron as she was ironing the clothes to scribble something on a piece of paper. Whatever she was doing, ironing or baking, she had her pencil and paper by her. I know now that she was then writing Wuthering Heights. Poor Emily, we always thought to be the best-looking, the cleverest, and the bravest-spirited of the three. Little did we dream that she would be the first to be taken away.’

Sketches by Emily from two of her diary papers, showing her with Anne and with Keeper

Constantin Heger

‘She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.’

Grasper From Life by Emily Bronte

Halliwell Sutcliffe

‘“Emily Brontë,” says Mr. Sutcliffe, “was perhaps the bravest woman of her generation. Shame she abhorred, and to stand secure in one’s own strength was peculiarly her gospel.” He speaks of “Emily, the genius; Charlotte, the half-genius; and Branwell, the clever ne’er-do-weel who chose to wear motley all his days, when better raiment was at his service.”

Speaking of Emily Brontë, he continues, “She was neither worldly-wise nor eager for publicity, on the contrary her life to the last detail exhibits a reserve that was almost cloister-like, a self-dependence that was scarcely human, an integrity that disdained, not the great shams of life alone, but even the trickeries of social intercourse.

See her out yonder on the loneliest moor of Yorkshire – gaunt of figure, free of stride, not beautiful to look at until one saw the deep far-seeing eyes, with the light in them that comes from lonely, lover-like communion with the larger nature. See her climb the slopes, and walk knee-deep in ling, and halt just now and then to drink in the wild sweet wind, to scent the bracken, or watch the mystic purple creep out at foaming tide above the distant hills. Is this a woman to seek pseudo-fame by trickery? Or is she one who has kept long watches with her mother, Nature, who has sorrowed and rejoiced with her, who has wept with the weeping skies and laughed with the laughing sun, who, finally, has passed her soul through furnaces impossible to weaker natures and is ready to bring to birth a book of vital and surpassing charm.”’

‘How beautiful the Earth is still’ (Charlotte’s note reads ‘never was better stuff penned’) and ‘No coward soul is mine’. Poetry manuscript by Emily Bronte, part of the Honresfield Blavatnik collection

Emily Brontë was a great poet, an excellent artist, a brilliant pianist, a fabulous bread maker, superb at learning languages, oh, and she also happened to write what may just be the greatest novel ever written. Emily Brontë truly was a unique genius: whatever she turned her hand to, she quickly excelled at. Let’s remember the talents of Emily Brontë and her family today, and look forward with joy to the festive celebrations to come. I hope to see you next Saturday for a special Christmas Brontë blog post.

Honresfield Library Saved For The Nation!

It’s a rare mid week blog post this week, because I’ve received some great Brontë-related news that I just had to share with you all. I’ve been under strict instructions to keep this under wraps until noon today, but I can finally reveal that the Honresfield Library collection has been saved for the nation!

You may remember that this collection was once the domain of the Law brothers of Honresfield House in Lancashire. They amassed a huge collection of literary treasures, at the heart of which were Brontë manuscripts in all shapes and sizes. Earlier this year Sotheby’s announced that the entire collection would be sold – leading to the very real prospect that they would enter private collections or bank vaults never to be seen again. Thanks to hard work by many organisations and people this has now been averted once and for all. Here’s a press release from Friends Of The National Libraries:

In short – these incredible literary treasures (I’ve added pictures of just a short selection from the Laws’ collection) are saved for the nation, and they are now safe forever. Not only are they saved, they will be put on display and available for public view in perpetuity. Further details of that will be announced in full course, but the Brontë related material will be shared between three very deserving organisations: the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the British Library and the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds (rather fittingly, as Brotherton, like the Laws, was a self-made Lancashire-born industrialist with a huge passion for collecting Brontë material).

Anne and Emily’s 1841 diary paper – saved!

The patron of Friends Of The National Libraries has expressed his delight. HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, said: “It is tremendous news for our country that Friends of the National Libraries, a charity of which I am proud to be Patron, has raised £15 million in just five months to save one of the most significant collections, including manuscripts by Charlotte Brontë, Walter Scott and Robert Burns. I can only congratulate the Chairman, Geordie Greig, and his team for saving the Blavatnik Honresfield Library for the nation, with its treasures now to be owned by some of our greatest national libraries across the U.K. Our literary heritage is our cultural D.N.A. and this preserves it for students, teachers, academics and ordinary readers in perpetuity.”

Letter from Branwell Bronte to Hartley Coleridge – saved!

You may have noticed that the collection has a new name – it’s no longer the Honresfield Library but the Blavatnik Honresfield Library. A deserving tribute, as one man in particular has made a huge contribution to this happy outcome. Sir Leonard Blavatnik agreed to match all other funding raised to ensure that the appeal reached whatever target was needed; to this end, he personally has given over seven and a half million pounds so that these items can be saved for the nation, and by extension for literature lovers across the world.

Charlotte Bronte juvenilia – saved!

So what will we soon be able to see? Well, we have Emily and Anne Brontë’s 1841 diary paper, a collection of Brontë little books, letters from Branwell Brontë to Hartley Coleridge, and a huge treasure: Emily Brontë’s secret poetry manuscript which inspired the Brontë sisters to seek a publisher for their work. It’s surely one of the most important handwritten literary treasures in the world today – and until the auction was announced it had been thought lost for over 80 years.

Emily Bronte’s poetry manuscript – saved!

Our beloved Brontës are at the centre of the collection, but that’s by no means all that’s being saved. We also have, amongst other things, the handwritten manuscript of Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. That would please Charlotte Brontë who famously declared in a letter to Ellen Nussey: ‘For Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’

Rob Roy – saved!

We also have the first English edition of Don Quixote, dating from 1620, and a collection of poetry by Robbie Burns – a great favourite of Anne Brontë. Perhaps most importantly, alongside Emily’s poetry, is a letter written from one sister to another – but this time we’re talking not of the Brontë sisters but the Austen sisters.

In January 1796 Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra Austen about a ball she was due to attend – and at which she was expecting a proposal from the love of her life, Tom Lefroy. This is not only a letter of great significance in Jane’s life, it is also the earliest letter of Jane Austen which is known to exist. It’s a particularly appropriate date for this letter to be saved, as today marks the 246th anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra – saved!

I find this whole news very moving, and it’s great news towards the end of what has been a very trying year for us all. Alongside Sir Leonard Blavatnik, other philanthropists such as the Vogel-Denebeim family and big cultural institutions, this announcement has been made possible because of the time and money given by huge numbers of ordinary people like you and I – and out of adversity has come triumph.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre and Passion

Charlotte Brontë and her sisters were among the greatest writers of the Victorian era, and many would select Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as the greatest novel of the century. In their own lives, however, we can see that the Brontë siblings were influenced by the societal norms of the time, but they were far from bound by them. In today’s post we’re going to look at one word which Charlotte Brontë certainly possessed, although many at the time would have thought that to be entirely unbefitting to a woman: passion.

Passion is at the heart of ‘Jane Eyre’

Only a genius could have written Jane Eyre, but only a special kind of genius: one who knew the power of longing, the driving force of passion. One reason for the novel’s great success is its protagonists. Rochester is not a typical romantic hero, but nor is he a pantomime villain. It is this complexity which makes him compelling and believable, and which Charlotte elucidated upon in a letter sent to W. S. Williams at her publisher:

Rochester, at least as far as his creator is concerned, is a man both sinned against and sinning; he made mistakes in his youth but atones for them in his adulthood. He has made mistakes but atones for them. The great thing about the novel, and about any great novel, is that readers are free to make their own judgements on the character.

What is clear is that Rochester was highly influenced by a man who had been in Charlotte’s own life: Constantin Heger. A powerful man with undoubted faults, but whose personality drew Charlotte inexorably to him, just as Rochester does to Jane. Charlotte’s letters to Monsieur Heger after leaving Brussels are incredibly sad as we know that he never responded to them – they are also incredibly passionate, as in this extract from a letter dated 18th November 1845:

‘In a word, tell me what you will, my master, but tell me something. Writing to a former assistant teacher (no – I don’t want to remember my position as an assistant teacher, I disown it) well then, writing to an old pupil cannot be a very interesting occupation for you – I know that – but for me it is life itself. Your last letter has sustained me – has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me… To forbid me to write to you, to refuse to reply to me – that will be to tear from me the only joy I have on earth… when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and sleep – I pine away.’

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger inspired some of Charlotte’s greatest work

In an earlier letter to Heger (24th July 1844), Charlotte had written of the driving force behind her writing dream:

‘My sight is too weak for writing – if I wrote a lot I would become blind. This weakness of sight is a terrible privation for me – without it, do you know what I would do, Monsieur? I would write a book and I would dedicate it to my literature master – to the only master that I have ever had – to you Monsieur.’

Alas for Charlotte, Heger, like Rochester, was already married, but there was to be no happy ending for the lovelorn woman in Haworth. Without Heger would there have been a Rochester, or a Paul Emanuel in Villette, would there have been any Charlotte Brontë novels? Probably not. The publication of Jane Eyre transformed Charlotte’s life, and the lives of readers ever since, but it also brought her into contact with another man she developed a passion for: George Smith.

Smith was younger then Charlotte, and from a very different background: he had inherited his father’s publishing business of Smith, Elder & Co at a young age, and was both wealthy and well connected, not to mention handsome.

George Smith became more than a publisher to Charlotte Brontë, he became a close friend. Charlotte was often invited to visit him in London, and they even holidayed in Scotland together. He frequently sent a supply of books to Haworth for Charlotte to read (an expensive commodity at the time), but on 6th December 1853 Charlotte wrote a sad, short letter to the publishing house saying that she wished to receive no more:


A month earlier Charlotte had heard the news that George Smith had become engaged to an Elizabeth Blakeway and she was once more heartbroken. Four months later Charlotte finally accepted the suit of Arthur Bell Nicholls and became engaged herself, but despite short lived attempts at starting new work she wrote no more for Smith, Elder & Co.

Charlotte’s passionate nature was at the heart of her creative genius, and for that we can all be thankful. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post, but for now I leave you with a poem that Charlotte Brontë wrote on this day in 1841. It’s title? ‘Passion’.

Patrick Brontë Arrives In Yorkshire

The best laid plans of mice and men, and you know the rest. I had intended today’s post to be about the Brontës and torchlight, filled with pictures of yesterday’s torchlight parade in Haworth (it’s on today at 5 as well if you can make it). Alas, bad weather and a bus strike put an end to those plans, but there is an important anniversary to mark today: in today’s new post we’re going to look at Patrick Brontë in Dewsbury.

Young Patrick Brontë
Portrait of a young Patrick Brontë

On the 5th of December 1809, the 32 year old Patrick began his curacy at Dewsbury All Saints Church (now Dewsbury Minster); it’s an especially significant date in the Brontë story as this marked Patrick Bronte’s arrival in Yorkshire. From thereon he moved parishes to Hartshead-cum-Clifton, and then Thornton, and finally Haworth. Let’s not run ahead of ourselves, for Patrick’s time as an assistant curate at Dewsbury was a fascinating one and gives us a remarkable insight into Patrick as a man rather than merely as a father.

Dewsbury is today an unassuming town which is overshadowed by the nearby urban areas of Huddersfield, Wakefield and Leeds, but at the time Patrick arrived it was a town on the move. In the first half of the nineteenth century its population trebled to over 90,000 (compared to around 70,000 today), and the reason for this is that it had become an important hub on the wool processing trail – a town at the very heart of the industrial revolution.

Dewsbury’s minister was the Reverend John Buckworth. He had met Patrick before as they both belonged to the evangelical wing of the Church of England. Buckworth’s fame as a preacher was widespread, and he was also known as a hymn writer and the headmaster of a school for the poor – a ground breaking idea at the time. By 1809, however, he was increasingly in ill health, and in search of an energetic young priest to assist in his parochial duties. Patrick Brontë was his choice, and as 1809 neared its close he made the journey north from Shropshire to the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Dewsbury Minster
Dewsbury Minster, where Patrick Bronte served as Assistant Curate

Patrick’s two years at Dewsbury were eventful ones, and he had to fight (quite literally) to win the respect of his new parishioners. The story is told of how one Sunday evening when Patrick was in sole charge of the church (Reverend Buckworth being away from the parish temporarily) he was astonished to hear the church bells ringing again after his services had ended.

Unbeknownst to Patrick the parish bell ringing team had entered a competition and had popped into the bell tower for some extra practise. They must have been rather surprised when a furious Patrick burst in on them, accused them of ‘desecrating the Sabbath’ and drove them from the building. He was brandishing a shillelagh, a traditional Irish walking stick and club that few bell ringers would want to find themselves on the wrong end of.

A shillelagh and its maker (picture courtesy of Irish Farmers Journal)

His fiery temperament, and solid sense of what was right and wrong, was also shown at the 1810 Whitsun walk. Whitsuntide is also known as Pentecost and is traditionally the seventh Sunday after Easter. It was a long-standing tradition in Dewsbury for the churchgoers to march on Whit Tuesday (two days later) from the church to the village green of Earlsheaton where they would sing hymns.

On this particular march Patrick strode out with the choirboys beyond him, but their path was soon blocked by a large man making oaths. Without thinking twice, Patrick picked up the man by his collar and threw him into some nearby bushes. Some were worried that the man, notorious for his violence in the area, would be waiting for them on the return journey. He was, but when Patrick fronted him up once more he stepped aside. One of the choirboys later recalled the incident:

‘The bully came from Gawthorpe, near Osset, and was a notorious cockfighter and boxer, and much addicted to drinking… what happened was talked about for many a Sunday.’

A modern day Whitsun walk

It must have been talked about within the family for many years after as well, for it found its way into Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley as two Whitsuntide marches clash:

‘Old Helstone moved on. Quickening his step, he marched some yards in advance of his company. He had nearly reached the other sable leaders, when he who appeared to act as the hostile commander-in-chief – a large, greasy man, with black hair combed flat on his forehead – called a halt. The procession paused. He drew forth a hymn book, gave out a verse, set a tune, and they all struck up the most dolorous of canticles.

Helstone signed to his bands. They clashed out with all the power of brass. He desired them to play “Rule, Britannia!” and ordered the children to join in vocally, which they did with enthusiastic spirit. The enemy was sung and stormed down, his psalm quelled. As far as noise went, he was conquered.

“Now, follow me!” exclaimed Helstone; “not at a run, but at a firm, smart pace. Be steady, every child and woman of you. Keep together. Hold on by each other’s skirts, if necessary.”

And he strode on with such a determined and deliberate gait, and was, besides, so well seconded by his scholars and teachers, who did exactly as he told them, neither running nor faltering, but marching with cool, solid impetus – the curates, too, being compelled to do the same, as they were between two fires, Helstone and Miss Keeldar, both of whom watched any deviation with lynx-eyed vigilance, and were ready, the one with his cane, the other with her parasol, to rebuke the slightest breach of orders, the least independent or irregular demonstration – that the body of Dissenters were first amazed, then alarmed, then borne down and pressed back, and at last forced to turn tail and leave the outlet from Royd Lane free. Boultby suffered in the onslaught, but Helstone and Malone, between them, held him up, and brought him through the business, whole in limb, though sorely tried in wind.

The fat Dissenter who had given out the hymn was left sitting in the ditch. He was a spirit merchant by trade, a leader of the Nonconformists, and, it was said, drank more water in that one afternoon than he had swallowed for a twelvemonth before. Mr. Hall had taken care of Caroline, and Caroline of him. He and Miss Ainley made their own quiet comments to each other afterwards on the incident. Miss Keeldar and Mr. Helstone shook hands heartily when they had fairly got the whole party through the lane. The curates began to exult, but Mr. Helstone presently put the curb on their innocent spirits. He remarked that they never had sense to know what to say, and had better hold their tongues; and he reminded them that the business was none of their managing.’

Patrick’s reputation in Dewsbury was further enhanced when he saved the life of a local boy. Patrick loved taking long walks, something his children would also later delight in, and one of his favourite stretches was by the side of the River Calder. On one of these perambulations he saw a group of local boys playing on the bank but then disaster struck and one of them fell (or was pushed in). Patrick sprang into action and leapt into the river, plucked the boy out of the water and swam him back to the shore before taking him home to his family. Drowning was a very common form of death in the early nineteenth century, but thankfully that was one child saved from becoming a statistic.

Patrick Brontë’s time in Dewsbury was not only tumultuous for the town, but for the country as a whole. Britain was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars and young men were being recruited into the army in large numbers, being given ‘the King’s shilling’ in return. This led to a notorious court case in which Patrick played a major part.

Recruiting officers often cajoled drunken men into the army

On 25th November 1810 a Dewsbury man named William Nowell was arrested for desertion. A soldier called James Thackray had testified that he had recruited Nowell into his regiment at the Lee Horse Fair but that he had not reported for duty. Nowell insisted that he had not been at the horse fair and produced witnesses to swear this, but the judge refused to accept this evidence and Nowell was confined to prison.

Dewsbury was in uproar at this miscarriage of justice, and Patrick Brontë was one of four local men who spoke to magistrates on Nowell’s behalf, to no avail. Patrick then wrote to the Secretary of War, Lord Palmerston, to plead the case and a delegation including William Wilberforce travelled to the ministry to add their support. Palmerston (and Wilberforce) had been at Cambridge with Patrick, but we can’t know whether that influenced his decision or not. A full hearing was arranged at which Patrick, and 25 other witnesses, spoke on Nowell’s behalf. Nowell was released from prison, but a year later Thackray was found guilty of perjury and transported to Australia for seven years.

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, was twice Prime Minister

On 15th December 1810 a jubilant Patrick gave a full account of the case to the Leeds Mercury, opening it with a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure: “’Tis excellent to have a giant’s strength: but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Extract from Leeds Mercury, 15th December 1810

In his time at Dewsbury Patrick had saved a child’s life, dispatched a bully into a ditch, righted a miscarriage of justice, and stood up, with a shillelagh, for the church doctrines which meant so much to him. It’s a real insight into his character: Patrick Brontë was certainly not a man to be messed with. Within three years of his arrival in the county he had met and married another incomer to Yorkshire: Maria Branwell. The rest is history. I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.