Look at Haworth when the Brontes lived there

In the late 1860s visitors were curious to see Haworth because of his association with the Brontës. In fact, “Bronte Country” was an expression already in use at the end of the 19th century.

Thousands of people began to flock to the city to follow in the footsteps of the Brontë sisters and explore the countryside that is often featured in their writings. A thriving tourist industry developed around the literary family, although Haworth today is a more sanitized version of what they knew. The Bronte Society, established in 1893, advertisements in newspapers and magazines and at railway stations promoted it as a tourist attraction. But the “industrial village” in the time of the Brontës was very different from today, although many buildings remain.

Patrick Brontë, after his studies at Cambridge, served at Weatherfield in Essex, at Wellington in Shropshire and then came to Yorkshire in December 1809 to become curate near Dewsbury. His first church was in Hartshead-cum-Clifton.

From there he walked 10 miles to teach religious knowledge at Woodhouse Grove School near Rawdon. It was there that he met the manager’s niece, Maria Branwell of Penzance, who was on holiday in Yorkshire. They were married at Guiseley Church on August 29, 1812, then moved to Thornton where Patrick made an appointment at the Old Bell Chapel. All of their six children were born in Thornton.

The Reverend Patrick Bronte brought his 39-year-old wife Maria and their six children from Thornton to Haworth in February 1820 when he was appointed vicar at the parish church. Opinion described it as a very unhealthy place to live. Up there on the moors with its icy winds, low clouds and heavy rain, life could be very dark.

Within 18 months, his wife was dead. By 1825 the older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, had also died of fever. Their brother Branwell died in 1848 of consumption at the age of 31. A few months later, Emily was buried at Haworth, aged 30. Anne was the only one not buried at Haworth; she was buried in Scarborough in 1849, aged 29.

Charlotte lived the longest but died in 1855 shortly after her marriage. Patrick Bronte survived his family until his death in 1861.

Crowds line up at the Bronte Parsonage Museum when it opened in the 1920s

What did Haworth look like from 1820 to 1861? It was a crowded industrial town, inhabited by people described by Charlotte Bronte’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskill, as straightforward, independent-minded, energetic in character, self-sufficient, and living in close community. They were typified by Joseph in Emily’s Wuthering Heights.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: the Bronte Parsonage Museum is world famous The Bronte Parsonage Museum is world famous

Charlotte, writing to her publisher Smith Elder in 1848, described Haworth as a strange, uncivilized little place of cottage industries. In their homes the people of Haworth were combers of wool for mills, the first of which had been John Greenwoods in 1785. Branwell provided a vivid insight into wool combing and the woolen trade, in his unpublished writings . Many residents of Haworth lived in poor, cramped conditions, living, sleeping and working in the same room.

Census results reveal that in 1841 there were 730 wool combers and 1,260 in 1851. According to parish records, 68% of the bride and groom were wool combers. It was the height of the cottage economy because mechanization in factories was beginning to take hold. At the time of Patrick’s death in 1861, Haworth was a bustling, well-to-do village, but still an unsanitary place.

The death rate was as high as London’s. Half of the children died before the age of six and the average age of death was 24 years. Lewis Burton described it as a place of “unpleasant odors, unsanitary conditions and unwashed bodies”. Health was threatened by typhus, cholera and dysentery”. To the smells were added the emanations of cottage industries.

Besides the wool industry, other occupations included booksellers, grocers, tailors, drapers, watchmakers, surgeons, boot and clog makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, plasterers, stone and the bakers. Around the square were an apothecary, wine and spirits merchants and an ironmonger. Four inns included the Black Bull, the Old White Lion, the Cross Keys and the Kings Arms. Drinking problems had led to the establishment of a temperance hotel. Branwell became addicted to alcohol and drugs and mixed with the residents of the Black Bull.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Branwell Brontë was a regular at the Black BullBranwell Bronte was a regular at the Black Bull

Patrick Brontë was very concerned about the sanitary conditions and supported the investigation reports to reveal the extent of the truth. The 1850 Board of Health report described how the dumps were choked with household waste and offal from slaughterhouses. Night soil and pig barn drainage mixed with this waste and often decomposed in the streets giving off putrid odors for months. This report by Benjamin Babbage from 1850, at the instigation of Patrick Brontë, is a shocking revelation.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Haworth's main street as it once wasHaworth’s main street as it once was

The Babbage Report described how very unsanitary the houses of the wool combers were. The work was carried out in crowded rooms which were not only their workplace, but also their bedroom. Iron stoves threw heat into a room where the windows were rarely open. Poor ventilation contributed to deadly diseases. These very precarious living conditions were worse when families were large and crowded into cellars. The cemetery at the top of the hill and in front of the parsonage was so overcrowded and poorly oxygenated that decomposed and putrid human remains were seeping into the water supply. In times of flooding, body parts were swept up the main street.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Haworth's Overcrowded Cemetery Haworth’s overcrowded cemetery

There were no toilets and only 69 toilets – one for every four houses. Only 24 houses had their own toilet. Babbage pointed out that better sanitary conditions would improve death rates.

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