BY the late 1860s, visitors were curious to see Haworth because of its association with the Brontes. In fact ‘Bronte Country’ was a phrase already in use by the late 19th century.

Thousands began to flock to the town to follow in the footsteps of the Bronte sisters and to explore the countryside which often features in their writing. A thriving tourist industry grew around the literary family, though Haworth today is a more sanitised version of the one they knew. The Bronte Society, formed in 1893, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and in railway stations promoted it as a tourist attraction. But the ‘industrial village’ during the time of the Brontes was very different from today, though many of the buildings remain.

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

From here he would walk 10 miles to teach Religious Knowledge at Woodhouse Grove school near Rawdon. It was here that he met the niece of the headmaster, Maria Branwell from Penzance, who was on holiday in Yorkshire. They were married at Guiseley Church on August 29, 1812 then moved to Thornton where Patrick took up an appointment at the Old Bell Chapel. All their six children were born in Thornton.

The Rev 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. High up on the moors with its bitterly cold winds, low clouds and heavy rain, life could be very grim.

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

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

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Crowds queue at Bronte Parsonage Museum when it opened in the 1920s Crowds queue at Bronte Parsonage Museum when it opened in the 1920s

So what was Haworth like from 1820 to 1861? It was a crowded industrial town, inhabited by people described by Charlotte Bronte’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskill as blunt, independent-minded, of forceful character, self-sufficient and living in a 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, uncivilised little place of cottage industries. In their homes Haworth folk were wool combers for the factories, the first of which had been John Greenwoods in 1785. Branwell provided a vivid insight into the woolcombing and wool trade, in his unpublished writings. Many Haworth residents lived in poor conditions, cramped together, living, sleeping and working in the same room.

Census returns reveal that in 1841 there were 730 woolcombers, and 1,260 in 1851. According to parish records, 68 per cent of bridegrooms were woolcombers. This was the peak of the cottage industrial economy because mechanisation in factories began to take hold. By the time of Patrick’s death in 1861, Haworth was a busy, affluent village, though still an insanitary place.

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

Apart from the wool industry, other occupations included booksellers, grocers, tailors, drapers, clock maker, surgeons, boot and clog makers, blacksmiths, joiners, plasterers, stone masons and bakers. Around the square was an apothecary, wine and spirit merchants, and an ironmongers. Four inns included the Black Bull, the Old White Lion, the Cross Keys and the Kings Arms. The problems associated with drink had led to the establishment of a temperance hotel. Branwell became addicted to drink and drugs, and mixed with locals in the Black Bull.

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

Patrick Bronte was very concerned about the sanitary conditions and supported investigative reports to reveal the extent of the truth. The Board of Health Report in 1850 described how middens were choked up with household waste and offal from slaughterhouses. Night soil and drainage from pigsties mixed with this refuse and often decomposed in the streets giving off putrid smells for months. This report by Benjamin Babbage of 1850, instigated by Patrick Bronte, was a shocking revelation.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Haworth's main street as it used to lookHaworth's main street as it used to look

The Babbage Report described how the homes of woolcombers were very unhealthy. The work was carried out in overcrowded rooms which were not only their workplace, but also the bedroom. Iron stoves threw out heat into a room where windows were seldom opened. Poor ventilation contributed to deadly illnesses. These very poor living conditions were worse when families were large and crammed into cellar dwellings. The graveyard on top of the hill and in front of the Parsonage was so overcrowded and poorly oxygenated, that decomposed and putrid human remains filtered into the water supply. In times of flooding, body parts were swept down the main street.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Haworth's overcrowded graveyard Haworth's overcrowded graveyard

There were no water closets and only 69 privies - one for every four or so houses. Only 24 houses had their own privy. Babbage stressed that better sanitary conditions would improve the mortality rates.