THE appalling sanitation in Haworth, and its impact on living conditions, disease and death, was revealed in Benjamin Babbage’s shocking health report in 1850.

There was opposition to reform, often based on financial cost, while some blamed poor health on the mists descending from the moors. But the reformers, who included Patrick Bronte, successfully fought a bitter battle against ignorance and opposition, and the Local Board set about improving sewage, drainage, and reducing public nuisances; removing night soil, emptying cesspits and cleansing streets.

Philanthropists and factory owners such as Titus Salt in Saltaire and John Crossley in Halifax improved housing and environments for the labouring classes during the 1850s.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Haworth Parsonage and its once overcrowded graveyard Haworth Parsonage and its once overcrowded graveyard

In Haworth, Patrick Bronte complained about the ignorance of many of the inhabitants. Religion played a significant part during the 40 years he was vicar at St Michael’s. In 1851 there were potentially 500 attendees, but three times as many went to the three Wesleyan and Baptist chapels. The Methodists opened a school in 1821, and the Church of England founded a National School in 1832. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell taught there.

Despite the widespread ignorance there was a Philosophical Society, established in 1784. There were orchestras and choral groups which performed in the church and the Black Bull. There were brass bands associated with the mills, and these led to the formation of the Haworth Brass Band in 1854. There was a Mechanics Institute, which became more popular when it was improved to accommodate a library, reading room, a classroom and lecture hall. In 1853 it moved to new premises in the Main Street.

There were Chartist demonstrations and meetings in the 1840s, and the Keighley area was very active. Archibald Leighton was well known in Haworth for addressing meetings, and Patrick knew him. One was held on Farnhill Moor at which Leighton spoke. By the mid 19th century there was a good deal of discontent about the ‘condition of England Question.’ Men like Patrick Bronte and WE Forster spoke out against poor living and working conditions.

For some, education was seen to be the key to improvements. To others it was regarded as dangerous by putting ideas into the heads of the masses. It could also be seen, like religion, as a means of social control. Patrick wished to see more enlightenment and literacy, but it is alleged that he slept with a pistol next to his bed for safety, in fear of extreme political activists.

For the Bronte children, schooling was chiefly at home. Patrick had come from an illiterate Irish family, but was gifted enough to go to Cambridge. He was well educated and widely read. He had a vast library which the children were allowed to access. They were brought up on the classics. Books were borrowed from the local library but because females were forbidden to enter, Branwell obtained them. Charlotte and Emily attended a school at Cowan Bridge where conditions were terrible. They were then educated at home, where they fed off each others’ imaginations and creative skills. It was here they wrote their tiny books and created imaginary countries and characters, whilst developing their passion for story telling.

Many middle-class single women had to work as teachers or governesses. All three Bronte sisters were employed as teachers and governesses, and their novels later featured schooling. It is said that Emily preferred animals to humans. It was claimed that when she taught at Low Hall School, she told the pupils she preferred the school dog to them. Emily was a talented artist, and much of her work featured animals.

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an attack on Victorian society, and was a study of alcoholism and its effect on the family. She was deeply influenced by the experiences of her brother’s drinking bouts.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Crowds at the launch of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Pic: Bronte Society Crowds at the launch of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Pic: Bronte Society

Charlotte’s novel Shirley was influenced by Luddite riots and political unrest.

The depth of character reflected in Emily’s Heathcliff, Charlotte’s Rochester, and Anne’s feminist classic, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, indicate that the Brontes were influenced by the people of Haworth and the times and experiences they lived through. They were far from uneducated and isolated girls, and like many outstanding writers, they were inspired by their life experiences and the environment in which they lived.

l Dave’s full Haworth article will be in The Bradford Antiquary (No. 83) edited by Dave Pendleton, out in August/September.