Calderdale’s Bronte Connections

The names of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë and the passionate novels they wrote will be linked forever with the landscapes and heritage of Yorkshire. Yet it’s not just in Haworth where the Brontë’s story unfolds. There are intriguing links to the three Brontë sisters, their brother Branwell and father Rev. Patrick Brontë to be found here in Calderdale.

Sutcliffe & George Sowden: Hebden Bridge

Sutcliffe Sowden touched the lives of the Brontës in many different ways, both happy and sad.

Sutcliffe was the eighth child of Samuel Sowden and Martha Sutcliffe, of Sutcliffe Wood Farm, near Hipperholme. Samuel and Martha were married at Halifax Parish Church (now Halifax Minster) in 1799. Samuel was a tenant farmer on the estate of the Listers of Shibden Hall and his name appears several times in Anne Brontë’s diaries. On Thursday 24th January 1839 she recorded “… Jonathan Mallinson came to tell of his son Whiteley’s success at Magdalen College, Cambridge – 17th senior wrangler, 16 above and 24 below him; Sowden the 46th of the senior optimes…”

Sutcliffe went on to become curate at Cross Stone, under the Rev. John Fennell, the uncle of Mrs. Maria Brontë. In 1841 Archdeacon Musgrave of Halifax appointed Sutcliffe perpetual curate of St. Jame’s Church, Hebden Bridge, which he was to serve for 20 years. There he came to know other young clergy in the area, including Arthur Bell Nicholls (later Charlotte’s husband).

The two men became close friends and Sutcliffe thought nothing of walking over Cock Hill to spend occasional evenings at Haworth. Here is a passage from ‘Shirley’ concerning curates:

“I allude to a rushing backwards and forwards, amongst themselves, to and from their respective lodgings; not a round – but a triangle of visits, which they keep up all the year through, in winter, spring, summer and autumn. Season and weather make no difference; with unintelligible zeal they dare snow and hail, wind and rain, mire and dust, to go and dine, or drink tea, or sup with each other. What attracts them, it would be difficult to say…”

Halifax antiquary Francis Leyland recorded that Charlotte Brontë, in the lonely days before her marriage, would sometimes walk, or occasionally drive, to Hangingroyd, Hebden Bridge, the residence of Sutcliffe Sowden.

On the 19th June 1854 Sutcliffe travelled to Haworth to perform the marriage ceremony for his friend Arthur Bell Nicholls and Charlotte Brontë. He described the bride on that occasion as “… a snowdrop, a pale wintry flower.”

Only ten months after he had married Charlotte to Arthur, Sutcliffe was again to make the journey to Haworth, although in very different circumstances; this time to read the Burial Service over Charlotte’s coffin. Six years later, in the Spring of 1861, he travelled to Haworth to conduct the funeral service of her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë

Sutcliffe died suddenly and tragically only a few months later. He was found drowned in the Rochdale Canal on August 8th 1861. He had been prone to fits of dizziness and the inquest ruled that such an attack had probably caused his fall into the water whilst walking home along the towpath. On August 13th, Charlotte Brontë’s widower, Arthur, travelled to Hebden Bridge from Haworth to conduct his friend’s funeral service. The font at St. James’ Church in Hebden Bridge was given in memory of Sutcliffe and bears his name.

Archdeacon Musgrave ensured that Sutcliffe’s brother, George, succeeded him as vicar at Hebden Bridge. Whilst staying with his brother at Cross-Stone in 1840, George first saw the Brontë family. Here is an extract from his description of Patrick Brontë on that occasion: “… his quaint old fashioned look and his stupendous necktie: how it was constructed, I never could imagine.”

Unlike Sutcliffe, George did not know Charlotte personally before her marriage, but when invited to stay at Haworth in 1854, soon after Charlotte’s marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, he got to know her quite well. In 1894 he described Charlotte as being “… a thoroughly ladylike woman, and very self-possessed…” and says that her conversation was quite “unaffected”.

Coming downstairs to breakfast one morning at Haworth Parsonage, George found Charlotte “ascending the steps from the cellar… with a teacake in her hand, which she took into the kitchen to toast for our breakfast, perfectly unconcerned and natural, never dreaming of an apology for being caught in a domestic employment.”

In a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey dated November 7th 1854, Charlotte referred to the Sowden brothers’ stay at Haworth Parsonage: “Mr. Sowden and his brother were here yesterday – stayed all night, and are but just gone. George Sowden is six or seven years the junior of Sutcliffe Sowden… he looks very delicate and quiet – a good sincere man – I should think…”

George Sowden died on May 12th 1899, aged 77 and was buried in his brother’s grave at Hebden Bridge. Both brothers are commemorated at St. Jame’s Church, Hebden Bridge in a number of ways, including the font, dedicated to the memory of Sutcliffe Sowden; and the Sowden Chapel, which commemorates George Sowden and was built five years after his death.


Wuthering Heights: High Sunderland & Shibden Hall

Emily Brontë worked as a governess at Miss Patchett’s Ladies Academy at Law Hill School, Southowram, near Halifax between 1838 and 1839. Emily wrote that they had to start work at 6am and is also reported as saying that she preferred the dog at Law Hill to the pupils!

Emily left after about six months due to homesickness, yet would have been familiar with High Sunderland Hall. It is thought that Emily used the house as the model for “Wuthering Heights”, relocating it to the moorland setting of Top Withens near Haworth.

Brontë experts have concluded that Lockwood’s description of his first visit to Wuthering Heights fits that of High Sunderland. The inscriptions are fictional, but the carvings were real. The interior of Wuthering Heights also corresponds with the house plan to a great extent.

Sadly, after years of decline High Sunderland Hall was finally demolished in the early 1950s. Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax, holds surviving decorative stonework from the demolished Hall.


Branwell Brontë: The Upper Calder Valley

The Brontë sisters’ only brother, Branwell, was a potentially talented portrait artist and poet. Unfortunately, he ended life dependent on drink and drugs.

On August 31st 1840, Branwell was appointed assistant Clerk atSowerby Bridge Railway Station, at a starting salary of £75 a year. He became Clerk in Charge at the Luddenden Foot Railway Station on April 1st 1841.

While at Luddenden Foot Station, Branwell became a frequent customer at the Lord Nelson Inn, Luddenden, an establishment which you can still visit today. Branwell was dismissed from his post on March 31st 1842, due to a deficit of £11 in the accounts, which was attributed to incompetence rather than theft.

During his period of employment on the railways, and later while he worked as a tutor, Branwell harboured literary ambitions and published poetry under various pseudonyms in the Yorkshire press. The Halifax Guardian, a newspaper with a strong interest in the arts, published 12 poems and one article by Branwell between 1841 and 1846.

Branwell spent many happy hours exploring the Upper Calder Valley countryside, sometimes accompanied by a noted local geologist Rev. Sutcliffe Sowden from Hebden Bridge.


Printing of the first Brontë Work: Halifax

The year 1811 marked he first known publication of a book written by a member of the Brontë family, the 136 page ‘Cottage Poems’, written by Rev Patrick Brontë, which was printed in Halifax.

Rev Brontë had further books of poems and sermons printed, but only two of these were printed at Halifax, including in 1813 ‘The Rural Minstrel: A Miscellany of Descriptive Poems’.

Patrick’s poems are described as “moral verse.” Experts on the subject do not describe them as great poetry, but consider them interesting because they show some of the romanticism, love of wild nature and strong emotions which later made his daughters’ work so outstanding.


Charlotte Brontë’s Wedding Dress: Halifax

Charlotte Brontë came to Halifax early in June 1854 to purchase the material for her wedding dress. Until she entered the draper’s shop, Charlotte had determined not to wear white, but changed her mind when told that a white muslin dress would suit her admirably. The shop duly made up the order.

In a letter to her best friend and bridesmaid Ellen Nussey, dated 12th June 1854, Charlotte mentions that she was too busy to unpack her wedding outfit for several days after it arrived from Halifax.

It is known that a young Halifax man was involved in the purchase of the wedding dress, for afterwards he was fond of relating to local residents how he had served the author of Jane Eyre. It would be fascinating to know for which local establishment he worked, but sadly this information is not known.

(With thanks to David Glover, Halifax Antiquarian Society; David Nortcliffe, Calderdale Heritage Walks and Rebecca Yorke, Brontë Parsonage Museum)


You can discover more about the Brontës by following these links to:

The Brontë Parsonage Museum

The Brontë Country website