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The Brontes in Spen Valley

By Gillian Cookson

The Bronte sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily had close connections with Spen Valley and Charlotte in particular was a frequent visitor. Spen Valley locations, people and historical events featured in her best known novels, Shirley and Jane Eyre.

Their father Patrick (pictured above right) arrived as minister to St Peter's Church, Hartshead from Dewsbury in 1810. At first he lodged at Thornbush Farm, known in those days as Lousy Thorn Farm, at Windybank Hightown (picture next to Patrick Bronte). He moved to Clough House, Halifax Road, Hightown (pictured above), on his marriage to Maria Branwell in 1812, and the eldest girls Maria and Elizabeth were born there. The most famous Brontes were born after the family moved to Thornton, Bradford in 1815. Charlotte (pictured above left) was born there in April 1816.

Charlotte, Anne and Emily came from Haworth to attend school at Roe Head, Mirfield, now part of Hollybank School. Charlotte also worked there as a teacher from 1835 while her sisters were still pupils. Anne Bronte was later governess at Blake Hall, Mirfield.

At Roe Head Charlotte made lifelong friends who introduced her to the places and people which would feature in her novels. Miss Wooler, head of the school, later moved to Tanfield House, Upper Spen and afterwards retired to the largest of the Sisters' Houses in Little Gomersal. She gave Charlotte away at her wedding to Arthur Nicholls.

Charlotte's other friends from Roe Head were Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey. During long visits to the Taylor family at Red House, Gomersal, Charlotte developed settings for her books. Red House became Briarmains in Shirley, with the Taylors portrayed as the Yorke family. St Peter's Church, Birstall, was Briarmains Church, and Oakwell Hall was Fieldhead, Shirley's home.

TheTaylors' cloth finishing factory and mill house at Hunsworth Mill along with Rawfolds Mill, the scene of a famous Luddite attack, formed a composite Hollows Mill in Shirley. The Taylors' private nonconformist chapel near Red House became Briar Chapel, although the family's remote burial ground in Fusden Woods Gomersal did not feature. Kirklees Hall, known to Charlotte from her time at Roe Head, was Nunnely Hall.

While Ellen Nussey did not make such a great contribution to the novels as the Taylors, she gave Charlotte the basis for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. The Nussey home, Rydings, Birstall, now surrounded by the PPG paint factory, escaped the fate of Thornfield, burnt down by the mad Mrs Rochester who leaped from its flaming battlements. In later life Ellen Nussey lived at Moor Lane House, now enveloped by the Gomersal Park Hotel, and like Miss Wooler, is buried at Birstall Church.

Mary Taylor remained a lifelong friend and confidante to Charlotte. She became a traveller, businesswoman, teacher, author and journalist known for her feminist writings. Mary lived for many years in New Zealand but returned to Spen Valley to live at High Royd House (now the Gomersal Lodge Hotel). Mary's grave is at Gomersal Church.

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