Brontes’ distaste for the ‘flat and stagnant air of Dewsbury Moor...’

Brontes’ distaste for the ‘flat and stagnant air of Dewsbury Moor...’

Local historian Mike Popplewell takes readers on another journey into the Bronte connections of North Kirklees...

THE Spen Valley Fame Trail website rightly concentrates on an area basically comprising Cleckheaton, Heckmondwike and Liversedge, but as the River Spen itself meanders through the outskirts of Batley, Dewsbury and Mirfield, we can take our interest in the district’s famous characters a little further afield.

It has been mentioned in this column recently that the Bronte connections in this area are really quite prominent – and this is never more so than with the Brontes’ association with Heald’s House, on Healds Road in Dewsbury.

It stands next to Dewsbury Hospital and was actually used as NHS administrative offices in the not-too-distant past.

Having been built in the 18th century, it was used as a Quaker Meeting House at one time and was later the birthplace of the Rev WM Heald, after which the house and the surrounding area got its name.

The Rev Heald is thought to be the model for Charlotte Bronte’s Rev Cyril Hall in her novel Shirley.

But Charlotte’s direct involvement with the property came in 1837, when she worked as a teacher for Miss Margaret Wooler, after Miss Wooler moved her school from Roe Head, Mirfield, to Dewsbury Moor.

Although it is hard to imagine now that the area around this building was part of Dewsbury Moor in 1837, it had none of the housing or industrial development, or the hospital that was founded as the Dewsbury Union Workhouse in 1854, that rapidly appeared during the progression of the 19th century.

Charlotte’s younger sister Anne was just 17, and still a pupil, when Miss Wooller moved her school to Dewsbury Moor and the move was no great success for the Bronte sisters.

In fact, Anne became ill and Charlotte fell out with Miss Wooler.

Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South and Mary Barton, wrote a biography of Charlotte, and in it she wrote: “Her new residence was a much lower site and the air much less pure and exhilarating to one used to the wild hill village of Haworth.”

Mrs Gaskell explained that Charlotte fulfilled her duties as conscientiously as she could but was always looking for greater satisfaction in her work, and was concerned that what was described as “the flat and comparatively stagnant air of Dewsbury Moor” took its toll on Anne’s health.

Just before Christmas, 1837, Anne developed a cough and a pain in her side and had difficulty breathing.

Miss Wooler suggested it was nothing more than a common cold but Charlotte sensed it could be the start of consumption (tuberculosis), the illness that had caused the death of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth as children.

Furious at Miss Wooler’s apparent indifference to Anne’s health, Charlotte took her to task with some angry comments.

Miss Wooler took exception and wrote to Patrick Bronte, the girls’ father.

He immediately sent for the girls and the next day they left. Charlotte vowed never to return as governess, or let Anne return as a pupil.

But just before she left she spoke with Miss Wooler and the two of them, as long-time friends, resolved their differences.

Anne lived long enough to subsequently work as a governess herself, and write her novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but sadly died of TB in Scarborough in 1849, aged just 29.

Healds House map

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