Sunday, 14 August 2011

Cowan Bridge - and a postscript to the Brontes

There is a strange footnote to my post about the Brontes. If you are at all familiar with the Bronte story, you will know of the girls (Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily) being sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Yorkshire in 1824/25. It was run to benefit the daughters of poor clergy, so they might have a good education to suit them in their adult life:

"The great object in view will be their intellectual and religious Improvement; and to give that plain and useful Education, which may best fit them to return with Respectability and Advantage in their own Homes, or to maintain themselves in the Different Stations of Life to which providence may call them."

All this for £14 year - good value for an impoverished Clergyman with 5 daughters to make their ways in the world. The school had been started by the Reverend Carus-Wilson of Tunstall in Lancashire for the education of daughters of the Evangelical persuasion, and various enlightened patrons including William Wilberforce, and many other people of note including MPs, minor royalty, "Hons." and clergymen. From this you might have thought that the school was able to afford to offer nourishment for the body as well as the soul, but this was far from the case.

Breakfast was a bowl of burned lumpy porridge, topped with sour milk and barely edible except by the most desperate, and was served soon after they arose at 6 a.m. This was followed by prayers and hymns, with lessons until noon, when lunch included meat (often rancid and always fatty) which made Charlotte gag. Then they went for a walk, or in bad weather, walked up and down a verandah leading to the river. More lessons followed, until tea was served at 5 p.m. consisting of milk and dry bread. The elder children continued their lessons until 8 p.m. when they were given a supper of more dry bread and milk. This regime was designed to "mortify the flesh and to instil endurance". Church on Sundays meant a walk of 4 miles each way to Tunstall, the church where Carus-Wilson preached his long, boring and stodgy Calvinistic sermons, sermons black with despair and suffering. He looked upon his flock as hopeless Reprobates, doomed in the hereafter. The children attended, whatever the weather, and of necessity sat around in soaking wet shoes and clothing, before a small cold meal was partaken in a little room above the porch, and then the 4 mile trek back across the moors to the school.

The Bronte childrens' health had not been robust even before their departure for Cowan Bridge. They had all suffered first whooping cough, then chickenpox and finally measles, which delayed their departure. A desperately cold and wet winter at Cowan Bridge, the paucity and quality of the food, left them wide open to infection so their half-starved bodies had no defence against the "low fever" - typhoid - when it struck early in 1825. Mr Bronte heard that he was to bring his eldest daughter Maria home. She arrived stick-thin, with almost translucent skin, and eyes bright in a feverish face. The Doctor, quickly summoned, diagnosed Consumption. Maria faded and within the space of 3 months, was dead. She was 11 years old.

Her sister Elizabeth followed her home, suffering from Typhoid and Consumption, and followed her sister to the grave, just five weeks later. She was 10 years old.

Patrick Bronte rescued the survivors - Emily and Charlotte - and took them home to grieve with him. You will probably know that there is no happy ending to this story and the unhealthy position of the Bronte parsonage above the miasmas and smoke of the Haworth factories, with its water supply filtered by the graveyard, meant that the family were doomed from the outset. Emily and Anne were to die of Consumption (Ann is buried in St Mary's churchyard in Scarborough - I have a photo of her gravestone, somewhere amongst my photos). Their brother Branwell died of Consumpion (Tuberculosis) and addiction to Alcohol and the Opium derivative Laudanum. Charlotte died in early pregnancy, wasted with morning sickness. Their father outlived them all.

HERE is an excellent site about the Bronte and the countryside they knew and loved. It's on the Cowan Bridge page but has many interesting and useful links.

Oh - and my connection with all this? In the 1901 census, my great-aunt, Mary Elizabeth Bolt, aged 21, was the Domestic Cook to the Carus-Wilson family at 8 Well Road, Hampstead, London. I believe the head of the house, Ernest J Carus-Wilson, was the grandson of that great benefactor of Cowan Bridge School . . .Link

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't found reference to the dreadful conditions at the Cowan Bridge School in the rather casual biographies of the Bronte's which I previously read. The one read this spring [can't remember the author--a library book] went into detail about the Bronte sisters' stay there.
    I'm familiar with the idea of carefulness in food and drink as part of the discipline of a Christian. There always seem to be followers of any religious doctrine who take such things way too far--and foist their particular view on others.
    I was astonished to learn something of the history of a young woman in our local congregation who was deliberately kept hungry by parents who believed they were teaching their daughters a reverent abstemiousness. Scary!