Charlotte and Emily Brontë may be closely associated with rugged moorland and wild expanses of heath, but their immediate surroundings in the small town of Haworth were very different. This 1850 investigation by Benjamin Hershel Babbage reveals Haworth as unclean, unsanitary, and with alarmingly high mortality rates on a par with the densely populated urban districts of 19th-century east London. Babbage’s inspection was instigated by the Brontës’ father Patrick Brontë who, as parish curate for Haworth, was witness to the many early deaths of its inhabitants.
The findings of Babbage’s report are shocking. Haworth was a small industrial mill town, and the view onto the moors was broken by tall smoking chimneys. Excrement ran down the street; for want of sewers, fenced in areas held human waste, offal from the slaughterhouse and pigsty waste for up to months at a time. Housing was poorly ventilated and overcrowded, with several dwellings in cellars. The average life expectancy was 25.8 years; 41.6% died before the age of six. Perhaps most appallingly, Babbage’s investigation confirmed that the graveyard, situated on the hill at the top of the town and in front of the Brontës’ home, was so overcrowded and poorly oxygenated that decomposing, putrid matter filtered into the water supply.
Presented to the General Board of Health, the report successfully prompted work to improve the town’s sanitation.