The Brontës: Life in Haworth

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the poor sanitary conditions in Haworth in the 19th century and the mix of rural and industrial influences on the Brontë sisters and their writing. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

So, people often think of Haworth, where we are, as a very remote place but in fact, it's got a very double-sided identity to it. On the one hand behind it are the moors, wild, barren, all the things that we know from Wuthering Heights, but looking down onto the town, it's a working town – it's full of weavers and they're going through deep hardship at the time, because of the process of industrialisation throwing them out of work and then the mills gradually come here to Haworth. But they're not in any way cut off from this, you know, this is a town where you could see people – men urinating in the streets and their father was the vicar. He was very involved in concerns with the water supply, with social depravation, so it's often wrong I think, to think of them as people cut off from the modern world. In many ways, here in Haworth, they're right at the centre of it.

So, Haworth was a mix of rural and industrial and like many industrial places, it was very unhealthy. It was estimated in a report published in 1850, that the average life expectancy in Haworth was 25 years and of all the children born here, 40% would die before reaching the age of six. Patrick Brontë had recognised that Haworth was an incredibly unhealthy place and he was instrumental in petitioning the General Board of Health and they sent an inspector here who produced the report, so we've got quite a detailed picture of Haworth at that period and it was stressed in the report that Haworth – the health situation here, was comparable to some of the worst of the London slum districts. I think the main problem was the contaminated water supply. All the public wells and pumps were situated below the level of the churchyard. They were fed by moorland springs which were actually running through the graveyard and the graveyard itself is quite a major factor in the unhealthy state of Haworth. It's been estimated that there were 40,000 people buried in the churchyard. It was severely overcrowded and the Inspector, the Health Inspector, was quite concerned that it was contributing to the unhealthy state of Haworth and also the custom of covering graves with large flat stones prevented the growth of vegetation, which would aid the dispersal of the gases of all during decomposition, which is why the trees that we see today were planted in the churchyard, but it was quite a grim and quite an unhealthy place to live in. I think once you have that information, you know it kind of changes your view about the Brontës and their lives here.

Explore further

Related videos

Professor John Bowen speaking to camera on the moors around Haworth, a single tree is in the background

Wuthering Heights: Landscape

Professor John Bowen discusses the harshness of the landscape around Haworth and the central part it plays in the writings of the Brontë sisters. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth. - video

Professor John Bowen speaking to camera on the moors around Haworth

Wuthering Heights: Violence and cruelty

Professor John Bowen explores Emily Brontë’s extraordinary use of violence in Wuthering Heights. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth. - video

Crop of an illustrated tale titled 'Dead Boy', from Child's First Tales

Childhood in Jane Eyre

Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the childhood writings and experiences of the Brontë sisters and how these shaped their later writing in novels such as Jane Eyre. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth. - video

Grassy land on the moors around Haworth

Wuthering Heights: Who is Heathcliff?

Professor John Bowen discusses the enigmatic Heathcliff, from his early appearance as a rejected child, to his return as a powerful and violent antihero. Filmed on location on the moors around Haworth. - video

Related articles


Walking the landscape of Wuthering Heights

Situating Emily Brontë in her hometown of Haworth – a small Yorkshire mill town surrounded by moors – Professor John Bowen reflects on the representation of landscape in Wuthering Heights.


Jane Eyre and the 19th-century woman

Professor Sally Shuttleworth explores how Charlotte Brontë challenges 19th-century conceptions of appropriate female behaviour through the creation of a heroine who works, demands respect and combines self-control with passion and rebellion.


The figure of the governess

From Jane Eyre to Vanity Fair, the governess is a familiar figure in Victorian literature. She is also a strange one: not part of the family, yet not quite an ordinary servant. Kathryn Hughes focuses on the role and status of the governess in 19th century society.


Who is Heathcliff?

Professor John Bowen considers the enigmatic outsider of Wuthering Heights.