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.

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