Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A History of Haworth from Earliest Times - A Review

We thank Carnegie Publishing for providing us with a review copy of this book.

A History of Haworth from earliest times
Michael Baumber
Carnegie Publishing
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-85936-156-6
Illustrations: 170 photographs and maps
Publication date: 15 December 2009
'Selling books about Haworth is easier than for any other village in northern England', so says Michael Baumber, author of A History of Haworth from Earliest Times. And even though the Brontës may be the bait, after having read the book it turns out that Haworth(1) is a very interesting place on its own account.

Michael Baumber, a historian, is intent on showing the place as it really was through the centuries, not just how the Brontës saw it in their time or how we see it in our time. In his preface, Mr Baumber recommends a few chapters of special interest to 'Brontë addicts', but we don't recommend skipping. There are probably many facts that the Brontës, living there, didn't know about, so how can they be relevant? Well, it is because many events of the pre-Brontës Haworth helped shaped the Brontës' Haworth. The well-known character of the Haworthites develops and shines through the book, for instance. And what a character that is!

The book begins by looking into the earliest settlements known in the area through some found artifacts whose style suggests 'a connection with the Maglemosian culture of Belgium'. A fact, surely, that Charlotte Brontë didn't know but which might have made her smile to herself.

The Brontës, though in Anne's case she arrived there when she was less than a year old, were newcomers in Haworth and never had many acquaintances, not to mention friends, among its people(2). However, their servant, Tabby Aykroyd(3), was a local and might have brought to them many legends and local gossip. Michael Baumber tells the story of Henry Casson, pointed out by a few biographers in the past as a possible source for Wuthering Heights, and which takes place in the second half of the seventeenth century at Ponden Hall, a place whose library the young Brontës are said to have visited. Michael Baumber tells the legend as Emily might have heard it but later proves that the actual facts are nothing like it, nor like Wuthering Heights. But together with Jack Sharp and Welsh Brunty, Henry Casson might have sparked Emily's imagination.

Most Brontë biographies mention the time that larger-than-life William Grimshaw spent in Haworth and his fantastic exploits there but few take the time to put his incumbency in context. Michael Baumber cleverly gives religion the prominence it seems to have had at different stages in Haworth's history. One Oliver Heywood described Haworth in the seventeenth century as 'an ignorant and prophane place', which contrasts with William Grimshaw's later church-attendance figures:
In 1748 Grimshaw was called before [the archbishop] at Wakefield. 'How many communicants had you at your quarterly sacraments, when you first came to Haworth?' the archbishop inquired. 'Twelve, my Lord', replied Grimshaw. 'How many communicants have you now at such solemnities?' Grimshaw answered, 'In winter four to five hundred, and sometimes in summer near twelve hundred.'
They would later disperse into several groups, the ones staying with the Anglicans not being the larger number and thus placing Patrick Brontë in a religious minority position. Much is made by Mr Baumber, though, of Patrick Brontë's Methodist origins and Low Church leanings.

A key factor in the Haworth the Brontës knew was also the textile industry. Haworth may not have been Manchester(4), but much though Charlotte Brontë tried to minimise it in her own Brontë-myth-is-born style, the textile industry was very relevant to the township's development and social status as witnessed by the many mills that sprung up and grew, of which some were later burnt to the ground, others have been well preserved and others are currently in ruins. Perhaps because the Brontës didn't really take any interest or part in the textile industry, books on the Brontës don't say much about this context either, except to say that there were a few mills around Haworth. Thus, Michael Baumber's close 'monitoring' of the foundation, development, life, problems, etc. taking place in or around the mills makes for a fascinating and quite unexpected read. What Brontë lovers know about March 1855 is that Charlotte Brontë lay dying in the Parsonage, but what do we know about what was happening just outside the door? Nothing much, when in fact the times were so bad that for the week ending 21 February 632 'paupers' were having to be 'relieved' by the Keighley Poor Law Union(5). It is tempting to wonder to what extent this sorry state of things filtered into the Parsonage and reached Patrick Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls and how present in their mind it was at the time.

The arrival of the railway in Haworth, which was actually brought about by the mill owners themselves, is also very interesting, particularly its evolution into the current KWVR and the fame that the film The Railway Children brought as well.

But what's fascinating about this book is just how Michael Baumber is able to portray precisely the attitude of Haworthites towards the Brontës. He himself seems in two minds about them and doesn't hesitate to let this filter into his account of the Brontës' time in Haworth right from the start. According to Mr Baumber, already in the 1840s, 'the curates believed that the obstacle in the way of a comparable renaissance at Haworth was the Brontë family', which seems to imply that the Brontë family as a whole influenced church matters and social development. Shortly afterwards, 'Patrick was not the only problem. The publication of Jane Eyre had made Charlotte Brontë a national celebrity. . .', not taking into account that Charlotte Brontë was known to the world as Currer Bell and that her identity wasn't widely known until after her sisters' deaths.

Arthur Bell Nicholls is noticeably absent from the pages of the book. He is mentioned here and there, of course, but much more importance is attached to another curate of Patrick's, Joseph Grant, who played an important part in the development of Oxenhope and would later become Vicar of Oxenhope. But the Brontëite reader can't help but think that Arthur Bell Nicholls's close association with the Brontë family is at the root of the matter after reading things such as, when speaking of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, 'the character of Macartney (Nicholls) was handled with greater diplomacy, which is not surprising as Charlotte eventually married the original'. Nothing was further from Charlotte's mind in 1849 than marrying Mr Nicholls. And then again, mentioning briefly that Arthur Bell Nicholls wasn't chosen as the new perpetual curate after Patrick's death, Michael Baumber dourly concludes that 'perhaps it was a good thing for himself and for Haworth that he was not chosen'.

Don't get us wrong, this is not a bad thing about this book - it is actually quite amusing and perhaps closer to reality, as other books seem to gloss over the fact that Haworth wasn't exactly thrilled by the fame the Brontës had brought to the place. It is in this context that it is possible to understand things such as the demolition of the 'Brontë church' or the new wing added to the Parsonage by the Reverend John Wade(6), the new perpetual curate and 'founding member of the Brontë Society', though he quickly left(for a logical reason according to Baumber) or the antipathy which shocked Sir Thomas Wemyss Reid as late as 1879. For better or for worse - and for Haworth it seems to be have been always that combination of love and hate - after the Brontës, Haworth would never be the same.

And that's why the 'post-Brontës' chapters are such an enlightening read, because in a way we can no longer speak about the shaping of the place the Brontës knew but about the place the Brontës shaped. As it is said in the book, the Brontës seem to have written about Haworth as they saw it - which wasn't necessarily how it really was - but afterwards Haworth seems to have really become Haworth as they wrote it, which is a remarkable paradox to say the least.

The book, which is apparently limited to 1,000 copies, is printed in high-quality paper and includes dozens of images of which most have been rarely seen before and have an atmospheric touch about them which, again, truly helps to put things in context. There are maps and plans as well which in a way help the foreign reader locate things. However, to some extent, it is taken for granted - perhaps correctly - that the reader will have at least have a basic knowledge of the area. Similarly about English history, as the larger context of events taking place in Haworth is hardly ever given, undoubtedly surmising that a reader of a History book will have some previous basic knowledge of History.

If no more copies are printed after the initial 1,000 we won't see a few things corrected and bettered. The index, for instance, is quite useless. Sometimes a citizen's name will be mentioned in different contexts and the reader is expected to remember where that name appeared before, as the index only lists the 'big' names in the History of Haworth(7). Or gas light and gas works are mentioned at different points in the book, yet there is not entry for gas or similar in the index.

And speaking of gas, there seem to be contradictory facts when it comes to explaining when gas light arrived in Haworth: page 138 says that Haworth was 'for the first time lighted with gas' in October 1846 but afterwards page 171 states that, 'in 1865 Main Street, Bridgehouse and Mill Hey were illuminated for the first time'.

The book overall lacks a final proof-reading as there are a few typos, repeated words or small incoherencies(8) that could have been easily corrected after a final read. Still, though, it's nothing serious that affects the general quality and immense research behind the book. Michael Baumber declares that he has spent 12 years working on the book, while 'some of the material was collected as long as 40 years ago'. No small mistake can compete with or wipe that.

Most Brontë biographies quote much from Horsfall Turner's Haworth Past and Present, a pretty small book first published in 1879. So it was about time to update and deepen what is clearly an important part of any scholar book focusing on the Brontës' lives. Not only that: for the world, time in Haworth seems to have stopped right after Patrick Brontë died in 1861. We go to Haworth and expect to be taken back in time ignoring the fact that the 2oth century has happened in Haworth too. This book does not only put the Brontës in the right context but puts us - visitors to Haworth - in the right context as well .

Notes
(1) Haworth is not just the village where the Brontës lived, but it is also the name of the township or chapelry 'covering. . . the hamlets of Near and Far Oxenhope and Stanbury'.
(2) Among their acquaintance was, of course, John Brown, the sexton who, in this book, is mostly called John Wood (!).
(3) Whose surname, according to Michael Baumber, has a long history in the area: '[In the fifteenth century] The Aikroyds or Akeroyds (14) (modern Ackroyd), were another Wadsworth family. . . Other families in decline by the late sixteenth century were the Akeroyds. . .' And there are also Earnshaws, Binns, Midgeleys, Sutcliffes and more names that will be familiar to those well acquainted with the Brontës and their 'entourage'.
(4) Michael Baumber thus corrects Juliet Barker: 'The suggestion has been made that its situation, between the cotton of Lancashire and the worsted of Yorkshire, placed the township at the centre of the textile industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.'
(5) The social history of Haworth as told regardless of the Brontës is quite fascinating: the problems behind and inside the mills and the day-to-day life of its inhabitants make for a great read as does the story, told through census data spanning 40 years (1841-1881), of one Hannah Binns.
(6) Michael Baumber, though, makes the case that even though some Haworthites tried to save the church and suggested alternatives, architecturally speaking there was nothing for it but to demolish it.
(7) For instance, George Sowden, a friend of Arthur Bell Nicholls's, is mentioned several times throughout the book but his name is not listed in the index.
(8) Page 201 states that the locally renowned musicial John Dawson Hopkinson died at 28 while page 202 says 27, etc.


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