Bronte sisters: Gravestone will finally mark the spot where family's loyal nursemaid was buried after dying in the workhouse

Nancy de Garrs was the last surviving servant of the Bronte family - but when she died in 1886 she was buried in an unmarked grave.

She was a nursemaid and cook for the family taken on straight from school when Charlotte Bronte was born, moving into their first home in Thornton, near Bradford, and then onto Haworth Parsonage. She only left the family's employ when the children went away to school, and remained in contact with them years later - treasuring a portrait of Charlotte and a letter from their father Patrick until she died in Bradford's workhouse.

Her last wish was to avoid a pauper's grave, and instead she ended up in her sister Mary's family plot in Undercliffe Cemetery - yet no headstone marked the spot and as decades went by the area became overgrown and forgotten about.

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Now, a campaign by the cemetery's volunteer researchers has succeeded in funding a headstone for Nancy and a lasting tribute to her remarkable life, which saw her nurse the sisters' mother Maria Bronte through cancer and play with the girls on the moors now known as Bronte Country. She appeared in their stories and joined in their games..

Nancy de Garrs lived with the Brontes on Market Street in Thornton, near Bradford

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On June 27, the new stone will be unveiled during a tour of Undercliffe Cemetery organised to mark Bradford Literature Festival. It has been made possible by contributions from de Garrs from all over the world, descendants of her 11 siblings who emigrated to the US and South Africa.

It was in 2019 when Steve Lightfoot, researching burials for a tour programme on Bradford's 'worthies', came across an old newspaper article which mentioned that the Brontes' maid was interred at Undercliffe.

"We didn't know where she was - and it was because she was buried as Nancy Malone, her second husband's name. There were three others in the plot with her and I began to dig deeper for about six months. The grave was unmarked, but it did turn out to be her sister's plot. It was very overgrown and the grass was about 3ft high."

Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford

In 1884, a reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette had interviewed Nancy in the workhouse - where she had retired at the age of 82, widowed and penniless - after realising she was the last remaining link to the family's domestic lives, having outlived all of the Brontes.

Nancy was the daughter of a Bradford shoemaker, born in 1803 and with 10 sisters and just one brother. In 1816, Patrick Bronte sent word to the city's industrial school, asking for a nurse for his three children - Maria, Elizabeth and newborn Charlotte. Pupils Nancy and her sister Sarah were recommended and she moved to Thornton, eventually spending eight years as part of their household.

"By the time she left in 1824, there were six children and she looked after them all - though the eldest two died within 12 months of her leaving. She did a sterling job and she deserves to be remembered. She never ceased to talk about her days with the Brontes when she was in the workhouse."

Mr Lightfoot believes that Nancy had to be let go once her charges started school as by then Patrick Bronte was 'broke' and unable to afford as many servants. Nancy married her first husband six years later, but John Wainwright was killed in an accident while working at the original Salt's Mill in Bradford. She took up dressmaking to earn a living.

Laying flowers on the grave after it was cleared

She kept in touch with the family, and Charlotte and Emily both visited her at her home, and she also wrote letters to them and eventually attended Patrick's funeral. Yet it was in 1857 that their lives collided again when Patrick gave novelist Elizabeth Gaskell permission to write a book about Charlotte. Mrs Gaskell interviewed former servants, one of whom had been sacked and had an axe to grind. She testified that Nancy and Sarah were 'wasteful' workers and that Patrick's behaviour was volatile and cruel.

It was Nancy who drew Patrick's attention to the claims, and he later wrote a letter of reference asserting that she had been a loyal and faithful employee which she had framed for her wall. A friend of Patrick's son Branwell, a Keighley schoolteacher, also interviewed Nancy for an article he published in a local newspaper to set the record straight.

Yet the most intriguing aspect of Nancy's story is the gifts - known as 'relics' - that she received when she left Haworth. Three of the items were donated to the Bronte Parsonage Museum by her nephew in 1896, but many others are unaccounted for - including the portrait of Charlotte set in glass.

"It would be quite a special find, and better than the picture in Elizabeth Gaskell's book, which is a copy of a chalk drawing made in 1850. This sounds like it was a different portrait and a unique one on Ambrotype. If it was ever found it would be a sensation, as it's never been seen before.

"Nancy eventually became too old to work, her second husband had died and she had no income or pension. She ended up in the workhouse, which is what happened in those days. Her sister Sarah was still alive in the US and her brother Henry in Sheffield, but it seems like she had lost touch with them."