When reporter Harwood Brierley visited Top Withens for an article which appeared in the Leeds Mercury in the winter of 1893, he asked a farmer’s wife whether she ever heard the place being referred to as Wuthering Heights.
That windy moor was after all the very spot that had inspired Emily Brontë’s torrid love story of Cathy and Heathcliff, but the 19th century residents of Top Withens weren’t much taken with their literary fame.
“Naa, it gets cawd all sorts,” said the woman, busy getting on with daily life. “Some reckons it’s t’last place God made, but we call it Top o’ th’ Withens’.” Disappointed perhaps that the farmworkers weren’t bettering themselves with volumes of the sisters’ poetry and prose, Brierley decided to make his own colour.
“Here is an abode I thought, wherein to mould the genius of an Emily Brontë, and at the same time to destroy life if it should not be particularly robust,” he continued. “It is the highest house at the head of the South Dean valley. But here no flowers blow. The early spring time is not graced with golden crocuses, silver snowdrops and embossed daisy-cups. No turnips are grown, no potatoes; there are no cows to milk, no wheat to beat with the flail. The livestock consists of a few black-nosed sheep and roupy fowls.”
It’s true. While Top Withens (or Withins) may have become a symbol for the most brooding of romantic passion, as a place of work it was pretty bleak. Today the thick stone walls of the farmhouse that Brierley visited at Top Withens have crumbled a little. However, while the last of the residents left almost 100 years ago, Steven Wood has pieced together the history of the area for a book which promises to uncover the true story of Wuthering Heights.
“Every year thousands of visitors to Haworth follow the three-mile moorland track to that ruined farmhouse. It’s become a rite of passage, but seeing nothing more than a few sheep most assume that this has always been an area of bleak, unproductive desolation.
“But nothing could be further from the truth. The entire area was a hugely important production centre for the international textile trade.”
Steven has traced the timeline back to 1567 when the textile-trading Bentley family financed the development of Top Withens through to the turn of the 20th century and one of the area’s most colourful residents.
In 1841, the Stanbury hamlet in which the farm sits boasted 116 handloom weavers. By 1901 there was just one left, a man called Timothy Feather, whose rarity made him a bit of a celebrity.
“What we know of those who lived on the moors comes from census documents, but Timothy was visited by a large number of photographers and journalists as well as those wanting to buy cloth and the simply curious.
“Handloom weaving was hard work and the hours were long, but Timmy still found the time and energy for recreation. He was a renowned clog dancer and while he didn’t drink, he did like to smoke a pipe.
“By the time the market for hand-woven cloth had declined, Timmy was too old to change. He once said he had tried his hand at a power-loom but gave it up after a couple of hours. However, Timmy had his own customer base and others would just come to see him work the loom, often by lamplight in a dark upstairs room.”
Timmy died in 1910, just a few months after the neighbours he relied on so much told him they were moving to Haworth.
The last of Top Withens’ residents was Ernest Roddie who moved in to the farm building in 1921.
“Roddie was a soldier who had been invalided in the First World War and was told by doctors that plenty of fresh air would help his recovery. He took them at their word. There may not be a place in the world which has more fresh air than Top Withens.
“Once settled, Roddie became a poultry farmer and he told a reporter from the Yorkshire Evening Post that he’d always had a feeling that he would end up at Top Withens. Given the connections with Wuthering Heights there were various ghost stories associated with the place, but Roddie insisted that he had not been disturbed and six months after he moved in he still seemed to be doing well.
“As he said himself, ‘A man can’t be lonely at Wuthering Heights. Scarce a day passes by some Brontë admirers visit it. I’ve been here the worst half of the year and I’ve been surprised to see people here on the most wretched of days.”
When Steven began his research into Top Withens he thought it would probably stretch to a 30-odd page pamphlet. Instead it has become a 130-page book complete with colour illustrations by historian and artist Peter Brears recreating how life used to be.
“I hope we’ve done the place credit. This is one of Yorkshire’s most iconic spots and for the first time we have been able to tell its history in full.”
• The Real Wuthering Heights by Steven Wood and Peter Brears is published by Amberley priced £14.99.