Family’s tale is worthy of the Brontës

Andrew Heaton
Andrew Heaton
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When renowned Yorkshire farmer Andrew Heaton began to research his family tree, he uncovered a rich seam of history, as Chris Berry discovered.

Fifteen years ago Andrew Heaton was on top of the world. His dairy farm at Peel Park, Brandsby, had carried off the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Farm of the Year award; his dairy cows had competed at the Royal Show; and his AI business was going strong.

Little could he have known then that fifteen years on he would have left behind the world of getting up for morning milking and running a herd of 250 pedigree Holsteins in return for a nice house in Whixley with his wife Ann. These days he buys and sells cows without having the day-to-day dilemmas of running a dairy farm.

“None of us know what is just around the corner and I suppose I’m a prime example of that. The catalyst for our change in circumstance came when I suffered a mild stroke in 2005. It made us realise the problems that we would face if I were unable to work on the farm. My father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at around the same time too and with no sons to follow on we decided to sell up. It was a wrench leaving what had been built up over the years, but now my days are taken up with travelling around this beautiful county and I love that.”

When Andrew’s father, Allan, passed away last year Andrew came across a number of ancestral charts that his father had been given 30 years ago. Fuelled by his own interest in breeding and bloodlines in dairy cow pedigrees and his father’s similar fascination with sheepdog breeding Andrew decided it was time to trace back his parental family lineage and in doing so he came up with more revelations than the TV series Who Do You Think You Are?

“My father was a well-respected sheepdog trial enthusiast and was also the first sheepdog trial winner of the new millennium when on January 1, 2000, high on the moors above Brontë country at Moor Lodge Farm, Oakworth he won the New Year’s Day trial with his dog Ben. Ironically I was to return to Brontë country many times in this past year as I uncovered stories that linked my family with both Emily and Patrick Brontë.”

The fruits of his labours over the last twelve months are available for the first time this week in his book Never Had a Better that incredibly stretches back in time over 1,000 years. His research is excellent and provides far more than purely a social document that anyone called Heaton would be interested in reading. Stories including “trouble at t’mill”; knights of the realm; and scandal have all been associated with the Heatons.

“If it hadn’t been for the power of the internet I wouldn’t have managed at all. It’s so much easier than trailing around churchyards but I’ve still done quite a bit of that too.

“It surprised me that I could trace our family tree back to around 1500 with little difficulty at all. It turns out we originally came over with King Canute.”

Andrew’s exploits have seen him alternately surprised, proud, astonished and in one case extremely disappointed!

“The one thing I didn’t want to find out and I wished I hadn’t was that through a set of circumstances the de Heton family as it was then known fought for Lancashire in the War of the Roses. For someone like me as a proud Yorkshireman that was a little too much to bear.”

Prior to the family’s connections with Haworth and the Keighley area Andrew has found evidence that links can be drawn back to when Sir John de Heton was born at Castle Hall, Mirfield.

He was the first of three generations of de Heton men to marry into what was then the influential and wealthy de Neville family.

“Our branch was formed around Kirkheaton near Dewsbury and I discovered a stone slab with the de Heton coat of arms. Sir John was instrumental in the building of Mirfield Parish Church.”

While Andrew has been able to find actual references and dates for over 500 years worth of Heaton family history, none is likely to capture the imagination more than a romantic entwinement with Robert Heaton of Ponden Hall and Emily Brontë. And there is enough conjecture for Andrew to mount an extremely plausible storyline.

The Heatons are inextricably linked with Haworth via the inscription on the bottom of the stained glass window in the Brontë chapel of Haworth Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. It reads: “In memory of the Heatons of Ponden – Trustees of Haworth.”

While that proves very little, Andrew ventures further that the link between Ponden Hall, three miles west of Haworth, and Thrushcross Grange of Emily’s Wuthering Heights is feasible.

“In the 19th century, not many houses on the desolate moors surrounding Haworth could compare with Ponden. Like Thrushcross, the hall was attractive and well furnished and was inhabited by gentlemen of good standing, the educated Heaton brothers.”

When Emily was writing her book she often visited Ponden and he believes there is plenty of evidence to suggest that she and Robert were more than just friends.

“The plot of her novel concerns an inheritance and from what is known of the Heatons at the time, inheritance was what their 
life revolved around.

“The character of Heathcliff is based around a strange and sinister figure. At the time there was a man called Henry Casson who married into the Heaton family and tried to acquire her wealth.”

Copies of Andrew’s Never Had a Better can be obtained through visiting

A scandalous discovery

Andrew also found that he may not really be a Heaton after all!

“During the early 1800s there was a situation where my grandfather’s grandmother, Elizabeth, became pregnant out of wedlock.

“She had to go into the workhouse where she gave birth to my great- grandfather.

“I can’t find the name of the man who was the father of the child so technically speaking I’m not really a Heaton after all.

“Elizabeth, who had been baptised by Patrick Brontë, retained her Heaton name.”