Our mission to make Brontë birthplace a welcoming place for all - Christa Ackroyd

By now you will have probably heard the news that the little committee with a big dream finally has the keys to what from the outside looks nothing more than a humble terraced house of the type replicated thousands upon thousands of times throughout Bradford as the city burst into life in the 19th century.

Built from Yorkshire gritstone, rows upon rows of similar conjoined dwellings sprung up to house the burgeoning population drawn to find work in the newly built woollen mills whose dominance of the landscape – with their billowing sooty chimneys – changed what was once little more than a small rural enclave into a sprawling, dirty even dangerous, industrial city.

I humbly suggest we have acquired the best. For behind its doors were born Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë as well as their infamous brother Patrick Branwell.

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All the social history of the Georgian into Victorian era is there from the hitherto unseen servants’ staircase, the scullery and the nursery, to the genteel parlour where Mr Brontë would greet his parishioners and where he and his wife would socialise with newfound friends and acquaintances while the nursemaid 13-year-old Nancy Garrs would be tasked with putting the children to bed.

A blue plaque for the Brontë sisters was installed at the birthplace in June 2021, recognising the home and is the first blue plaque in the village.A blue plaque for the Brontë sisters was installed at the birthplace in June 2021, recognising the home and is the first blue plaque in the village.
A blue plaque for the Brontë sisters was installed at the birthplace in June 2021, recognising the home and is the first blue plaque in the village.

And let us not forget the gem that is the original fireplace besides which greatness was born not once but three times – four if you include Patrick Branwell although he somewhat wasted his talents to die three decades later in a laudanum laced fit of melancholy having being rejected by his married lover Mrs Robinson. Oh the stories that little house could and will tell.

Patrick was to describe his time in Thornton as his happiest days. It is easy to see why. Our little house was his first official Parsonage although with what amounted to almost a child a year the family very quickly outgrew it.

Nevertheless they enjoyed good times there, Patrick beautifying his Old Bell Chapel with new windows and a stone build cupola and Mrs Brontë enjoying the genteel social life of friends and neighbours, the likes of which she never experienced before or later, following her marriage to the red headed Irishman whom she christened her ‘dear saucy Pat.’ It was a time of great promise for them and their ever increasing family and it is important our little house reflects that.

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By the time they left to walk the six miles across the moors for pastoral pastures new in Haworth they were a family of eight with six children, the youngest of whom was just a babe in arms. Within two years life was changed forever.

Patrick’s beloved wife had died a long slow painful death from cancer while his two elder daughters Maria and Elizabeth both succumbed to the dreaded consumption caught at the school they were sent to in Cowan Bridge just a few miles away in Lancashire, recreated faithfully by Charlotte as Lowood in Jane Eyre.

As Jane saw the humble Helen slip away to her ‘final home’ so too did Maria and Elizabeth linger on the edge of death until they too were taken aged 10 and 11.

No wonder Patrick wrote to his friends in Thornton telling them how much he missed the happy times they had shared there but saying he had no plans to revisit as it would simply be too painful to walk the same streets where his family were last in good health and complete.

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And so at last we have their little house. Work begins next week in preserving its past to be enjoyed for the first time by all as the final important piece of the jigsaw that is the Brontë story. It will largely be closed for twelve months as we decide how to show and tell of its secrets in readiness for Bradford City of Culture 2025.

There are endless possibilities open to us as guardians of this important piece of Yorkshire history. None more so than how to pay homage to the legacy of three girls who were told they couldn’t achieve their place in society or in literature yet disregarding convention went on to become the greatest sibling authors of all time.

It is a huge and important undertaking not least because we have achieved investment from more than 700 shareholders and almost £500,000 from the public purse in terms of City of Culture and government levelling up funds. Already this week has been filled with meetings with builders, decorators, architects, creators, educators and all those we will need to bring our vision to reality and inspire the next generation to achieve too.

But the first and most important decision has had nothing to do with decor and what will be our Georgian colour palette. It does not need the creation of mood boards or even require any knowledge about the great works of the sisters who each in their own way challenged convention as no other female writers had ever done before.

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It is about how and where in a somewhat cramped complex warren of Grade II*-listed building with little to no outdoor space we can include a disabled ramp, a wheelchair lift and a disabled toilet. There is some debate about whether we need to legally because of its deemed historic infrastructure.

There is absolutely no debate morally that we must. If there is one theme which remains a constant in all of the sisters’ great works it is the prejudice show to those who are different. Inclusivity and the realisation that whoever we are and whatever challenges we face we are all equal, all deserving of a chance in life, will be one of the major themes of all our little house will offer. And I mean all.

This week I have read in the newspapers of schools where parents have been given the choice as to whether they wish the annual photograph to be offered with children of disability airbrushed out.

I have read of actress Sally Phillips continued campaign on behalf of her son who has Down’s syndrome and others like him to be allowed to enjoy life with all the same experiences open to others after he was turns away from a trampolining play area, a place he had been to many times before but where they were ‘tightening up’ their policies.

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One minute we as a country are deemed too woke the next creating divisive policies which are positively Dickensian. Well not behind our front door in Thornton I can promise you

I can’t tell what the Brontë birthplace will look like... it will evolve over the next few weeks. I can’t tell you exactly what it will offer for those who come to walk in the footsteps of Yorkshire greatness, that is now the exciting part.

But I promise you this, the Brontë birthplace will be a house where difference is celebrated, where everyone will be equally welcome and where the legacy of three girls who fought for acceptance for all will continue to influence generations to come.

We owe them nothing less.

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