Saturday, 18 October 2014

Cowan Bridge and the Brontes

I've always been fascinated by the Bronte family.  Their lives, I feel, had as much drama as their fiction. The tragedy of their mother's early death from cancer was their creative 'big bang', causing them to cling together in a mutual dependency which lasted throughout their short lives. 

It should never be forgotten that there were originally six children - Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne - all under eight when Maria (Branwell) Bronte died in 1821. Is it any wonder therefore that the Rev Patrick Bronte's proposals of marriage to three separate women should have been turned down. It was his wife's sister Elizabeth (Aunt Branwell to the children) who took over the running of his household.  

The Rev Bronte was not a wealthy man so when looking to educate four of his daughters, he turned to a charitable foundation - the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge. Founded in 1824 and designed to house some 60 pupils, it was later fictionalised by Charlotte as Lowood (Jane Eyre). Above is what remains of the school buildings. Originally they were a cluster of 18th Century cottages converted for the purpose. They are just a stone's thrown from the River Leck and the bridge with spans it. Rev William Carus Wilson, the school's founder, had two wings built but they no longer survive. It seems the cottages reverted to their original function quite some time ago. Below is the Leck, viewed from the bridge.

£14 was the annual fee for each child. Maria (10) and Elizabeth (9) were the first to be boarded on 21 July 1824, followed a month later by Charlotte. The Rev Bronte can have had no concerns about their welfare for in November, Emily (not yet 7) joined them. She was the school's 44th pupil. But the winter took its toll. Maria fell ill in Feb 1825 and the Rev Bronte fetched her home. She died in May. That same month Elizabeth fell ill and went home. She must have been very sick because, on 1 June, the school sent Charlotte and Emily away to the seaside at Morecambe Bay from where their father collected them the following day. Two weeks' later Elizabeth was dead. Charlotte and Emily never returned to the school. During their time there, disease (consumption and typhoid) claimed the lives not only of their two oldest sisters, but of many of their fellow pupils, some of whom are buried in Tunstall churchyard. 

Cowan Bridge certainly has a period feel to it. The buildings clustered around it and alongside the Leck are 18th Century and pre-date the founding of the school, which lasted less than ten years at that location. In 1833 it moved to premises in Casterton. As a memorial to the Bronte childrens' time there, a plaque has been erected on the wall facing the main road:

All the above photos were taken two weeks ago on my way back from Scotland via Ravenstonedale in Cumbria. Information about the school can be found in Winifred Gerin's biography of Charlotte, first published in 1967. 


  1. I've always been fascinated by the Brontes too and found this post about Cowan Bridge most interesting. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for this, Edie. I had no idea that the sisters succumbed to illness caught at the school. Some 'school,' huh?

    1. Thanks Anne. Some school indeed, Vonnie, but it was founded with the best intentions. According to Gerin, subscribers included Hannah More and William Wilberforce. It was the regime which let the girls down, and perhaps the damp location so close to the Leck. After our dry summer it looks innocent enough, but these streams can turn wild in wet weather. I'd recommend Gerin to anyone interested in the Brontes. She produced biographies of all four surviving children.