Brontë School House has a fascinating heritage enjoying a unique position in literary history.
The original house was constructed as a dwelling in c.1770 for a gentleman named Christopher Picard; two generations of the Picard family resided there.
In 1824 it was purchased and extended by a wealthy evangelical clergyman and landowner named William Carus Wilson to establish the Clergy Daughters’ School (later to achieve notoriety as “Lowood” in Jane Eyre) for the provision of education, at a very low fee, to daughters of poorly paid clergy; girls who would otherwise probably not have received a formal education. Patrick Bronte jumped at the chance to be able to provide his daughters with such an education and sent first Maria and Elizabeth (in July 1824), followed by Charlotte (in August 1824), and then Emily (in November 1824) to the school.
The cottages that are still standing today – one of which is Bronte School House - were at that time used as the school dining room and kitchens, the superintendent’s lodgings and bedrooms for the staff. A large wing, which was built at right angles to the original house, accommodated the schoolroom (on the ground floor) and dormitories (above) and a covered verandah allowed for exercise in bad weather. The etching below shows how the building looked when it was the school.
In spring 1825 Maria fell ill and was taken home to Haworth, followed a little later by Elizabeth. Both Maria and Elizabeth died shortly afterwards from consumption. In summer 1825 Charlotte and Emily were also taken out of the school. The younger Ann never attended Cowan Bridge. In 1833 the school was moved to Casterton.
Elisabeth Gaskell, writing in 1857, thus describes the house:
“It is a long, bow-windowed cottage, now divided into two dwellings. It stands facing the Leck, between which and it intervenes a space that was once the school garden. This original house was an old dwelling of the Picard family, which they had inhabited for two generations. They sold it for school purposes, and an additional building was erected, running at right angles from the older part. This new part was devoted expressly to schoolrooms, dormitories, &c.; and after the school was removed to Casterton, it was used for a bobbin-mill connected with the stream, where wooden reels were made out of the alders which grow profusely in such ground as that surrounding CowanBridge. The mill is now destroyed. The present cottage was, at the time of which I write, occupied by the teachers’ rooms, the dining room and kitchens and some smaller bedrooms.” From: The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
The mill referred to by Elisabeth Gaskell was officially listed as: “Lancashire Textile Mill 1150; Name: Cowan Bridge Bobbin Mill, Lancaster; Principal Function: Spindle and Bobbin Works”. From: Lancashire Textile Mills: Rapid Assessment Survey Final Report. In the mid 1800s however the old school wing/later bobbin mill running at right angles to the original house burned down.
The remaining building was then divided into two cottages, one of which was for some time a beerhouse named Cow Inn. (The sale of beer was deregulated c.1830 thereby enabling the opening of innumerable beer/alehouses. A licence was not required to sell beer; these establishments could not however sell wine or spirits. At one point it is believed that almost one in three houses in the country were selling beer!).
Charlotte (under the pseudonym of Currer Bell) wrote Jane Eyre, her first published novel, in which she used the Clergy Daughters School as the model for the infamous “Lowood”. Her next published novel was Shirley, followed by Villette. The Professor, Charlotte’s first novel, was originally rejected by the publishers and was only actually published following her death.
Emily (under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell) wrote Wuthering Heights.
Anne (under the pseudonym of Acton Bell) wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Agnes Grey.
For more information about the Brontes see the Bronte Society website: http://www.bronte.org.uk/haworth-and-the-brontes/family-and-friends