ADAM SARGANT, from Haunted Haworth, gives us the rundown on the ghostly sightings of the famous Bronte family in West Yorkshire and beyond!
The Brontë sisters are most famous for the impact they have had on literature worldwide. Between them, it is fair to say that they altered the perception of women as authors forever. From their quiet little West Yorkshire home, the windswept, “wuthering” moorland village of Haworth, they wrote books that changed the world.
But the three young women also were famous for being ‘homebodies’. Each one tried to break away from their life in their unconventional parsonage home. They were always pulled back. Charlotte worked as a teacher, then as a governess. But she ended up returning home to an abortive attempt to start a school with her sisters. Emily seemed to become unwell if she left home for any time at all. She held one brief stint as a teacher, where apparently she told the pupils that she much preferred the school dog to any of them! Anne seemed best suited to living away, but even she returned to the family home.
So you might think that the Parsonage itself, and the village of Haworth, was full of tales of encounters with the ghosts of these literary icons. Curiously, this is not to be the case. Each of the sisters has made their ethereal presence known in different and diverse ways. Yet these encounters occur throughout the country and, in some cases, the world.
The Grey Lady of Haworth
The one sister whose hauntings are most often associated with the village of Haworth is Emily. In 1974 a local newspaper reported that the Toby Jug Café, on West Lane in Haworth, was the site of an annual appearance of a Grey Lady haunting. The owner, Mr Keith Ackroyd, claimed that this was the spirit of Emily Brontë. Mr Ackroyd had requested an exorcism from a local priest. He was selling the property, and he claimed he was worried that stories of a ghost might put off potential buyers. But the priest’s superiors refused permission to carry out the exorcism.
He described the ghost as appearing in his living room, downstairs behind the café. She took the form of a young woman dressed in Victorian costume, wearing a bonnet and carrying a wicker basket. She smiled and giggled, before ascending a staircase that no longer existed. Having wandered around upstairs, she then came back down, walked out into the street, and disappeared.
Was this the spirit of Emily Brontë? Personally, if I was selling a property, and it was haunted by the spirit of Emily Brontë, I wouldn’t seek an exorcism. I would make it a unique selling point. Other reports of the Grey Lady describe the apparition as “small” and “frail”. Emily was the tallest of the 3 sisters. Further, Mr Ackroyd’s description of the smiling, giggling, young woman does not match any description of Emily Brontë I have come across.
The ghost lore surrounding death anniversary hauntings would suggest that such a haunting would take place at a location of some importance to the spirit concerned. There is no evidence that this property held any significance to Emily Brontë. While many things point to the property being haunted, and many folk have reported an encounter with the Grey Lady, I would be cautious of any claim that this is the ghost of Emily Brontë.
Apart from anything else, it seems that Emily did not particularly like going into the village. The place she was most at home was on the wild moors behind Haworth. And it would appear that it is here that many folk have encountered her ghostly wanderings, a century and a half and more since her death.
The Illustrated London News Christmas Edition in 1959 wrote that “the ghost of Emily Brontë has been seen more than once on the long rough path from Haworth Parsonage… to Far (sic) Withens” and that “from time to time they see her, as her friend, Mary Robinson, described her. ‘a tall, long-armed girl, full grown, elastic as to tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling the dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth.’”
From Authors in the Astral To Dead Dog Botherer
The American author Harriet Beech Stowe regularly corresponded with her good friend, fellow author George Eliot. In one letter she described how she had been in contact with the spirit of the now dead Charlotte Brontë. Eliot was somewhat sceptical of the claim, describing it as seeming “amazing” but “highly improbable”.
Stowe described how, during a seance with a planchette, she had communicated with the dead author. She says that Charlotte had told her that she was residing not in Heaven but “in its antechamber”, that she was with fellow author William Makepiece Thackeray and that his “slight savageness” was all passed away, that he was “quite lovely now”.
Another account of Charlotte’s posthumus wanderings comes from the Dundee Evening Telegraph in 1927. The Telegraph reported that she was appearing every year at the Hathersage Parsonage. She was known to have had many fond memories of staying there with her lifelong friend Ellen Nussey in 1845. The newspaper story claimed that the vicar’s children had seen her ghost, and that it had terrified the family dog!
Stairway to Heaven
The sister that seems to have travelled the furthest, or in the strangest manner, is Anne. Anne spent nine months as a governess to the Ingham family at Blake Hall in Mirfield in West Yorkshire when she was only 19 years of age. It seems she was dismissed because, finding her two charges quite a handful, she tied them to a chair to restrain their inclination to troublemaking!
The house was sold at auction, and the hand carved yew staircase was amongst the fixtures and fittings that were sold off and disappeared. In 2016, investigators managed to track down the new owners of the staircase. It had travelled all the way to a new home in Quogue, Long Island, New York! Its current owner, Mrs Topping, said that, in September 1962, she had seen the ghost of Anne Brontë standing at the top of the stairs.
The spirit appeared in a long, full skirt, her hair in a bun and wearing a shawl. Her demeanour was “pensive”. Mrs Topping’s husband believes that Anne’s ghost travelled the 3000 miles with the staircase across the Atlantic!
ADAM SARGANT is a storyteller and a student of folklore who hosts the Haunted Haworth ghost tours (https://hauntedhaworth.co.uk). Given the opportunity, he will happily bore you for hours about the relationship between ghost stories and social history. An offcumden* since 2000, he lives in Haworth with his wife, without whom nothing would be possible, and a small but wise cockapoo called Bear. You can haunt him on most social media under @hauntedhaworth *Offcmden is a Yorkshire dialect word for an incomer)