Although there is quite definitely no direct link between the Egerton Family of Heaton Hall and the Bronte sisters, there is a somewhat tenuous link which may have provided some inspiration for the aristocratic characters in their novels.
(Above: Haworth Church viewed from beside the Bronte Parsonage Museum)
An article by Sarah Fermi appeared in ‘Bronte Studies – the Journal of the Bronte Society’ in 2005 Vol.30 Issue 1 entitled ‘The Young Brontes, Lord Wilton and the Manor of Oxenhope’ which examined how the presence of the young 2nd Earl of Wilton, who visited the area in the 1820s, may have influenced the early writings of the Bronte children, who would certainly have been aware of the presence of a group of young noblemen staying in what was at that time, a sleepy backwater.
In the valley below the hilltop village of Haworth is the village of Oxenhope at the upper end of the Worth Valley, quite remote until the middle of the eighteenth century. In his ‘History of Oxenhope’ (1996) R. Hindley writes,
‘Until some unrecorded date in the Middle Ages Oxenhope was just a manor, ie. a legal unit of land ownership and management – usually under one Adam of Copley (or Batley) and his heirs …. until the 1770s. ….. The records then show the lordship of the manor divided among absentees such as the Egerton family of Cheshire, the Earl of Wilton, and Abraham Balme of Bradford.’ Hindley also notes that, ‘There is little evidence of properly built roads in the upper Worth Valley before the mid eighteenth century.’
Part of the ancestral lands belonging to the Egertons of Heaton were the Batley Estates, and the acquisition of lands around Oxenhope would have been as part of that estate. Perhaps the prime value of a remote moorland valley and the bleak hills above would have been as a shooting estate.
A letter addressed to ‘Mr. Rushworth, Gamekeeper of Oxenhope, nigh Haworth, nr, Bradford’ was sent by Edward Sykes of Dewsbury, Lord Grey de Wilton’s Agent for the Batley estates.
‘Sir, I have been up in Lancashire & have seen my Lord Grey de Wilton & Lady Assheton & returned home last night. I have orders to acquaint you that you may have the whole of the Free Rents as your salary for your being Gamekeeper and Bailiff. Those rents amount to between 9 & 10£ annually. …….. As Lord Grey & Lady Assheton will have their House full of company the next & following weeks, they desire you will procure, if possible, & send a few Moor Game & a few Partridge; and they desire you will send them by the old stage coach from Bradford directed to the Right Honourable Lord Grey de Wilton at Heaton House near Manchester, which goes past his Lordship’s Gates. And I am to request you will pay the carriage of them & put down upon the direction the words carriage paid. And I will repay you what you may so pay the first time you and I see each other – Pray observe these directions and do your utmost, and let me remind you that you can’t send too many, nor too often.’
(Above: Keeper’s Lodge, high on the moor above Oxenhope)
It is unlikely Thomas Egerton, the 1st Earl of Wilton, ever visited his lands in Oxenhope. It was his grandson and successor, the 2nd Earl of Wilton, who had a direct connection with the area. The second Lord Wilton inherited Heaton Hall and all the other Egerton estates, including the Batley estate, in 1814, on the death of his grandfather, at the age of fifteen.
Lord Wilton was, throughout his life, a keen sportsman, and hunting and shooting were something that brought him to Oxenhope and the surrounding moorland during the 1820s. In 1823 he had a shooting lodge built in the village, which he used as a base for his activities.
(Above: Wilton House, Oxenhope)
(Above: date plaque over the front door of Wilton House)
At this time the Bronte children were just that – small children, but the presence of a group of young members of the nobility, Lord Wilton and his party, would not have escaped their notice in a small, tight-knit community.
Sarah fermi’s paper “addresses the probability that the young Brontes’ early obsession with the nobility, as evidenced in their youthful writing, may have had a source closer to home than had previously been supposed. ….. Recent research reveals that the Haworth Township itself was closely connected to the aristocracy through the ancient, and still observed, custom of the manorial shooting rights on the moors. The manor of Oxenhope is the principal case in point.”
(Above: the stables to Wilton House – now converted to a private dwelling)
After visits to the area in the 1820s the second Lord Wilton’s sporting interests moved elsewhere; notably horse racing, hunting in Leicestershire, and yacht racing, and visits to the Haworth Moors ceased. But their legacy may have lived on in the writings of the Brontes.