Faithful to the end, she still lies in the shadow of the Parsonage

Almost nothing is known of Tabitha's ("Tabby") Aykroyd's life before she entered the Parsonage in 1824, aged 53 (born around 1771). She was almost certainly a native of Haworth, and we know of two sisters: Rose, who married a Bingley man called Bower, and Susannah, who married a Haworth man called Wood. Tabitha never married, and while there is no record of her life before she entered the Parsonage, it is thought she had worked in domestic service and on farms.

 

Tabby was the cook-housekeeper, and for the first 15 of her 31 years at the Parsonage, the only servant living in, although the Brontë sisters themselves also cooked, cleaned and washed clothes. In December 1836 Tabby slipped on ice in Haworth's main street, badly breaking her leg. Aunt Branwell suggested she leave the Parsonage to be nursed by her sister Susannah, but the children objected, even going on hunger strike, and Tabby stayed in the Parsonage, nursed by the children. The leg never fully healed, however, and over the next three years many of Tabby's duties were taken up by Emily.

In 1839 Tabby seems to have retired temporarily, moving into a house in Newell Hill that she had bought with her now-widowed sister Susannah. Mr. Brontë engaged Martha Brown, 11-year-old daughter of his sexton John Brown, but the greater part of the skilled and heavy work fell upon the Brontë girls, with Emily becoming housekeeper. In 1842 Tabby moved back into the Parsonage where she stayed, sharing the little servants' bedroom with young Martha for the next 13 years.

According to Mrs. Gaskell, Tabby "abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded"(The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857). Mrs. Brontë had been dead for three years when Tabby came to the Parsonage and the children were looked after by their mother's sister Elizabeth Branwell. A year after Tabby's arrival, when the two eldest girls Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily  found physical and emotional warmth in the kitchen, rather that in the more formal relationship with their Aunt Branwell.

Tabby was fond of her "childers" and, as Charlotte later wrote, "she was like one of our own family". Tabby took the girls for walks on the moors, and, with her old-fashioned ways and broad Haworth accent, was sometimes the butt of their boisterous games. Tabby was a great storyteller,  knew all the local families, their complex inter-relationships and disputes, and, despite her belief in the Christian teachings of divine reward and retribution, held also to the ancient anthropomorphic traditions of the countryside, claiming (according to Mrs Gaskell) to have known people who had seen fairies. Emily, who spent more time working in the kitchen than either of her sisters, was particularly close to Tabby, and Tabby's influence permeates the landscape of Wuthering Heights. Tabby has also been identified as the model for Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, and for the housekeeper Martha in Charlotte's novel Shirley.

Tabby died on February 17, 1855, and is buried with her sister Susannah, and a George Aykroyd who may be a brother, just over the wall from the Parsonage garden.

 

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