'More and more people sent their Brontë souvenirs to Haworth as gifts'

This room - an extension to the original Parsonage, built by the Revd. John Wade, Patrick Brontë's successor - now houses the world-renowned Brontë collection, most extensive in the world. This is the story of how the collection was assembled...


After the death of Patrick Brontë in 1861 the household contents of Haworth Parsonage were sold at auction. As the Brontës' fame spread, souvenir hunters made visits to Haworth, and people who had been connected with the family, or who had purchased items at the 1861 sale, were persuaded to part with their treasures. In this way the Brontë relics began to be dispersed. It was in an attempt to halt this dispersal that the Brontë Society was founded in 1893.

By far the largest collections of Brontëana were those owned by Charlotte's widower Arthur Bell Nicholls, her close friend Ellen Nussey, and the family servant Martha Brown. Martha possessed many personal belongings of the Brontës and was happy to show her collection to interested visitors. Although she did sell selected items, presumably on occasions of financial necessity, she was reluctant to part with her mementoes, and it was not until after her death in 1880 that Martha's collection was dispersed. In accordance with the terms of her will, the collection was divided among her five sisters, all struggling to raise families on limited incomes, and all eagerly sought out by collectors. In 1886 Martha's recently widowed sister Ann Binns was obliged to sell her share of the inheritance and the resulting auction was one of the first sales of Brontëana.

By the time of her death in 1897 Ellen Nussey had already parted with her large collection of Charlotte Brontë letters. Ellen's later years were troubled by collectors and biographers all eager to make use of her letters. When the respected bibliographer and collector Thomas J. Wise offered to buy the letters, giving an assurance that they would eventually be deposited in a national collection, it seemed like the perfect solution. Wise also acquired many of the Brontës' manuscripts from Arthur Bell Nicholls. Using the Brontë biographer Clement Shorter as his agent, Wise tracked down Nicholls to the relative obscurity of his home in Ireland. Trusting that he was safeguarding the future of the precious manuscripts (he, too, was under the impression that the material would be bequeathed to the nation), Nicholls sold a large collection of manuscripts, including many of the famous Brontë 'Little Books' which, unbeknown to him, were soon being lavishly bound and sold by Wise to collectors around the world, 'doubtless for his own commercial advantage,' as Shorter commented in a letter. Wise did not manage to acquire everything, and Brontëana which Arthur Bell Nicholls had been unwilling to part with during his lifetime was sold at Sotheby's in 1907 after his death the previous year. Although unable to compete with wealthy collectors, the Brontë Society managed to acquire several items in this sale and a subsequent one in 1914.

In 1934 Thomas J. Wise was exposed as a forger and a manufacturer of counterfeit first editions, but by that time the damage to Brontë scholarship had been done. Manuscripts were scattered far and wide, with those by Branwell often passed off as the work of his more collectable sister Charlotte. In fact by the time of Wise's death in 1937, when his personal collection of books and literary artefacts was sold to the British Library, shockingly few Brontë manuscripts remained, considering the huge amount of material which had once passed through his hands.

In 1928 Sir James Roberts, a local man who had made a fortune in the textile industry, provided the money which enabled the Brontë Society to achieve its ambition of acquiring Haworth Parsonage, the Brontës' former home. The Museum collection, previously exhibited in a crowded room above the Yorkshire Penny Bank, was transferred there. The collection, augmented by generous gifts and loans from local people, was enriched at this time by the addition of a large collection of Brontëana which came as the gift of the American collector Henry Houston Bonnell, who had died the previous year. The acquisition of both the Parsonage and the Bonnell Collection greatly enhanced the reputation of the Brontë Society, and today the Museum continues to add to its unrivalled collection of Brontëana.

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