Few people know of the Brontës' significant link with Essex

This material was kindly provided for our website by Margaret Mills, of Essex, who is a history tutor. Margaret has taught many courses on the Brontës, featuring the 'Essex connection'. The photograph is © John Salmon

'Let England's priests have their due. They are a faulty set in some respects, being only of common flesh and blood like us all; but the land would be badly off without them. Britain would miss her church, if that church fell. God save it! God also reform it!' - Chapter XVI, 'Shirley', by Charlotte Brontë

Patrick Brontë graduated Bachelor of Arts at Cambridge in 1806 following the conclusion of a four-year degree course, and this marked a high point in the meteoric rise from his humble birth and upbringing in the parish of Drumballyroney, Co. Down. Following graduation Patrick was ordained, and in the autumn of 1806 took up the post of curate of St Mary Magdalene Church in the small Essex village of Wethersfield.

Wethersfield, a small and attractive Essex village which still has its original village green, is situated just off the B1053, less than eight miles from Braintree. Visiting today you will find it much the same as it was in Patrick's day, with its 17th- and 18th-century buildings displaying red bricks, half-timbering and many other architectural features we associate with buildings of this period. In 2008 the parish population was estimated at 1,232, some 130 fewer than recorded in 1811. Unlike the largely commuter village of today, however, in the early nineteenth century most inhabitants worked locally in agriculture.

From the beginning of his curacy, and although this was his first post as a clergyman, Patrick was, to all intents and purposes, in sole charge of ministering to the spiritual and other needs of his parishioners. His vicar, Joseph Jowett, was very much a non-resident incumbent, his primary role being that of Regius Professor of Law at Cambridge. The professorship being his 'main job', he visited the village for only two months or so each year.

European politics were troubled when Patrick took up his post: Napoleon was at the height of his power and Wethersfield felt the effects of this, despite its isolation in rural Essex. Patrick would recall throughout the rest of his long life the impact of these troubled times on the lives of ordinary people. Fear of invasion was gripping the country, and it is hardly surprising that he later related to his children tales of political, social and economic discontent during these eventful years. Charlotte made use of this information in her novel 'Shirley'.

Perhaps the most comprehensive description of the village comes from the pen of Henry Dixon, a doctor residing in the near-by village of Rivenhall, who was born in Wethersfield in 1787. He mentions that most farmers were well off during Patrick's incumbency: stimulated by war, corn prices were high, and government contractors paid good money for supplies to the military. Dixon mentions beer was drunk in copious amounts; it was usually brewed at home, but there was also a brewery in Wethersfield. Drink was also available in licensed premises The Bull (Blackmore End), The Cock (Beazley End), The Dog and The Lion (Wethersfield), as well as at other (unlicensed) ale houses.

In the autumn of 1806, around the time of Patrick's arrival, typhus hit the village, and this was attributed to the wretched damp cottages in which the poor lived. Some 40 people contracted the disease, of whom 10 died, which survivors recovering slowly.

During his curacy, lodgings had been arranged for Patrick with Miss Mildred Davy, who lived in St George's House opposite the church. At first Patrick's Irish brogue proved difficult for Miss Davy and other parishioners to understand, but they grew used to it. They were happy to lend him their dogs, as he enjoyed walking the footpaths around the village with his canine companions, much as he would later enjoy striding the moors of Haworth.

Early in 1807 Patrick first met 18-year-old Mary Burder, Miss Davy's unmarried niece. We can only piece together from local anecdotes and accounts (and surviving letters of Patrick and Mary) how the 'course of true love' ran from this point onwards. If those anecdotes are true, the scene of the young couple's first meeting could hardly have been less romantic: Mary was plucking a pheasant in her aunt's kitchen. Mary's father, who farmed a substantial amount of land, had died shortly before Patrick arrived in the village, and the family lived in a large farmhouse called Broad Farm (since demolished) at Finchingfield, some three miles away. The Burders were clearly prosperous people, playing a significant role in village life. Mary and her family were nonconformists, but this did not seem to prevent Patrick and Mary from forming an attachment, neither did the age gap matter: she was 18, he was 30. They seem to have spent increasing amounts of time in each other's company, no doubt walking around the village, or escaping to fields and lanes if they could, to gain a little privacy.

The Burders were soon asking the sort of questions one might expect a family to ask. Mary's father's brother was now her guardian, and both he and her widowed mother took every opportunity to try to get Patrick to talk about his origins in Ireland, her uncle clearly becoming concerned about Patrick's eligibility. Uncle Burder finally confronted Patrick with many questions about his background, whereupon Patrick implied that Burder should mind his own business. The result was that the uncle insisted on Mary moving to his farm in Great Yeldham, where he no doubt intended to keep a weather eye on her.

Once again we have only limited accounts of what happened next. Patrick wrote a long letter to Mary, telling her of his great love for her, and imploring her for an early answer. The letter went unanswered. He wrote again, still with no response. After a further delay another letter began with an expression of grief that she had not deigned to answer his previous letters; his feelings were that even if Mr Burder was determined to prevent a meeting, surely there could be no valid excuse for her silence, unless it was that she did not love him? The poor but proud young man may now be implying that she is of a more calculating turn of mind, and had thought better of it without having the courage to confess. He reminds her that on the occasion of their walks together she told him that even if their union never became a reality, he would always be welcome at her home as a friend, and believes she has 'qualified' her love until it lacks all warmth. Although it is hardly Mary's fault, he reminds her that he has been insulted by her uncle without ever having given that gentleman any offence whatever.

It may seem strange to us that it has apparently not occurred to Patrick that Uncle Burder may have played a part in withholding his letters, and he seems willing to believe Mary has played him false. We may never know for certain, but it may be that he soon became concerned about local gossip spreading beyond the confines of Essex, thus reaching the ears of Jowett, and prejudicing his career at its outset. This latest letter was signed and passed to Miss Davy to deliver (we may only speculate as to why he had not utilised Miss Davy as his go-between on a previous occasion, to maximise the chances of any letter being safely delivered).

Patrick carried on correspondence with Miss Davy, even though she later asked him to return, through her, all Mary's letters. As readers of Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility' know, this was common practice at the time if a courtship had ended.

Patrick now decided that his best course of action was to move on to another curacy, and on January 1, 1809, he conducted his last parish duty, performing a burial. On January 7, 1809, he seems to have left Wethersfield for the last time. He briefly took up his new curacy in Wellington, Shropshire, then moved to Dewsbury, Yorkshire, before becoming incumbent of Hartshead, then Thornton, near Bradford, and finally Haworth. During this time he met and married Maria Branwell, and they had six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell (known as Branwell), Emily and Anne.

In 1821 tragedy hit the family when Maria died, leaving Patrick to care for his young family alone. Unable to cope, he initially searched the local area for a lady prepared to marry him and take responsibility for the household, but to no avail. By 1823 Patrick was sufficiently desperate to think once more of Mary Burder.

On April 21, 1823 he wrote to Mary's mother. It is a curious letter to have written out of the blue, telling her his history over the 14 years since he left Wethersfield, asking after her family, hinting that he might travel south during the summer, and might call on people he had known in Wethersfield.

A brief and rather guarded reply was returned, giving so little information that on July 28, 1823, he wrote directly to Mary, who by now was living at her brother's Park Farm. Although making a point of saying she 'cherished no feelings of resentment or animosity', Mary's reply of August 8 shows that his letter served only to reignite bitter feelings on her part.

Patrick wrote again, but as far as we know his letter this time went unanswered.

Mary subsequently married the Reverend Peter Sibree, minister of the Wethersfield Dissenting Chapel, and took up residence at the manse on the village green.

It is fairly certain they never met again. In later life Patrick still thought of her, though, and one of Mary's four daughters, writing about their relationship after her mother's death, mentions that many years later her mother received a photograph of Patrick sent by him, expressing his best wishes. If this is true, it perhaps demonstrates that he never quite got over the ending of his first love affair.

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