The youngest servant ended as the keeper of the Brontë flame

Martha, born in Haworth in 1828, was one of six daughters of John Brown of Haworth, the village sexton and friend of Branwell Brontë, and his wife Mary. The Browns lived in Sexton's House, which John himself had built on the eastern end of the Church School, directly opposite the church and about 100 yards from the Parsonage, shortly after it was built in 1832. The Sexton was responsible for the fabric of the church and maintenance of the burial ground, where he dug graves and carved memorials. Most of John Brown's daughters worked at the Parsonage at one time or another, cleaning, washing and running errands, but Martha was the only one to live in.


From 1826,Tabitha Aykroyd had been the only servant living in at the Parsonage, then in 1836 she broke a leg very badly. Emily Brontë took on many of Tabby's duties, but by 1839 it was clear that permanent extra help would be needed, and 11-year-old Martha Brown moved in to share the bedroom of 68-year-old Tabby. This arrangement continued until Tabby's death 16 years later, when, with only Mr Brontë and Mr Nicholls left to look after, Martha finally had the room to herself. Her duties ranged from basic washing, cleaning and laying fires to running errands, and, after Tabby's death, preparing food. She was also called on to help nurse the sick of the household, and for all this was paid £6 a year, rising to £10 a year by 1858.

After the death of Patrick Brontë in 1861 the household broke up, and Martha went with Arthur Bell Nicholls (Charlotte's widower) to Ireland. Whether this was just to help Mr Nicholls settle in his new home, or whether it was intended she stay on there as his housekeeper, we do not know, but by Christmas 1862 she was back in Haworth living with her widowed mother at Sexton's House (John Brown had died of 'dust on his lungs' in 1855). Martha took on domestic work in the village, including a stint with Dr Amos Ingham (lately the Brontë family physician) at the Manor House in Cookgate. Martha's mother died in 1866, and in 1868 Martha, who increasingly by then was in poor health, went to live with her sister Ann Binns and her family at Saltaire. She stayed there for nine years, until domestic tensions between her sister and her husband Ben became intolerable for her, and she returned to Haworth. She spent the last three years of her life living alone in a small, damp cottage in what is now Sun Street. She died there of stomach cancer on January 19, 1880.

Throughout her post-Parsonage years, Martha and Arthur Bell Nicholls maintained a regular correspondence, and Martha visited Mr Nicholls (and his second wife after 1864) a number of times. He always asked her to stay, and she always declined. Martha had featured in Elizabeth Gaskell's bestselling biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), and in her later years became something of a celebrity. Martha treasured a large collection of Brontë memorabilia that she was happy to display, but reluctant to sell. On her death this collection was divided between her sisters and gradually dispersed.

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