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Branwell: The Political Brontë

An excerpt from The Life and Work of Branwell Brontë, describing Branwell’s political activity in 1837:

Branwell also became a political figure that year. On 27th January he established a Haworth Operative Conservative Society, the objectives of which were to ‘maintain loyalty to the King attachment to the connection between church and State respect for the independence and prerogatives of the House of Lords and a proper regard for the Commons House of Parliament’.

Given how much Branwell enjoyed writing Angrian tales about Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland and political demagogue, it is interesting to see his real-world affection for the status quo.

That being said, 1837 did see Branwell, and Patrick too, in opposition to the government of the day. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was just beginning to take effect in Yorkshire, and saw anyone unfit to work being put into the work-houses. There the men, women, and children were separated and expected to perform hard, back-breaking labour to earn their keep. With so many advancements in the textile trade, many workers in Yorkshire found themselves faced with the choice between splitting up their family or risking starvation together.

Patrick was vocal in his opposition, calling a meeting to petition Parliament to repeal the Poor Law Amendment Act. The meeting was so well attended it had to be held outside, where Patrick urged the whole village to oppose the Act, even mentioning rebellion (albeit as a possible, undesirable consequence of the deprivation inflicted by the Act).

It was Branwell who read and moved the petition, and the support was unanimous. But such support wasn’t a regular feature of Branwell’s short-lived political career. Just five days later, a meeting was held to petition Parliament again, this time to abolish church rates. These were effectively a tax that went to the upkeep of parish churches. Patrick and Branwell opposed abolition of the rates; they both knew how much parish churches relied on the money the rates brought in.

But the Brontë men were in the minority; not everyone was so willing to make compulsory contributions to one church in favour of another. For example, Hall Green Baptist Chapel, where the meeting was held, didn’t benefit from church rates, and nor did any Roman Catholic churches.

Patrick and Branwell found themselves vilified for their opposition to the petition, and Branwell was even accused of sending false statements to the newspapers. There isn’t any evidence that he did so, and Juliet Barker believes the accuser had confused Branwell with William Hodgson, Patrick’s curate, who had indeed written to a newspaper about church rates.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Branwell would be so vilified. Just a few months later, Parliament was dissolved in the wake of King William IV’s death in June 1837. When the Whig candidate, Lord Morpeth, visited Haworth to speak to his electorate, Patrick tried to ask him some questions. But Patrick was a know Tory, despite his opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act, and the crowd overwhelmingly supported the Whigs. They shouted him down, prompting Branwell to step forward and declare ‘If you won’t let my father speak, you shan’t speak.’

Noble, perhaps, but fruitless. Lord Morpeth was elected, and Branwell faced the indignity of seeing his effigy carried down the street and then burnt. At least he could claim a dramatic end to his political career.

The Life and Work of Branwell Brontë is available to buy now.

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