Me and Mum were a bit disappointed when our plans for last Saturday had to be cancelled as it meant that all we had left to do was go grocery-shopping. Then Mum picked up the Keighley News and saw that there was a talk in the town library that she thought we’d both enjoy.
Now we both love going to libraries and especially the one in Keighley. Not only is it the biggest library near where we live, but also it has a very important place in the history of public libraries in the UK. This is because it was the first public library in England to receive a grant from Andrew Carnegie, the American industrialist and philanthropist, who helped to fund over 2,500 public libraries in the USA and what was then the British Empire .
Keighley got a grant of £10,000 (worth over £1,237,000 today). The foundation stone was laid in August 1902 and the library was opened two years later by the Duke of Devonshire, who at that time was an important land-owner in the town. An extension was added in 1961 and the building was refurbished in 2007 when many of the original features were restored.
Another important feature of Keighley library is its huge local studies department where me and Mum will soon be going to do some background research for her next novel. But that day we weren’t working. Instead we were going to a talk by Sharon Wright about Maria Bronte, wife of Patrick Bronte, and mother of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.
Although much is known about her husband and her children and their life in nearby Haworth, Maria herself has always been a rather shadowy figure, as she died when her youngest child, Anne, was only 20 months old. It was even thought that it would be impossible to write her biography as there seemed to be so little information available.
Sharon Wright, an author, journalist and playwright who was born in Bradford and started her writing career on the Keighley News, took up the challenge, however, and in late 2019 her book The Mother of the Brontes: When Maria Met Patrick was published.
Sharon’s talk that day wasn’t so much about Maria’s life-story itself, but about all the research she’d done and the places she’d visited to be able to put the story together and make it into a book.
The journey had taken her from Haworth, where Maria died, to Penzance where she’d been born into the well-to-do Branwell family. Along the way it had included visits to libraries, archives and museums, plus visits to buildings which had been associated with Maria’s life.
It was an intriguing story and, as Mum now has a copy of the book, she’s looking forward to reading it as soon as she can make a bit of time to do so.
Meanwhile, Sharon’s talk set Mum off thinking about some of the research she’s done over the years and some of the places she’s visited to find things out.
The very poshest has to be Chatsworth House, the Derbyshire home of the Duke of Devonshire. Mum’s reason for going there was to help a friend research into the archives relating to the Duke of Devonshire’s lead mines in Yorkshire. Sometimes they worked in the library – which was Mum’s idea of heaven! – but at other times they worked in the laundry room which also had a big enough table to spread things out on.
This was before I was born, but Mum says that she and her friend spent many hours reading and transcribing letters and other documents from the 18th and early 19th centuries and the information they gleaned was later used in the Northern Mine Research Society publications, The Grassington Mines and The Wharfedale Mines.
That sort of research is quite hard work as sometimes I’ve seen Mum plough through heaps of stuff just to try and find one little bit of information. Sometimes, however, she finds things out when she’d not really looking for them and they act as inspiration for her writing.
For example a couple of years ago we went on a trip to Clitheroe in Lancashire with our lovely friends from Red Bus Days Out. Most people wanted to go to the market and the shops, but me and Mum wanted to go to the castle on the hill above the town. It stands in a well-kept park which is a memorial to all the men of the town who were killed in the two World Wars. It also has a nice cafe and a fascinating museum of local life.
While we were in there we saw a display relating to superstition and witchcraft. (Clitheroe isn’t far from Pendle Hill, famous for its so-called witches in the early 17th century.)
Among the items on display was an amulet, made from two short pieces of rowan twig, formed into a cross and bound together with sheep’s wool. It was believed that if this was placed on the door-frame of a house, then evil would not be able to enter, and this gave Mum a great idea for a scene in her novel, Master of Wuthering Heights.
Later that same year we went on another trip with our lovely friends, this time to Lotherton Hall on the outskirts of Leeds. Though there’s an 11th century chapel in the grounds, the house itself dates from mainly Victorian times and was built on the wealth the original owners received from their coal-mines.
At the time we visited, there was an exhibition on relating to life in the coal-mines throughout the years, with quotes from old miners displayed on the walls. One of these told how he’d often had to go hungry when he was underground as the mice who lived down there had got into his sandwich box and eaten the contents. This again gave Mum the idea for another scene in Master of Wuthering Heights and now she’s bursting to get on and write it.
And with that I’d better be going, as Mum says I’ve rambled on for long enough today. But before I go, I want to tell you something that I’ve found out in my own researches. Although in many parts of the country cats are known as moggies, in the coal-mines around Doncaster in Yorkshire the old miners used that name for mice. That’s even more confusing for a Little Bear than finding out that the part of the Dame in a pantomime is always played by a man! Talk to you again soon…
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