Walking With Ancestors
Wellington’s literary associations effectively began in 1779 when Edward Houlston opened the town’s first booksellers, paving the way for a business that eventually became one of England’s largest provincial publishing houses. After his death in 1800, Houlston’s son Edward took over the business, which began printing from its premises at 3 Market Square four years later when Alfred’s Letters, an instructive treatise on the threat of an imminent French invasion, was the first title to roll off the presses.
The pamphlet proved to be atypical of what was to follow and Houlston’s quickly established a reputation for publishing religious and educational material, from the sermons of the local clergy to self-help manuals and morally instructive fictional stories for children. As the business grew, Edward Houlston began to transfer more of its trade to London, where he had opened a branch of the family firm at Paternoster Row in 1826. The company ceased publishing in Wellington around the time of his death in 1840, although the printing and bookselling side of the business continued for another ten years until its proprietor John Houlston moved to Oakengates and became an auctioneer.
Among Houlston’s earliest published texts were two small volumes of poetry entitled The Rural Minstrel and Cottage Poems. Their author was Patrick Bronte, a young Irish Curate who had arrived at All Saints parish church in January 1809. During a short stay of less than a year, he made connections that had a lasting impact on his life and without which he may never have fathered a British literary dynasty: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte.
If he had never left Wellington, Bronte’s journey to the town would already have been a remarkable one. Born to a County Down farmer and the eldest of ten children, he arrived in England in 1802 to study at St Johns College, Cambridge. After showing, in his own words, ‘an early fondness for books’, Bronte managed to stay at school until the age of 16 without being sent out to work or apprenticed to a local trade, in itself a rare feat. He then opened his own public school, which eventually led him into the service of Rev Thomas Tighe, a prominent member of the Irish aristocracy and an influential evangelist. It was this connection that led Bronte to St John’s College (renowned for its evangelical tradition) where he was personally sponsored by William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton.
Introducing The Madeley Circle
Bronte left Cambridge in 1806 and, after being ordained, took up a curacy in Wethersfield, Essex. He arrived in Shropshire three years later in a move he may have secured through John Nunn (his former college room mate at Cambridge) the curate of St Chad’s, Shrewsbury. In Wellington, Bronte served under the Rev John Eyton, a powerful preacher in the evangelist tradition whose sermons were among the first to be published by Houlston’s printers. Eyton’s own failing health ensured that Bronte was charged with a wide range of duties, both in the town itself and in the nearby parish of Eyton-Upon-The-Weald-Moors where, on one occasion, the young curate made an assessment for the relief of the local poor.
During Bronte’s short tenure at All Saints, the friendships of local schoolmaster John Fennell and William Morgan, his fellow curate at the church, proved particularly valuable. Morgan was responsible for introducing Bronte to the ‘Madeley Circle’, a group of like-minded individuals who met in the nearby town at the home of Mary Fletcher, the widow of prominent Methodist preacher Rev John Fletcher. It is probable that Bronte learnt of and successfully applied for the position of Curate at Dewsbury through the group, whose members included John Crosse, Vicar of Bradford. Yorkshire was regarded as a ‘promised land’ for those practicing the evangelical tradition and Bronte may eventually have ended up in the county at some point anyway. Indeed, it seems to have been a long-held ambition of the young curate.
Reader, He Married Her!
Once in Yorkshire, Bronte’s Wellington connections continued to play a pivotal role in his life. John Fennell, his other close friend from the town, also moved north and became head of Woodhouse Grove, a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school at Rawdon, on the outskirts of Leeds. Bronte had moved from Dewsbury to nearby Hartshead by 1812 and was invited by Fennell to examine his pupils abilities in Classics and it was while visiting the school that he met his future wife Maria Branwell, a teacher there. By this time, William Morgan had also moved to Yorkshire where he became curate to John Crosse at Bradford. He had begun a relationship with Branwell’s cousin, providing another association which appears to have aided the course of true love and helped secure the foundation of the future literary dynasty. So, while Wellington may not be able to lay claim to being in ‘Bronte country’, it was almost certainly responsible for putting Patrick Bronte there in the first place!