Charlotte Bronte’s Seaside Visits

Charlotte visited the Yorkshire Coast on several occasions during her lifetime, with her first ‘holiday’ taking place in Bridlington, or Burlington as it was then called, in 1839. Sadly, just a decade later, in May 1849, her younger sister Anne died in Scarborough, and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard. However, Charlotte’s initial experience of the coast presented her with happier memories.

The rough area of Easton House, where Charlotte Bronte once stayed

In September 1839, as the harvests were being gathered in the fields around her, Charlotte was in need of a holiday. Her great friend, Ellen Nussey, whom she met in January 1831 at Roe Head School, Mirfield, recognised the need for a change of scene in her companion. During the first eight months of the year, Charlotte had experienced several life-changing events. In February she had her first proposal of marriage, from Ellen’s brother, Henry. She turned him down, and is thought to have put the experience into words in the form of St John Rivers in Jane Eyre.

In April, Anne left home to become governess to the children of Joshua Ingham, of Blake Hall, Mirfield. A trying time for Anne, and for her concerned sisters as well, she lasted with her employer until December 1839.

Also from April, Charlotte was employed as a governess with the Sidgwick family at Stonegappe, near Lothersdale, between Skipton and Colne. Charlotte did not have any ‘natural’ sympathies with the role of governess and she returned to Haworth in July.

The following month, William Hodgson, her father Patrick’s first curate, and then Vicar of Colne, visited the parsonage for the day, accompanied by his own curate, David Pryce. Attracted to Charlotte, David soon wrote to her proposing marriage: Charlotte turned him down. Mr Pryce died the following year due to a ruptured liver.

Parsonage entrance

Not surprisingly, after all the emotional turmoil in Charlotte’s life, a break from the routine was welcome. In September, after an earlier suggestion by their mutual friend Mary Taylor, Ellen arranged a trip to Bridlington. Charlotte’s father Patrick and Aunt Branwell (who cared for the Bronte siblings after the death of their mother, Maria, in September 1821) were not keen on the two ladies travelling unaccompanied. Therefore, accommodation arrangements were made by Ellen’s brother Henry, who had been curate at Burton Agnes, near Bridlington. He still had connections in the area, and made plans for Charlotte and Ellen to stay at a farmhouse outside Bridlington, away from the quayside. This ‘unacceptable’ area was where they would have preferred to stay, but it was an area deemed unsuitable for respectable ladies to take lodgings.

Today, we all take for granted the speed of travel by train or car: we forget the drawn out process of travelling during the Victorian period. Charlotte comments in a letter to Mary: “Haworth, you know, is such an out-of- the-way place, one should have a month’s warning before they stir from it.”

So Charlotte and Ellen met in Leeds, Charlotte journeying from Haworth and Ellen from Birstall and from Leeds they took their first ever train ride to Selby.  As railway tracks had not been laid further than Selby, the companions travelled by coach to York and then onto the Wolds town of Driffield. Although they travelled in an open ‘fly’ during this part of their trip, luckily the weather was in their favour and therefore made for a pleasant late summer journey.

Anne’s resting place in Scarborough

The friends alighted at Driffield’s Bell Hotel, and were eventually met by Mr John Hudson, a gentleman farmer who lived with his wife at Easton House Farm, a two-storied dwelling located about two miles outside of Bridlington (demolished in 1961).

Although having excellent hosts, and nestling in lovely countryside, for Charlotte, the disappointment of not being next to the North Sea was crushing. In this day and age it’s difficult to understand her predicament. However, Charlotte had never seen the sea before, and she longed to experience the spectacle.

After a couple of days at the farmstead, Charlotte and Ellen finally managed to follow the ‘Gypsey Race’, a stream they could trace from the village of Boynton, a matter of a few yards from Easton. The stream wended its way to the coast, finishing in Bridlington’s harbour.

From Ellen’s account, Charlotte was very overcome by her first view of the sea. “She was quite overpowered … she could not speak till she had shed some tears … for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued and exhausted … “. 

Bridlington was, and still is, a town with two halves: the quay, where they had originally wanted to reside, was like many other ports: a cluster of inns, fisherman’s cottages, and alleyways. The older part of town was at least a mile distant from the quayside, with a good number of Georgian houses and shops, beneath the dramatic tower of Priory Church of St Mary and the nearby Bayle, once the entrance to the town’s priory.

Bridlington

The companions returned to Easton House, and afterwards visited the sea as much as possible. They stayed with the Hudsons for three weeks, where the household was conducted with clockwork regularity, which undoubtedly appealed to Charlotte. The household rose at 6.30am, breakfasted at 7.30am, had dinner at 12noon, tea at 4.30pm and went to bed at 9.30pm.

Charlotte evidently enjoyed her stay with the Hudsons, as she commented to Henry Nussey in a letter: “I shall always be grateful to Mr and Mrs Hudson for their kindness.” 

After their stay with the Hudsons, they at last took lodgings near Bridlington Quay with a Mrs Ann Booth, known to the Hudsons, for a further week. It is thought they took residence near to the ‘Ranters Chapel’ in what is now the Esplanade.

If Charlotte was searching for complete peace and quiet in Bridlington, then she would have probably been disappointed: visitors swarmed to such places to take in the sea air and try the mineral waters, finding time to promenade in extremely close proximity to each other. The two friends attempted this celebrated occurrence only once, never repeating the experience.

They left Bridlington for Ellen’s home Brookroyd, near Mirfield and returned to Haworth in mid October.  That month, Charlotte wrote enthusiastically in letters about her trip to the coast. To Ellen on October 24 she penned: “Have you forgot the Sea by this time Ellen? is it grown dim in your mind? or you can still see it dark blue and green and foam-white and hear it – roaring roughly when the wind is high or rushing softly when it is calm? How is your health – have good effect resulted from the change? I am as well as need be, and very fat.”

The stunning York Minster

Four days later, she wrote in somewhat tamer language to Henry: “I enjoyed my late excursion with Ellen with the greater zest because such pleasure have not often chanced to fall my way – I will not tell you what I thought of the Sea – because I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm. I may however say that its glorious changes – its ebb and flow – the sound of its restless waves – formed a subject for contemplation that never wearied either the eye the ear or the mind.”

Bridlington, or at least the older and quieter part of the town, made such an impression on Charlotte that she most likely used it in Villette, which some critics regard as her finest novel. Describing Bretton in the opening paragraphs of the novel:

“When I was a girl I went to visit Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit. The house and it inmates specially suited me. The large peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street, where Sundays and holidays seemed always to abide – so quiet was its atmosphere, so clean its pavement – these things pleased me well.”

Charlotte also lost her spectacles during her stay in Bridlington. Their loss was sorely felt by Charlotte, who was very short-sighted. They were never recovered.

Charlotte’s later visits to the Yorkshire Coast were met with mixed feelings, and not surprisingly: Anne’s wish to die by the sea must have given way to another traumatic experience for Charlotte, along with the burial at St Mary’s Church, beneath the town’s majestic castle in May 1849.  Dr Thomas Pridgin Teale a well-known surgeon in his day, based in Leeds, recommended the sea air at Scarborough to Anne.

In May 1849, then, Charlotte accompanied Anne along with ever-loyal Ellen Nussey. On Wednesday May 23, they took the train from Leeds to York, where they had dinner at the George Hotel in Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate, after which Anne visited the Minster.

They continued their journey to the coast on Friday 25 May and arrived at No.2 Cliff, Scarborough (the Grand Hotel now stands on the site).  Anne enjoyed the view and even managed to visit the sands. However, on Monday 28 May at around 2pm, Anne drew her last breath, after saying to her older sister: “Take courage, Charlotte, take courage.”

Anne’s grave

Anne was laid to rest in St Mary’s graveyard, and is the only Bronte family member not to be buried at Haworth. Charlotte and Ellen were the only mourners.

After the harrowing experience of burying yet another sibling which made her the sole survivor of the Bronte brood, Charlotte paid a visit to Filey where Charlotte and Ellen stayed at Cliff House, Belle Vue Street in Filey for three weeks.  Charlotte described Filey as: “a small place with a wild rocky coast – its sea is very blue – its cliffs are very white – its sands very solitary – it suits Ellen and myself much better than Scarborough which is too gay. “

Charlotte visited Filey again in 1852, after having completed the onerous task of re-facing and re-lettering Anne’s gravestone, the inscription on which contained several errors. 

After her Scarborough visit, she returned to Filey where she stayed a month with her former landlady, Mrs Smith. Charlotte wrote to her father on June 2, describing in some detail the beach, the smooth sands and the height of the tide. She also refers to Filey’s clergyman Reverend Thomas Norfolk Jackson, Vicar of Filey from 1833 to 1873, who she describes as “utter inactive”.

Charlotte’s last visit to the Yorkshire coast was a trip to Hornsea in 1853, just under two years before her own death in 1855. Charlotte ventured to Hornsea on the invitation of her old friend Margaret Wooler. Charlotte enjoys her visit there, and mentions “the lake” in her correspondence, presumably referring to Hornsea Mere.

So Charlotte’s connections to the Yorkshire Coast are numerous and varied; the works of the Bronte sisters will live long in the memory, with Yorkshire’s coastline no doubt influencing the writing of the remarkable siblings.