Campaigners have saved the birthplace of the Brontë sisters and are now fundraising to turn the building into a cultural and education centre – helped by a man with a link to the literary family.
Nigel West, who traces a family connection to Charlotte Brontë’s husband, made a “significant donation” to the crowdfunding appeal, which aims to transform 72-74 Market Street in Thornton, Bradford, into a tourist destination.
Around a million visitors a year travel to Haworth, to visit the house that writers Charlotte, Anne and Emily shared with their father, church minister Patrick, and their wayward brother, Branwell, and campaigners hope to transform the Thornton house, which went on sale this year, into a similar attraction.
All three sisters were born at the Thornton house, which has now been bought after the campaigners raised £300,000 from donations and grants, including a major one from the Bradford City of Culture 2025 fund. Now a further £300,000 is required to renovate the Grade II* listed building. West joined the campaign this week.
None of the Brontë sisters gave birth to children, though Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette, died while pregnant in 1855. Her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, moved back to his native Ireland and took up residence in Hill House in Banagher after her death, where he lived until he died.
That house was inherited by Nicholls’ cousin, Florrie, and when she died in 1959 it passed to her nephew Jim West – Nigel’s father.
West, who lives in West Yorkshire and is a member of the Brontë society, said: “My father was 37 at the time, and the property wasn’t thought to be worth much, so he passed it on to the church.”
The property changed hands several times and is now run as a B&B called Charlotte’s Way – maintaining the Brontë links. In the early 20th century a painting was discovered in the house, stuck on top of a cupboard. It was of the three sisters and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; known as the “pillar portrait” – it was painted by Branwell, who originally included himself in the picture but then painted over himself and inserted a pillar into the image.
West, 63, is a retired project manager for IBM. He said he made the donation to the campaign to transform 72-74 Market Street partly to honour the legacy of his father, who died two years ago, and also because he is passionate about the idea of it being used to help educate children, especially those from Bradford, which contains some of the most deprived wards in the country.
“I went to Leeds Grammar School thanks to a direct grant, and then on to York University, and without that start in education I would not have had the career I had,” he said.
“It will be amazing to secure the Brontë birthplace for future generations,” he added. “The plans to make this an important community place for Bradford and to coincide with Bradford as UK City of Culture 2025 is a wonderful prospect.”
The crowdfunding campaign is being fronted by Christa Ackroyd, a Bradford-born journalist who fronted regional news programmes for both the BBC and ITV for many years.
“Sometimes on this journey to safeguard the Brontë legacy you stumble across something so unexpected, so wonderful, that you know you are on the right path. It sent shivers down our spines when we heard he wanted to do something both as a legacy to his late father, who inherited Arthur’s home in Ireland, but also because of Nigel’s passionate belief in the power of education and our plan to use the Brontë story to inspire the next generation to achieve all their ambitions, no matter what stumbling blocks they encounter.
“Nigel is very modest about his family connection, but the fact we have support from a living descendant of Charlotte Brontë’s husband – the man who stayed behind when all the children were gone to look after their father Patrick – is a wonderful example of synchronicity.”