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Haworth, Yorkshire: Would Tourists Really want to Step into Another Era?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

The tourist brochures talk about discovering Haworth the home of the famous Brontë sisters, the undisputed literary mecca, attracting visitors from all around the world. With its historic cobbled Main Street, iconic parsonage and rolling moors, they say that the picturesque proportions of this Airedale village exude a vintage charm that makes you feel you have stepped into another era. Although today Haworth is truly a wonderful place, the Haworth of 1850 was a far cry from the one described above and one which tourists would probably not want to visit.

In 1850 Benjamin Herschel Babbage, an English engineer, was commissioned to undertake an inspection of Haworth brought about by the high rate of infant mortality. Babbage was horrified by the unsanitary conditions in the village and surrounds and wrote a report for the General Board of Health.

The Babbage Report was an inquiry into the sewage, drainage and supply of water and the unsanitary condition of the inhabitants. Now, many know of this report , but few know of the specifics such as the mortality rate at the time being 30.6 per thousand indicating an extremely poor sanitary condition in the village. It was also estimated by Babbage that the average life expectancy of people living in the hamlet was 25, equal to some of the poorest parts of London. Even more astonishing was the fact that almost 47% of the population died before the age of six years and below are the reasons why:

Of the 316 houses situated in the village, not one of them had a toilet and all occupants had to rely on the 69 outhouses or privies scattered throughout the village and surrounds. This number equated to 1 privy for every 5 houses; however, in some instances due to location there may have been up to 24 houses sharing one very public outhouse. There were no sewers in Haworth at the time and often the privy cesspit flowed out into the street and mixing with the rain surface water, flowed down Main Street. Beside each privy was an enclosure for night soil and household and slaughterhouse waste, which was rarely removed because of the fear of sickness from the ash which was also dropped there. As a result, the refuse which would normally be used by farmers for fertilizer would pile up and often foul the local drinking water.

The poor lived in cramped basement dwellings down Main Street and back to back houses with windows that did not open and floors that continually flooded. As many as six men and boys could live in one room where they would also comb wool for a living. These rooms would have been hot and cramped as fires would have been kept going to heat the combs. In another room, along with a hand loom 10 lodgers might sleep in damp and uncomfortable conditions. Privies were often attached to the back wall of buildings so toilet refuse seeped through walls and ran over the floor often made worse after rain.

In Main Street there was no sewer so the refuse from 44 houses was thrown into the street and could quite often mix with the water from underground springs making water undrinkable. Consequently, most would have to walk up to half a mile to fetch water for washing and cooking often lining up at all hours of the morning and night with buckets.

The cemetery of Michael of All Angels Church sits at the hilltop of Main Street and has been the site of a chapel since 1317. At the time of Babbage’s report, church records indicated that 1344 burials had taken place in the past 10 years; however, some indicate that there may have been as many as 40,000 people buried there prior to church records. Due to poor drainage, insufficient burial depths and overcrowding, surface water runoff from the cemetery would rush down the hill and often enter the basement dwellings of poor folk. Babbage reported that the smell from the open ditch used to carry this water was ‘one of the most nauseous and fetid nature’ and ‘left a sickness and faintness which lasted hours’.

Haworth is truly a wonderful place but the Haworth of 1850 was a far cry from the one described in tourist brochures and one which tourists would probably not want to visit.

Best selling author Paul Rushworth-Brown. His family have been living in Haworth since 1590
Best selling author Paul Rushworth-Brown. His family have been living in Haworth since 1590

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels set in and around Haworth. A must read for anybody visiting!

Skulduggery- A family of copyholders, live each day in isolation from the village, but an attack on one of their own puts them all in grave danger.

This story carefully navigates the backdrop of the English Reformation, populating it with likable and despicable characters, and casting them in a fully realised historical mystery setting. It's a slice of history that's totally, utterly believable, and unbelievable. The twists will surprise and the ending is totally unexpected even for the most astute of readers.

Red Winter Journey. Ever wondered what Haworth was like in the time of the English Civil War in 1642?

Red Winter Journey- England, 1642. When bloody civil war breaks out between the King and Parliament, families and communities are driven by different allegiances. Red Winter Journey is a sweeping tale of adventure and loss, sacrifice and love, with a unique and unforgettable story of a boy becoming a man at its heart.

"Dream of Courage- Released on 22 Nov 2023

The Rushworths are poor, hungry tenants of the Puritan Jasper Calamy, of Haworth manor, and scratch out a living tending a few sheep, spinning and weaving wool on put out from passing clothiers. Young Robert Rushworth and John Rushworth leave home and stumble across a way to make their fortune, in the Briggate in Leeds. Pursued by John Wilding, a brogger and brute of a man, with no manners or decorum, typical of the ‘lower sort’ of the time. Smythe, the local tavern keeper, has many secrets and with a hidden past, sends Robert to The Haven, to Captain Girlington of 'The Pearl'. Will Robert escape before it's too late? Will he hang? Will Robert and Ursula ever be together?

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11 Jun 2023
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Great article.

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