Bronteana: Bronte Studies Blog Archives

November 26, 2005


Rose Ann Heslip and the Living Cousins of the Brontës

Today we have a very special guest post here at Brontëana. Without further ado, here is an article written by Kate Bower, to give us all more information on Rose Ann Heslip and the modern descendants of the Irish Brontës- who are not quite so scarce as it seems. (It probably suits the mystique of the Brontes to think of their extended family fading away but such is hardly ever the case). Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to write this for Bronteana.

The commemorative event for Rose Ann was held on 6th October and the sun shone, it turned out to be a glorious day. There was a dinner held at Healds Hall Hotel attended by family members including Rose Anns’ 89 year old great grand daughter Olive Emily, members of the Bronte society and SpenValley Civic Society, and the Deputy Mayor & Mayoress and the Deputy Sheriff of Yorkshire.

“Healds Hall was one of the most fashionable residences in the district when built in 1764. It was the largest house in Spen Valley. The Hall first became famous through links with the Bronte family when it was owned by the Reverend Hammond Roberson, immortalised as the Reverend Matthew Helstone in Charlotte Bronte's novel "Shirley".”

After a very good meal and a ‘photo opportunity’ session, the party (slowly!) made its way to Dewsbury to the church of St Luke with Whitechapel. Flowers were laid on the grave and the local press were there in force – we all felt like minor celebrities for the day! Then into the lovely church for a memorial service (forgive me for saying so, but it has to rate as one of the dullest services I have ever attended). This was followed by a reading of some of Emily Bronte’s poems and a posy was presented to Olive.

Rose Ann was a very special lady I think. She was the kind of indomitable woman beset by tragedy and hardship you often find in a certain kind offiction. She was born in 1821 in Ireland and therefore lived through the famine – she must have seen some terrible things in her life.

Her parents were Sarah (nee Bronte) and Simon Collins and she was the only one of their ten children to marry. She had five (perhaps six) children only to watch them succumb one by one to consumption. Only one daughter, Emily, lived to marry. Emily, and her husband Hugh Bingham emigrated to Scotland where all their five children were born. Then Hugh moved down toYorkshire to take up work as a foreman at a gas works. By this time Emily was sick with consumption herself and her widowed mother aged over 70 came over to nurse her dying daughter.

Together the elderly lady, the sick daughter and five small children made the long and arduous journey by road from Scotland to Yorkshire. Aged just 33 Emily died and was buried at St Lukes with Whitechapel. Rose Ann stayed to look after her son-in-law Hugh and her grandchildren. What a sense of love and duty she must have had to stay in late Victorian industrial Yorkshire after the open spaces and close knit network of family and friends she had left behind in Ireland. It must have been a very grim place indeed.

“Salthorn was a deserted, forlorn place, surrounded by black pit-hills and standing amidst swamps and pools on the rough uncultivated common – at night lighted up by the lurid flames which belch from the furnaces at Low Moor and Bowling.”

Heckmondwike Herald, 24th August 1893

Eventually Rose Ann seems to have developed some kind of dementia and was admitted to the infirmary at the local work house. Full of character to the end, she climbed over the wall and made her way back home on the back of a cart on at least two occasions, according to family tradition. She lived to94. I would have loved to have known her.

Her eldest grand daughter, Mary Jane – my great grandma also died in her thirties of breast cancer, leaving three children – Leonard, Ernest andOlive Emily. But the younger grand daughter Elizabeth Anne lived to a grand old age, and I can just about remember her as a very old lady who smoked imaginary cigarettes (having been banned them by the doctor) and who frightened me very much when she once threw the ‘stub’ into the grate and asked me “Did it go in?”. I wasn’t used to grown ups behaving like this and I had absolutely no idea what to say to her! This aside, my mother and aunt tell me that she was a lovely lady, and ‘Aunty Annies’ sponge cake’ is a recipe which is still used in the family.

I have known that we had a Bronte connection for as long as I can remember. When I was around 16 I wrote to the Bronte Society to try and confirm this particular family tradition. Sadly, they were not really very helpful. They confirmed that Emily Heslip had married Hugh Bingham, but stated that they had no record of any children of the union. It was clear from the tone of their letter that, as far as they were concerned, the matter was closed.

It was only this year, when Imelda Marsden of the present day Bronte Society, ‘found’ us as the present day descendents of Rose Ann. She is researching a book on the relations of the Brontes and she is particularly interested in Rose Ann. This provided the first concrete proof that we did have a blood connection with the Brontes. After the brush off I had previously received, I wondered if Mary Jane and the others were perhaps Hugh’s children from a previous or subsequent marriage.

Because of this I can trace an unbroken maternal line back almost 250 years to Eleanor (Alice) McClory, born around 1759/60, the mother of Patrick and Sarah and the grandmother of the Bronte sisters and Rose Ann. Since I have a particular interest in womens’ history, and tracing a female line is usually quite difficult, this has been a source of special satisfaction to me – even without having famous cousins.

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