Today Thursday April 21st 2016 is a very special day. It is the bicentenary of the birth of a truly great writer. She wrote four books but is most famous for her second which is of course Jane Eyre. A chance comment I heard about a Jane Eyre connection with Castleton in Derbyshire set me off on a hunt for information which turned into a quest. Over Christmas 2015 I read Jane Eyre for the first time. I was also researching the novel, noting down all the character’s names and relationships. I also noted down place names, buildings even the flora and fauna. I became absolutely convinced that Charlotte Bronte’s three week stay in Derbyshire in 1845 was the inspiration for significant parts of Jane Eyre. I was also convinced that CB had used real names from Derbyshire folk in her work and also incorporated sights sounds and stories she encountered during her stay. In particular I was sure that Hathersage, its families, its church, its industrial entrepreneurs and some of its finer houses appear in the story but with different names. I have been researching now for nearly four months and I have visited Hathersage three times, walking the paths CB would have taken. I have learnt so much but this blog will seek to answer just one simple question? Where was Thornfield Hall and what is it’s true identity?
The shortlist for the possible original of Thornfield Hall is very short: only Norton Conyers in North Yorkshire and North Lees Hall near Hathersage in Derbyshire have ever been considered and CB is known to have visited both. Norton Conyers is a manor house situated in an isolated location north of Ripon. In the summer of 1839 CB took up her first position as a governess with the Sidgwick family at their summer residence at Stonegappe. It was a brief stay barely three months during June to July. Norton Conyers was the seat of Mr Greenwood the father of Mrs Sidgwick. CB visited the house when staying with her pupils at Swarcliffe, Mr Greenwood’s summer residence. The house has distinctive Dutch style gables and is built in two storeys and has distinctive double chimneys at the front. Its main claim to be the original Thornfield lies in the fact that it does have a secret, a staircase hidden behind panelling on the first floor that leads to a series of rooms with low ceilings in the attic. Some claim this was the inspiration for Jane Eyre’s mad woman in the attic storyline. To the very best of my knowledge this is also the ONLY claim that may link this house and Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte. It certainly does not match the description of Thornfield in Jane Eyre, indeed it comes nowhere near. Now let us examine the evidence that North Lees Hall is actually the original of Thornfield Hall. To accomplish this I will use the exact words written by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre.
We come across the first mention of Thornfield Hall in Chapter 10 in Jane Eyre when Mrs Fairfax sends Jane Eyre a letter, including details of the position of governess and her address
“Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, near Millcote, —shire.”
This then clearly establishes the link between a place called Millcote and Thornfield and it is a shire county (well that rules out Cumberland and Westmorland at least!)
CB then gives us further information about Millcote
“Millcote, —shire; I brushed up my recollections of the map of England, yes, I saw it; both the shire and the town. —shire was seventy miles nearer London than the remote county where I now resided: that was a recommendation to me. I longed to go where there was life and movement:
Millcote was a large manufacturing town on the banks of the A-; a busy place enough, doubtless: so much the better; it would be a complete change at least. Not that my fancy was much captivated by the idea of long chimneys and clouds of smoke–“but,” I argued, “Thornfield will,probably, be a good way from the town.”
This information notifies us that Millcote is on the banks of a river beginning with A, it is a large manufacturing town and has long chimneys with clouds of smoke. Importantly it is stated to be seventy miles nearer to London ( ie to the south) than the remote county in which she was residing. I have checked for rivers beginning with A in northern England and can find only the River Aire which flows through both Keighley and Leeds, places Charlotte visited. They would both have lots of long chimneys too. The fly in the ointment here is that neither would be 70 miles south of the county where Jane Eyre was residing. That was of course Lancashire. It has been established beyond any doubt that the Lowood school in Jane Eyre was based on a very real school for clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge which CB attended. This location was just within Lancashire, the nearest town was Kirby Lonsdale to the north in Westmorland.
Today the distance between nearby Kirby Londsdale to Leeds would be 58 miles by modern road, Kirby Londsdale to Ripon be 61 miles by modern roads and to Hathersage would be 106 miles by using the M6. In the 1840s the old coach routes would have been used which ranged over fells and moors so the actual distances would be shorter. Norton Conyers is not 70 miles nearer London BUT Hathersage and North Lees Hall is the most southerly and therefore nearer London. Interestingly the distance between Haworth and Hathersage today by modern roads is 65 miles. In the summer of 1845 CB made a journey to Hathersage in three legs with first a carriage to Leeds then a coach to Sheffield and then to Hathersage.
The choice of the name of the town Millcote is interesting. CB was well versed in French and would have understood the French word for Cote which can mean “coast”. If we put the two elements together we get Mill- Coast. Today Hathersage is a pretty and sleepy old Derbyshire village. It is hard to picture how so much different it was when CB visited in 1845. It was a hive of industry with no less than 6 different mills and a button factory. The mills were originally water powered by two local streams but in the early 1840s all converted to steam power. During her stay in the village she would have seen the various chimneys belching smoke and some of the chimneys remain to this day. Alternatively Millcote could be Sheffield, the nearest manufacturing town to Hathersage and North Lees Hall – just ten miles distant. Let us now examine more evidence that links Millcote and Hathersage together.
In Chapter 11 Jane Eyre sets off for Thornfield by coach and after a very long journey arrives at an inn,
“A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe.”
Jane waits impatiently at the George Inn for a carriage to take her to Thornfield Hall. Eventually it arrives and she rushes out of the Inn,
“I jumped up, took my muff and umbrella, and hastened into the inn-passage: a man was standing by the open door, and in the lamp-lit street I dimly saw a one-horse conveyance.”
There is a George Inn in Hathersage today though it is no longer a coaching Inn and has become a Hotel. Interestingly the George Hotel still has an “inn-passage” into which the coaches would drive and deposit their passengers at the rear of the premises in former days. It is clearly visible in the photograph below,
The George Hotel 500 years old and once a coaching Inn called the George Inn.
From the George Inn Jane Eyre is taken to nearby Thornfield Hall..
“I got in; before he shut me up, I asked him how far it was to Thornfield. “A matter of six miles.” “How long shall we be before we get there?” “Happen an hour and a half.”
In reality the distance between The George Inn and North Lees Hall is just over one mile. Sheffield is 10 miles away. It would take around one and half hours to travel by coach from Sheffield to Hathersage/ North Lees Hall. During the journey Jane Eyre observes the scenery,
“Again I looked out: we were passing a church; I saw its low broad tower against the sky, and its bell was tolling a quarter; I saw a narrow galaxy of lights too, on a hillside, marking a village or hamlet. About ten minutes after, the driver got down and opened a pair of gates: we passed through, and they clashed to behind us. We now slowly ascended a drive, and came upon the long front of a house.
This description seems to match Hathersage almost exactly. The principal church stands on the highest hill in the village and has both a tower and a steeple though clearly the steeple was added at a later date. It does have a church clock which chimes the hours and quarters, something that the church at Haworth did not possess. It would be simply impossible to ascend the drive up to North Lees Hall at anything other than a slow place as it is exceedingly steep. After being taken inside Thornfield and meeting Mrs Fairfax Jane spends her first night in Thornfield. In the morning she steps outside to view the hall,
“…advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing: they flew over the lawn and grounds to alight in a great meadow, from which these were separated by a sunk fence, and where an array of mighty old thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks, at once explained the etymology of the mansion’s designation. Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, nor so like barriers of separation from the living world; but yet quiet and lonely hills enough, and seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find existent so near the stirring locality of Millcote. A little hamlet, whose roofs were blent with trees, straggled up the side of one of these hills; the church of the district stood nearer Thornfield: its old tower-top looked over a knoll between the house and gates.”
This is a near perfect description of the view of North Lees Hall which can still be seen from the lawn today as Jane Eyre saw it. It does have battlements around the top. Importantly and unlike Norton Conyers it does have three storeys when viewed from the lawn. It also is secluded in a very high location just below Stanage Edge.
North Lees Hall viewed from the lawn – 3 storeys, battlements and all clearly visible.
In Chapter 11 Jane observes Mrs Fairfax carrying out some domestic duties..
“….Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on a sideboard.”
This would seem to be a reference to the local spar we now know as Blue John which comes in a variety of colours including purple. It is mined in only one locality – at Castleton in Derbyshire just five and a half miles away from North Lees Hall.
Thornfield Hall also possesses something called “Leads”….
“On to the leads; will you come and see the view from thence?” I followed still, up a very narrow staircase to the attics, and thence by a ladder and through a trap-door to the roof of the hall. I was now on a level with the crow colony, and could see into their nests.”
This is Mrs Fairfax talking first with Jane finishing off with a description of getting first into the attics and then onto the roof. “Leads” may have been a lead roof, often used in the local district as a roofing material for important buildings like Halls and churches as it was mined nearby. Importantly Thornfield had a means of getting onto the roof. This therefore could hardly be a pitched roof like Norton Conyers. More likely it was a flat roof which is exactly what North Lees Hall has and had when visited by CB. Indeed it seems a certainty that CB was taken up onto the roof at North Lees Hall as Jane Eyre describes the scene below in great detail…
“Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet lawn closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the field, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the wood, dun and sere, divided by a path visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage; the church at the gates, the road, the tranquil hills, all reposing in the autumn day’s sun; the horizon bounded by a propitious sky, azure, marbled with pearly white. No feature in the scene was extraordinary, but all was pleasing. When I turned from it and repassed the trap-door, I could scarcely see my way down the ladder; the attic seemed black as a vault compared with that arch of blue air to which I had been looking up, and to that sunlit scene of grove, pasture, and green hill, of which the hall was the centre, and over which I had been gazing with delight.”
In Chapter 12 Jane leaves the Hall to take a walk to the hamlet of Hay to post a letter for Mrs Fairfax. The route is uphill so she stops for a rest on a large stone and surveys the scene below her..
“From my seat I could look down on Thornfield: the grey and battlemented hall was the principal object in the vale below me; its woods and dark rookery rose against the west.”
Today it is possible to take a walk above North Lees Hall and you will find an old pack horse road. There are a number of very large boulders which make excellent seats. You can indeed sit on one of these and look down on the vale below. This is what you can see…It is an almost perfect match to the description by Charlotte Bronte.
It is on the road to Hay where Jane first meets Rochester and she helps him up when his horse slips on an icy path. Rochester wishes to know where Jane lives?
“You live just below–do you mean at that house with the battlements?” pointing to Thornfield Hall, on which the moon cast a hoary gleam,bringing it out distinct and pale from the woods that, by contrast with the western sky, now seemed one mass of shadow.”
This is yet another match to the view looking down onto North Lees Hall
In Chapters 17 and 18 Jane Eyre describes in great detail features of the various rooms at Thornfield Hall and mentions an arch separating two important ground floor rooms. In Chapter 18 a small yet important detail emerges..
“The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining-room…”
This matches almost perfectly with the ground floor layout of North Lees Hall. It was composed of two main wings which were built at different times. The hall is built on a slope so it was not possible to create a level floor to match up both wings. This small yet important detail was clearly seen by Charlotte Bronte and made its way into Jane Eyre providing another positive link between the real hall and the version in the book. In the accompanying photograph both wings are visible and the one at the rear is slightly higher than that at the front.
To complete the review of evidence I will provide another quote from the book about a very unusual piece of furniture at Thornfield Hall in Chapter 20,
“….the shadows darken on the wrought, antique tapestry round me, and grow black under the hangings of the vast old bed, and quiver strangely over the doors of a great cabinet opposite–whose front, divided into twelve panels, bore, in grim design, the heads of the twelve apostles, each enclosed in its separate panel as in a frame;”
This is better known as an “Apostles Chest”. In the Bronte Museum at Haworth is just such a piece of furniture. It was purchased in the 1920s from a member of the Eyre family and removed from…… North Lees Hall. Why would the Bronte Society take the trouble of buying and removing this item from North Lees Hall unless it had a connection with Charlotte Bronte?
Thornfield Hall is most clearly described as being close to a manufacturing district with tall chimneys. It is also close to the George Inn which is a coaching Inn with an Inn Passage. It also near a small hamlet with a church clock that chimes the quarters. The building itself is described as having battlements and has three storeys when viewed from the lawn. It also has attics and a ladder up onto the “leads” or roof. There is a step up between the principal ground floor rooms, the drawing room and the dining room. It had a very unusual piece of furniture known as an apostle’s chest. I began this blog asking a simple question – Where was Thornfield Hall and what is its true indentity? I think the answer should be clear now – North Lees Hall situated just over a mile above the village of Hathersage must be the original of Thornfield Hall. It has a much greater and a better claim than Norton Conyers and the evidenc comes from the pen of Charlotte Bronte herself . For the sceptics who are still not convinced I leave you with a final thought. Thorn is anagram of North and Lee or Lees is an old name for field / fields. THORN FIELD…. NORTH LEES
This blog is brought to you by researcher and writer Mike Sheridan who is currently working on his fourth book about Charlotte Bronte and her writing. I hope you have enjoyed the fruits of my research and let us not forget who made all of this possible – a remarkable little lady born exactly 200 years ago today. Still we read her works and still they continue to amuse and amaze us!
Copyright@ Mike Sheridan 2016 – ALL text and images except quotations from Jane Eyre. Feel free to share but please DON’T copy!