Saturday, 4 March 2006

Tabitha Aykroyd

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Many visitors find the graveyard as fascinating as the Parsonage itself. Buried there are two of the domestic servants of the Brontës - Tabitha Aykroyd and Martha Brown.

Here is a focus on "Tabby", who died on 17th February 1855 aged 85, two and a half weeks after Charlotte Brontë was examined by Doctor McTurk and found to be pregnant, and six weeks before Charlotte's death at the age of 38.

The main Parsonage website carries the following information:

Tabitha Aykroyd

Domestic servant in the Brontë household.

Born Haworth c.1771. Died Haworth 17th February 1855.

Almost nothing is known of Tabitha's life before she entered the Parsonage in 1824 aged 53. She was almost certainly a native of Haworth, and we know of two sisters; Rose, who married a Bingley man called Bower, and Susannah, who married a Haworth man called Wood. Tabitha never married, and while there is no record of her life before she entered the Parsonage, it is thought that she had worked in domestic service and on farms.

Living at the Parsonage 'Tabby' was the Cook/Housekeeper and for the first 15 of her 31 years at the Parsonage, she was the only servant living in, although the Brontë sisters themselves also cooked, cleaned and washed clothes. In December 1836 Tabby slipped on ice in Haworth's main street, badly breaking her leg. Aunt Branwell suggested that she leave the Parsonage to be nursed by her sister Susannah, but the Brontë children objected, even going on hunger strike, and Tabby stayed in the Parsonage nursed by the children. The leg never fully healed however, and over the next 3 years many of Tabby's duties were taken up by Emily.

In 1839 Tabby seems to have retired temporarily, moving into a house in Newell Hill that she had bought with her now-widowed sister Susannah. Mr. Brontë engaged Martha Brown, the 11 year old daughter of his Sexton, John Brown, but the greater part of the skilled and the heavy work fell upon the Brontë girls, with Emily becoming Housekeeper. In 1842, Tabby moved back into the Parsonage where she stayed, sharing the little servants' bedroom with young Martha, for the next 13 years. Tabby died in February 1855 and she is buried with her sister Susannah, and a George Aykroyd who may be a brother, just over the wall from the Parsonage garden.

Personality; Influence
According to Mrs. Gaskell, Tabby "abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded"(The Life of Charlotte Brontë 1857). Mrs. Brontë had been dead for 3 years when Tabby came to the Parsonage and the children were looked after by their mother's sister, Elizabeth Branwell. A year after Tabby's arrival, the two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption. Charlotte and Emily were only nine and seven years old at the time, and as they at least had only a formal relationship with their Aunt Branwell, they found physical and emotional warmth in the kitchen. Tabby was fond of her "childers" and they were fond of her. As Charlotte later wrote, "she was like one of our own family". Tabby took the girls for their walks on the moors, and, with her old-fashioned ways and broad Haworth accent, she was sometimes the butt of their boisterous games.

Tabby was a great storyteller. She knew all the local families, all their complex inter-relationships and disputes, and, despite her belief in the Christian teachings of divine reward and retribution, she held also to the ancient anthropomorphic traditions of the countryside, claiming (according to Mrs. Gaskell) to have known people who had seen the fairies. Emily, who spent more time working in the kitchen than either of her sisters, was particularly close to Tabby, and Tabby's influence permeates the landscape of Wuthering Heights. Tabby has also been identified as the model for Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, and for the housekeeper Martha in Charlotte's novel Shirley.

Read about a dramatic version of Tabby in Blake Morrison's play We Are Three Sisters by clicking on;postID=8814422635659652113

Tabby's Haworth dialect

Thanks to American member Randall Grimsley for sending the following. Brenda Scott did the translation and added the dialect notes.

Tabby: Aye up, childer - is yon cat deard?

Chorus of children: Nay, Tabby, 'e's just restin'

Translation: Hello! Is that cat dead, kids?
No, Tabby, he's just resting

Dialect note:
'deard' rhymes with 'beard'

Tabby: Nah sithee, me barns, tha's nur 'aving a candle, so tha mun do wi'art. If I can see ter fettle this 'ere pair o' Branwell's britches, tha can all see well enough to mek up thi daft tales. If tha wants more leet, shuv yon cat on't' fireback, 'e's fat enou' to gi' a reight gradely blaze!

Translation: Now look here, my children, you're not having a candle, so you must do without. If I can see to mend this here pair of Branwell's breeches, you can all see well enough to make up your silly tales. If you want more light, shove that cat on the back of the fire, he's fat enough to give a right good blaze!

Dialect note: 'bairns' is pronounced as written in Scotland, to rhyme with 'cairns' but in Yorkshire the pron. is usually 'barns'. Sithee is pron. 'sitha' ( singular ) or sithi  (plural ) this case, sithi. on't' ( on the ) is usually pron. with the glottal stop for which the county is noted! The 't' is not so much enunciated as swallowed! reight is pron 'reyt', and frequently 'reet'

Remember - your comments and contributions are welcome!


Heidi said...

We should never underestimate Tabby's influence on the Brontes. Fresh flowers should be placed on her grave each anniversary of her death.

Carl S said...

This is a very useful article which helped me write an essay. Can we have more on Tabby? More on dialect from Yorkshire as well because we (Americans) need assistance with it more than you Brits.

Mitch Loy said...

Thanks for the information. I would love to know if the stories she told the children were ever written down by anyone.

Wendy Halloway said...

My Dad always said that he had a family connection to Tabitha Aykroyd, as that is what he had been told. His surname was Ackroyd, but apparently when his father got married he mis-spelled his surname of 'Aykroyd' as 'Ackroyd' on the marriage register, so became an 'Ackroyd' following the wedding! The family originally lived in Haworth and my Grandad was a 'journeyman butcher'. One day, I would like to find out if there really is a family connection,