Spen Valley has many connections with the Brontës, particularly Charlotte (born 21 April 1816, died 31 March 1855). Spen people and places feature in her novels ‘Shirley’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. Charlotte’s father Patrick came to Spen Valley in July 1810 as curate at Hartshead Church. This coincided with Luddite unrest and attacks on local mills. It is said he authorised the secret burial of some Luddites in unmarked graves in the churchyard. He must have told Charlotte about these Luddite uprisings because she included them in her novel ‘Shirley’.
On 29th December 1812 Patrick married Maria Branwell and they set up home at Clough House, 426 Halifax Road Liversedge, where Maria and Elizabeth were born. A plaque on the house marks its role in the Brontë story. Charlotte was born at their next home in Thornton Bradford, but she returned to Spen January 1831- June 1832, as a pupil at Roe Head School, Far Common Road Roberttown (now Hollybank School) where she excelled and made lifelong friends Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey. It is known that the Headmistress Miss Wooler taught the girls about local history, and from the school they could see Kirklees Hall (next to its priory ruins in the woods between Hartshead and Clifton, Brighouse) depicted as “Nunnely Hall” in ‘Shirley’. Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher from 1835-1838, her wages funding her sisters’ school fees. Miss Wooler lived at Tanfield House, Spen Lane, between Cleckheaton and Gomersal. She played a role in Charlotte’s later life- she gave Charlotte away at her wedding in 1854 and it is likely Charlotte visited Miss Wooler’s later home, 52 Lower Lane, Little Gomersal (still a private house).
Charlotte spent many happy hours at Mary Taylor’s home, Red House, Bradford Road, Gomersal. The Taylor family were lively, entrepreneurial and non-Conformist, a contrast to Charlotte’s family. Mary Taylor defied convention- never marrying, spending some years in New Zealand running her own business, before returning to live at Gomersal Lodge on Spen Lane. The spirited discussions and forthright personalities of the Taylor family were models for the “Yorkes” and Red House became “Briarmains” in ‘Shirley’. Charlotte blended together the Taylor’s factory and mill house (at Drub Lane near Hunsworth) with William Cartwright’s mill (at Rawfolds between Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike) as “Hollows Mill” where her fictional Luddite attack took place in the book. The heroine Shirley lived at “Fieldhead”, which Charlotte based upon Oakwell Hall Birstall, a place she’d visited with Mary and Ellen.