Fairlight and The Bronte Connection

Fairlight and the Brontë Connection by Haydon Luke

For 85 years there has been an important connection between the village of Fairlight and the village of Haworth in West Yorkshire, best known as the location of Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontë family.  Yet few people hereabouts are aware of that connection with one of the most celebrated locations in England’s literary heritage.

So what is the connection?  For a clue you have to look in the churchyard of St Andrew’s.  Unusually, however, the informative booklet entitled The Victorian Churchyard, available at the Church, does not supply the clue.  This, too, is surprising because the booklet (re-written and collated by Vi Britton and her team a few years ago) is extremely informative about the stories of the various interesting figures of local and national significance who are buried there.

To begin to make the connection, it is necessary to walk through the churchyard to the north hedge adjacent to Battery Hill.  There, about halfway between the Lych Gate and the North West corner of the churchyard, close to the rusty iron railings, you will find a substantial double grave in good order.

Look at the grave carefully and you will see that it is inscribed: “In memory of Sir James Roberts, baronet, JP, LLD, the Hall, Fairlight, formerly of Saltaire, who passed away on Dec 31st 1935, aged 87 years.  And Lady Elizabeth Roberts, his beloved & devoted wife for 62 years: who passed away on July 27th 1935, aged 82 years.  And their Grand-daughter Kathleen Mary Roberts Berlyn, Dec 15th 1905 – Jan 28th 1990.”

So what is the story which brings together the family that owned Fairlight Hall in the 1920s and 30s with the Haworth home of the Brontës – because on the face of it there is no obvious linkage? The following information is culled from several sources including the Brontë Museum, the Roberts family website and various newspapers of the time.

Sir James Roberts, born 1848, came from a large and poor farming family living near Haworth, West Yorkshire. He was the eighth out of eleven children to survive infancy and was the youngest son.  He attended the church school in Haworth that had been set up by the Rev. Patrick Brontë, then went to work at Saltaire Mill (owned by the legendary wool millionaire Titus Salt) a few miles away near Bradford. He was just twelve years of age, which was then the legal minimum age for such employment, allegedly walking barefoot across the Moors to reach the mill.

James clearly applied himself most diligently because at eighteen or so he was made manager of the mill. Lacking formal schooling he had nevertheless taught himself fluent Russian, journeying to Russia each year to trade cloth for angora wool since Saltaire used both angora and alpaca wool in its fine cloth which sold well in the rich markets of pre-revolutionary Russia.

When the son bearing Sir Titus Salt’s name died prematurely, Saltaire became owned by a consortium, one of whom was James Roberts. Eventually he bought out his partners and established his large family in Milner Field, Bradford, the house built by Sir Titus Salt’s son.

In 1909 he was made a baronet, his wealth multiplied and, a year later, he bought Strathallan Castle (which the Roberts family still owns) in Scotland from the Earl of Perth. He continued Sir Titus Salt’s Utopian ideals for the model mill town of Saltaire, investing heavily in upgrading and modernising the mill itself to such an extent that his mill workers presented him with an elaborate golden casket celebrating his leadership.  The casket was highly decorated, with the image of Saltaire Mill on the outside amidst scrolls wrought on the gold, and inside a scroll of parchment.  

Sir James Roberts in later life                    Sir James and Lady Roberts at Fairlight Hall, reproduced by permission of Julia Bolton Holloway

His travels to Russia continued and he had great faith in that nation, leading (mistakenly as it turned out) to his investing his wealth in enterprises such as railroads aimed at modernizing Russia. He also established a Chair of Russian at Leeds University in 1916. In gratitude Leeds University bestowed on him an honorary Doctor of Law degree.

However, disaster struck when, in 1917, as a consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution, he lost the greater part of his vast wealth which he had invested in Russia. There were family tragedies, too, including the premature deaths of several of their children not least that of Sir James’ youngest son, Jack, who drowned tragically on a family holiday in Ireland, aged 10. So Sir James and his wife sold Saltaire and eventually came to live quietly at Fairlight Hall which they purchased in January 1926.  And it was whilst living there that his wife,  Elizabeth, noticing a piece in the Yorkshire Observer reporting that Haworth Parsonage was for sale, suggested he buy it and give it to the Brontë Society for the nation so that it could become a museum.  This he did, for a cost of £3000, 93 years ago, in 1928. Both Sir James and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Roberts, journeyed back to Yorkshire for the occasion.

Haworth Parsonage, below, and , left, photograph from The Keighley News, Saturday 11th August, 1928, showing Sir James and Lady Roberts and other dignitaries at the ceremony to hand over the Deeds to the Bronte Society.

Sir James and Lady Roberts are buried together in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church.  From their tomb you can look through the trees to the valley of their last home where, in the tranquillity of Fairlight, a generous idea was conceived which led to the preservation for all time of the home of one of England’s most celebrated literary families.

By Haydon Luke

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