The Bancroft's connection with Top Withens

1 - 1890's

I was recently sent a book entitled “ Top Withens…Wuthering Heights” by David Riley, which is a really interesting read, and together with many photographs explaining the reasons for the decline and decay of the Top Withens farmhouse, made forever famous because of it’s connection to Emily Bronte’s book Wuthering Heights. It was Ellen Nussey, a lifelong friend of the Brontë sisters who said that Top Withens was the model for the farmhouse of Wuthering Heights. She suggested it to an artist commissioned to illustrate the Bronte novels in 1872.There is no direct mention of the farmhouse in any of the Bronte writings although it seems highly probable that the Bronte sisters visited Top Withens on their walks in the area.

I wrote an article some time ago about a Bancroft family who farmed in the Worth Valley, and a connection they had to Top Withens, and after reading David’s book, thought I should go into the history of the farmhouse, from it’s time as a well maintained building to it’s present day ruin, which included the Bancroft's time when they were involved with it.

Originally known as "Top of th'Withens", Top Withens was probably built in the second half of the 16th century and was a well maintained Laithe-House [a farm with an attached barn] up to the end of the 19th century. Occupants secured sufficient income to rear large families by combining farming with hand spinning and weaving wool. However during the 19th century spinning and then weaving was taken over by the more efficient mills and the price of agricultural products was undermined by cheaper imports, which caused these remote farms to be abandoned as people moved closer to the mills and other amenities such as schools, shops and pubs.

During the first two decades of the 20th century Top Withens was only occasionally occupied by farmers, who rented the surrounding land for grazing. Windows were broken and internal wooden structures used as firewood. Increasing numbers of visitors came to see the farmhouse, because of the possible link with Emily Bronte’s book, Wuthering Heights, putting additional pressure on the building, and probably taking home a stone or other piece of the building as a memento of their time there. The photo at the top of the  page shows the earliest date I have ever seen of the farmhouse at around 1890, when it was occupied and in relatively good condition, and as late as in the early 1920’s it was occupied and run as a small poultry farm, but by 1926 it was  unoccupied again and the serious  deterioration began.

Keighley Corporation had purchased the 3 Withens farms and land in 1903/4 as part of a water catchment area for a planned new reservoir, but their plan was delayed till the 1920's because of WW1. It was the 1930's before the Bancroft family of farmers came on the scene.

Keighley Corporation Minutes
John Bancroft’s family, who farmed nearby, started breeding sheep during the 1914-18 war, and the family took on a lease from Keighley Corporation in 1933 to graze their stock on the moors surrounding the Withens farmhouse.  John’s son George, in his strong local dialect, remembered....“It wer’good land, but t' Corporation’s policy wer’ to let it go back …we hadn’t to repair ony walls, it was just land fo' keepin' sheep”. When George’s father took on the lease at first, the agreement was “ Fifty sheep, at a rent the equivalent of £7 a year…we may have kept a few more, but restrictions were imposed because just after t' war there 'ad bin’ gross overstockin’ by some local men”
The following photos shows Top Withens now unoccupied, and although the building still looks intact, but by now all doors and windows are blocked up.

2 - 1930's
 The Bancroft family originally took on leases for moorland around all three Withens farms, Top, Middle and Lower, and George, in another interview remembered that the Middle and Lower Withens were already demolished, but Top Withens, which even in those days was a popular tourist site with visitors, was left standing...“ for t’ Bronte fans…When we took t' tenancy of it, it were getting middlin’ dilapidated.... well it had got vandals in at it, and you can’t beat them. So we asked 'em what they wanted to do abat it…it was'nt safe, and we didn’t want to be responsible for onyone getting killed. They said they would take that property out of t’agreement, and they’d be responsible for that…but, well it’s more or less tummelled dahn now….and it 'ad bin a grand little place.” He remembers a time 60 years ago, when Top Withens had a peat house, where the stock of winter fuel was kept and also remembers visiting the place lots of times when the last tenant, Ernest Roddy, a tall affable man lived there. Ernest had been gassed during the war, and fresh air was a necessity, so the authorities set him up at Top Withens where he was a poultry farmer, keeping hens. He had previously been a French polisher in Haworth, as well as a postman, and hawker of yeast, and every Tuesday he visited all the outlying farms selling his yeast because home bread-baking was the norm in those days. His yeast was sold for one penny an ounce and George remembered “when he 'ad landed home after tramping miles over t'moorland, he wouldn’t be worth robbin'… He would be there for five or six years and left in 1926. He 'ad a pony and cart to go to and from Stanbury and Haworth, and kept a lot of white leghorn hens, and when he returned to Top Withens, an’ got in sight of it, those hens saw him coming and flew darn to meet him”
George Bancroft

When asked if he’d had any bad winters up at Top Withens, he laughed and replied: “ Aye, we had one o' two bad winters…the worst spell o' weather were in't early part of 1947. It began at t’latter end o’ January, but before then it were a reight keen frost for two or three weeks. Soon after Christmas it’d start. It started coming from over yon moortop, and when it does that, it’s north-east , you can expect summat. It niver gave ower till April. An' even in July there were t' remains ow a snow drift up aboon Ponden Kirk. It were sudden...we weren’t expecting it...not so bad. You couldn’t round your sheep up…you couldn’t get theer! There’s been loads a'snow where there’s been more snow than then, but t’north-east wind niver let up. You could see t'snow being blown ower t'fields. Down t’middle of t' field there was very little snow, but under t’walls and main road…well it were hopeless!.”
The Council had threatened to end the tenancy in 1944, during the time the Bancrofts were tenants, because of contamination of Lower Laithe reservoir from sheep dipping at Low Withens. The issue must have been resolved because in 1951 the tenancy was transferred from John to his son, George Bancroft. 
 In 1953 George asked permission to also graze cattle plus an increased number of sheep.  It is not clear if permission was given.
The following three photos show the buildings steady decline from the 1950’s when the roof started to disintegrate, through the 1960’s with the roof collapsed, and then the 70’s when all that was left was virtually a crumbling pile of rubble.
3 - 1958

4 - 1960's

5 - 1970
A brief description of how the farmhouse was originally set out internally was described in 1956 as follows: ‘Entering through the narrow porch, you come into a large raftered room with a stone fireplace. A second, smaller room lies through the door opposite, containing also a stone fireplace and from the window of which there is a fine view over the moors towards Haworth. Through a door to your left you pass into a narrow vaulted cellar. On entering this there is an opening on your left, a small compartment with a square shaft in the roof. Putting one's head through this one finds oneself looking through the floor of a large barn which was formerly the peat house.’[ From "The Souvenir Guide to Haworth: Home of the Brontës" by John Lock (1956)]

As far back as 1949 an article in the Keighley News described the desperate condition of of the building with the headline:
Bronte Homestead now in danger of collapse.‘….since then the house has received no attention and within the last five years in particular has deteriorated a great deal. The gable of the farmhouse that has for so many years borne the brunt of the elements is wearily leaning before the storms and is pushing the tie beams of the roof and causing the opposite wall to crack and crumble. The roof itself is breached severely  in several places and where the chimney once proudly stood there is just a cleft…whether it is malicious hooliganism, whether it is just thoughtlessness of those who have idly scrambled over the roof or whether it is the ravages of time and the weather that have brought about this destruction matters little now, for the damage is done. It is only a matter of time before the roof falls in and Higher Withens follows the fate of Lower and Middle Withens, which have long been mere rubble….Thus it seems that Higher Withens is doomed to rot; nothing can save it from ultimate destruction. Perhaps someday we may see some little inscription erected to the memory of a once happy homestead which inspired a noble poetess and moved her humble followers.'

It was not until 1964 that the sentiments expressed by the Keighley News were carried out when the Bronte Society organised a plaque to be placed on what was left of the farmhouse.
Top Withen's Plaque

By the 1970’s the farmhouse was crumbling into a pile of rubble, with most of the upper parts already collapsed. It was at this time that some work was finally carried out to try and stabilise what was left of the building, but it was not until the 1990’s before significant work was carried out to properly stabilise everything, and the owners of the building and surrounding land were now Yorkshire Water, who’s planning department said:‘We are managing the building as a ruin with a view to protecting it from vandals, but at the same time making sure it’s accessible to visitors. Now it has been re-pointed, the ruin will have a better chance of surviving batterings from the elements.’
6 - 1990's

Today, the building is in a stable condition, and although a ruin, it does not detract from the beautiful surrounding countryside, and is visited by thousands of tourists annually, many from all over the world..some of the signposts to the site are even  in the Japaneses language! It is hoped that Yorkshire Water and the Bronte Society will continue to give the building the loving care it deserves.

[ A copy of David Riley’s book ‘ Top Withens…Wuthering Hights…Haworth’ is deposited in Keighley Reference Library and is also in the Lending Library, and I am grateful for him allowing me to use some of the information from it.]

Sources of Photographs:
1.A Dinsdale  [2006] The Brontes of Haworth. Frances Lincoln Ltd
2. D Smith [Valentine H 1887]
3. Francis Firth Collection
4. D Smith
5. D Smith
6 S Wood 

Present Day...with visitors!

The last " Official" Past Chairmen's Lunch

2016 Past Chairman's Lunch

As a past Chairman of the Keighley Bench of Magistrates, I am invited to the annual lunch of all the past Chairman of both the Bradford and Keighley Magistrates, which is held every year, and we held our last  "official" get-together on 8th December 2016.

The event had been held for many years in ‘The Bradford Club’, a fine example of mid-Victorian architecture in the heart of Bradford, steeped in history from the city’s affluent past as the centre of the wool trade throughout the world. The club was established in 1857 and was originally a gentlemen’s club where all the mill owners and wool merchants used to meet for lunch, and continue their trading over lunch and a game of cards or dominoes.

As the office junior in my first job in Bradford during the 1960's, one of my duties was to chauffeur our Managing Director of the company to the club for lunch with his pals, and then pick him up, usually the worse for wear, and drive him home. I had always wondered what the club was like inside....I've now had a chance to see for myself! I have to say it was exactly as I expected.... a traditional gentleman's club...a place that time had forgotten...apart from the fact that it now also allows women in!

The Chairman's Board in Bradford Courthouse

Wednesday 12th December 2012 was the first occasion of the Bradford and Keighley Past Chairmen’s annual lunch, to which I was invited. This had been an annual event over many years for the previous Bradford Bench, but with the merger of the Bradford and Keighley Benches in January 2012, it was felt appropriate to continue the event with the new enlarged bench, and what an enjoyable event it was!
Our oldest member being Arthur Bailey who had reached the grand old age of 101 years, and was still in fine fettle both physically and mentally on the day, so much so that he gave a short talk about the memories he had as Bench Chairman between 1971-1977. One interesting anecdote he mentioned was with regard to one of the annual Keighley Bench meeting he chaired in the early 1970, when a member of the bench stood up and warned him about the dangers of merging the Keighley Bench with Bradford’s by saying “Now think on Arthur…don’t be doing any deals, and agreeing to go in with that lot at Bradford”!! This brought the house down with roars of laughter, as we all now realised that a merger had been on the cards for the last 40 years!

2012 Past Chairman's Lunch

 Arthur Bailey is third from left on the front row of this 2012 photo, and being the nearest person living near him, I agreed to pick him up and take him home and when I asked him what the secret was to reaching 100 years of age, he smiled, leaned over and said it's down to one thing... luck....nothing else! and he went on to explain that both his parents died in there 70's, so it was nothing to do with genes.When I dropped him back home, my parting comment was " well we'll see you next year then Arthur at the next Christmas Lunch". He waved from his door and said " hopefully with a bit of luck, although I have seen a marked reduction of 50% in myself over the last 12 months". As I left him and drove away, I could not help but think...if his is like this at 101, what must he have  been like a year ago at 100 years old, when he was 50% better!! [Unfortunately Arthur never did made the next gathering, as he had to go into a nursing home, and is still there today.]

Another past Bradford Chairman reminisce at one of our lunches about the time he was showing an official from the Courts Services Committee around the underground car park at the Bradford Courthouse, as they had plans to possibly use it for other purposes, and make the magistrates park elsewhere. This proposal never got off the ground after he mentioned that the car park had been earmarked as a potential bunker for the great and good of the town, in the event of a nuclear attack!….The story-teller admitted that this had  been "massaging the truth a little", but it seemed to have worked at the time, however since then part of the car park has been converted into prison cells, to accommodate prisoners waiting to go into court, after having been transported from the local prisons

The Bradford & Keighley Bench will no longer be in existence after March 2017, due to all Benches in West Yorkshire merging, but we are hoping to continue with an "unofficial" Lunch annually in the Bradford Club.

Titus Bancroft – Freeman of Inn Holders, City of London.

Freeman of London document

Here is an interesting story about Titus Bancroft, who born in Warley, near Halifax in 1731 from humble beginnings, and went on to become a  a member of the Freeman of Inn Holders in the City of London.

Titus's  baptism record

Titus was baptised on 1st June 1731 at Halifax, the son of Timothy. His mother was possibly a Sarah [nee Holmes] Bancroft although this has cannot be confirmed, as records show two Timothy Bancrofts living and marrying in this area around this time. Timothy was a hand loom weaver, so probably was just able to scratch a living for wife and family, and died on 19th June 1755. The records show him to have been buried in Ovenden, near Halifax

Tim's burial record

Around this time Titus seems to have vanish and  reappears in London when he marries Elizabeth Johnson on 13th August 1758 at St Mathew’s Church, which was on Friday Street London, where he was the Warehouse Keeper for the nearby Bell Inn which was on the same street.

He describes himself as a warehouse keeper at the Bell Inn Friday St. for Russells the Carriers in two trials around this time (Old Bailey Archives), and although the Bell Inn has long since gone, the position of Friday Street today is shown on the following map.

Friday Street - present day

St Mathew's- Friday Street

Titus and Elizabeth went on to have at least nine children between 1759 – 1780, most of whom died as children, with the exception of two daughters Susannah and Elizabeth.
Researching his appointment as a Freeman of Inn Holders for the City of London, the above document shows that he was appointed as a Freeman of the City, through the Company of Innholders on 4th October 1785, for which he had to pay 46 shillings 8 pence, although the Worshipful Company of Innkeepers records show he actually appears for the first time as a Liveryman in 1789 at Friday Street.  This would have been quite normal, and it is still the case to this day that Freemen need to serve some time in that “rank” before progressing to the Livery.  The Freeman of Inn Holders was, in the earliest times, an essential requirement for all who wished to carry on business and prosper in trade within the Square Mile. As a result, the privileges attaching to being a Freeman were eagerly sought, while the duties and obligations of Freemen were faithfully observed.

It is not clear from record when he actually took over the running of the Bell Inn, but this establishment on Friday Street was quite a an important staging post where many coaches would stop over night to rest and stable their horses, and was used by carriers  from all over the country. Before running the Inn, records show he was being in charge of the Inn’s warehouse, presumably where the carrier’s wagons, goods and horses were kept overnight. A poll of the City of London in 1796, shows him as an " Inn Holder on Friday Street" at this time.

 He did eventually move out of the city to Egham in Surrey, where he died in March 1818. He must have prospered because if you look at his will, he had a large estate and also owned property in Eton and Windsor.  Eton College has some documents which are leases for the properties he owned in Eton and which were leased to family members. His will when published in 1818, shows him of a man of some wealth leaving his estate to his two surviving daughters, Susannah, who married George Needham and Elizabeth, who married Richard Breese.

                                      Last Will and Testament of Titus Bancroft

·  I Titus Bancroft of Egham in the County of Surry being of sound mind memory and
understanding (praised be Almighty God for the same) do make and declare this my

last Will and Testament in manner and form following that is to say I give and

bequeath unto my loving wife Elizabeth all that college hold messuage or tenement

situate in Eton Bucks in the possession of George Needham Also all the Interest

or Dividends of five per cent Stock in my name in the Books of the Governor of

the Bank of England to be taken held used and enjoyed by my said Wife as long as

she lives also all the rest and residue and effects of what nature so ever

subject nevertheless to the payment of all such debts as I justly owe at the

time of my death also my funeral expenses and the expenses of proving this my


In case my daughter Susannah Needham Wife of George Needham shall be living at

the time of the death of my Wife (her Mother) I give and bequeath to her two

thirds of the dividend in the Bank at the time of the death of her Mother during her

life for her sole and separate use and benefit not subject to the debts of controul

or engagements of her present or future husband and I also give to her any

interest in the collegehold messuage or tenement in which George Needham the

husband is now in possession after the death of her Mother for her sole use and benefit

not subject to the debts of controul or engagements of her present or future

husband also after the death of my daughter Susannah my will is that two thirds

of my Bank Stock as mentioned above shall be equally transferred to all her

Children then living except one hundred pounds to Titus Bancroft Needham which I

give him more than any other because I was his Godfather and if Titus shall not

be of age at the death of his Mother then his share and the one hundred more

shall remain in the Bank during his apprenticeship and the interest paid him for

necessaries till out of his time.

 Also I give to my daughter Elizabeth Widow of

Richard Breese deceased during her life the Interest of one third of my Stock in

the Bank after the death of my Wife and afterwards transferred to her and at her

death to be transferred to her daughter Elizabeth Bancroft Breese if then alive

but if dead to Susannah Needhams Children then alive in equal shares.

 Also I constitute and appoint William Holgate of Staines Middlesex dealer and James

William Needham of Eton Bucks joint Executors to execute this my last Will and Testament.

Also I give my said Executors each twenty Pounds and hereby revoking and making

void and do declare this to be my last Will and Testament In Witness whereof I have to this 
my last Will contained in one sheet of paper set my hand to the first page and my hand and
 seal to the latter page this twenty third day of August in the Year of our Lord
 one thousand eight hundred and sixteen.

Titus Bancroft

(Attestation Clause)

David Lewis _ William Haines

 Proved at London 10 May 1818