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!

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