Arthur Bell Nicholls first came to Banagher in 1825 when he and his brother Alan were adopted by their uncle, the Rev. Alan Clerke Bell, master of Banagher Royal School and his wife, Harriette. Following a successful education there he entered Trinity College Dublin and graduated in 1844. The following year he was ordained and entered the curacy at Haworth in Yorkshire where Patrick Brontë was perpetual curate. He remained there for sixteen years. During this time he became a dedicated and trustworthy friend of the Brontë family and would have witnessed at close quarters the joyful and heartbreaking events that befell them. Within the first three years of his curacy the Brontë sisters had their poems and first novels published. Jane Eyre by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily and Agnes Grey by Anne were all highly acclaimed. Tragically between September 1848 and May 1849 Branwell, Patrick’s only son, and both Emily and Anne died leaving Charlotte as the last surviving of the six Brontë siblings.
Arthur’s sudden but not unexpected proposal to Charlotte in December 1852 provoked great opposition from her father but as he relented the couple became engaged and were married in July 1854. Part of their honeymoon was spent visiting relations in Banagher. Unfortunately Charlotte died just nine months later in the early stages of pregnancy. Arthur remained at Haworth where he dutifully cared for the ageing Mr Brontë until his death in seven years later. He was greatly disappointed when he was not selected as Patrick’s successor and immediately prepared to leave for Banagher.
Arthur Bell Nicholls and to the right Cuba Court, home of Banagher Royal School. This view about 1978.
Arthur Bell Nicholls returned to Banagher as a widower in 1861 and to the right the ruins of Cuba Court in the 1970s
Hasty retreat from Haworth
Arthur was returning to a town where had lived for ten years before entering Trinity College Dublin in 1836. He was not coming back to Cuba Court where he had lived and attended the Royal School of Banagher under the tutelage of his uncle, the Rev. Alan Bell. The Rev. Bell was long deceased and his widow Aunt Harriette had moved with her daughter Mary Anna into Hill House (at the time of writing a well-appointed guest house called Charlotte’s Way).
Arthur’s return from Haworth was more of a hasty retreat than a premeditated move. The turbulent months after his initial proposal to Charlotte Brontë and her lamentable death had bruised and wounded him. However it was his failure to succeed Patrick Brontë at Haworth that stung him deeply and prompted his sudden return to Ireland. After sixteen years of dedicated and conscientious service he was now obliged to vacate the parsonage with undue haste. Gathering memorabilia, manuscripts, works of art and an assortment of Brontë momentos he left Yorkshire.
Back in Ireland there is little doubt that he was accorded a fond and supportive welcome. Although Hill House was then quite small, Arthur’s collection of Brontë relics were accommodated throughout the house as he preferred : the parsonage clock at the turn of the stairs, Mr. Brontë’s gun in the dining room, Charlotte’s wedding clothes in a chest, first editions in glass cases and numerous books and pictures in various rooms.
Letters to Martha Brown
Perhaps the most important Brontë link which accompanied Arthur on his journey was Martha Brown who had worked at Haworth Parsonage for twenty–five years. In response to invitations from him she came on six visits to Banagher, sometimes for several months, between 1861 and 1878.
Martha Brown and Mrs Bell, Arthur’s adoptive mother in Banagher
Arthur’s letters to Martha give us a good insight to his new life back in Ireland. The reserved and austere persona he often presented in Haworth was replaced by a more relaxed and congenial demeanour. Free from the burden of clerical duties and parish affairs, he is preoccupied with his farm and house while also showing a generous concern for the people who worked in them. His observations are tinged with wry humour or concern where appropriate. The following excerpts are typical:
- In August, 1862 Arthur wrote : ‘I am glad Pat (the farmhand) has got home the turf .’ (Well it was the 28th August and by Banagher standards it was high time for turf to be home!)
- In December, 1863 he informs Martha that the pump has been finished at Hill House and that ‘There is a good supply of water in it at present but I am afraid there will not be sufficient in summer. Abby and Julia, (servants at Hill House), find it a great convenience to have it so near them.’
- In the same letter he updates Martha on his livestock with some droll comments. : ‘We got a new cow lately, she is a very good one, she cost £14. I am fattening Polly. I had your old friend the sow killed last week. Pat sold her in Birr. On his return the mare knocked him down. He fell under the cart and was dragged along the road until the wheel went over him.’ One wonders where Pat got to in Birr. Arthur concludes drily: ‘He was not much hurt.’
In December 1865 Arthur related that Aunt Harriette had given over the house and land to him. ‘I have now about 20 acres of a farm. I shall perhaps get more in the spring.’ In August he is very busy with corn and much concerned with the unsettled weather. In September he apologises for not writing sooner because ‘we have all been busy with our annual fair’.
Is this last quote an indication that he was involved in organising the Great Fair of Banagher? Other records show him involved in community affairs such as his considerable subscriptions of £2 to the Cush Drainage Scheme and four shillings to the newly formed Gaelic football club, The Harp & Banagher.
Arthur is also familiar with the health and social happenings in his neighbourhood.
- Abby, a servant at Hill House has had a new dress made for her by Mrs. Johnson ‘It looks very nice indeed. It seems very warm and comfortable.’
- Ann, a servant in Cuba Court has just married an old pensioner who lived next to Mrs. Coghlan. : ‘He is only 76. They had a great wedding.’
- Of Mary Ann, a servant in Hill House, he relates: ‘…she is a great smasher : she has broken a multitude of things.’
Other letters show his consideration for his acquaintances and the broader community.
- In September 1864 he relates about Mrs Coghlan, who was working at Hill House and was now nearly blind : ‘…she can scarcely find her way into the kitchen. We have built a room over the room off the parlour. It will make a good bedroom.’ Two years later he reported that she had died.
- In April 1868 he tells Martha about Pat, the farmhand’s children. They…‘have been ill since Xmas. I believe it is some kind of fever they have: the poor man has been greatly put about by the long illness in his family.’
- In May 1877 he observes ‘the labouring classes here have had a hard winter but as the distilling is again in full work under a new company every man in the town is fully employed.’
As referred to above Arthur stated to Martha in late 1865 that Aunt Harriette had handed over her property to him. A cursory examination of a manuscript at the National Library in Dublin relative to this estate shows regular payments being made for the upkeep of tenants’ houses indicating that he was a caring landlord. These include the following :
May 24 1871 Ceiling Fell’s house £2.18.0
June Glass Reynold’s house £0.2.4
Jan. 31 1872 By Duffy for work & material on Simon’s Park £16.10.0
Straw & scallops £1.2 .0
Horan for thatching £1.0.0
McIntire for boards & nails £0.4.8
Feb. 8 1873 Loonam for repairs £0.6.0
Dec. 31 1875 Repairs on houses £15.8. 1
Foremost among the expenses of the estate was Aunt Harriette’s annuity of £80 paid with prompt regularity each quarter.
A snippet in the Portsmouth Evening News in 1900 entitled ‘A Novelist’s Husband’ describes Arthur as follows: ‘He is a strongly built, robust old gentleman, who is wonderfully active for his years, and locally very popular. He spends most of his time I attending to the land agency business in connection with his own property and that of his relatives.’ In spite of the reclusiveness of his farm in the Irish Midlands the growing popularity of the Brontë family meant he was often approached by Brontë scholars and enthusiasts keen to acquire some of the Brontë relics which he had brought with him in 1861. During his final years in Banagher the problem of how best to dispose of the many treasures he held from his days in Haworth became something of a preoccupation with him. Gradually the obdurate hold he had on them loosened and thus began the saga of unique and precious Brontëana leaving Banagher forever.
Note : All quotes above from letters to Martha Brown are taken from Dear Martha, The Letters of Arthur Bell Nicholls to Martha Brown (1862 – 1878) by Geoffrey Palmer, published by the Brontë Society in 2004. The manuscript referred to in the National Library in Dublin is Ms.12,164.