Mary Taylor : Strong Minded Woman & Friend of Charlotte Brontë

Discover the pioneering 19th century life of early feminist Mary Taylor of Red House, friend and inspiration to Charlotte Brontë. Mary’s exceptional life included emigrating to New Zealand; starting a business; leading expeditions of women mountain climbing in Europe and writing radical feminist articles and books.” (It’s Happening …)

Red House

Back in December I visited Oakwell Hall in Birstall to look at the Christmas decorations and promised myself that I would follow up with a visit to the nearby Red House; which also has Brontë connections. In the ‘It’s Happening …’ leaflet which I picked up that day I noted a future exhibition to be mounted at Red House on the topic of its one-time inhabitant Mary Taylor. The exhibition runs from 2 March until 2 June.

Front door Red House

No photography is allowed inside the house; but never mind it’s a bit disappointing anyway. Several times in the 1980s I brought my sons here as they laid on some good children’s craft workshops (and still do). For quite a few years it was closed for renovations and yesterday was my first visit since then.

Red House - front

I was told that the house has been returned as nearly as possible to how it would have looked in the 1830s; the time when Charlotte Brontë visited. Some furniture, pictures and fittings are original, or of the period, and the rest have been carefully copied; for example the ‘Brussels’ weave, looped pile carpet in the Parlour, window curtains and bed hangings in the Main Bedroom and wallpapers.

There are very few rooms to visit – The Parlour (left in photo) with waxworks of Mary Taylor (playing the piano) and her mother (stitching tapestry); the adjoining scullery and kitchen; across the hall (which serves as reception and shop) there is the dining room and a study (right in photo). Upstairs you can visit the Main Bedchamber (above the parlour), the Governess’ room and the Girl’s room.

The Taylors were  a prosperous, middle class family and Joshua (a woollen cloth manufacturer and merchant) lived here with his wife Anne and their six children. Their daughter Mary (1817-1893) was a great friend of Charlotte Bronte, who often visited Red House and featured the house as ‘Briarmains’ and the Taylor family as ‘The Yorkes’ in her novel ‘Shirley’.


Perhaps the most interesting feature, to me, were the stained glass windows in the Dining Room with painted heads of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Charlotte Brontë describes in ‘Shirley‘.

Those windows would be seen by daylight to be of brilliantly-stained glass – purple and amber the predominant hues, glittering round a gravely-tinted medallion in the centre of each representing the suave head of William Shakspeare, and the serene one of John Milton.” (Shirley Ch.9)


Mary Taylor (Photo source)

So, having almost galloped through the main house I spent quite some time in the Exhibition Gallery studying the fascinating life of this woman Mary Taylor. One hundred years after her death she is now gaining recognition through Charlotte Brontë’s descriptions, through her letters and through her own published works. Examples of her books were displayed (including modern reprints). She wrote “The First Duty of Women” and a novel “Miss Miles, or a tale of Yorkshire life 60 years ago”. She was a strong-minded woman intent on pursuing her own way of life and living by her own ideals. She was an early feminist and strongly believed in women having their own independence.

She attended Roe Head School near Mirfield (where she met CB) and later The Chateau de Koekelberg in Brussels. She taught in Germany and I was surprised to read that in 1845 she emigrated to New Zealand and was one of its earliest settlers. There she owned a successful shop. She returned to Britain in 1860 and spent the rest of her life in nearby Gomersal. That is, when she wasn’t being a woman after my own heart and leading women’s mountaineering holidays in Switzerland! “Swiss Notes by Five Ladies : an Account of  Climbing and Touring in 1874″ was reprinted with a supplement by Peter A. Marshall and Jean K. Brown.

Secret's Out and Spen Valley Stories

The Secret’s Out with Spen Valley Stories (right)

So that was the house … but there is more. In the converted stables and outbuildings are two more displays. The Secret’s Out all about the Brontë connection with Red House and its local area and Spen Valley Stories : “Everyday community life through a century of change is illustrated through personal stories – displays include Schooldays; Working Lives; At Home; Freetime and Shopping.”

I didn’t have time to investigate these but I will be definitely go back, so watch this space!

Back of Red House

Back of The Red House from the main road


12 comments on “Mary Taylor : Strong Minded Woman & Friend of Charlotte Brontë

  1. […] my previous post I talk about a recent visit to Red House, former home of Mary Taylor, strong minded woman and friend of Charlotte Brontë. I meant also to […]

  2. Rhona says:

    Fascinating woman. Interesting that she, too, had Belgian links, I must investigate the Koekelberg connection. NZ was of course the first country to introduce women’s suffrage – do you think this was partly due to Mary’s activities over there?

    • Yes, I had no idea what an interesting individual Mary had been in her own right. Rhona, I hope you are able to watch the YouTube in the next post – you will see a group doing one of those Brussels walking tours organised by the Bronte Society over there that we have talked about on several occasions! As for her influence on New Zealand suffrage, I don’t know, but one would think that any women travelling out there, in particular those travelling independently, perhaps had an influence in such a ‘new’ country.

  3. dianabirchall says:

    Oh, gosh, it’s many years ago that I read Miss Miles – very readable and interesting – but it never occurred to me to try to visit Mary Taylor’s home! Your blog always brings that home to me: that most of the English authors I’ve read, well, they lived there, and more often than you think, you can go see exactly where. Well done!

    • Well, this one is local to me so no problem finding it but as you know, Diana, I’m always on the look-out to find author homes, locations of book settings etc.

      • Actually when I was there I did think of you, Diana, and guessed you had probably read Miss Miles. I see from the Library Catalogue that my library has a copy of Swiss Notes so I’ll be borrowing that soon.

  4. Nilly says:

    I’d already discovered Mary Taylor’s interesting life story – now I must read her books.
    As for the Red House – is it worth a visit?

    • Well, I can’t say that it is really worth a journey for itself. I’m not far away so it was handy for me. Combined with Oakwell Hall I suppose the two make a trip a bit more worth while. I think the Secret’s Out exhibition will reveal more locations with Bronte connections in the area so I’ll probably report back again when I’ve visited them.

  5. Lyn says:

    Lovely post Barbara although of course, you knew I’d be interested! Thanks again for posting the link to the Sheila Hancock program, I loved it. Apart from wondering if Emily ever wrote a second novel, I would love Charlotte’s letters to Mary to turn up one day (apparently M destroyed them to save them from inquisitive biographers after Charlotte became famous). They would be fascinating & much more revealing, I think, than Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey.

    • Thank you, Lyn, of course I was thinking of you, as I always do with anything ‘Bronte’. You being so much more knowledgable than me on the subject. My feeling at Red House was that the letters were well and truly destroyed but anyone can be mistaken. Yes, EN seems to have had no qualms about hanging on to hers.

  6. visitinghousesandgardens says:

    As I think i’ve mentioned to you before, I spend quite a bit of time in West Yorkshire and we’ve often looked at the signs for Red House & Oakwell Hall. Maybe two houses to visit on a very hot summer’s day? I’ll be back to Tatton Park Flower Show in July so maybe I’ll persuade D to venture to Leeds if we can also squeeze in a bit of Harewood House to balance things out.

    • Yes, you have mentioned this. Hard to say whether hot summer’s day (remember they don’t happen very often here in Yorkshire 😉 ) is a good idea or not. The car parks get busy then. I really think the Red House itself would disappoint you. It’s the connections, particularly with literature, that interest me.

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