Roe Head, Hartshead

Situated in the hinterland between Hartshead and Mirfield, Roe Head lies on the very eastern edge of this site’s geographical remit, but still arguably within Calderdale (when that title is used to mean a topographic rather than administrative region). The location has excellent views back up the valley towards Brighouse and down the River Colne towards Huddersfield, making it a very desirable situation for a grand residence. A house was first constructed on the site in 1666 on land purchased from the Armytage’s Kirklees estate (which it still adjoins), but the current three-storied building dates from 1740. It has seen a number of uses of the years, but it’s most famous incarnation was from 1830 until 1838, when it was leased to Miss Margaret Wooler’s School for Girls.

Like the neighbouring village of Hartshead, Roe Head is renowned for its connections to the Brontë family. Possibly owing to happy memories of his curacy at St. Peter’s Church twenty years earlier—not to mention the excellent reputation of the institution—Rev. Patrick Brontë chose to send his eldest surviving daughter to Miss Wooler’s academy for tuition between 1831 and 1833. There were never more than ten pupils during Charlotte’s time at the school, lending the place a close-knit, familial atmosphere, and by all accounts, she was very happy there. It was at Roe Head that Charlotte met her close friends Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, whilst she bonded with Miss Wooler to such an extent that the headmistress gave the girl away at her wedding in 1854.

Indeed, Charlotte was evidently so happy at Roe Head that in 1835, only two years after she’d left as a pupil, she returned as a teacher. Her salary allowed her sister Emily to attend the school, but the ever-delicate future author of Wuthering Heights only lasted three months before she was forced to return to Haworth due to homesickness. The youngest sister, Anne, replaced her and remained as a pupil at the school until 1837, when she fell seriously ill with gastritis and was forced to return to Haworth. Charlotte left her job as a teacher at Roe Head shortly thereafter. However, her time at the school evidently made quite an impression and well-acquainted her with the topography of the Calder and Spen Valleys, providing the inspiration for her 1849 novel, Shirley.

During Charlotte’s tenure at Roe Head, it seem that the building had a reputation for being haunted, something first mentioned in print by Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1857 Life of Charlotte Brontë. She writes “The number of pupils… ranged from seven to ten; and as they did not require the whole of the house for their accommodation, the third story was unoccupied, except by the ghostly idea of a lady, whose rustling silk gown was sometimes heard by the listeners at the foot of the second flight of stairs.” It is not clear whether tales of the haunting predated the establishment of the school and sadly, no accompanying story to account for the phantom seems to have survived either. Some have wondered, however, if this idea of a mysterious presence in the attic might have influenced Charlotte when she was writing Jane Eyre.

Charlotte’s close friend and fellow Roe Head pupil, Ellen Nussey, added a little further information in memoirs published in 1871. “The tradition of a lady ghost who moved about in rustling silk in the upper stories of Roe Head had a great charm for Charlotte. She was a ready listener to any girl who could relate stories of others having seen her; but on Miss W. hearing us talk of our ghost, she adopted an effective measure for putting out belief in such an existence to the test, by selecting one or other from among us to ascent the stairs after the dimness of evening hours had set in, to bring something down which could easily be found. No ghost made herself visible even to the frightened imaginations of the foolish and the timid; the whitened face of apprehension soon disappeared, nerves were braced, and a general laugh soon set us all right again.”

When Ellis Chadwick visited Roe Head for his book In the Footsteps of the Brontës, published in 1914, he reported that the owners at that time had not experienced any supernatural activity. However, the spirit has evidently returned in recent years. Today, Roe Head is a school once more, run by the Hollybank Trust for disabled children. In 2009, Syrie James also visited the establishment whilst researching her novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, but her findings were quite different to those of Mr. Chadwick almost a century earlier: “The Director of the school took my me up into the spooky, rambling attic and told us old legends of the Ghost of Roe Head. He and others have seen strange apparitions, including an inexplicable, icy presence which haunted the main hall.”

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  1. I was a pupil at Roe Head when it was a Seminary for the Verona Fathers. The boys were always nervous of going up into the third floor attic on their own because they believed it was haunted.


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