It was sad to hear about the recent fire which has devastated the Ovenden Cross hotel, a building which has played a significant part in the cultural history of Halifax. For it has considerable musical and literary links.
In February 1869, John Turney (1800-79), one of the earliest members of the Halifax Choral Society, wrote to Archdeacon Musgrave, vicar of Halifax, as follows: “Will you permit me to forward to you, as president of that society, programmes of the first performances - ten in number; they are drawn up in a hand you will be pleased to recognise, that of everyone’s friend, the late Mr. William Priestley; after these programmes were printed. Mr. Priestley, however, was not the originator of the society, as is generally supposed. The infant society had its first meeting at the Ovenden Cross, under the management of Mr. Moss, H. Emmet, my two brothers-in-law, John and Henry Watkinson, and the Hartley family - a choral society in themselves. … The second meeting was held at the Broad Tree, where I joined the little band. The third, at the Union Cross. It was then taken to the Court House… Mr. Priestley now took the whole management, regulating the performances, and supplying from his library most of the copies of the music, then chiefly his own manuscripts.” George Moss (1787-1834) was organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s Chapel, Illingworth. John Turney played the tenor violin in the Choral Society’s early orchestra, and he and other local instrumentalists were depicted in George Kershaw’s 1836 painting of seven musicians at Savile Green, today in Bankfield Museum.
Turney’s claim has been disputed, for there can be little doubt that the true founder of the Halifax Choral Society was William Priestley of Lightcliffe. It may be that the music group which met at the Ovenden Cross, was actually the Ovenden Choral Society, which preceded that of Halifax. Writing in the mid-1870s in his “Historical Notes on the Church at Illingworth,” journalist J. H. Ogden wrote: “Before a choral society existed in Halifax, the Ovenden Choral Society met at the Ovenden Cross Inn.” Ogden mentions having seen this group’s original foundation document dating from around 1800, which gave the following reason for the formation of the Ovenden musical group: “As an uneasiness is risen amongst us singers at Illingworth Chapel, the majority thinks it most proper to meet at another place, as a Musical Club will be most proper.”
Whatever the truth as to the Choral Society’s origins, the Ovenden Cross, has a significant place in the musical history of Halifax. But the pub also has a significant literary link, of which few today may be aware.
During the early 1840s, the landlord at the Ovenden Cross was John Walton, who had married Elizabeth Firth at Halifax Parish Church in 1821. In the summer of 1846, Branwell Bronte sought refuge in Halifax from the Haworth vicarage, and stayed at the Cross for some weeks. Walton’s eldest daughter Mary, born in 1822, formed a friendship with him. Mary kept a commonplace book, and in this, Branwell copied poems and drew sketches. One of the latter was entitled “The Results of Sorrow,” and depicted a gaunt and melancholy man’s face – his own. He signed his works with his pseudonym of “Northangerland.” The book is now a prized possession of the Bronte Family Collection in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas.
Mary Walton married James Pearson of Grove Street, Halifax, iron-founder, at the Parish Church in January 1848; the year in which Branwell died.
Mary’s book is also valuable for her own comments about Branwell, which she recorded in it. Her words are taken from “Art of the Brontës,” by Christine Anne Alexander and Jane Sellars (C.U.P., 1995); though I have amended the punctuation. Written in June 1856, Mary’s words were addressed to her surviving son Edwin, baptised at Halifax Parish Church in June 1850:
“Who was Northangerland, my son may enquire, into whose hands this may fall after my departure from this changing life? His real name was Bronte. He was son of the incumbent of Haworth of that name, and brother to the gifted lady who wrote by the cognomen of Cora [sic] Bell; Jane Eyre was one of her productions. The little sketch over the leaf and some others you will meet with in this book, were written by him when staying at my father’s house at Ovenden Cross in the autumn of 1846; the pen and ink profile is an excellent one of himself; the other little sketch is highly descriptive of the morbid state of mind under which he then laboured, the result, as I was subsequently told, of a disappointment in love. At the time we speak of, he was an inveterate drunkard; his whole energies and talents were shipwrecked. He was a lamentable instance of what man becomes who trusts for happiness in earthly things alone… Poor Bronte died at the early age of 28, a victim to intemperance. Alas, my son, only among many such, may these shipwrecks be your landmarks, is your mother’s daily prayer…”
In fact, Branwell died at the age of 31; perhaps he had told Mary he was younger than he actually was?
Mary Pearson had lost her elder son John in 1849, at the age of nine months; he was buried in Halifax Parish Churchyard.
Her husband James died in 1861, before he was forty; later, Mary worked for some years as a housekeeper in Halifax. She lived latterly in Gerrard Street, and died in 1892, aged 70.