Eric Ruijssenaars has written this report on recent research done by him on Brontë connections in Brussels, with the help of other members of the Brussels group.
Despite having done research on the Brontës and Brussels for almost two decades now it was only two years ago that I started to concentrate on the burial places of Martha Taylor and Julia Wheelwright, the friends of Charlotte and Emily in Brussels in 1842, who died there that year.
The girls were buried in the only Protestant cemetery in (Greater) Brussels, then in the suburb of St.-Josse-ten-Noode. Charlotte often walked to this cemetery in 1843. It features in The Professor, as the place where William Crimsworth and Frances Henri met again after their separation. Here also a number of British soldiers who died of their wounds after the battle of Waterloo lay buried. The Protestant cemetery was actually part of a larger cemetery.
This cemetery was closed in 1877, at the same as a large new cemetery at Evere was opened.
In 1885 it was visited by Theodore Wolfe, who wrote the following report.
“Our way to the Protestant cemetery, a spot sadly familiar to Miss Brontë, and the usual termination of her walks, lay past the site of the Porte de Louvain and out to the hills a mile or so beyond the old city limits. From our path we saw more than one tree surrounded farmhouse which might have been the place of M. Paul’s breakfast with his school, and at least one old-fashioned manor-house with green-tufted and terraced lawns, which might have served Miss Brontë as the model for ‘La Terrasse’, the suburban home of the Bretons … From the cemetery are beautiful vistas of farther lines of hills, of intervening valleys, of farms and villas, and of the great city lying below. Miss Brontë has well described this place: ‘Here, on pages of stone, of marble, and of brass, are written names, dates, last tributes of pomp or love, in English, French, German and Latin‘. There are stone crosses all about, and great thickets of roses and yew trees, ’cypresses that stand straight and mute, and willows that hang low and still’; and there are ‘dim garlands of everlasting flowers’.
Here ‘the Professor’ found his long sought sweetheart kneeling at a newly made grave, under these overhanging trees. And here we found the shrine of poor Charlotte Brontë’s many weary pilgrimages hither, the burial-place of her friend and schoolmate Martha Taylor, the Jessy York of Shirley, the spot where, under ‘green sod and a gray marble headstone, cold coffined, solitary, Jessy sleeps below’.
On 25 November 1887 The Times wrote: “British tombs in old cemetery of the Quartier Leopold (Rue du Noyer), Brussels - Notice having been given by the Municipality of Brussels that this cemetery is shortly to be cleared.” It went on to explain how relatives could ensure a ‘concession’ at the Evere cemetery. From the registers there we know the Taylor and Wheelwright families did not reply.
The place was visited by Herbert Wroot around 1900. In his Persons and places. Sources of the Brontë novels he writes that the cemetery “has been cut up and built upon,” and, “at the demolition of the cemetery, the bodies and the memorials of the dead were removed to the great cemetery of Evere.”
In October a group of nine Brontë Brussels Group members visited this place. The ground of the former cemetery is now partly occupied by a fairly modern apartment building, with grass lawns on either side. The Protestant part of the cemetery lay close to the Rue du Noyer, we know from a detailed plan.
Unfortunately the vistas Wolfe mentions have completely disappeared.
The site of the former cemetery, taken from Rue du Noyer
We then went on to Evere, hoping of course to find the gravestones of Martha and Julia. The question is, can they be found?
Two years ago I had an interview with Marcel Celis. As an archaeologist he has been digging in the remain of the old Isabella quarter, in the vicinity of the Place Royale. He is also the founding member of Epitaaf, which takes care of the funerary heritage of Brussels. He was able to tell me that the gravestones of the old cemetery can be found in lanes 14, 15 and 17 of the cemetery of Evere.
So there we were, armed with brushes, as on a visit earlier in the year I had seen lots of graves covered by moss. It proved to be hard work. Occasionally there’s also a layer of earth on the stones. We did most of lane 15, without success.
Unfortunately some inscriptions can no longer be read so we may never find the gravestones, but this field research will go on in 2009. In April there will be a new excursion.
It seems certain that the bodies of the girls were put in a mass grave at Evere cemetery, since their relatives did not apply for a ‘concession’ there. It also seems certain that the gravestones were transported to Evere and therefore that they could possibly be found somewhere there.
Evere cemetery (Brussels), lane 15
Since the October excursion I have been greatly assisted by Renate Hurtmanns, who paid several more visits to Evere cemetery, as you can see from her report below, with the latest on this research.
She has also helped me in transcribing letters written by Louise Heger, the daughter of Monsieur and Madame Heger. Some time ago I discovered that the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts has a large very interesting collection of letters written by her, including many she wrote to her parents, sisters and brother that give a valuable new insight into the family.
There are also some reminiscences among the papers, among them the document below. It’s the only thing about Charlotte Brontë in these papers.
One of Louise Heger's letters at Ghent Museum of Fine Arts (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Documentatiecentrum voor Vlaamse Kunst)
On this page she describes how one morning in 1913 she heard men selling the newspaper Le Petit Blue shouting about the ‘love affair’ of Monsieur Heger. She and her brother Paul had just given the letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur to the British Museum, after which they were published in The Times.
In Ghent I made an exciting find, in a book about female Belgian 19th century artists: one of the paintings Charlotte describes in Villette (in the Salon chapter), La vie d’une femme. I hope to have it published, in colour, in Brontë Studies in 2009.
Furthermore, we are able to give you a picture of the house where Monsieur Heger died. Last year I reported to you on this blog it had been demolished. Earlier this year Mr. Willaert, who had seen that article, sent us this picture.
He explained that no buyer could be found for the house and that finally, after it had fallen into disrepair (as can be seen in the picture), the city of Brussels ordered its demolition because it had become a danger for passers-by.
The house where M. Heger died
So this has been another fruitful year for the research on Brussels and the Brontës. And there’s still plenty to do in the coming years.
The following reports were written by Sheila Richardson and Renate Hurtmann, who joined the cemetery excursion in October.
Report by Sheila Richardson: Martha Taylor
Martha Taylor, a friend of Charlotte Brontë died in Brussels and was buried in the Protestant cemetery there. Charlotte writes in her letters home of walking to visit her grave sometimes on a Sunday. When the graveyard was due to be built over the graves were moved to the new Brussels cemetery at Evere.
A small group from the Brussels Bronte Group visited Evere to look for Martha’s grave. This is a very pretty graveyard, like the original one described by Charlotte, with winding paths under a variety of trees and little open glades, bathed in the autumn sunlight on the day we went. As the graves were under the trees they were covered with moss, so we took brushes and cleared enough of each one to get an idea of who was buried there. Some were sad, the young children of English families buried far from home. One was for a soldier killed at Waterloo. The British Ambassador had placed a poppy wreathe there and there were slightly faded red roses in memory of some later soldiers. Unfortunately we did not find Martha’s grave. It might be that her parents were not aware that the graves were to be moved and therefore did not contribute to the cost. She may have been reburied in a common grave or an unmarked one.
One of our group had researched the internet and found a statement in “The Haworth Village” site that said that both Mary and Martha Taylor were buried at Gomersal, the Taylor’s home village in Yorkshire. We were a little doubtful about the accuracy of this. Looking further on the internet I found that The Red House where the Taylors lived and described by Charlotte Bronte as Briamains in Shirley is now a museum.
The secretary there, Helga Hughes, confirmed what we had suspected – that Martha remains buried in Brussels. The Haworth Village Site had not checked their information with her but she would now see that it was corrected. If you have come across the Haworth Site and been confused by this, I think it has now been clarified.
The description of the Red House sounds delightful. It looks very much as it would have done in Charlotte’s day, from the elegant parlour including the stained glass windows described in Shirley to the stone flagged kitchen floor. Also the 19th century garden has been carefully recreated with old fashioned roses and some forgotten plants.
The Barn has an exhibition of things that belonged to Charlotte and shows her connection with the area and the friends she developed there.
Viewing details are on the site “Venue details - Red House Museum”.
Report by Renate Hurtmann: Research on Brussels cemetery in Evere
I returned to the Evere cemetery because Eric had informed me about the existence of loose old gravestones lying against the cemetery wall somewhere, among which could possibly be those of Martha Taylor and Julia Wheelwright.
He also wanted me to go to lanes 14 and 17 and find out if there are also graves from English people who died before 1877 (the year of the closure of the Protestant cemetery). If not, this would strongly indicate that the old gravestones went only to lane 15 - where we had already started cleaning some of them on the occasion of our cemetery excursion.
I did indeed find some graves in lane 14 as well as in lane 17 of English people who died before 1877, which means that they had been transferred from the Protestant cemetery to the one in Evere.
Unfortunately - especially in lane 14 - there are lots of old gravestones in an awful state - completely sunken or covered by thick layers of earth, moss and ivy under which the inscriptions are often very difficult to decipher or have completely faded away after more than 150 years and there are also graves without any inscription at all.
On the other hand, we know now at least for sure that we shall have to look for the old graves in the three lanes and not only in lane 15 !
Below you will find details of my findings:
1. Discovery of the loose old gravestones
Following the guardian’s description, I followed the long lane on the left when you enter the cemetery by the main gate, walking alongside the cemetery wall until I came to three little houses standing behind the cemetery wall. On the cemetery wall to the right-hand side of these cottages I found the tombstones in question, (46 in total) which I checked one by one. They are all but two legible, and even on the two on which the inscriptions have faded, I could decipher the word "begraven" (buried), which means that they come from Belgian graves, as all the others. There is not one single gravestone with an English inscription or name, which means that we can definitely give up the hope that Martha's and Julia's gravestones are among them!
2. Lane 14
At the end of lane 14 I found 2 English graves with people having died before 1877 (so certainly people who were buried beforehand on the Protestant cemetery), i.e.
- Harriet Mary Anne
the beloved child of The Rev. Reginald Smith
died in Brussels in 1837
eldest daughter of Ben Mosley
died in Brussels on 17 March 1853
3. Lane 17
On the right hand side of lane 17, I found 2 English graves which correspond to what we are looking for:
- Charlotte Fano
died in Brussels on 25 April 1850
Underneath was written “concession à perpétuité” – an inscription which I didn’t find on the other gravestones. Would that perhaps indicate that all the graves from the Protestant cemetery in St. Josse had been transferred to Evere (and not only those with a “concession”, i.e. burial places having been paid for, as the cemetery administration had told me on the occasion of a former inquiry)?
- Name not legible
died in Brussels on 19 September 1851
There are other English graves, but the date of death was not legible!
In “Pelouse 17” (the lawn section of lane 17), I came across a British grave of 2 families, i.e. the Brain and Triest family. I couldn’t read all, but this certainly:
- George Brain died in Brussels in October 1855
- Thomas A. Brain died in Brussels in October 1859
- Richard Farmer Brain died in Brussels in August 1871
- Betsy Triest died in Brussels in August 1876
The old burial registers still available at the Evere cemetery administration – which I consulted from 1877 till 1890 – unfortunately this didn’t bring us one step further because they only consist of lists of people who died from 1877 onwards, i.e. from the time when the Evere cemetery was opened.
There is no trace whatsoever of burial lists with regard to the persons whose graves had been transferred from the Protestant cemetery to Evere. However there might still be another possible source - the city archives of St. Josse - where I shall hopefully find out more at the beginning of 2009!