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Brontë sisters’ grandfather ‘had links to murderous Cornish smugglers’

Classic novels penned by the Brontë sisters could have been funded by ‘dirty money’ from their grandfather Thomas Branwell who was said to have ‘traded in tea among other things’.


Branwell had always been portrayed as a gentleman and a well-regarded figure in his Cornish community.

New research has now revealed that romantic classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights may have only been published due to the fact that he had been involved with murderous smugglers.

Before the birth of the Brontë sisters, Custom House records from 1778 show that Branwell had been indicted for ‘obstructing the Customs Officers in searching his dwelling’.

According to researcher Sharon Wright, other documents also showed that he had been in business with men who were wanted for murder.

Thomas Branwell was father to Maria Branwell – who went on to have Charlotte, Emily and Anne. 

While researching a new book on Branwell’s daughter Charlotte, who went on to marry Patrick Brontë, Wright said that a 1791 report described Branwell’s acquaintances as ‘the most notorious smugglers in that part of the kingdom’.

Speaking to the Observer, Wright said that Branwell, who died in 1808, had always been seen as a ‘Penzance bigwig’, who owned an inn run by his brothers, and who traded tea among other goods.

Wright said it was these illegal dealings that provided a legacy that enabled his grandchildren to pay for the publication of their novels.

‘We wouldn’t have Wuthering Heights or Agnes Grey without their grandfather’s involvement in the well-armed and even murderous smuggling operations running out of Penzance. The family money left to Emily and Anne … paid for these works of genius to appear in print for the first time.

‘No-one has ever connected the Brontës to Cornish smuggling before and this part of the family fortune is in startling contrast to the genteel life their mother and aunts lived amid Regency Penzance society.’

This is while principal curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth Ann Dinsdale, said the new revelations were ‘fascinating’.

‘In effect, their books were vanity published,’ she said.

‘They paid for the publication of their poems in 1846. Then Emily and Anne actually paid for their novels to be published. They couldn’t find a publisher who was willing to take on their publication. So they ended up financing it themselves.’

She continued that their mother’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell, who died in 1842, had a family annuity which she had left to her nieces.

‘About £300 for each of them. That would have been quite a lot of money. As a governess, they might have earned £25 [a year] … It did enable them to pay for the publication of their works.’

However, Wright highlighted that not all of Branwell’s money came from smuggling.

‘I’m not saying he was Long John Silver. But he was in business with very dodgy people.’

At that time smugglers traded in everything from alcohol to feathers and records revealed that Branwell has once used a legal loophole to buy time, after he refused customers mean access to his home.

It was recorded that a Penzance customs officer had reverted back to London for an official search warrant for the premises, giving Branwell plenty of time to get rid of any prohibited goods.

Record of the day say that smuggling was ‘very rife’. This is while further evidence discovered by Wright revealed that 10 years after Branwell originally refused officers enter, he went into business with a pair of ruthless smugglers, merchant brothers James and John Dunkin.

In 1791, it was recorded that their ship the Liberty had been engulfed in a deadly battle with customs officers off the Scilly island of Tresco, resulting in two being killed and others wounded.

They were never arrested, despite a reward being offered for their capture.

Wright added: ‘Yet the Penzance shipping register for 1786 to 1791 shows Branwell was in business with James Dunkin when he was wanted for murder.’

Records also stated that in 1795, Branwell had been the co-owner of the Liberty.

‘I got such a shiver when I read that. He bought the Liberty. If everyone else knew it was used for infamous traffic, then he certainly did.’

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