Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School

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Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School


Bad conditions at British Schools


The typhus epidemic at Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School is the incident on which the Lowood School epidemic in Jane Eyre is widely considered to be based. At Cowan Bridge, an evangelical school under the care of the reverend William Carus Wilson, Charlotte's sister Elizabeth died of consumption during what was thought to be an outbreak of typhus (Barker 138). Charlotte's other sister, Maria, also died of consumption at Cowan Bridge (135). In her biography The Brontes, Juliet Barker compares and contrasts the fictional Lowood and the real Cowan Bridge. First of all, while the Lowood girls have "wretched clothing and accommodations," Barker informs us that at Cowan Bridge:

they were required to be equipped with a plentiful supply of clothing: four day shifts (shirts and three night shifts, three night caps, to a pairs of stays, two flannel, one grey stuff (wool) and three white upper petticoats, two pairs of pockets, four pairs of white cotton stockings and three of black worsted, one nankeen spencer (a short jacket), four borne and two white holland pinafores, one short coloured dressing-down and two pairs of shows. in addition they had to bring gloves and a pair of pattens, which were wood and metal overshoes for outdoor wear. (Bronte 91, Barker122)

Additionally, though the strict, ascetic daily regimen, including sleeping in the cold, sharing beds, and humiliating punishments described in Jane Eyre appears to reflect the real practice at Cowan Bridge, Barker observes that this seems to have been the norm at good quality boarding schools, such as the upscale Woodhouse Grove, which I have shown, is corroborated by Pritchard (123). These harsh conditions, however much the norm, no doubt still contributed to the poor health of the girls, especially those with consumption. Nevertheless, though the girls were in theory as well provided for as any other boarded students in England at the time, there was a real problem at Cowan Bridge that went unaddressed, and that was the cook. While the administration of Cowan Bridge protested in response to allegations that the wretched Lowood was modeled after their school that, "The daily dinner consisted of meat, vegetables, and pudding, in abundance," others protested that "the cooking spoiled these provisions; boiled the puddings in unclean water; compounded the Saturday's nauseous mess from the fragments accumulated in a dirty larder during the week; and too often sent up the porridge, not merely burnt, but with offensive fragments of other substances discoverable in it!" (126). Then, there is of course, the awful example mentioned in my Chapter 1 of the cook stirring a teacher's tea with a finger without washing the raw meat off her hands (126). What's more, when Elizabeth became physically sick after eating at one meal, she was "dosed with an emetic" (125-126). Barker concludes by reporting, "As everyone, including Charlotte and Mrs. Gaskell, was careful to point out, the filthy cook at Cowan Bridge was eventually dismissed and replaced by a clean and efficient woman, who produced a marked improvement in the food" (127). However, it seems she was not replaced in time to prevent her from exposing forty or fifty girls typhoid fever.


Frances Thielman


Barker, Juliet.  The Brontes.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.  Print.




Frances Thielman, “Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School,” Appalachian State University, accessed December 3, 2023,

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