iPlayer Radio What's New?
Image for 14/09/2010

Listen now 30 mins

Listen in pop-out player


30 minutes
First broadcast:
Tuesday 14 September 2010

In 1846 Charlotte Bronte began her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in a terraced house in Hulme, south Manchester miles away from the Yorkshire moorland that we associate with her family. What was she doing there?

Vanessa Collingridge discovers Charlotte's father the Reverend Patrick Bronte was undergoing cutting-edge eye surgery to rid him of cataracts that left him almost blind. The surgery appears almost brutal, with the patient being held by two of the surgeon's assistants, but it was very effective and the only drawback seemed to be the month-long recovery process during which Reverend Bronte had to lie still on a bed whilst his eyes healed.

Charlotte used this time well to start writing her book, but what was this part of Manchester like just two years after the city influenced Engels to write The Condition of the English Working Classes, his often grim description of the world's first modern city? Vanessa meets up with Professor Alan Kidd to explore 1840's Manchester and talks to a leading eye surgeon about the treatment Charlotte's father received.

How did royalty help ordinary people secure divorce? A listener's family history research reveals the divorce of a poor couple in Sheffield in the 1920's when separation was almost unheard of for all but the very wealthy. Dr Caitriona Beaumont of London South Bank University takes Vanessa through a brief history of divorce from the mid-nineteenth century when it was the prerogative of rich men to the years after the abdication crisis involving Edward and Mrs Simpson which inadvertently allowed anyone to separate.

He crowned 3 monarchs and was in post for 32 difficult years during the fifteenth century when England was split between Lancastrians and Yorkists- so why do we know so little about Archbishop Thomas Bourchier? That's the question asked by a Making History listener after seeing the Archbishop's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral but failing to find out more about the man. Making History's Lizz Pearson pieces together Bouchier's career and asks whether he was a brilliant politician or just someone who managed to keep his head down.


Email: making.history@bbc.co.uk

Write to Making History. BBC Radio 4. PO Box 3096. Brighton BN1 1PL

Join the conversation on our Facebook page or find out more from the Radio 4 website: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/makinghistory

Presenter: Vanessa Collingridge
Producer: Nick Patrick
A Pier Production for BBC Radio 4.

  • Divorce in the years between the two world wars

    Listener Margaret Edwards contacted the programme after finding out that her maternal grandmother, Martha, divorced her husband Arthur – a rarity for someone from a poor background in those days.

    The couple married in 1918 after he had been invalided out of the army and they had three children. Margaret told Making History that the family story was that Arthur died soon after the children were born.

    However, some recent family research has disclosed that Arthur didn’t actually die until 1934 and that in 1945 when Martha re-married the words “formerly the wife of Arthur Wilkinson from whom she obtained a divorce” were written on the marriage certificate.

    Vanessa spoke to Dr Caitriona Beaumont at London South Bank University who explained how difficult it was for women to get a divorce between the wars, particularly if they didn’t have any money. She went through the milestones in divorce law history:

    • 1857 Divorce Act: husbands could petition for divorce on grounds of adultery alone whilst wives had to prove adultery plus cruelty or desertion
    • 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act: husbands and wives now able to petition for divorce on grounds for divorce on adultery alone
    • 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act: new grounds for divorce introduced including desertion of 3 years or more, on grounds of insanity, cruelty, adultery, rape and sodomy
    • 1969 Divorce Reform Act: ‘no fault divorce’ with ‘irreconcilable breakdown’ of marriage recognised as a ground for divorce.

    Statistics (taken from “Road to Divorce 1530-1987” by Lawrence Stone. OUP)

    • 1923 -1939: 50 to 60 per cent divorce proceedings initiated by wives
    • 1930s average 7,500 marriages end in divorce
    • 1949 average 39,000 marriages end in divorce

    First marriages (England and Wales) ending in divorce:
    o 1920-24: 13 per cent
    o 1925-29: 15 per cent
    o 1930-4: 18 per cent
    o 1935-39: 22 per cent
    o 1950-4: c33 per cent

  • Charlotte Bronte in Hulme

    Charlotte Bronte in Hulme

    Listener Helen Warren’s family research has taken her to Hulme in south Manchester where, she has discovered, Charlotte Bronte began writing Jane Eyre in 1846. Charlotte was with her father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, who was having treatment for cataracts (see below).

    Helen wants to know what Hulme would have been like in the 1840’s.

    Vanessa met up with Professor Alan Kidd at Manchester Metropolitan University who explained that Manchester was the world’s first modern city. Its population exploded and areas like Hulme right next to the city centre were quickly overcome by the movement of people out into the suburbs.

    In the 1840’s it was home to the skilled working class and many houses would have had three bedrooms and access to a privy. Nearby, however, there were streets of classic Mancunian ‘back-to-back’ housing and from this moment in time onwards the area became more and more run down.

    Professor Kidd pointed out that Manchester was where Engels wrote “The Condition of the English Working Class” (1844) and this is the first time that the spatial layout of a city was described.

    Professor Alan Kidd
  • Cataract Operations

    Cataract Operations

    The Reverend Patrick Bronte was almost blind because of his cataracts. However, there were several skilled eye-surgeons working at this time – particularly in the North West. Vanessa spoke to Professor Will Ayliffe a consultant opthamologist in the NHS and also Gresham Professor of Physic.

    Professor Ayliffe described the procedures used at this time and how the Reverend Bronte would have needed to have spent several weeks lying very still so that his eyes recovered. This explains why he and Charlotte were in Manchester for a month when the operation probably took less than half an hour.

    This painting shows a Dr Little using similar techniques to those used on the Reverend Bronte during an operation in the 1890’s.

    The History of Cataract Surgery
  • Thomas Bourchier

    Listener Frances Burnel was intrigued by the tomb of Archbishop Thomas Bourchier in Canterbury Cathedral. She was disappointed that there was no effigy and finds it odd that more isn’t known about a man who lived through the politically tumultuous times of the 15th century, crowned 3 monarchs and survived 32 years in post.

    Thomas Bourchier
  • Useful Link: Thomas Bourchier

    Thomas Bourchier
  • Guest: Dr James Clark

    Reader in History
    Department of History,
    University of Bristol

    Dr James Clark
  • Guest: Dr Benjamin Thompson

    Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History,
    Somerville College,
    university of Oxford

    Dr Benjamin Thompson
  • Guest: Matti Watton

    Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library in London

    Matti Watton


Free download

  1. Image for Making History

    Making History

    Making History explores ordinary people's links with the past. The programme is presented by Helen…

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss