Daguerreotype Cost & the Death Rate

Two questions.

 Could the Bronte Sisters have afforded a photograph in the 1840s?

Why would anyone have wanted to photograph the sisters at a time when they weren’t famous?

The Bronte family had never been wealthy but the sisters did come into money after they were left a legacy from their Aunt Branwell (1843). This was about £300 each and was the equivalent to four years wages for an office clerk. A large part of this legacy was invested in (George Hudson's) York & North Midland Railway Shares. In 1845, it was paying a dividend of 10% in line with the top railway companies.

George Hudson's York & North Midland Railway Company was a great success, particularly in its early years when it was part of the trunk route to London, via Derby and Birmingham.

There was sufficient wealth in 1845 for Anne, Charlotte and Emily to donate £1 each to the George Hudson Testimonial Fund. Hudson was a millionaire so he certainly wasn't needy. The same year, Charlotte sent £10 to her friend, Mary Taylor, who had emigrated to New Zealand.1.

The Bronte Sisters donation to the George Hudson Testimonial Fund.
He was a popular man having created many private railways. To see the full list click here.
 

Daguerreotypes in England cost about a Guinea (£1.05p) throughout the 1840's, although a group photo would probably have cost a little more. This was about the same cost as having a miniature portrait painted but the advantage of the daguerreotype was accuracy and detail.

Why would anyone have wanted to photograph the sisters at a time when they weren’t famous? 

If photographers had only taken portraits of famous people then the twelve studios which existed in 1840s Yorkshire would have been bankrupt within a week. Most photographs taken in the 1840s were of ordinary middle-class people because the cost was just about within their reach.

One selling point sometimes seen in early photographic adverts was rather unusual. 

The threat of death was ever present in Victorian England, but if you lost a loved one you could at least retain a true likeness of them. The early adverts vary from the blunt: "sick or deceased persons taken at their residences" to the slightly more subtle: "Remember, a good likeness is all that can be rescued from the grave." In some later adverts all this is inferred rather than stated.

This may seem strange and morbid to us today, but these were very different times. There was an extremely high death rate. The average life expectancy for Haworth residents was just under 26 years of age and over 40% of children didn't reach the age of six.2. 

The Bronte sisters were not exempt, they lost their mother in 1821 and sisters Maria & Elizabeth in 1825. Aunt Elizabeth Branwell died in 1842, the same year as William Weightman, the 28 year-old assistant curate. Between these dates many of their friends and acquaintances will have died at a young age.

Of the three sisters, only Charlotte lived long enough to experience fame so if they were ever photographed the image would have been, or would have become, a very personal keepsake.

 
1. https://www.bronte.org.uk/the-brontes-and-haworth/family-and-friends/mary-taylor 

2. Babbage's sanitary report on Haworth, home to the Brontës, 1850. Benjamin Herschel Babbage was given this middle name because his father, Charles Babbage, was a friend of Sir John Herschel.

Sir John Herschel had a large interest in the publishers Smith, Elder & Co. ; he was brother-in-law of Patrick Stewart (who defrauded the publishers) and John Stewart (the photographer who visited Haworth to copy the Richmond Portrait).

Notes

---

Below: Rev. P Bronte appears in the list (1845) of promoters for the Manchester, Hebden Bridge & Keighley Junction Railway. This proposed branch line would begin at Hebden Bridge, on the Manchester–Leeds line, and proceed via Haworth and Keighley, joining the line from Leeds and Bradford up to Carlisle. Branwell applied in 1845 for a job as secretary to the railway’s committee, but he did not get the job, and the branch line was never constructed.