A family home with a flavour of history
Lauren Davidson visits a coffee shop near Bradford that was the birthplace of the Brontë sisters
Jane Eyre found the small mug of coffee she drank “with relish” at her daily 5pm meal “revived vitality”, while “a basin of coffee” failed to pull Heathcliff out of his crazed restlessness. Yet both Charlotte and Emily Brontë might be surprised to find their childhood home has been turned into a bustling community café.
The circumstances behind the coffee shop – now called Emily’s – have the makings of a 19th-century novel. “We bought it as a repossession three years ago,” says Mark De Luca, a former building surveyor who had left his job due to illness. “The house had been used as a buy-to-let, split up into bedsits. It was owned by a London property developer who had fallen into difficult times.”
Mark, 33, and his wife Michelle, 32, had been looking for a place to open a coffee shop. When they discovered this terraced brick cottage in the heart of Thornton, a village four miles west of Bradford, “the Brontë element was an added bonus,” says Mark. They bought the house for £120,000 and spent £70,000 fixing it. “We stripped the property back to a shell and redid it: new flooring, damp works, roof repairs, new heating throughout, extensive repairs to the timber sash windows, new bathroom suite and a full internal decoration,” he says. “We created it from nothing, really.”
The De Lucas also had to apply for planning permission, including consent for change of use to part residential and part commercial, because of the building’s protected status. The Grade II* listed building was built in 1802 and was home to the Brontë family between 1815 and 1820. What now serves as one of the main parts of the café, with seating for 16 on a variety of vintage school chairs and tables next to an original fireplace, is the former dining room where Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born. A corridor with an original timber staircase and stone slab flooring leads to the drawing room, which seats a further 16 and has been decorated in keeping with the theme. One wall has been papered with pages from Wuthering Heights, lit with exposed filament light bulbs, and a period sideboard has been filled with Brontë books and other British classics of the era.
“We’ve brought the house back to life. It had fallen by the wayside and now it’s got its own heartbeat,” says Mark. “Thornton used to be pushed aside as Haworth’s poorer relative but now it holds as much importance to the Brontë family.”
He was “no Brontë aficionado” before buying the property, and has learnt about the history of the family and their house through a former owner who ran it as a museum from 1997 to 2006, the Brontë museum in Haworth and the busloads of fans who visit the coffee shop each year. But the project has taken on a particularly personal element for Mark, who sees something of the literary family in his own upbringing. “The Brontë family started to break down when they moved to Haworth,” he says: the mother, Maria, died a year after they left Thornton, followed by the death of two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825, leaving the remaining four children to the care of their eccentric father Patrick, an Irish priest who would outlive all his children. “Patrick said that his happiest days were spent at Thornton and in Haworth he was a stranger in a strange land,” says Mark. “I lost my mother at a young age and my father at a relatively young age. Being from a broken family, I can relate to that.”
It is partly this background that prompted Mark to start a “suspended coffee” programme at Emily’s, whereby customers can cover the cost of an extra coffee so people who might not be able to afford one can come in for a hot drink. “You never know what’s going on in people’s personal lives,” says Mark. “We’re a social community where people come in for a shoulder to cry on or a laugh to be had.”
Now that Mark and Michelle have two children – Mariella, three, and Theodora, one – they are looking to sell the coffee shop. “We’ve got another business in the village, a hair salon that Michelle runs. It’s come to the point where one has to go, and unfortunately you can’t get rid of kids that easily,” he quips.
He is looking for offers in the region of £250,000 for Emily’s, which brings in £49,000 per year from being open four days a week. Included in the lot is the De Luca family home, a two-bedroom residence attached to the coffee shop with a private entrance, full of original Brontë-era features (07966 662832, delucaboutique.co.uk).
Mark and Michelle are currently looking for a new home in the Thornton area, so they’ll be near enough to keep an eye on the café. “I intend to experience Emily’s from a customer perspective now,” says Mark. “I’m excited for the property’s future, but there’s an element of me that’s sad to see it go. I’ve grown very attached to it. I’ll never own a property like that again.”
‘We’ve brought the house back to life, it’s got its own heartbeat’
Renewal: The De Luca family, below, bought the 19th-century house, above, three years ago
Popular: busloads of fans visit Emily’s, which is decorated with Brontë relics