In their youth the Bronte sisters – Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849) – and their brother Branwell (1817-1848) entertained themselves by composing stories, poems and plays about the imaginary worlds of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. In early adulthood the sisters were often separated by the need to find employment as teachers and governesses, but in the latter half of 1845 all three were back living in their father's parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire. When Charlotte chanced upon a notebook containing poems by Emily, the latter, fiercely protective of her privacy, was initially irate, but gradually she warmed to the idea of a publication that would include Charlotte's verse and Anne's as well as her own.
They preferred to remain anonymous. The selection of androgynous pseudonyms, Charlotte later explained, was ‘dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’. Some commentators think the choice of the surname Bell might have been prompted, if subconsciously, by the arrival of a new curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in Haworth in June 1845. He eventually became Charlotte's husband.
Essentially the book was a vanity production. The sisters paid Aylott & Jones a sum of £38 10s to publish it. At first the volume attracted little attention. By June 1847 only two copies had sold. ‘Ill-success failed to crush us,’ Charlotte subsequently commented. Indeed not. In a blaze of creativity the sisters completed the novels for which they are principally famous: Charlotte's Jane Eyre and The Professor, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Then tuberculosis ravaged their household. Branwell died on September 24, 1848, Emily on December 19 of the same year and Anne on May 28, 1849.
One thousand copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were printed. In the later decades of the nineteenth century the book became a sought-after item. The Library's copy once belonged to Auckland lawyer and art patron Edmond Mackechnie. It was donated by his widow, along with several other titles, in November 1902.