The noted nineteenth century author, Elizabeth Gaskell spent much of her adult life in Manchester. In 1850 Elizabeth, her husband Reverend William Gaskell and their daughters moved into a large house on Plymouth Grove, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Fortunately and often by some small miracles, this house has survived into the twenty first century. Moreover it has recently been painstakingly restored for the public to enjoy.
The Gaskell Family
William Gaskell (1805-1884) was a Unitarian Minister and came to the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester in 1828, a position which he held until his death. In 1832 he married Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson (1810-1865), the youngest daughter of a Unitarian Minister. Elizabeth was born in Chelsea, London but later lived in Knutsford, Cheshire which she would use as the inspiration for her novel, Cranford (1851-53).
The couple settled in Manchester and had six children together: a daughter (1833), Marianne (1834 – 1920), Margaret Emily (“Meta”) (1837- 1913), Florence Elizabeth (1842 -1881), William (1843-44) and Julia Bradford (1846- 1908).
William and Elizabeth were both extremely philanthropic individuals and did a great deal during their lifetimes to support the working classes of Manchester. Elizabeth even used them as the characters in her novels, which include Mary Barton (1848), Ruth (1853), North and South (1854/55) and Wives and Daughters (1865). She broke social conventions at the time by writing about issues such as poverty, illegitimacy and the role of women. However her books proved to be a success and she was a celebrated author.
In 1850, after the success of Elizabeth’s first novel, the family moved to 84 Plymouth Grove (historically known as 42 Plymouth Grove). The house was built around 1838 by the architect Richard Lane, on land owned by William Occleshaw who was a manufacturer of lead and rolled pipes. One of the first residents at Number 84, according to the Rate Payers books was a Mr Henry Nicholls.
Plymouth Grove was part of a middle class suburban estate, which was away from the growing city centre. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in the 1850s that the house was ” a beauty” and Charlotte Brontë described the house as “a large, cheerful, airy house, quite out of the Manchester smoke“.
The house was built in a classical style and this is shown in the decorative front porch with Grecian style columns and the giant pilasters with lotus capitals on top. The sash windows have 12 panes and externally they are adorned by floating cornices. The house is brick built but with a stucco rendering, throughout the twentieth century the house was painted pink and it became known as “the pink house”, however during the restoration it was re-painted in its original stone colour.
Internally the house is quite large and comprises of twenty rooms. There was a morning room, study, drawing room, dining room, seven bedrooms, Kitchen, servants hall, wash house, servants rooms and a coach house. There was also a large garden which Elizabeth enjoyed immensely, “without a bonnet”. As well as pleasure gardens with flower beds, the Gaskell’s also kept chickens, pigs and a cow.
The house cost the Gaskell’s £150 a year to rent in 1850, which at the time was a huge cost and half of William’s yearly wage. The family employed several domestic servants to care for them and the house including a cook, several maids, gardener, washerwoman and a seamstress. One maid, Ann Hearn, stayed in employment at Plymouth Grove for over fifty years.
As William and Elizabeth Gaskell were prominent members of nineteenth century society, the house was a epicentre of activity. Many nineteenth century ‘celebrities’ visited the Gaskell’s including Charlotte Brontë (who hid behind the curtains in the drawing room to avoid meeting other guests), Charles Dickens (who called at 10am, “Far too early” Elizabeth noted), Charles Hallé (who taught Meta Gaskell the piano), John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Eliot Norton.
The house on Plymouth Grove was particularly busy in 1857, during the Great Masters Art Exhibition at Old Trafford in Manchester. During the five and a half months it ran for, over a million people visited it, including Queen Victoria. On 26th August 1857, Elizabeth wrote to her friend Eliza Fox:
“We have two rooms and nineteen people coming to occupy them before the Exhibition closes…we are worn out with hospitality… I should like it dearly if I weren’t a hostess.”
Elizabeth Gaskell passed away in 1865 and her husband and unmarried daughters continued to live at Plymouth Grove. William Gaskell died in 1884.
84 Plymouth Grove: 1913 – today
In 1913 Meta Gaskell passed away and the house and contents were sold at auction, despite a bid to preserve the building due to its connection with the Gaskell Family. The local authority rejected plans to turn the house into a museum stating “The house belonged to one of the ugliest periods of architecture and was of no value beyond its connection with the Gaskell Family”. By this point in the early twentieth century, the city of Manchester had expanded rapidly and caught up with the Gaskell’s. Plymouth Grove was no longer a fashionable middle class area on the outskirts of the city, in fact opposite number 84 were rows of working class terraced houses. Louis M. Hayes, writing in 1881, recalled:
“It was quite a charming walk out to Plymouth Grove, when it was situated in the heart of the country, and shaded by its pretty avenue of trees and vocal with the song of birds. Now, alas, these trees are many of them black and grim, some of them dead, whilst others try to live out a fitful existence.”
The house was purchased by Charles William Harper, a manufacturing chemist. He lived at 84 Plymouth Grove with his wife Annie Maria and their children; Charles, Lilian, Constance and Eileen. The Harper’s lived at Plymouth Grove for many decades, Charles William Harper died in 1959 and his daughter’s left the house in the 1960s.
Fortunately, at a time when many historic buildings were demolished in a frenzy of redevelopment, the building had been given a Grade II* listed status in 1952. The University of Manchester purchased the house in 1968/69 and it was used as accommodation for the International Society. They relinquished the property in 2000 and in 2004 it was bought by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust.
The house was in a poor state of repair and it was suffering from structural damage. After fundraising attempts the restoration work started in 2009. Unfortunately the project suffered a major setback in 2011 when lead was stolen off the roof causing £250,000 worth of damage.
In 2012 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £1.85 million and today the house is open to visitors. It has been restored as it was in the late 1850s / early 1860s and many of the carpets, wallpapers and fabrics are reproductions of original patterns. As the photographs above from my visit show, the team at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House have done an amazing job. Many items associated with the Gaskell Family have been donated from private individuals, the Rylands Library and Whitworth Art Gallery.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a ‘hands on’ museum and visitors are encouraged to read the books on the shelves, sit at the dining table and play the piano. There is also a tearoom in the cellar and a revolving exhibition upstairs, later in February 2016 it will focus on the restoration of the building.
Once an entry ticket is purchased, there is free entry for the following 12 months. Therefore anyone who is interested in history, literature, architecture or interiors ought to visit Elizabeth Gaskell’s House at 84 Plymouth Grove, as it is one of Manchester’s hidden gems.
- Guidebook – Printed by Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester
- Judy Taylor, Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman“,2nd Edition,(London: Frederick Warne, 1996)
- Barbara Brill, William Gaskell 1805-1884, (Manchester: Manchester Literary and Philosophical Publications Ltd, 1984)
- Louis M Hayes, Reminiscences of Manchester from the year 1840, (Manchester: Sherratt & Hughes, 1905) p.186