Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Gaskells at home

Elizabeth Gaskell House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester

The journalist Brian Redhead, editor of the Manchester Guardian before he became a stalwart of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, after walking down Cross Street and meeting, in quick succession, the cricketer Cyril Washbrook, the artist L S Lowry and the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, remarked, “Manchester’s like that.  It’s big enough for things to happen and small enough for you to get there and be part of them.”

It was ever so.

If in the 1850s you’d been invited to tea or dinner with Rev William Gaskell (1805-1884) and his wife Elizabeth (1810-1865) at their out-of-town villa at 42 Plymouth Grove (now renumbered 84), you might have shared hospitality with some of the greatest figures of Victorian society, alongside local residents who knew each other and became known to posterity.

William Gaskell’s Unitarian congregation at the Cross Street Chapel included such figures as –

  • Sir William Fairbairn Bt (1789-1874), civil engineer
  • Sir Benjamin Heywood (1793-1865), first president of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute
  • Robert Hyde Greg (1795-1875), MP for Manchester (1839-1841)
  • Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877), co-founder of the Manchester Statistical Society
  • Thomas Worthington (1826-1909), architect

The Gaskells’ status – he a great preacher and philanthropist, she a celebrated novelist who unlike the Brontës and Mary Ann Evans made no secret of her gender – attracted visitors from outside Manchester, including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin.

By the time the Gaskells bought their elegant Greek Revival villa in 1850, William had been minister at Cross Street since 1828, and Elizabeth had published her first novel, Mary Barton:  a tale of Manchester Life (1848).

The pianist and conductor Charles Hallé (1819-1895) gave piano lessons to the Gaskells’ daughters at Plymouth Grove after he settled in Manchester in 1853.

Elizabeth wrote her later novels at the house, including Cranford (1853) and North and South (1855), and longed to have a peaceful home outside Manchester.

After her death in 1865, William continued to live at Plymouth Grove until his own death in 1884.

His two surviving unmarried daughters, Meta and Julia, kept the house on.  Julia died in 1908, and after Meta’s death in 1913 the family gave it up.

International appeals for it to become a museum commemorating Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing were rejected by Manchester City Council.  Manchester University owned it from 1969 to 2000

Listed Grade II*, it was purchased in 2004 by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which opened it as a museum ten years later.

It’s a delightful place.  The ground floor rooms are restored as closely as possible to their appearance in the Gaskell’s time.  The upstairs rooms contain exhibitions and administrative offices.

In the basement is a coffee shop with exceptional cake.

It’s well worth a bus-ride out of town to visit:  http://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk.

A visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Tyson Smith

21107-Liverpool-city-centre

21109-Liverpool-city-centre

Cenotaph, St George's Plateau, Liverpool

Cenotaph, St George’s Plateau, Liverpool

I first came across the work of the sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith (1883-1972) in a roundabout way.

I was struck by the majestic war memorial on Hamilton Square in Birkenhead, because alongside the set-piece Portland stone cenotaph by Lionel Bailey Budden (1887-1956), embellished with Tyson Smith’s sculptures, lies a phalanx of simple black marble slabs placed by local community groups to remember their own heroes – those who were killed at Dunkirk, in the Blitz, in Normandy, in the Burma campaign, Korea, numerous regiments including the Welsh Guards and the Irish Guards, “all shipmates who crossed the bar in the service of their country”, Merchant Navy seafarers and Merseyside aircrew.

Somehow, these recognisable cohorts are more immediately moving than the huge list of 1,293 names of the individuals killed in the First World War.  The names of those who died in the Second World War are recorded in a Book of Remembrance in the Town Hall.

The original plan was to locate the Great War memorial on the north side of the square, but by popular demand the statue of William Lever, the founder of Birkenhead, was moved to the west so that the war memorial could stand foursquare in front of the Town Hall portico.

Tyson Smith did the sculpture for other civic war memorials for Widnes (1921), Accrington (1922), Southport (1923) and Fleetwood (1927), but his reliefs on the Liverpool cenotaph outside St George’s Hall, unveiled in 1930, are the most powerful.

The cenotaph is a simple, shaped block of Stancliffe stone, designed like the Birkenhead memorial by Lionel Budden, carrying two 31-foot bronze relief panels of haunting poignancy.

The panel facing St George’s Hall shows ranks of grim-faced soldiers, each face distinct and individual, marching relentlessly from left to right, above a quotation from Ezekiel 38:15 – “OUT OF THE NORTH PARTS A GREAT COMPANY AND A MIGHTY ARMY”.

On the other panel, facing Lime Street Station, Tyson Smith depicts those left behind, the mourners, of all ages, men, women and children, in contemporary dress, some bringing wreaths and flowers.  Underneath is a verse from the second book of Samuel 19:2 – “AND THE VICTORY THAT DAY WAS TURNED INTO MOURNING UNTO ALL THE PEOPLE”.

It’s impossible to walk past this monument and not remember what it stands for.

Providential curry

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

When my curry-loving mate Richard and I go to Bradford to meet my friend Mohammed he usually takes us to one of the many curry houses in inner-city Bradford, but on our last meeting we set off on a mystery tour to Cleckheaton.

Our destination was Aakash, which claims to be the largest curry house in the world.

It occupies the former Providence Place Congregational Chapel of 1857-1859, a gigantic temple of nonconformity designed by the prestigious Bradford practice of Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, who built much that is fine in the Bradford area in the mid-nineteenth century including St George’s Hall (1851-52), the Wool Exchange (1864-7), the City Hall (1869-73), and almost every building in Saltaire (1851-76).

Providence Chapel cost about £9,000, an impressive sum that sounds considerable until it’s compared with the £16,000 that Sir Titus Salt spent on the Congregational Church in Saltaire.  At the time you could get a modest but respectable Gothic parish church for around £4,000.

For their money, Cleckheaton Congregationalists were given seating for 1,500 and a grandeur that would flatter a municipal town hall.  Its ashlar façade has a giant portico of five unfluted Corinthian columns supporting a pediment containing a roundel, surrounded by carved foliage, with the inscription “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men”.  In front are cast-iron gates and lamp standards.

Listed Grade II*, the chapel was described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “amazingly pompous for a religious building”.

It closed in 1991 when the remaining congregation combined with the amalgamated Spendborough Group of United Reformed Churches at Grove, Gomersal, and it became an Indian restaurant founded by a former taxi-rank owner, Mohammad Iqbal Tabassum.

It was named Aakash, the Urdu word for “sky”, and the coffered ceiling was painted with clouds.

The box pews inevitably went and the rake of the gallery floor was levelled, but the organ and the pulpit, described by a reviewer at the time as “skip-sized”, remained as a “lookout post” for the restaurant manager.

Sometime before 2008 it closed and reopened under new management.  Perhaps that was when the pulpit was replaced by a series of staircases linking the main floor with the gallery.  The organ pipes remain, heavily painted, but the organ has gone.

The buffet-style curry is as splendid as the surroundings:  http://aakashrestaurant.co.uk.