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.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
There are two separate handbooks for the two Manchester’s Heritage tours that ran in 2009 and 2019 respectively. The itineraries were entirely distinct, so the two handbooks interconnect. The 80-page 2009 edition is longer, but the 60-page 2019 version which includes a section on Elizabeth Gaskell House, has more depth and text: the older version is reduced in price to £10.00, while the later one is £15.00.