CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Lancashire Life today CLICK HERE

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester home open to the public

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 December 2014

Entrance in the Hallway

Entrance in the Hallway


Some of the giants of the Victorian age were regular visitors. Now this Manchester house has been restored and the doors are open once again. Martin Pilkington reports

William Gaskell's StudyWilliam Gaskell's Study

Most of us curse the discovery of damp and dry rot but it was a blessing in disguise which saved one of Lancashire’s most important literary houses from destruction.

Elizabeth Gaskell occupied this house on Plymouth Grove in Manchester from 1850 and it stayed in the family until 1913 when Meta, the last surviving daughter, died.

After that another family, the Harpers, lived there until the late 1960s, when The University of Manchester took it over. Happily, its plans to gut the little-altered rooms were scuppered by the discovery of damp and dry rot. This made it too expensive to rectify and the house was left to the ravages of time.

Undaunted by such problems, a combination of The Gaskell Society, the Unitarian Church and The Manchester Historic Buildings Trust has been restoring it since 2009, and the newly-opened results are spectacular.

The Drawing RoomThe Drawing Room

‘It seems rather grand now, but this was a garden villa, and the area was full of houses like this,’ says John Williams, who has project-managed the transformation of the three-storey structure.

‘It’s in the Greek revival style popular here in the 1830s when it was built. Manchester people liked the idea of a classical house to suggest they were classically educated like the aristocracy. But it was also supposed to reflect the fact Greece was the birthplace of democracy and Manchester was a hotbed of democratic desire.’

From 1850 until Elizabeth’s death 15 years later, the Plymouth Grove residence served as a significant cultural and political salon. Visitors included Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin and Charles Hallé. Now the decor and furnishings of the ground floor and the ‘below stairs’ have been returned to something those luminaries would have recognised. ‘The idea is that it’s as if the servants have let you in and you’re visiting the Gaskells,’ says John.

When Elizabeth and her Unitarian minister husband William moved in they hadn’t enough money to fill the entire house, so the drawing room was unfurnished for a time and she wrote in the dining room.

Portraits of Harry and Berlin Gaskell, William Gaskell's nephew and niece once
removed.  Both are on loan from Diana Sime.Portraits of Harry and Berlin Gaskell, William Gaskell's nephew and niece once removed. Both are on loan from Diana Sime.

Similarly, John and the trustees have not sourced quite everything on their painstakingly-researched wish-list. ‘We’re recreating this house as it would have been, so there are lots of things we’re still seeking,’ he says. ‘Parian-ware busts of the period, drawing and dining-room furniture from about 1850–1860 in a classical style, and books of the time relevant to the family.’

Help with furnishing and decoration has come from numerous sources, among them Little Greene who donated wallpaper made to original designs. Someone loaned a demi-grand piano like the one on which Hallé taught Meta Gaskell; and descendants of William whose portrait they’ve provided.

After Meta died in 1913 an auction was held of the contents. ‘There aren’t many truly provenanced Gaskell artefacts now as when the sale took place in 1914 the auctioneer packed the house with stuff from elsewhere, so there were supposedly something like 21 writing desks in the house!’ says John.

A short film shown in the morning room gives a quick introduction to the Gaskells, then you can sit down in the very masculine study and browse through a book, or wander through the other reception rooms before taking refreshment in the servants’ area.

‘The morning room is the most museum-like area,’ says John. ‘But we really want the house to have the feel it did in Elizabeth’s day.’ Touches to ensure this is achieved include – perhaps surprisingly - fitted carpets, albeit woven in narrow strips. ‘Only much grander homes had rugs and polished boards then. And things like the wallpaper and drapes and carpets coordinate not in the way we think but as they thought in the 1850s.’

The house will surely become a major attraction. For lovers of Victorian literature it’s thrilling to hold a stair bannister Dickens touched, to be in rooms where Mrs Gaskell worked on North and South, Cranford and Ruth, and maybe momentarily to hide behind the drawing room curtains as shy Charlotte Brontë once did to avoid company!

And beyond the walls of the house – now a stylish faun rather than the pre-refurbishment ghastly pink – the garden has been planted with varieties of the period, again bringing authentic atmosphere. For, as Charlotte Brontë wrote to a friend: ‘A whispering of leaves and perfume of flowers always pervaded the rooms.’

The restoration has been a long time coming. ‘There was originally interest in turning it into a museum in 1914. Now in 2014 we’re actually doing it,’ John concludes. It was well worth the wait.

A home full of life

In a letter to a friend,Liza Fox, in 1850 Elizabeth Gaskell displayed a strong social conscious. She wrote: ‘We’ve got a house. Yes! We really have. And if I had neither conscience nor prudence I should be delighted, for it certainly is a beauty... I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can and make it as little a selfish thing as I can.’

Eighteen years earlier she had wed William Gaskell, the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. Their third home was 84 Plymouth Grove. Here they grew flowers and vegetables and kept a cow, pigs and poultry.

The Gaskells had four daughters and a son, William, who died as a baby of scarlet fever. Her husband suggested that Elizabeth wrote a novel as a distraction from her grief. The result was Mary Barton, which is subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life.

The novel was published anonymously in 1848 and its subject, the appalling state of the poor in in the Manchester area, contributed to calls for social change. Her book Cranford was partly written in a tower at Silverdale during holidays to escape Manchester’s pollution.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Lancashire Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Lancashire Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Lancashire Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About


With the West Pennine Moors and the summits of Rivington Pike and Winter Hill right on its doorstp, Bolton has plenty of options for walkers.

Read more

Lytham Hall was the spectacular setting for a glittering weekend of steam engines, tractors, cars and family fun.

Read more

Barrowford is one of Lancashire’s most stylish towns but it also has some quirky tales to tell

Read more

The busy West Lancashire village of Parbold scores highly for natural beauty and community spirit

Read more

The two-and-a-half year initiative to preserve the remains of the copper mines.

Read more
Thursday, November 8, 2018

Books by Lancashire writer Paula Daly are being filmed in the Lakes by the Broadchurch team for a six-part TV drama starring Rochdale’s Anna Friel

Read more
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Fact and fiction merge to create a tale of murder and kidnap in a novel based on Rufford Old Hall by National Trust volunteer Margaret Lambert

Read more

Liverpool has always buzzed, even in its darker days, but today it’s booming, and underpinning the resurgence are institutions with roots deep in the Merseyside soil

Read more
Friday, November 2, 2018

With carpets of damp fallen leaves and rotting deadwood covering woodlands, autumn is the time when fungi of all shapes and sizes thrive. The Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Molly Toal explores the mushroom kingdom.

Read more
Thursday, November 1, 2018

An ancient system for training troops in the use of the longbow has been revived in Lancashire

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

John Lenehan grabs his broomstick and takes us on a journey through some of Lancashire’s loveliest countryside.

Read more
Ribble Valley Walks Pendle Hill
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Canicross is one of the fastest growing sports and it has arrived in the Lake District. Irene Rothery reports

Read more
Dogs Lake District Walks

Having 10,000 students on the doorstep is helping this West Lancashire town centre to thrive

Read more

In 1972, a hoard of ancient silver coins was discovered in Prestwich. These days, they’re hoping to strike gold with an unbeatable mix of community, creativity and independent shops but for one craftsperson, silver is still the way to go.

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Subscribe or buy a mag today

Local Business Directory

Property Search