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Newly discovered letters reveal the hidden secrets of life in Elizabeth Gaskell’s house

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 July 2018

Elizabeth Gaskell's house at 84 Plymouth grove, Manchester

Elizabeth Gaskell's house at 84 Plymouth grove, Manchester

Mark Tattersall photography

A letter discovered hidden in the rafters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s home sheds light on the life of her staff.

The letter written to William Preston in June 1853The letter written to William Preston in June 1853

When he sat down to write a brief letter to his friend in June 1853, James Johnston can not have imagined the intrigue the note would spark more than 160 years later.

He was writing from Maryport on the Cumberland coast to reminisce with his friend William Preston about a day they had spent at Carlisle races and to inform him of the marriage of Maggie, a girl it seems William had loved and lost.

In 1852 William was taken on as an outdoors man at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester, the home of writer Elizabeth Gaskell. He lived above the stables and his duties would have involved gardening and looking after the Gaskells’ animals, including Tommy the pony.

Last summer the two yellowed pages were discovered wedged between the bricks in the rafters of the Plymouth Grove stable block during restoration work. Frayed and rather brittle, the letter prompted volunteer Dr Diane Duffy to find out more about William. The letter and Diane’s discoveries about its recipient now form part of an exhibition at Gaskell’s House about the people who worked there for the family.

The servants exhibition at Elizabeth Gaskell's house in ManchesterThe servants exhibition at Elizabeth Gaskell's house in Manchester

‘It was an amazing survival story,’ Diane said. ‘The letter has survived for over 160 years, even managing to escape the builders’ hammers and it deserves to have its story told; and what a fascinating story it is.’

Although the connection between farmer’s son William and letter writer James Johnston is still to be established, Diane found that Will Preston came to Manchester from Skelwith Bridge in the southern Lake District.

‘He came from Mill Brow farm which had been in his mother’s family for over 200 years and was still being farmed by a Preston in 1939. In 1849 Elizabeth Gaskell was staying with the Prestons and met William Wordsworth and Mrs Arnold at the farm.

‘Two years later Mrs Preston visited Manchester, but the view from Plymouth Grove could never match the outlook from her Lakeland home. In fact the place must have been rather a shock for Mrs Preston who, Gaskell tells us, had never been to a town bigger than Kendal.

The servants exhibition at Elizabeth Gaskell's house in ManchesterThe servants exhibition at Elizabeth Gaskell's house in Manchester

She came to see two of her daughters, Margaret and Mary, who were already servants at Plymouth Grove when their brother joined them in 1852.

‘William returned home after he married a local girl who also worked at 84 Plymouth Grove and Skelwith Bridge has changed very little in terms of architecture since he lived there. Near the farm is a wonderful 17th century coaching inn and there was a corn mill next door in Gaskell’s day, owned by the innkeeper Jeremiah Coward, this was later a bobbin mill, then a saw mill and remains of this industrial past can still be seen, as can the cottage where I believe Will Preston died.

‘In her short story ‘Martha Preston’ you can trace the Elizabeth Gaskell’s footsteps from Skelwith to Grasmere, passing Wordsworth’s favourite tarn, Loughrigg. As you descend to Grasmere, the road veers round the top of the lake towards St Oswald’s Church where Wordsworth and his family are buried.

‘At the other end of the churchyard stand two other graves – the final resting place of Thomas and Jane Preston, Will’s mother and father, and Will himself, buried with some of his children but, oddly, not his wife. Furthermore, if you look closely at Will’s gravestone you see something very strange – the inscription has been overwritten, so that’s another mystery!’ u

Mill Brow Farm in Skelwith Bridge where William Preston livedMill Brow Farm in Skelwith Bridge where William Preston lived

The letter is now part of an exhibition at 84 Plymouth Grove called ‘Household Commotion’: Elizabeth Gaskell and the ‘awful treasure’ of her servants. The exhibition, which features stories and anecdotes about the Gaskells’ household staff, runs until May 2019. For more information, go online to

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