Cranford - Mrs Gaskell's legacy of neglect hits home

PUBLISHED: 13:06 28 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:29 20 February 2013

Her novel Cranford captivated television viewers but million of pounds are needed to restore Elizabeth Gaskell's historic Lancashire home. <br/>Words and pictures by Peter Riley

IT stands forlorn and sad - a tragic description for a house which once saw so much life. But this is the reality for the former Manchester home of Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell, whose novel Cranford has just been serialised on BBC1. The glittering line-up of stars and the lavish sets are in stark contrast to a house which stood neglected for years before being bought by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust.

It is offically on the 'At Risk' register. The trust's aim now is to bring the detached property back to its former glory, but to achieve that they have to raise 2million. A start has been made and the Trust recently received a modest 16,000 from English Heritage to carry out emergency repairs to keep out Manchester's famous rainwater. Elizabeth Gaskell House is a Grade II listed building on Plymouth Grove, a mile from the city centre and located in what was once a very genteel area. In recent times it has been under sustained attack from the weather, vandals and thieves.

A beautiful Regency fireplace, where Mrs Gaskell would have warmed herself in the drawing room, was stolen. Greater Manchester Police recovered it - in pieces. It will not be restored until the building is once again back to its original, pristine condition. In recent years the house was owned by Manchester University and was used as an International House, providing accommodation and a place of relaxation for overseas students studying at the university. It also acquired some lurid colour schemes. English Heritage Regional Director, Henry-Owen John, said: 'This building is historically important, especially due to its association with Elizabeth Gaskell, a social commentator of international standing on the industrialisation of England. We are very supportive of the trust's initiative to develop a project to safely remove the house from English Heritage's Buildings At Risk register and bring it back into use as a centre for the interpretation of Elizabeth Gaskell's work.'

In literary terms the importance of the house can hardly be overstated to fans of Mrs Gaskell as it was her home from 1859 until 1865, and it was here she researched and wrote most of her major works, including Cranford, North and South, Wives and Daughters and her Life of Charlotte Bronte. Janet Allen a member of the Trust and the Gaskell Society, added her own thought when she said: 'If we can protect and restore Gaskell House, and bring it back into everyday use, not only will that preserve an important part of Manchester's literary heritage, it will be a major inspiration to readers old and new and be a focus for students of Mrs Gaskell's writing.'
Once funding is in place the building, which once played host to Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte and is now open to the public on the first Sunday of each month, will take two years to renovate.

Elizabeth married a Manchester church minister called William Gaskell and they moved to Plymouth Grove, Manchester in 1850. They remained there for 15 years and the horrors of industrial Manchester led to her into charitable works. It was also an inspiration for her writing. Only a mile or so away from Gaskell House is an example of how our Lancashire heritage can be preserved. The Chetham Library, possibly Manchester's greatest treasure, was recently given a grant from English Heritage. Chetham's, the oldest public library in the United Kingdom, dating back to 1653, received 97,000 which has allowed its future to be secured.

Time had taken its toll on the library, home to a distinguished collection of 150,000 rare and early books, and roof beams and timbers had started to sag under the weight of water seeping in over the years and the injection of cash has been a life-saver, according to Chetham's Librarian Michael Powell. He said: 'We had dry rot, wet rot, and death watch beetle in the timbers and this grant from English Heritage has allowed us to carry out enormously important work. For example we had to work out how repair work could be carried out from bottom to top rather than the other way round, because the traditional way would have meant removing all the books from the library which would have been difficult to say the least.' Architect Alan Jackson added:

'The work of preserving timbers and thus the ancient appearance of the building meant we had to come up with a plan to carefully remove the bottom section of the beam and the wall plate, cut away rotten sections of the beam, let a steel plate into the remaining beam and then reinstate as much of the original timber as possible.It was quite an experimental solution.'

Chetham's Library, which was established under the will of wealthy Manchester merchant Humphrey Chetham, who died in 1653, is unique. It is one of the most complete late mediaeval complexes to survive in Lancashire and many of its 15th century features are still clearly evident, including tables and chairs from the 1650s on which students still sit and study. It has long been an important place of study for people from across the world, and Karl Marx researched his famous work Das Kapital in Chetham's.

Today around 20,000 people visit Chetham's each year either to study or simply to look around this piece of ancient England. Thanks to the English Heritage grant visitors can continue to enjoy the building and Henry Owen-John summed up the feelings of everyone connected with Chetham's when he said: 'English Heritage is delighted to have been able to come to the rescue of this fascinating and immensely important building.' Let's hope there's also a happy ending for Mrs Gaskell's home.

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