Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester home open to the public
- Credit: Archant
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
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.
‘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.
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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.
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.