Historical Context

Manchester – a city of extremes

In 1750, Manchester was a town of less than 20,000 people. By 1850, when the Gaskells moved to Plymouth Grove, it had become Britain’s third largest city, with a population of some 250,000. Workers attracted by the jobs in mills and factories suffered the effects of rapid industrialization: long hours, low wages, poor housing and sanitation, and the fear of unemployment and destitution.

To some, Manchester was a symbol of technological progress and the creation of wealth. To others, like the young Friedrich Engels, who studied the living conditions of the working classes while living in Manchester, the city was ‘… Hell upon Earth. Everything here arouses horror and indignation.’

The conditions endured by many of those living less than a mile from Plymouth Grove were well known to William and Elizabeth, both of whom were active in practical initiatives to provide poor relief and education. Much of this work was inspired by the Gaskells’ Unitarian faith.

Then, as now, Unitarians were well known for their progressive ideas and commitment to social justice. Elizabeth also wrote about the lives of working people in her novels and stories.  In the preface to Mary Barton (1848), she said that her inspiration came from the people whom she saw each day on the busy streets of Manchester.

Besides the mills and the slums, the Gaskells’ Manchester was also a city of libraries, concert halls, theatres, shops and exhibitions. William took a leading role in shaping many of the educational and cultural institutions that still flourish today.

Cross Street Chapel

William Gaskell was appointed Assistant Minister at Cross Street Chapel in 1828. He was promoted to Senior Minister in 1854, and worked there for a total of 56 years.  Many of the city’s most influential politicians and businessmen worshipped there: at one time there were five MPs in the congregation. There has been a religious congregation on Cross Street since the Dissenters’ Meeting House was founded in 1694. The building was renamed the Cross Street Chapel and became a Unitarian meeting house around 1761.  The chapel was bombed during the Second World War, and the current building was completed in 1997.

Portico Library, Mosley Street

The Portico Library opened in 1806 as a subscription library and newsroom for its 400 members. Its building was designed in the Greek revival style by Thomas Harrison of Chester. William Gaskell was the Chairman of the Library from 1849 until his death in 1884. In 1879, the Library committee commissioned his portrait, which now hangs in the Study at Plymouth Grove. Women were not admitted as members, so William borrowed books and periodicals for his wife and daughters. These included novels, memoirs, periodicals and books on history, travel, science and education.  Elizabeth described to George Eliot how she ‘went plodging through our Manchester Sts to get every number [of Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life] as soon as it was accessible from the Portico reading table.’  The Portico Library is still housed on the upper floor of the original building.

Free Trade Hall, Peter Street

The Free Trade Hall opened in 1856 on St Peter’s Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The Hall was built to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and to mark Manchester’s commitment to free trade. The building housed political meetings, concerts, plays and other entertainments. In 1858, the Gaskells’ friend Charles Hallé established a regular programme of concerts by the Hallé Orchestra, which were regularly attended by Elizabeth and her family. The previous year, Charles Dickens had performed on the stage in a production of Wilkie Collins’s play The Frozen Deep.

Manchester Literary and Philosophy Society, 36 George Street

The Manchester Literary and Philosophy Society (known as the Lit and Phil) was founded in 1781 for the advancement of education and the appreciation of literature, science, the arts and public affairs.  Its first members were mainly physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the (all male) membership extended to businessmen and manufacturers. Initially, meetings were held in a room belonging to Cross Street Chapel, until the society moved to 36 George Street in 1799. By 1860 the society had over 200 members, including such eminent scientists and engineers as John Dalton, James Prescott Joule and Joseph Whitworth.  William Gaskell joined the Lit and Phil in 1840, and was a member of its council from 1857 and then a Vice-President from 1871.  The Society is very active in Manchester today.

Mechanics Institute, David Street (now Princess Street)

The Manchester Mechanics Institute was established in 1824  by a group of mill owners and manufacturers, to provide  part-time education in science and technology for the working  men of Manchester.  The Institute started in Cooper Street and in 1856 moved to larger premises on David Street. The new Mechanics Institute building was the largest outside London: it had a lecture theatre that could seat 1,000 people, a number of classrooms, and a library holding 4,000 volumes.  William Gaskell was a regular lecturer at the Mechanics Institute. The subjects of his talks were wide-ranging: during the winter of 1847, he lectured on ‘Poets and Poetry of Humble Life’, ‘Animalculae’ and ‘Insect Life’.

The interruptions of home life are never ending

Elizabeth Gaskell 1863