Historical Context

Manchester – a city of extremes

Manchester was a great cultural and intellectual centre, with institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Portico Library, all of which William was involved in. It was also Britain’s first major industrial city, creating much wealth as well as extreme poverty and squalor.

Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 writing:- “The workers’ dwellings of Manchester are dirty, miserable and wholly lacking in comforts. In such houses only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy creatures would feel at home.”

This was a time of great political change, with Manchester as a centre of radical political activity. Elizabeth Gaskell observed all this closely, and used what she saw in her novels Mary Barton and North and South.

We've got a house...it certainly is a beauty...I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can.’

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a letter to her friend Eliza Fox in 1850.