A letter to Will
5th December 2017
There is never a dull moment at the Elizabeth Gaskell House. Last July I was treated to the sight of a letter that had been rescued from the rafters in the stable block at 84, Plymouth Grove during restoration work. It was an amazing survival story. Although it looked frayed, brown and brittle round the edges, but it has survived for over 160 years, even managing to escape the builders’ hammers and therefore deserves to have its story told; and what a fascinating story it is.
In 1853, a James Johnston from John St. Maryport wrote to William Preston who had been employed by the Gaskell family the previous summer as an outdoors man who was to reside above the stables. So the search began, but not in Manchester, in the southern Lakes at a place called Skelwith Bridge, which for the Lancastrians among you is only just over the border from what was then Lancashire.
Will Preston 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. As you can see from the photography below, the farmhouse is quite large and the family took guests. 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. You may wonder why she would want to visit smoky Manchester; well 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.
Skelwith Bridge is a beautiful place which has changed very little in terms of architecture since the Preston’s time. Close by the farm is a wonderful seventeenth century coaching inn, now a very good hotel which makes Gaskell research all the more attractive. 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.
If you read Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story ‘Martha Preston’ you can trace the authors’ footsteps from Skelwith to Grasmere, passing Wordsworth’s favourite tarn, Loughrigg , and ancient woodlands that connect us with our history. 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. However, at the other end of the churchyard stand two other graves-these mark 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, another mystery!
It is really not surprising that he married a local girl and returned home-what might surprise you is that the local girl was also working at 84, Plymouth Grove. The connection between Will and James Johnston, however, is still not fully clear, there is more research to do, more questions to be asked and answered. Even so, I believe we have a fascinating story to tell of travel and friendship through this wonderful artefact that brings the past to life.
You’ll be able to see the original letter and find out more in our new exhibition on Servants planned for the spring. In the meantime head down to the basement and read about this fascinating discovery.
If anyone has any information at all on the family we would love to hear from you.
Diane Duffy, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House