In 2021 the gardening volunteers at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House noticed that a tree, in a prominent position near the front of the house, was starting to suffer with Ash Die-Back. Reluctantly we took the hard decision to remove this mature tree, while resolving to replace it with something more suitable for a domestic garden.
Coincidentally, in 2022, The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative aimed to encourage the planting of as many trees as possible across the UK. Since the death of Her Majesty, this initiative has been extended to the end of March 2023 in order to include this winter’s tree-planting season. Our new tree will be registered on the Green Canopy website once it has been planted.
We had several criteria for our new tree. It needed to be smaller than the ash, so as to minimise shade for the beds around it. It had to have at least 2 seasons of colour so that it would be a decorative addition to the garden and it needed to have been available in the mid-nineteenth century when the garden at Plymouth Grove was being enjoyed by the Gaskell family.
One volunteer had the idea of a Spindle Tree, Euonymous Europaeus. One of Britain’s most colourful native trees, its leaves turn a spectacular deep red in autumn: it also flowers and produces berries. As well as satisfying the criteria for the garden, it also has extra resonance with Manchester’s historic cotton-spinning past.
The Woodland Trust’s website tells us that spindle timber is creamy-white, hard and dense. In the past it was used to make ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool (hence its name), as well as skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles.
A spindle is a straight spike usually made from wood, used for spinning fibres such as wool, flax or cotton into yarn. The spindle may also have a hook, groove, or notch at the top to guide the yarn and come in many different sizes and weights depending on the thickness of the yarn one desires to spin. Traditionally it is an integral part of a wooden spinning wheel.
Of course, with the mechanisation of cotton spinning in enormous mills, wooden spindles would have eventually been superseded by iron. It would take a more specialist historian than myself to know exactly when wooden spindles stopped being used, but limited research suggests that early pioneers in mechanisation such as Richard Arkwright (powered carding engine) Samuel Crompton (the Mule) and James Hargreaves (Spinning Jenny) continued using wooden spindles. [The Cotton Industry by Chris Aspin, Shire Publications]
Elizabeth Gaskell’s two Manchester novels Mary Barton and North and South do not mention spindles specifically, though both focus on working conditions in cotton mills. Her novella My Lady Ludlow does make specific mention of spinning-wheels (ch 13)
‘My lady presented the school with more spinning-wheels than there were girls, and requested that there might be a rule that they should have spun so many hanks of flax, and knitted so many pairs of stockings, before they ever were taught to read at all. After all, it was but making the best of a bad job with my poor lady–but life was not what it had been to her. I remember well the day that Mr. Gray pulled some delicately fine yarn (and I was a good judge of those things) out of his pocket, and laid it and a capital pair of knitted stockings before my lady, as the first-fruits, so to say, of his school. I recollect seeing her put on her spectacles, and carefully examine both productions.’
In her novel Sylvia’s Lovers Elizabeth Gaskell enjoys presenting the reader with a romantic image of spinning as an occupation which might enhance the attractiveness of the person engaged in it (Ch. 4) ‘A woman stands at the great wool wheel, one arm extended, the other holding the thread, her head thrown back to take in all the scope of her occupation, or if it is the lesser spinning-wheel for flax… all make it into a picturesque piece of domestic business that may rival harp-playing any day for the amount of softness and grace which it calls out.‘
An additional connection between the Gaskells and spindles that can be made, comes from research by another volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Dr Diane Duffy. https://gaskellsociety.co.uk/meet-the-neighbours/
In researching the Gaskells’ neighbours, she found Mr Lewis Williams living at 4 Swinton Grove in 1838, so almost next door. He was the owner of a Cotton Mill, Lewis Williams and Son, Tame Street Mill, Great Ancoats, which had 80,000 spindles.
Today spindle wood is used for making high-quality charcoal for artists. Perhaps the Gaskells’ artistic daughter Meta would have known this.
Planting a Spindle Tree therefore, feels right and significant. Not only will it be a beautiful feature in our garden, but its association with the industry that made Manchester’s wealth is highly appropriate. Just one more thing in its favour, the spindle’s botanical name, Euonymus, is from the Greek ‘eu’, meaning ‘good’ and ‘onoma’, meaning ‘name’. This is said to have meant ‘lucky’. May it have a lucky future in our garden.
With thanks to fellow garden volunteers Chris Tucker for help with research and Ann Hodges for sourcing and acquiring the tree.
Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House