Described by the press after her death as ‘one of the greatest female novelists of all time’ Elizabeth Gaskell was born in 1810 and lived at 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester with her family from 1850 until her death in 1865.
“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood…”
Wives and Daughters
She was born as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in London in 1810. A year later, on the death of her mother, she was taken to live in Knutsford, Cheshire, with her aunt, Hannah Lumb. The arrangement was a happy one – she was to refer to her aunt as “my more than mother” and was to use Knutsford as the inspiration for her fictitious town of Cranford. Knutsford also became ‘Hollingford’ in Wives and Daughters.
In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. Their third home was a large house near open fields – 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove. Here they grew flowers and vegetables, and kept a cow, pigs and poultry. The House was always bustling and the family entertained a stream of visitors, including many eminent people. Gaskell connections included such people as the Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Nightingales, but girls from the Sunday School also came to the house regularly, as did William’s students and fellow clergy.
The Gaskell Family
Elizabeth (known to her family as Lily)
Elizabeth’s diary and her many wonderful letters, show her as a conscientious mother, deeply concerned about her family. But she was also a prolific writer, a volunteer teacher and charity worker, a traveller (usually with a daughter but without William) and a very sociable woman. She would mix happily with people of all types and she used her experiences in her writing. She seems to have been a charming but independent-minded woman. Her enterprise is shown in the fact that she bought a large house in Hampshire without William’s knowledge, as a surprise present for him and as security for her daughters. She died there suddenly of heart failure on 12th November 1865, aged 55. You can see a full time line of her life on the Gaskell Society website
William was born in Warrington in 1805, and went to Glasgow University at the age of 15. He was an exceptionally talented man with many interests, and co-founded the Unitarian College in Manchester as well as a journal which he edited. He taught at Owens College and in various working men’s clubs and institutes, and was active in the work of the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association. He wrote hymns and poems, gave talks on poetry and Lancashire dialect, was chairman of the Portico Library and on the committee of Manchester Literary and Philosophical Association. He died in 1884, working to the end.
Marianne (also known as Polly or Minnie)
Marianne, born in 1834, was the eldest daughter and seems to have had a very practical nature, becoming increasingly relied upon to help her mother in domestic matters. After a long courtship, she married her second cousin, Thurstan Holland, and moved away from Manchester. She died in 1920.
Margaret Emily (always referred to as Meta)
Born in 1837, Meta was regarded by her mother as the most talented of the daughters. In spite of a brief engagement, Meta remained unmarried and stayed at Plymouth Grove till her death in 1913. She was a gifted artist and a friend of Ruskin and Holman Hunt, and after her mother’s death became her literary executor. She was very supportive of education for women and became a founder governor of Manchester High School for Girls.
Florence (known as Flossie)
Born in 1842, Flossie seemed to her mother to be the least talented of her children but was described by Fanny Wedgwood as a beauty. She married young and moved into a house in Hyde Park, London. She died, childless, at the age of 39.
The youngest daughter, Julia, was born in 1846, and charmed Charlotte Bronte when she came to stay at Plymouth Grove. She never married but she and Meta, as the Miss Gaskells, carried on the family tradition of entertaining and philanthropy after the death of their parents. Thackeray’s daughter wrote after a visit to Plymouth Grove: ‘O what kind ladies! O what a delicious dinner! O what a nice room!’ Julia died in 1908.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is run by Manchester Historic Buildings Trust (charity no. 1080606) and all money gained through private tours, room hire and ticket sales goes towards the ongoing maintenance and running costs of the house and garden. If you would like to support the house with an additional donation you can do so via this link.