Gaskell House Blogs

At home with the Harpers

5th September 2019
in blog, People

While Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the most well known of the people who’ve lived at 84 Plymouth Grove, the house has been a home to other families, all of whom have stories to share with us.

One of these is the Harper family who bought the house after Meta Gaskell’s death in 1913. Charles Harper was a manufacturing chemist, and lived in the house with with his wife Annie and their four children Charles, Lilian, Constance and Eileen. Lilian Harper was an actor and her sister Constance was a musician, playing the harp with the Halle Orchestra – we have such a lot of connections with Charles Halle! Charles Harper was living in the house when he died in 1959, but his daughter Lilian is  recorded as still resident up until 1969. The photographs below from the 1930’s show the morning room which the Harpers used as a music room and the study as it was furnished when they lived in the house.

Imagine our delight three weeks ago when Maria Quinn visited the house and described to us her friendship with both Constance and Lilian Harper!

‘I grew up in a block of flats in Southport in the 1970’s. It was a smart new building and we had a small ground floor flat which came with my father’s job. He was employed as service manager to make sure everything was running smoothly in the building. For the most part, I was the only child living there, and because of my father’s position, I got to know many of the residents very well. I met some fascinating characters.

When I was four, two sisters, Constance and Lilian Harper came to live there. They were in their seventies, and I understood they had previously lived in Manchester. Constance brought a grand piano and a harp which were installed in the ground floor flat next to ours. Lilian took a flat on the eighth floor. They were elegant ladies in long dark coats and felt hats. Softly spoken with beautifully rounded voices. Their smiles brimmed with kindness. 

I have an early memory of sitting with Constance at her piano. For as long as I can recall, I’ve been fascinated by the instrument and I remember the joy I felt to hear her play. She taught me the names of the keys which I picked up very quickly.

In another recollection, Constance returned from a day trip to Manchester carrying a stray white cat, which she had befriended at Victoria Station. Tishka turned out to be pregnant and before long there was a litter of four kittens. The Harpers were devoted animal lovers and were determined to keep them all. Constance kept Tishka and two of the babies, whilst Lilian took the other two.

Sadly, Constance became ill not long after this and passed away in 1977. These are the only memories I have.

Lilian Harper became a great family friend. As a young girl, I would turn up at her door on a seemingly open invitation to play wit her cats, Fatty and Spades. She has a wonderful sense of humour, which was evident in her naming of Fatty, who wasn’t fat, but unlike his siblings had long hair and a very striking appearance. Both cats were kept immaculately groomed and she adored them.

Her flat was a treasure trove. It was like stepping into another age. We would wind up the gramophone and dance to the tunes of her youth surrounded by Royal Doulton figurines – dainty porcelain ladies dressed in colourful gowns. On other visits, we would sit drinking tea while she listened with interest while I talked about whatever was going on in my world at the time. I now realise how little she told me about herself. She was a very private person and the few things I know abut her have been gleaned from snippets I’ve heard from my parents.

My mother and father and father thought the world of her and she showed them much kindness. She was a wise and generous lady, a shining example of a decent human being, always there to listen and offer support. I can’t think of a single person I’ve met before or since for whom I have more respect.

I started piano lessons when I was nine. Soon afterwards, Lilian offered me a volume of short piano pieces called Magic Casements, composed by Constance and published in 1924. She asked me to promise that I would never give it away. I sensed this was profoundly important to her and I still have it to this day. The pieces were too advanced for me at the time, and even though I progressed and went on to study piano at college., I confess that I didn’t look at them for several decades. Recently however, on returning from an inspiring visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, I picked them up and suddenly the time seemed right. I’ve discovered tunes that are charming and rich with colour and mischief. I have come to know Constance much better from having studied her scores. Perhaps some day I might visit Elizabeth Gaskell House once more to play these pieces in the same room that they were composed in, almost a century ago. It would be an honour to bring these memories back to life in the Harper’s family home.

I was thirteen years old when Lilian Harper died. Her death left a void in the lives of the few people who were close to her in those final years. I’m so lucky to have been one of those people, the youngest person she knew. Her influence has shaped me in ways that are impossible to measure and made my life richer than it ever could have been.

We are so grateful to Maria for sharing her memories of Lilian and Constance Harper with us!

Lesley – House Volunteer

Mr Thornton is coming to tea

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell