Gaskell House Blogs

Heirlooms and Treasures

28th October 2020
in blog, Collection, People

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has been lucky enough to acquire part of a collection of lace which belonged to a relation of Elizabeth’s husband William. Accompanying this collection, which included the front panel of a beautifully embroidered waistcoat (unfortunately not acquired) , were some letters, written during the late 1950s, from Edith Norah Gaskell to the Honourable Rachel Kay Shuttleworth; Mrs Robin Slee, a wedding consultant; and a dressmaker, Nathalie Deytrikh. 

Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was the founder of the Gawthorpe Textile Collection and her family had close connections with Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë.  In 1850, Rachel’s grandparents Sir James and Lady Janet Kay Shuttleworth were very keen that Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë should meet, and to that end they invited Elizabeth to visit them at their holiday home, Briery Close, Windermere while Charlotte was visiting. The two ladies hit it off immediately.  Later, after Charlotte’s death, it was Sir James who accompanied Elizabeth to Howarth to collect material for her Brontë biography which was published in 1857. In one of the letters  from Rachel to Norah Gaskell there is a mention of Meta and Julia Gaskell, the two ‘Miss Gaskells’ who ‘last came here to my brother’s coming of age, they wore their best paisley shawls and looked very charming’.  This was in September 1908, only a month before Julia died. Rachel also comments on how: ‘My Father, my Aunt and Uncles were all very fond of Mrs Gaskell, but I think scared of Miss Brontë’.  This is an interesting insight on Sir James who has been noted for his assertive nature.

Despite a brief interlude where Rachel converses on the family’s loss during the Great War, the closing paragraphs are devoted to the discussion of textiles. Although Norah is wishing to sell some lace, she has also generously donated items to museums: some dresses to Mrs Doris Langley Moore, the fashion historian, a period collar to the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall and some patchwork cards to Rachel herself; although Norah also sold some items for 25 shillings to Rachel Kay Shuttleworth for her lace collection. As for the rest of the lace which Norah was hoping to sell, it appears there was little demand; according to Rachel, the market was flooded.  Despite its brevity, this letter is packed with insights into life at Gawthorpe and mid-nineteenth-century attitudes to preserving the past.

The other letters detail the items of lace for sale and Norah’s attempts to find a buyer. She clearly thought the textiles desirable but was not met with a great deal of encouragement.  Her first point of contact was a Bridal Consultant living in Regents Park, London, Mrs Robin Slee. Mrs Slee was an Air Marshall’s daughter who had set up a business from home after her marriage. It seems to have achieved success since it was deemed prestigious enough to warrant a large spread in several newspapers. In fact, her name was also mentioned in an article about Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960. It appears that Mrs Slee knew many in high society, so might prove a useful contact.

The dressmaker whose contact details were provided by Mrs Slee was Nathalie Deytrikh, who was married to a leather manufacturer and based in Kensington.  Norah writes to Mrs Deytrikh in the hope of selling her lace for wedding dresses. She is quite persuasive, highlighting the suitability of lace for a spring bride. We do not have the reply. However, while these letters were fascinating in their own right, the next step was to establish the connections between the writer, Miss Edith Norah Gaskell and Elizabeth’s husband, William.

Whats the connection to the Rev. William Gaskell?

Simplified family tree showing the link from William Gaskell to Edith Norah Gaskell

William Gaskell (senior) was born in Latchford, the eldest of seven children. His father, also William, ran a sailcloth business with his uncle Roger and his second cousin Holbrook who was also William and Roger’s brother in law after marrying their sister Ann.  The business was based in Warrington.  After William senior’s death in 1819, Roger and Holbrook continued running the company, and Roger is the main player in this story.  It was Roger’s great-granddaughter, Edith Norah, who was trying to sell her family’s lace in 1957-1958. 

Roger was the eldest son of John Dakin Gaskell who was a barrister in Highgate, London. Later, Roger followed his father into the legal profession. In 1882, Roger married Edith Shipman who was from Lymm and the family took up residence at 5, The Grove, St Pancras, London.  Their first child, a daughter, Winifred, was born in 1885, followed two years later by Edith Norah (known as Norah) and then Janet Beatrice in 1890.  It is possible that in 1901 Roger was ill as one member of the household staff is listed as a nurse. He died in 1912. After 1911 there are no census records until the 1939 one, which is available in a redacted form.

By this time, Norah has moved from London to Brown Cottage, Blackheath near Guildford.  It is difficult to know exactly what type of establishment this was as despite being able to see that there were several different residents here, many entries have been redacted to conform to the laws governing census records. Those residents who are still visible include a child under school age, a retired children’s nurse and two domestics. Norah’s occupation is listed as a trained French teacher of independent means. Almost twenty years later, when the letters to Miss Kay Shuttleworth and Mrs Slee were written, Norah was still living at Brown Cottage in Blackheath; she was to remain there for another fifteen years until her death in 1972.

From the evidence we have available, we can only speculate as to why Norah was selling the lace, and the most obvious reason would be to generate income.  None of the sisters ever married. Beatrice died young in 1914 while Norah and Winifred lived into the 1970s. Ironically, as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s own family, the eldest child outlived the others. Winifred Gaskell died in 1974, two years after her younger sister Norah, and left nearly ten and a half thousand pounds.  We have absolutely no records of Norah’s circumstances when she died, there is no probate published online, no newspaper reports, nothing to fill in any gaps in this history. Neither have we any further information which would help us account for the lace during those years between Norah’s death in 1972 and the appearance of this collection on eBay in 2020. If anyone has anything at all that they could add to this story, we would be very pleased to hear from you.

Diana Duffy
Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

Mr Thornton is coming to tea

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