Gaskell House Blogs

Tracking down John Johnson

17th December 2017
in blog

When you find a letter wedged in the brickwork under the roof trusses of the stable block at the Elizabeth Gaskell House, two questions immediately spring to mind-who sent it and why? (you can read about the recipient in an earlier blog)

We know from the signature that his name was James Johnston and that in 1853 he was living in John St., Maryport, although sadly he does not provide a house number. This is part of John St. today. The houses in the picture below would have existed in James Johnston’s day, so did he live here?

Also, what was his trade and how did he know the farmer’s son from Skelwith Bridge? We have very little information to work with, although Johnston provides us with a number of names. We know his wife was Polly, probably Mary, and we know he had a sister, also Mary. In the letter there is talk of romance, emigration and a summer adventure to Carlisle races with its beer tents, food tents and other attractions-a real holiday outing.

Trying to track down Johnston’s history was difficult but I think, out of a number of possibilities, that the history I have chosen is correct because the people and places seem to fit the letter profile. James was born in Lancashire, in Claife near Hawkshead, so not too far from Mill Brow in Skelwith Bridge; according to Google about 6.4 miles. James’ father, Archibald was a gardener and by 1829, when Mary was born, the family was still at Green Eals (probably End) House in Claife.  By 1841 they had moved to Snowdon Farm near Kendal where  Archibald is still listed as a Gardener.

What happened next is still lost in time. We know James was in Maryport in 1853 and at Carlisle races in 1852 with Will Preston. The Swifts Race Course now exists as a golf course, the Grandstand having been transformed into a pub, aptly named The Turf.

There are still, however, questions that remain unanswered; did they two young men know each other prior to this meeting? I expect they did. And why did James go over to the west Cumbrian coast, first to Whitehaven, then Maryport?

An entry in the 1858 Trade Directory for Maryport shows James as a clerk of accounts to the Wilson and Bass mine in Flimby, a small town south of Maryport. The role as clerk would certainly explain the style of our letter which shows the formality of a business letter mixed with the local idiom. Yet where was he educated?

The letter makes interesting reading, especially because it gives us a snapshot of these people’s private lives, their home, courtship and marriage, as well as what leisure activities they enjoyed. The Carlisle races was a prestigious event which lasted three days, and featured, as I said, diverse entertainments, which is possibly why James asks Will if he is to attend the 1853 event, perhaps with the hope of meeting up?  Moreover, who was Polly, Mary and Maggie, the girl Will seems to have loved and lost?  Travel too features in their stories, travel for enjoyment, travel for work and emigration.

I do have answers to some of these questions now, but others remain elusive, frustratingly out of reach. It is any researcher’s great hope that one day someone will turn up with at least some, or even just one, of the answers. I hope that many of you who read this will come along to Plymouth Grove and see how this letter provides a window into the lives of those who lived over 160 years ago.

Diane Duffy, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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.

We've got a certainly is a beauty...I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can.’

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a letter to her friend Eliza Fox in 1850.