Elizabeth Gaskell, probably best known as the author of Cranford, which has been adapted several times for the BBC, spent much of her life living and writing in the North West. Bronte lovers may also know her as the author of The Life of Charlotte Bronte, which is a posthumous biography of her friend, the author of Jane Eyre.
Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her Aunt in Knutsford for many years, before moving to Manchester after she married Unitarian minister William Gaskell. In 1850 the couple moved to 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
The house remained in the Gaskell family until 1913, when Elizabeth’s daughter died, after which the house, and its contents were sold. Discussions took place at the time about converting the house in to a museum dedicated to the memory of the Gaskell’s but the idea proved unpopular.
Manchester University bought the house in 1969 and converted it for use by the International Society. It remained a University building, painted a rather delightful shade of pink, until 2000.
Manchester Historic Buildings Trust purchased the house in 2004, with the aim of restoring the building so that it could be opened to the public. The house had fallen in to a state of disrepair by the time restoration work began in 2009, thanks to a grant from English Heritage. In June 2012 the Trust secured a grant from Heritage Lottery Fund, which meant that the interior restoration could begin.
On 5 October 2014, the house was finally open and ready to receive visitors once more.
I heard about the house on social media and, after perusing the website, I was intrigued by the possibility of visiting an historic property in which I would be actively encouraged to sit on the furniture. I have always loved people’s history; I enjoy learning about how real people lived, and about their experiences. My parents have dragged me to many stately homes but if I’m honest I often find them a bit stuffy and tend to prefer wandering down to the real heart of the house – the kitchen, always the room I paid most attention to in my childhood Victorian dolls house.
I don’t think it’s just because I love to cook; I think the kitchen is the place where you get a real sense of personality, as opposed to a display of possessions that you are paraded past and can’t properly look at because they are the other side of a rope cordon.
The Gaskell’s House is worlds away from the formality of a stately home, and not just in the nature of it’s original occupancy. Maybe the difference is that the items are replicas sourced to be as close as possible to the furniture the Gaskell’s would have used as opposed to the real thing, but I also think that the curators wanted visitors to experience the house as the Gaskell’s and their guests would themselves have experienced it.
When you enter the house, after purchasing your ticket from the helpful staff who explain the ethos to you, the first room is set up as an introduction to the house and the Gaskell’s. I loved the touch screen depicting Gaskell’s Manchester. It’s fascinating to see how many familiar parts of town would have looked in the 1850’s. Some of the family’s personal possessions, including Elizabeth’s wedding veil, are on display. There is even a basket of period toys for children (and adults) to play with.
You are encouraged to browse through the books in the study, to write a sermon at William’s desk, to sit at Elizabeth’s writing desk,
or her writing slope and write a letter on her preferred blue paper.
The fire blazes in the drawing room and walking in to it I was struck by the people sitting about, relaxing, enjoying the space. It’s refreshing and made me want to stay longer.
Heading downstairs, the kitchen is appropriately set up as the tea room, where you can enjoy a pot of tea or coffee, browse through the shelves of second hand books for sale, and indulge in an enormous slice of cake. The consumables are served on mismatched china, and rather quirkily, we were encouraged to choose the cups we wanted!
After tea, we headed out to ramble round the garden, which is as the Gaskell’s would have planted it, then headed back in to view the exhibitions upstairs.
It’s a good idea to use the bedrooms as exhibition space for the University’s architecture course, and also to tell the story of the restoration project of 84 Plymouth Grove.
Over time I am looking forward to seeing the interior develop with more of the space being restored.
As you wander through the house, each room has it’s own guidebook to tell you it’s story, and to point out special features. There are also quotes from Elizabeth Gaskell appropriately dotted around the house; on the walls in the kitchen, and throughout the garden, which give you a real sense of her views on living in the house, and remind you that it is the house of a writer.
It’s amazing to see the house so beautifully restored, in what is the otherwise uninspiring Ardwick suburb of Manchester.
Further up the road is the crumbling Plymouth Grove Hotel, which was built in 1873. What would once have served as accommodation and a watering hole, has, like the Gaskell’s House, fallen in to a state of disrepair. Yet, also like the Gaskell’s House, the pub is one of the few remaining examples of Victorian Architecture in Manchester. A quick Google suggests that the pub has been bought with the intention of turning it in to a Chinese Restaurant, which, if it happens, would be much better than leaving it to perish, but posts are none more recent than 2013 so the future of the building appears uncertain. Maybe the Gaskell’s House will draw interest to the area and attention could be turned to saving this magnificent building as well.
Other buildings on the street pay tribute to the Gaskell heritage, but none are so appealing as the Gaskell’s House itself.
A short walk will take you to the beautiful Victoria Baths, which is also subject of an ongoing restoration programme.
It’s wonderful to see these buildings re-tell the stories of Manchester’s rich history in new, and accessible ways and to watch them evolve as their restoration continues. Whether you are interested in Elizabeth Gaskell or not, the house is worth visiting if only to see, and learn about, an innovative and sensitive restoration project first hand.
The house is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 11.00 am to 5.00 pm.
An adult ticket costs £4.95.