In 1849, Victorian author, Elizabeth Gaskell and her husband William contemplated building a new home. She was earning more as a writer and William was appointed a tutor at Manchester’s new college. But they opted for moving into the villa at 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove, designed by the distinguished architect, Richard Lane, whose work we’ll take a closer look at in the next post. At the time it was located in an open area of Manchester where there was room to breath and enough space for a little farm. It was said by a friend that she was,
“More proud of her cows, poultry, pigs, and vegetables, than of her literary triumphs”
As we come closer to the modern day, the city of Manchester closes in and the house no longer stands in an open grassy area but a suburb. The house has seen better days but it has been through a lot of history. We get to visit as it was in the 1970s through the experiences of Monica Fairview, the second author to live at the residence.
Monica (MF) writes historical romance and Jane Austen sequels. She was an English teacher for many years, happy to pass on a love for reading but realizing what she really wanted to do was write, she wrote. Three novels have been published and I’ve had the pleasure of reading all of them, she has a great talent for writing dialogue and creating memorable heroes and heroines. Thank you for joining us today.
1. Tell us your impressions about the house.
MF: “It would be easier to give you a “heap of broken images”. First I should say something about Chorlton-on-Medlock which is where Gaskell’s house was located. Chorlton-on-Medlock developed very quickly after the first mill was built on the River Medlock in 1795. After that several prominent mills were set up on the river, including the MacIntosh Mill which invented a way to waterproof (rubberised) cloth in 1823. The workers’ housing was built directly next to the river, which was often swampy and made for very poor living conditions at the very beginning. By the 1830s it had grown into a tenement: squalid, overcrowded, filthy, liable to be flooded, and “surrounded on every side by some of the largest factories of the town, whose chimneys vomit forth dense clouds of smoke, which hang heavily over this insalubrious region.” The area was a sanitary nightmare, plagued by cholera epidemics, with cesspools that flooded and a river of oozing green slime.
When Gaskell picked a house, she was away from all this, on the outskirts of the city, and even when her daughter died in 1916, the house was still comfortably located. In fact, in 1900 Julia and Meta Gaskell had had part of the estate turned into a park, so the park at least provided a green space that many could enjoy. Still, by then Chorlton-on-Madlock had expanded so much that it incorporated Gaskell’s house, and just a couple of streets away there were long brick terraces of back-to-back jerry-built hovels jammed full with as many as ten people to a room, with their notorious underground dwellings.
When I arrived in Manchester in the 1970’s the project of razing the whole area had been underway for some time, not just because of the terrible housing conditions but as a long overdue post-WWII rebuilding effort.
The historic districts of Manchester (including Chorlton-on-Madlock) were heavily bombarded by the Luftwaffe in what was called the “Christmas Blitz” (December 23 and 24, 1940). Luckily Gaskell’s house wasn’t hit, but even in the 1970s you could tell where the bombs had fallen. Since it had already been decided that the houses around were too derelict to be saved, no one had bothered to do anything to clear the rubble. What was comprehensively called slum clearance – which swept away the good and the bad – was well underway, operating on the assumption that there was nothing redeemable there. The attitude that prevailed in !913 when Meta Gaskell died still prevailed, which is that it was an ugly building of no architectural value. I have to assume that blackened walls and a general desire to eradicate all traces of the industrial past must have been responsible for that verdict.
Fortunately, the University of Manchester acquired the house and saved it from being bulldozed, but they really didn’t know what to do with it. The cold damp smog of the north had eaten into it, and nothing had been done since Gaskell’s daughter Meta had died. It was, literally and metaphorically, in no man’s land.
Which, I suppose, was a blessing, because the interior wasn’t changed much. From what I gather, even the original windows are still there.
When I lived there, the pink house was divided into apartments, and I have a vague memory of psychedelic carpeting. There were shutters on the windows and cracks as well. It was very old, and the dank smell of humidity was pervasive. I remember that I loved the stairs because they curved round and looked very grand.
It was really a very odd experience living there. You had this huge pink house with a garden around it, then if you just walked just a little bit you were in the midst of condemned buildings with broken windows. No one lived there at the time, because by then the authorities had moved all the residents out and re-housed them, but the buildings were like gothic ruins looming around us. My sister was a toddler, and she was terrified of the soot-blackened crumbling forms. She used to cry every time we walked through those streets, and she would try to pull us back to the Pink building.
I was very excited and proud in those days of living in Gaskell’s house – I remember writing about it for a school assignment and being asked to read my paper out to the class. People knew about her in Manchester because she was to Manchester what Dickens was to London. Unfortunately, the assignment has been lost. Sigh.”
In 2009 the English Heritage awarded to £260,000 to restore Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, recently purchased by the Manchester Historic Building Trust. Below are a series of exterior images before the renovation, click for a larger view at the original photo’s site.
The first phase of the restoration has been completed. Authentic lime plaster has replaced the 1960s cement render, and the damaged capitals have been copied and replaced. The windows and shutters, most of which have survived since 1838, have been repaired by skilled joiners in pitch pine and sapele wood. For the first time it has been possible to investigate fully some parts of the building. We discovered dry rot in the roof, and more in the cellar. This has been treated. The huge stone pediment at the top of the building was teetering on a single row of bricks and some timbers, but is now secure… – elizabethgaskellhouse.org
Below are images after the restoration work:
2. What was your first reaction when you heard about the restoration and do you plan to visit when it’s opened to the public?
MF: “I was absolutely thrilled. I can’t imagine how it would look all spruced up, but I’d love to glimpse the house as Gaskell herself must have known it. It’s really amazing that after all these years it is finally being returned to its original condition.
I’ve been in touch with the Friends of Plymouth Grove and I plan to visit in the Spring. I can’t wait to go back and revisit my childhood memories.”
3. Which of Mrs. Gaskell’s works have you read and which is your favorite? Why?
MF: “I read everything I could get hold of when I was still in Manchester, but that was a long time ago. I’m familiar with North and South and Cranford mainly, though I have dipped into other works.”
4. Do you think Mrs. Gaskell influenced your writing?
MF: “There probably isn’t a trace of Gaskell in my current writing, but I would say she had a profound influence on me as far as my interest in history was concerned, because when I did my GCEs I chose history as a subject, and one of my areas of concentration was Industrial England. GCEs required a lot of research at the time, and I spent long hours at the library in the John Rylands University library (my mother worked there, and my father was a graduate student, so I had access), so I read a lot about working conditions at the time. I was fascinated by the topic, and Manchester was the place to be for that kind of research. All this hasn’t yet made its way into my fiction so far, but who knows?”
Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us, Monica. I hope you have a lovely visit to the house in the Spring!