Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester has reopened to the public following a £2.5 million renovation of the building that will allow it to become a centre for the understanding of the cultural and literary heritage of the Victorian novelist and her family.
William Gaskell’s study. © Joel Chester Fildes
Fully restored on the ground floor, visitors can experience the authentically furnished home and the beautifully re-established Victorian gardens of one of the 19th century’s most important female writers. This important addition to the literary and tourist map of Britain presents the Gaskells’ family home as it was in the 1860s, including the grand ground floor reception rooms, with a supporting exhibition, and a display of original items. The gardens have been re-created using many of the plants mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing.
Elizabetth Gaskell’s House drawing room. © Joel Chester Fildes
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) is one of our best-loved Victorian writers, with the subject matter in her books as relevant today as it was in the 19th century and still familiar to the public, with her most popular novels regularly broadcast on television and radio. She lived in the house at 84 Plymouth Grove from 1850 until her death in 1865. She wrote her well-known novels Cranford (1853), Ruth (1853), North and South (1855) and the unfinished Wives and Daughters during that time. Visitors to the house included Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Elizabeth’s daughters took music lessons in the drawing room with esteemed conductor Charles Hallé. Charlotte Brontë described it as “a large, cheerful, airy house, quite out of (the) Manchester smoke”.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House drawing room. © Joel Chester Fildes
The house, a Grade II* listed property, was built between 1835-1841 as part of an upmarket development on the semi-rural outskirts of the city and is a rare surviving example of a suburban villa. It was designed in the fashionable Greek Revival style, probably by Richard Lane, a prominent local architect, for the growing middle class population. The Gaskells’ two previous Manchester houses have both been demolished. Elizabeth, her husband Reverend William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister and a pioneer in the education of the working class, and her four daughters Marianne, Florence, Julia and Meta. The latter two lived in the house until the death of Meta in 1913 and the contents of the house were then sold.
In 2004 Manchester Historic Buildings Trust acquired the grade II* listed building for restoration. At that time it was on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register. Challenges included wet and dry rot, leaking roofs, damp, and very defective plumbing and electricity. Remarkably, the layout and principal rooms of the house survived as first built, with much of the decorative plasterwork, joinery and the magnificent staircase in its original condition.
The restoration scheme has included meticulous research into what was in the house and how it had looked when the family resided there. The recreation of the rooms is based on evidence found in the house, as well as on Elizabeth Gaskell’s letters and books, comments of visitors at the time, extensive research, and examination of similar houses. Paint scrapes and scraps of wallpaper were used to determine the schemes of redecoration for the Study, Morning Room, Drawing Room and Dining Room. Elizabeth’s letters and five photographs of the interiors from the 1890s provided inspiration for the carpets, curtains and other features, which, as far as possible, have been recreated by local specialists.
Enhanced by key loans from the Elizabeth Gaskell Family Collection, Manchester City Galleries and the John Rylands Library in Manchester, similar furniture from the era along with the appropriate carpets and wallpapers recreate the Gaskells’ family home. Visitors will have the chance to sit in William Gaskell’s study, browsing the specially created library of period books or linger in the dining room where Elizabeth frequently wrote. Artefacts, facsimiles of Elizabeth’s original manuscripts and interpretation focusing on the lives and works of Elizabeth Gaskell and her family will examine and explore the cultural and social context of the period, women and their changing roles, Manchester and Victorian Britain, Unitarianism with its impact on the family and its wider social impact, daily life at Plymouth Grove as well as the recent restoration process.
Janet Allan, Chair of The Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, said: “I am delighted that after a sustained fundraising campaign and extensive restoration work, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House will finally re-open its doors. We are looking forward to offering a welcoming experience for visitors, whether or not they are familiar with the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as for the communities that we count as our neighbours here on Plymouth Grove.”
Sara Hilton, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund for the North West, said: “We are delighted to see Elizabeth Gaskell’s House finally re-open its doors to the public after an extensive restoration project. This building is hugely important to Manchester – both because of its association with Elizabeth Gaskell and as a rare remaining example of a Victorian suburban villa. Alongside the conservation of the house itself, the creation of new displays and exhibitions will greatly improve people’s understanding of one of the 19th century’s most important female writers.”