Manchester 1835During their early married life the Gaskells were resident for a time in Dover Street which was on the south-west side of the town, off the busy Oxford Road in the Ardwick district of Manchester. In 1842 the Gaskell family moved to 121 Upper Rumford Street which was a slightly larger house still in the
In 1850 they moved to 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove, a large house beyond the manufacturing district in view of open fields. Here Elizabeth tried to bring some countryside to the town by keeping a vegetable garden, a cow and poultry. The house was always bustling and they entertained a stream of visitors there over the years including many eminent literary personages of the day.
More domestic staff were needed at 42 Plymouth Grove, where there were seven bedrooms, two attics, three living rooms and kitchen premises in the basement. They took on a cook and several maids, at one time employing a staff of five including a man for outside work, and also using the services of a washer- woman and sempstress.
Although relieved of many domestic tasks Elizabeth never relinquished the running of the household and worked in close harmony with the staff, training them well and taking a keen interest in their welfare. It is perhaps sometimes forgotten that the Victorians who employed young domestic staff took on serious responsibilities, standing in loco parentis. William and Elizabeth were exemplary employers, taking a close interest in the personal problems of those who worked for them, readily granting leave of absence so that they could go home at times of family crises, and in 1851 their cook Mary was married by 'the Master'.
Once Elizabeth was established as an authoress and was earning money from her books she travelled a great deal with her daughters to further their education and it was imperative to have trustworth servants to keep the household running smoothly for William while she was away and his chapel duties kept him in Manchester. Of necessity their scale of entertaining increased in frequency and in numbers of visitors, so domestic help was essential. Their style of life was gradually changing and perhaps they sometimes looked back with nostalgia to the informalities of their early married life, such as the occasion when they thought nothing of walking, Elizabeth in great thick shoes and William in boots and without gloves, to a christening party in north Manchester, walking back home in daylight at 3.30 a.m., as she described in a letter in midsummer 1838.
The Manchester or the Gaskell’s time was a city of extremes. It was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was also the symbol of the new industrial age and the rapid growth of industry made a huge impact on the landscape of the city. Uncontrolled urban development created extreme poverty and squalor. Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 writing:-
“The workers dwellings of Manchester are dirty, miserable and wholly lacking in comforts. In such houses only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy creatures would feel at home.”
It was also a time of great political change with Manchester as a centre of Chartist activity. Elizabeth Gaskell observed all these social tensions intimately and used her observations (and the hypocrisy that she saw at work) in her novels that have become known since as her ‘industrial novel’ genre.
Elizabeth Gaskell house