Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Understanding Elizabeth Gaskell's Garden and Its History

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Understanding Elizabeth Gaskell's Garden and Its History

Article excerpt

Abstract: The restoration of Elizabeth Gaskell's house in Longsight, Manchester, requires the re-establishment of the garden, a garden which was important to Elizabeth and William Gaskell when they moved there in 1850. This article will describe the historical background drawn on when designing the reconstruction of the garden at the Gaskells' house. Gardening in Manchester 1800 to 1850 is the first consideration. The concept of 'the villa garden' and its own literature is next examined as this contains design and planting suggestions for the relevant period. The evolution of the garden plan first considers Elizabeth Gaskell's writings. Both her letters and novels refer to her love of plants, including specific references to her garden, and these will inform the choice for the planting. This leads on to a consideration of the Victorian Garden, its style and planting. Contemporary references to the garden are then placed in the context of the time. The design for the restored Plymouth Grove Garden is then presented.

William and Elizabeth Gaskell, and their family, moved into their house in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, in June 1850. Their home became the centre for William's busy life as a Unitarian Minister and leading figure in Manchester's cultural and charitable activities. There Elizabeth pursued her life as a writer as well as fulfilling her family duties to her husband and four daughters. The daughters played a major part in local cultural activities until the early twentieth century. With the restoration of both house and garden, their Plymouth Grove home will once again become a centre for cultural activities and play a role in the Longsight inner-city community that would surely have pleased the family.

The garden is important not only to the story of the Gaskells, Manchester and the North West but also as an example of a national movement known as 'villa gardening'. The restoration will offer an opportunity to consider the importance of the garden to the family, to Elizabeth Gaskell within the context of her writing and also in wider terms to Gaskell studies, students of garden history, and the visiting public. Today there is almost nothing left of the garden to be seen on site, and the western end, to the left of the coach house, now contains a block of flats. Therefore the analysis of the garden's history is based on a variety of documentary sources, which includes maps, letters, published works and academic studies. Placing the garden in the contexts of the owners, and the literary allusions made in Elizabeth Gaskell's letters and published work, adds another dimension. The restored garden will be one of national significance.

As local Manchester maps show, by 1819 Plymouth Grove was semi-rural, with a few houses along the north side but still with many surrounding fields. Number 42 was built on the corner of Plymouth Grove and Swinton Grove, probably between 1836 and 1841.1 In 1841, according to Pigot's Manchester Directory, an attorney named Alexander Butler Rowley was living there.2 The 1848 Ordnance Survey map shows the layout of the garden as it is likely to have been when the Gaskells moved there in 1850 (Fig.2).

Gardening in Manchester c.1800-1865

There are a few local sources which enable us to trace the history of gardens in Manchester. By the late eighteenth century some wealthy Mancunians were at the forefront of fashionable gardening , as the 1779 sale catalogue of plants of a Manchester doctor, Philip Brown, demonstrates.3 Brown, who had a stove and greenhouses, claimed there were plants in his collection unique to England. Besides tender exotics the sale included herbaceous plants, bulbs and perennials. Clues can also be found in the customer ledgers and daybooks of Caldwell's Nurseries at Knowsley and Knutsford, in the Cheshire County Archives.4 These record orders from the upper middle classes in Manchester and environs. As the nineteenth century progressed, and industry and pollution became a problem, the wealthier members of Manchester society, as those of other industrial cities, chose to move out to new suburbs, all aided by a growing transport system. …

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