The historic regency villa sat between Longsight’s terraces

The fascinating story behind the manor that once housed one of Manchester’s most famous authors

Plymouth Grove isn’t necessarily a street where you’d expect to find one of the most important literary sites in the country.

At first glance, this part of Longsight appears to consist of typical terrace housing in a standard neighbourhood. Yet, an extraordinary building stands amid these ordinary surroundings.

Sitting across from a row of terraces with a bold blue plaque, Elizabeth Gaskell House is a rare remaining example of a suburban regency villa in Manchester.

Painted pink for a time, over the years its number has changed from 42 to 84 as more properties have squeezed in around it.

The villa was purchased by the University of Manchester in 1969 and it was used by the International Society until the late 1990s. During this time, it housed a nightclub in its basement.

Home to local author Elizabeth Gaskell from 1850 to her death in 1865, this was where the majority of her critically significant novels were written, including the most famous, Cranford.

It’s said that Cranford was her favourite book, with Gaskell even naming her cat after it.

Ahead of its time, the story has never been out of print in its 170-year history. Throughout the pages, Gaskell champions feminist values: breaking away from period norms to focus her tale on a group of self-reliant unmarried women.

The world of Cranford has been popularised since the BBC adapted the world of Matty and Deborah Jenykns for television in 2007. 

When the hit BBC1 series first aired it put Knutsford decidedly on the map, even if the town was, as Cheshire Life reported at the time, snubbed in favour of Wiltshire for filming. 

Manchester’s part in the story, meanwhile, often gets overlooked.

Dame Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, the younger sister of Cranford’s moral guardian Miss Deborah. This costume is currently on show at the villa as part of new exhibit A Love Affair with Cranford / Image : BBC

Many will be aware of the popular TV series. But few are aware that, despite the title, it is actually a combination of three of Gaskell’s novels – Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions – all written during her time living in the house.

Today, the villa looks the same as it did when she was penning some of her most important work, right down to the quill and paper cast askew at her writing desk.

A rare first edition copy of Cranford is on display at the house outside the author’s newly-refurbished bedroom

Whilst Gaskell lived at Plymouth Grove, she received some notable visitors, and it’s easy to imagine the likes of Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Harriet Beecher-Stow reclining on the chintz settees in the plus drawing room.

You can also picture Gaskell’s good friend Charlotte Bronte shyly hiding behind the drapes to avoid an over-eager caller (which we have on good authority she definitely did during one stay). 

Lovingly restored by some incredibly knowledgeable volunteers from the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, you can still step in off the street today and feel like its famous former tenant has just popped out.

They’ve painstakingly sourced every item inside using the house’s 1914 auction catalogue to make sure everything is as historically accurate as possible.

Inside Elizabeth Gaskell’s bedroom, restored by volunteers to look just as it did during the author’s lifetime

The detail is all there. And you can even ring the bells in the servant’s quarter, thanks to the efforts of one dedicated volunteer who rewired all the original bell pulls by hand.

The Study, Morning Room, Drawing Room and Dining Room have all been restored to how they were pre-1857, but the latest and most exciting new addition to the house is Gaskell’s bedroom – a project that kept the volunteers going through the past year’s successive lockdowns.

The focus of their energies during Covid, the restoration of Elizabeth Gaskell’s most private space was not easy to pull off – especially with borders and shops firmly closed. Still, they managed it, drawing on contacts and friends to help work around the issues 2020 threw at them.

The end result is something really special: a near-perfect recreation of the room in which Elizabeth would’ve dressed her children, written her personal letters, and maybe even parts of her iconic novels.

It’s open to visit now every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11am-4.30pm.

Tickets for a year’s admission are priced at just £5.50 for adults and £4.50 for senior citizens and students – and are well worth hanging on to for book lovers, who won’t want to miss the second-hand book sale that takes place here every month.

Learn more online.

Feature image – Bill Pearson.

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