The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Stevenson married Rev. William Gaskell at St John’s Church, Knutsford in 1832 and on 10th July 1833 she gave birth to a stillborn girl. Jenny Uglow writes in her biography “She saw the baby but did not give her a name.”This early death of a child had a huge impact on Elizabeth and in July 1836 she wrote a sonnet ‘On visiting the Grave of my Still Born Child’. This was the first death of three that Elizabeth was to experience during her childbearing years. Between 1833 and 1846 Elizabeth gave birth to four daughters who survived her.

William Gaskell 1844 to 1845

Somewhere between 1838 and 1841, Elizabeth gave birth to another child, a boy, making it her fourth pregnancy since her marriage in 1832. In March 1856 she writes to a friend from her Newcastle days, Harriet Anderson, formerly Carr, about “the death of a little son while yet a baby…[making] six years difference between Meta and Florence.” There are no further details on when he was born and when he died; we don’t know how long he lived, just that he was not registered. This means the birth must have been before registration was introduced in 1839.

After Florence, however, Elizabeth had another boy, William, known affectionately as Willie. He was born in October 1844 and died nine months and eighteen days later in August 1845. But what do we know of Willie Gaskell, named after his father and grandfather?

Elizabeth was proud of her son. In the summer of 1845, she writes to her sister-in-law Elizabeth Holland “Willie comes on grandly & so does his red hair. He has dimples just like your Willie- is very good and very hungry.” The red hair may have been inherited from his mother who appears to have auburn hair in the miniature painted by William Thompson in 1832. Willie was born while the family were living in Upper Rumford Street where there were fewer rooms than at Plymouth Grove, which clearly necessitated shared sleeping accommodation:  “(articles & pronouns very useless part of speech to mothers with large families aren’t they) I have Florence and Willie in my room which is also nursery”.

That same year there was an epidemic of scarlet fever in Manchester and Elizabeth took Marianne and Willie to Wales to escape the contagion. She did not suspect that the fever was rife there too. Her Uncle Samuel Holland lived at Plas yn Penrhyn (pictured above) near Blaenau Ffestiniog and the family took lodgings there. Marianne became ill with the fever but recovered and was convalescing when her baby brother caught the disease and died. At that time, they were lodging in Marine Terrace Porthmadog with a family named Hughes. Elizabeth sent a workbox to Mrs Hughes, the woman who nursed Willie, as a token of her appreciation.

William Gaskell’s tomb in Cairo Street Chapel, Warrington.

Willie was taken back to Warrington and buried in Cairo Street Chapel which was the Gaskell family’s place of worship. The tomb is very large for an infant and rests next to that of his grandmother, grandfather, Uncle John and Aunt Margaret, Rev. William Gaskell’s brother and sister who died young. There is a large space before Willie’s name, suggesting the tomb was originally intended for William and Elizabeth, but they were both buried at Brook Street Chapel in Knutsford with their daughters Meta and Julia.

Elizabeth found it difficult to recover from her loss. Writing was a form of therapy, and Mary Barton emerged from that dark period. It is little wonder that the book is full of death. Just over a year later, her last child, another daughter, Julia Bradford Gaskell was born. But Elizabeth was still grieving. In April 1848 she writes to Anne Shaen, sister to William Shaen who was the family lawyer:

“I have just been up to our room. There is a fire in it, and a smell of baking, and oddly enough the recollections of  3 years ago come over me strongly –  when I used to sit up in the room so often in the evenings reading by the fire, and watching my darling darling Willie, who now sleeps sounder still in the dull, dreary churchyard at Warrington.  That wound will never heal on this earth, although hardly anyone knows how it has changed me.”

Diane Duffy


Diane Duffy

This post first appeared on the Elizabeth Gaskell’s House blog in April 2020 and is reproduced with their kind permission.