The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Meta and Julia Gaskell purchased 84 Plymouth Grove 16 years after their father’s death [see my previous blog] and remained there until their own deaths Julia in 1908 and Meta in 1913. Marianne, Elizabeth’s eldest daughter was still alive at this point and living in Worcestershire; it would appear that she had no intention of returning to the city of her birth, consequently the house and its content were put up for sale. We have a detailed catalogue of all the house’s content auctioned in February 1914, a sale that lasted five days, but no record of the house sale.

However, we know that it was bought by a family called Harper, and it was during their residency, in February 1952, that 84 Plymouth Grove became a Grade II listed building and acquired a blue plaque which visitors can see proudly displayed to the right of the front entrance. Like the Gaskells, the Harpers resided at 84 Plymouth Grove for over 50 years, which was most likely why the building survived when most of the other villas in the immediate vicinity had been demolished.

Who were the Harpers?

Charles William Harper was born in Manchester in April 1874 and baptised at St Mary’s Hulme a few weeks later. In 1897 he married Annie Maria Smith in Rusholme only seven years before his father (also Charles) committed suicide by throwing himself onto a railway line at Stratham, near Warrington. The newspaper article reporting this tragic event begins with the emotive headline: ‘Terribly Punished and Starved to Death: A Clerk’s Terrible Experiences’. Charles senior was a clerk and he appears to have had serious mental health issues for which little help was available in those days.

Of course, suicide carried a stigma for the relatives of the deceased, so this must have come as a blow to Charles and his young family. By this time he had three children, all born in Manchester: Charles Stanier (1899), Lilian Lee (1901) and Constance (1903). Charles seems to have lived in the vicinity of Elizabeth Gaskell’s house since his marriage in 1897. The 1901 census places him actually on Plymouth Grove (at number 182) but by 1904 (the year of his father’s suicide), he had moved to 254 Stockport Road, where he is still residing in 1911, with his wife three daughters and a son. By this time Eileen Annie, otherwise known as Nancy, had been born. But the youngest Harper does not appear to have remained in Manchester: we know she was living in South Africa with a young son, Oliver, but little else is known about this young woman.

Charles Harper senior was a traveller in pharmaceutical glassware and ‘druggist sundries’, but by 1939 his occupation is cited as a strange mix of travelling salesman and manufacturer: ‘a medical tablet manufacturer. Drug sundries, glass bottle merchant travelling’, while his son, Charles Stanier is a medical tablet maker. An interesting gender split occurs here, as the men are involved in science-medicines and glass manufacture, while the women pursue careers in the arts.

Lilian graduated from RADA in 1925 and started her career as an actress, which appears quite elusive. There have been suggestions that she worked for a while at the theatre in Rusholme, but there is no proof that was the case (at least nothing has emerge so far). She may have had a stage name, but again it is not known so her career is sadly, rather a blank. Constance, on the other hand, has some documented evidence of her career as musician – a harpist and pianist.

In 1930, an announcement appeared in the London Stage newspaper advertising the Rosa Trio, with Constance Harper as the Director, giving her address as 84 Plymouth Grove Manchester.

Constance was probably the pianist, but the Hallé records show her as second harpist for the orchestra between 1935 and 1939. These records only go up to 1943, so it is quite possible that she returned to the Hallé after that time. We have evidence from a former visitor to the Harper’s home. Keith, who is now 80, contacted Elizabeth Gaskell’s House to share his memories of Constance and her time as a harpist in the Hallé Orchestra during the forties and fifties. As a young boy, Keith attended the concerts and was entranced by Constance, who later encouraged him in his studies. He remembers her as a kindly lady, who was very beautiful. Keith lived on Upper Brooke Street and often came to watch Constance through the Drawing Room window as practiced her harp. As a volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, I remember being told this lovely story, but no-one was sure if it were true. Well I can now confirm that it is!

Keith was later invited into the house, which he remembers as being rather dilapidated even then. On passing his scholarship for Manchester Grammar School, he was given half a crown (quite an amount of money in the late fifties) and Constance gave him tea and striped fairy cakes, which he remembers vividly. In the mid-sixties, after he won a Fulbright scholarship to America, Constance helped with his expenses – by that time she had inherited money from her brother, who died in 1963. The two kept in touch for many years.

Constance’s brother, Charles Stanier Harper is an enigma. He married in 1943, yet his wife, Ellen Mullen, is listed on the 1939 census as Mullen, crossed out and replaced with Harper. The history of Charles junior is odd, as despite his marriage, he appears to have lived at 84 Plymouth Grove for at least some of that time, as his death is recorded there in October 1963. There is no mention of a wife. Moreover, the money he left in his will – £14,806 – was split between his two sisters, Constance and Lilian. Neither Nancy nor his wife, if she was still alive, inherited. His father had died four years earlier in 1959, so it looks like Constance, Lilian and Charles junior were living together at Plymouth Grove by 1959. Keith remembers a man at the house when he visited: he thought it was a gardener, but now thinks it may have been Charles senior or his son.

In the late sixties, Constance and Lilian moved to Southport where they lived in a flat at 9 Albany Grove. Maria Quinn has written about her memories of the sisters, so I will not elaborate. She does, however, remember them sending presents to a nephew in South Africa. This would be Nancy’s son, Oliver. It is interesting to note though, that despite them keeping in touch with the boy, he was left no inheritance by any of the family. Whether we read some sort of family feud or an early death for the young man will have to remain mere speculation, at least for the moment.

Constance died in Southport in March 1977 leaving the substantial sum of £41,641 to her sister. I expect that some of the money would have come from the sale of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House to the University of Manchester circa 1968/9. The University used it as accommodation for international students. It opened in 1970. Lilian died in 1983 and the death is registered in North Sefton: there is no probate for her that I can find to date.

What happened next is generally known. The house fell into disrepair and would have been lost, had it not been for the campaigning spirit of Janet Allan and others. They banded together to try and buy the hosue in memory of Elizabeth Gaskell: as Manchester’s only literary house, it was therefore worth preserving.

Eventually, in 2004, a purchase was secured and the fundraising began in earnest. To cut a very long story short, the restoration really got underway when the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust (set up to manage the sale, restoration and subsequent running of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House), managed to secure a £1.8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The future of the building was secured. After two years of hard work and research Elizabeth Gaskell’s House opened to the public in October 2014.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is an Independent Trust and relies on the generosity of the public to remain open. The House team and volunteers need your continued support, so please visit their website, where you can learn about online talks and virtual guided tours – or have a browse in the museum shop.

Diane Duffy

This post originally appeared on the  Elizabeth Gaskell’s House website, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the team at the House.