The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

For those of you who have been lucky enough to visit the Elizabeth Gaskell House in Manchester, you may remember a large portrait of a woman hanging in the dining room recess. She is looking out over the table and surveying the scene before her. The woman is Margaret Gaskell, William’s mother, and I always found this portrait significantly positioned as a statement on women, family and the domestic space.

Within their family, Margaret was the last mother of her generation to die. Elizabeth’s mother had died in October 1811, Aunt Lumb, her ‘more than mother’ in 1838 and Margaret Gaskell in January 1850, six months or so before the family moved into their new residence in Plymouth Grove. Margaret was a representative of the older generation of women. She has been strategically positioned by the curators of the Elizabeth Gaskell House, looking out over the domestic space  at her son, who would have been at the head of the table.  Off to her right, and out of view, is a writing table, a symbol of Elizabeth’s professional life.  Whether this was a deliberate statement is debatable, but it is certainly a powerful image.

Elizabeth became part of a new generation of women who could unite the domestic and commercial world – the public and private spheres   By March 1850 she had embarked on her career as a writer, establishing herself as a regular contributor to Charles Dickens’ Household Words.

As far as we can ascertain (for 18th century records are sketchy) her mother-in-law, Margaret, was baptised at St. Andrew’s Church, Leyland, Lancashire on 26th March 1780. She was the daughter of Robert and Mary Jackson of Farington, a little village to the south of Leyland.  Robert and Mary were married in Leyland church in 1775 and Robert’s occupation is given as husbandman (a farmer). It appears there has been some controversy about whether Margaret’s name was actually Jackson or Balshaw. This can be explained simply, by the fact that Balshaw was her mother’s maiden name.

According to the baptismal records of St Andrew’s Church in Leyland, Margaret was the second child born to Robert and Mary. She had a younger sister, Jane, and two brothers, James and William. While we have no accurate records for Mary’s death, we do for Robert. He died in 1817 at Wrightington in the borough of Wigan, he is buried in Leyland Parish Church.

One aspect of this history that has puzzled researchers  is that there  is no listed marriage for  Margaret  and William Gaskell in Leyland Church, and yet  Edgar Swinton Holland writes about Margaret, his grandmother:

“of whom it is said  (and with reason) that she was the handsomest and best lady married in Leyland Church for some considerable time.”(1)

Wherever you search for records, each search returns the same result – a marriage at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Leigh, between William Gaskell , gentleman of Liverpool and Margaret Jackson of Atherton and  dated  1803. If this is Margaret, the evidence seems to suggest it is, the reason for this change of residency is unclear.(2)

One explanation would be that Margaret had been employed as a servant.  When I first began volunteering at the Elizabeth Gaskell house, the received wisdom was that Margaret Jackson was a servant who had taken William’s eye and whom he had taught to read. This at first seemed unlikely, but after careful thought, it may well be true.  It was not unusual for girls to be put into service, and as farmers with four children living in a small village community, domestic service would have been a likely employment for the girls.  Many years later, Margaret’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Gaskell took two girls from Mill Brow Farm in Skelwith Bridge, Westmorland into her service at Plymouth Grove and in 1852 she also employed their brother William as an outdoors man.  Taking up work in domestic service would be one explanation for Margaret’s move to Atherton which, in the early 1800s, was a very small, quite rural community.  Another possibility would be that she might be employed in a mill. There were cotton mills in Atherton in the early 19th century but they were few and small. The industry expanded later in the century.  Of the mills in Leigh, Atherton and Wigan, only one is listed as being built before 1820.  The OS map produced in 1848 shows many more as well as coal mining activity. So perhaps Margaret moved for employment – but what about William’s residence in Liverpool?

That’s where we’ll be heading in part II.

Diane Duffy

(1) Edgar was the son of Elizabeth Gaskell, Rev. William’s sister and Charles Holland. His work, A History of the Family of Holland of Mobberley and Knutsford in the country of Chester;” is available online at

(2) A Gaskell family historian has matched the signature and is satisfied that this is the record of William and Margaret’s marriage.