The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

At the Gaskell Society’s 2019 Conference, Dr Diane Duffy and Anthony Burton stood in at short notice to give a talk on “How did Elizabeth Gaskell know what she knew about working-class life?”.  This is currently being prepared for publication in the Gaskell Journal.  Research by the authors uncovered a variety of related information which will not be included in their article: what follows is such a side-light.

In understanding the life of the poor in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell received help and enlightenment from many people.  One of these was Travers Madge (1823-66).  He touched her life at several points, but a place where their paths especially crossed was the Lower Mosley Street Schools (on which more below).  Another person linked to the schools said that “no one will ever know how much she owed to her association with Travers Madge for her insight into Manchester home-life”, and, equally, “no one gave him greater encouragement and supported him in his endeavours more warmly than Mrs. Gaskell”.[i]  The writer of this, Arthur Cobden Smith (1865-1947), was a Unitarian minister in the North-West.  He was born in the year Elizabeth died, so he was not writing from personal experience.  But, after ministry in Burnley, he was involved with Lower Mosley Street schools and knew Meta and Julia Gaskell, so his opinion counts for something.

Travers Madge evidently had a charismatic personality.  This mattered perhaps more than his beliefs, because, a Non-conformist to the core, he followed his own inner light, however erratically.  Another Dissenter with changeable views was Joseph Barker (1806-75), who started off as a Wesleyan Methodist, diverted into Methodist New Connexion, was expelled and became a Quaker, then a Unitarian, turned to secular politics (supporting Chartism in England and in the USA the abolition of slavery), and finally reverted to the Primitive Methodists.  Even when involved in a disagreement with Travers Madge, Barker proclaimed: “Travers Madge is a beautiful and interesting character.  No one, I think, could know him, without loving him.  No one could know him without esteeming him.”[ii]

Madge came from a Unitarian background.  His father, Thomas, was minister of the Essex Street Chapel, London, “the premier pulpit of Unitarianism” (ODNB), and young Travers was expected to follow him into the ministry.  A sickly child, he was nonetheless “passionate, impulsive, full of ardent aspirations” (6: see note [iv]).  Attending University College, London, he was influenced by “an unconscious tendency to regard any established order of things as on the face of it wrong”, and declined to take examinations (7).  He did, however, develop a “strong earnestness in duty and sacrifice” (7), and took to leading Sunday school classes.  Teaching lads from “the most distressed abodes in the lowest parts of London”, he experienced “an irresistible longing to go right down into their lost hopeless life, to share their lot and suffer their misery” (8).

In this work, he became an “intimate friend” of a fellow teacher William Shaen, who would prove to be a link with Mrs Gaskell.  For in 1851 Shaen got married (with Madge as best man, and William Gaskell officiating) to Emily Winkworth, a dear friend of Elizabeth, whose sisters were among Elizabeth’s closest associates in Manchester.[iii]  From the start, then, Travers was, in effect, a friend of the family.  There are not many references to him in Elizabeth’s letters, but one, in 1851, records that “the Winkworths, Mr W. Shaen, & Travers Madge are coming to tea tonight” (Letter 96a).  This is from a letter to Elizabeth’s daughter, Marianne, and it is clear from other references in letters to Marianne that Travers Madge was someone perfectly well known and requiring no explanation.

A further link between Gaskell and Madge can be detected through Unitarian networks.  When Madge’s brief life was over, a biography of him (almost a hagiography) was written by his friend Brooke Herford (1830-1903).[iv]  Herford, born in Altrincham, encountered Madge at the Lower Mosley Street schools and fell under his spell.  Herford became a Unitarian minister, working in the North-West.  With William Gaskell he founded the Unitarian Herald, which they jointly edited.  His career took him to America, where he had ministries in Chicago and Boston.  (He contributed an introduction to an American edition of Cranford in 1891.)  His brother Charles remained in Manchester, and was married to Mary Jane Robberds, the daughter of William Gaskell’s first boss at the Cross Street Chapel, and a long-time friend of Elizabeth.  So Travers Madge would have been familiar to Gaskell also through the Herford/Robberds connexion.

Following his father’s wish that he would train for the ministry, Madge attended the Manchester Unitarian College from 1840 to 1845.  Although he was “remarkable” for the “fresh and joyous spirit of religiousness which pervaded his college life” (12), he continued to follow his own inclinations (refusing examinations), and soon found an opening for his talents not in college work but in teaching at the Lower Mosley Street Schools.  Here,

everyone loved him.  The scholars in other classes longed to be placed in his class. The little ones would run up to him in the street for a kind word, and that sweet smile he ever had for children.  There was hardly a rough lad in all the school who wouldn’t have done anything for him.  All his leisure time was passed in … visiting the homes of his scholars, taking long country walks with them, having them to tea at his lodgings, and making himself entirely one with them.  (13-14)

This assessment of Madge was endorsed by Elizabeth’s friend, Susanna Winkworth, who also helped at the Schools, and declared that Madge

at once became the very life of the school.  I have never seen anything approaching to the influence he exercised; the almost worshipping reverence and attachment which he inspired in those around him from his own utter unselfishness, purity, and holiness.[v]

The Lower Mosley Street Schools were the principal Unitarian school in Manchester.  At this time, the state was little involved in the provision of education, leaving it in the hands of religious bodies, though helping it along with grants supported by inspections.  The Unitarian community in Manchester started the Lower Mosley Street Schools in 1808, and they grew under the auspices of the congregations at the Cross Street and Lower Mosley Street chapels.  Beginning as a Sunday school, this institution expanded its education into weekdays, and also provided classes and social activities for adults.  In its own large building from 1836, it eventually moved when the Midland Hotel swallowed up its site, and in due course was transformed into the Manchester College of Adult Education on Oxford Road.  The Gaskell family were involved with the Schools over a long period, William as one of the clergymen in ultimate charge, Elizabeth as a teacher, and, later on, Meta and Julia as teachers and supporters.  When Meta died in 1913, the Schools’ Annual Report paid tribute to the “deep and lasting” influence which the family had exercised upon the institution.

Elizabeth would have encountered Madge at the Schools in the early 1840s.  Madge soon decided that he would not enter the Unitarian ministry, but would follow his own path as a “town missionary”, teaching, preaching, and visiting as a freelance religious leader.  His exuberant and inspiring piety, however, came at a cost, for he was subject to depression.  Today, perhaps, he might be regarded as a “bi-polar” personality.  In the idiom of his times, “his tendency to morbid introspection, combined with a naturally feeble constitution, and now and then deepening into periods of sad despondency, at times paralysed his energy and brought him to the verge of breaking up his work” (40).  In 1845 he had a breakdown, and fled from Manchester to recuperate with friends in Norwich.  He returned to Manchester in spring 1848, and again showed to the town “a face of indescribable sweetness and purity, its fresh, wholesome, kindly look, lit up with beautiful gleams of thought and feeling from the soul within” (53).

Working again at the Schools, he acted as editor of a newly begun periodical, the Sunday School Penny Magazine:  “more than one beautiful story for children in those early volumes bears the name of Mrs. Gaskell, … always a willing helper of Travers with his good work” (65).  Reluctant to be held accountable by the Schools, however, he parted from them, and took a job with a local printer, still keeping up his personal missionary work.  But depression set in, and he fled again to Norwich.  A pattern established itself.  “Whenever his health permitted intervals of return to Manchester, he still retained his connection with the old school” (109), and “to Manchester his heart still turned with deep longing to labour there, and with the feeling that he could labour nowhere else so well” (136).  But periods of depression recurred, so that “his life was little more than a series of weary illnesses, alternating with fitful gleams of feeble health” (123).

He was back in Manchester in the early 1850s, and, as references in Gaskell’s letters show, came to tea at Plymouth Grove occasionally (letters 109, 96a), though Elizabeth noted ominously that she had heard “a bad account of Travers Madge who ‘feels very well’ but the doctors say the disease is making progress” (letter 91b).

When the “Cotton Famine” struck Manchester in the early 1860s, Madge, now operating his own “Home Mission” (165), threw himself into relief work, “visiting, day by day, among those poorest of the poor, dwelling mostly in the borderland of shiftless semi-pauperism, among whom bad times are most immediately felt” (169).  By now he was much diminished: a “weak, frail figure – for he was no longer the buoyant youth, but a gray-haired man, aged before his time by sore conflict and anguish of soul” (163).  Elizabeth raised money to support his work (170), mentioning to one potential supporter that “he was here yesterday”.[vi]   When she was asked by the Daily News in February 1862 to write about conditions in Manchester, she declined but suggested Travers for the task, describing him as “a zealous amateur missionary amongst the Manchr poor; perhaps too depressed by constant sight of their misery to write anything brilliant” (letter 500).  In January 1863, Travers was so ill that he had to give up his work, and from here onwards he declined, dying on 22 March 1866 at the age of forty-two.

Travers Madge was evidently a luminous character.  Susanna Winkworth recorded:

Most of those who knew him felt much as a poor woman did, who, when asked by her clergyman who this Travers Madge was that she thought so much of, replied: ‘Oh, Sir! he’s an angel from heaven, and my very particular friend.’[vii]

If Elizabeth Gaskell had put him in a novel, we might have difficulty in believing in him.  But he was a real person.



[i]   A. Cobden Smith, ‘Mrs. Gaskell and Lower Mosley Street’, Sunday School Quarterly, 2, no.4 (January 1911), p.160.

[ii]   The Christian, vol.iv, no.lxxxi, 14 Nov 1847, p.215.

[iii]  [Susanna Winkworth (ed)], Letters and Memorials of Catherine Winkworth, Clifton: Austin & Son, 1883, pp.170-2, 174, 294-5.

[iv]  Brooke Herford, Travers Madge: A Memoir, 1867.  Bracketed numbers in the text are page references to this work.  The American reprint of this work, with the title A Protestant Poor Friar, the Story of Travers Madge, can be found here.

[v]  Winkworth, op.cit., p.170.

[vi]  Further Letters, p.238, cf letter 506.

[vii]  Winkworth, op.cit., p.171.

Picture sources