William Gaskell


William Gaskell (Cheshire, England; July 24, 1805 - Chorlton, Cheshire West and Chester Unitary Authority, Cheshire, England; June 12, 1884) was an English Unitarian minister, charity worker and pioneer in the education of the working class of the 19th century.


William Gaskell was the son of Margaret Jackson (1783-1850), a native of Lancashire, England, and William Gaskell (1777-1819), manufacturer of sailcloth for the British navy and lay professor of theology. His parents were married on May 26, 1806 in Leigh, Lancashire, England and together they had 7 children.

William Gaskell was the eldest son and his family had long been a family of dissenters. William's parents, William and Margaret Jackson, attended the Sankey Street Unitarian Chapel in Warrington, an industrial town on the River Mersey, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.

Warrington, known as the cradle of Unitarianism, was until 1786 the home of the Warrington Academy, the institutional ancestor of Harris Manchester College, now part of the University of Oxford.

He married Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson (1810-1865) on August 30, 1832 in Knutsford, Cheshire, England, and together they had 5 children: Marianne Gaskell (1834-1920), Margaret Emily Gaskell (1837-1913), Florence Elizabeth Gaskell (1842-1881), William Thomas Gaskell (1844-1845) and Julia Bradford Gaskell (1846-1908).


William Gaskell was born in Latchford, a suburb of Warrington, being the eldest of six children. [3] The Gaskell family were prominent dissidents. His father, also William, was a manufacturer of candle cloth with a business on Buttermarket Street [3] and also a professor of Unitarian theology [2].

Tutored by a local minister, Joseph Saul [4] and banned as a nonconformist from attending Oxford or Cambridge, Gaskell studied at the University of Glasgow (1820-25), earning his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in 1825. He then trained for Unitary ministry at Manchester New College (1825-28), then located in York, where his tutors included Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858) and James Turner. [1]

William Gaskell's personal theology was priestly rationalism and he rejected the doctrine of original sin, believing that humans have an innate capacity for good, and this belief appears to have underpinned his lifelong commitment to charitable and educational projects. [1] [2] Unlike many of his Manchester contemporaries, Gaskell always favored social and educational work over political lobbying for free trade or factory reform. [1]

His personal philosophy can perhaps be summed up in the dedication he wrote in publishing his collection of poetry Temperance Rhymes: 'To the workers of Manchester, in the hope that they can act as another little weight on the extreme right of that lever that will lift them up the ladder of humanity' [1].

Life & Ministry

Gaskell was assistant minister of cross street chapel in Manchester from 1828 to 1854, and chief minister thereafter, a position he held until his death. [5] [6] Founded in 1694, [7] cross street was the most important Unitarian chapel in the city, and its congregation contained many influential Manchester figures, at one time including five MPs.

The prominent public health reformers James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877), Benjamin Heywood (1793-1865), Samuel Rathbone Greg (1823-1903), and William Rathbone Greg (1809-1881) were all associated with the chapel. [1] Contemporaries regarded Gaskell as a brilliant preacher, although he never spoke out of time; he was certainly a worker, often preaching three times on Sundays [1].

Chapel ministers generally refrained from overt political participation, but actively engaged in social work, propping up the momentum of their laity. William Gaskell led the congregation from 1828 to 1884, exerting wide influence within and outside of the Unitarian movement. He supported the Manchester Domestic Missionary Society, which aided the poor "in such a way that at no time should any denominational or sectarian name or proof be introduced." He championed the lower mosley street schools, which the cross street chapel sponsored to serve the areas near the Medlock River. A fellowship fund supported congregations in the poorest places. A nurse supervised by a lady from the congregation was funded to visit poor families near the city center. Gaskell worked for educational opportunities for the area's working class and advocated for the Mechanics Institute movement.

He was president of the Portico Library from 1849 until his death in 1884.

Gaskell was legendary in humanitarian efforts. To honor his fifty years in the Cross Street Ministry, an evening has been held at Manchester City Hall; more than a thousand people attended. The congregation honored him with a gift of silver and during the festivities a large sum of money was raised to fund a scholarship for ministerial students at Owen's College (now the University of Manchester).

William Gaskell was supported in his educational and humanitarian work by his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. He came to figure among the most prominent Unitarians in the country; in 1859, he was offered the ministry at Essex Street Chapel in London, the leading post in the British Unitarian ministry, but he declined, preferring to remain at Cross Street. [1] From 1865, he served as Chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire Assembly of Presbyterian and Unitarian Ministers. [2]

In 1861 he co-founded the Unitarian Herald, a publication aimed at a working-class audience, and was editor until 1875 [2].

Throughout his life, Gaskell worked for numerous local charities to alleviate poverty, improve living conditions, and reduce the transmission of diseases, particularly epidemic cholera and typhus. During the 1830s - 1860s, some of the worst conditions for the poor in England were in Manchester. [8]

The Gaskell family moved between the two worlds, allowing Gaskell not only to collect charitable subscriptions from his wide circle and promote more lasting changes within the local bureaucracy, but also to understand the real concerns of those living in poverty, with who were probably more at ease. [1] In 1833 he helped found the nondenominational Manchester National Domestic Mission, and served as its secretary for many years.

Inspired by a visit by Boston Minister Joseph Tuckerman (1778-1840), the mission provided practical assistance, such as food and blankets, to the poor. He was also active in the District Provident Society, an organization founded by James Kay and William Langton with similar pragmatic goals. Gaskell supported public health measures and housing reform, forming on the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association committee, as well as another committee formed to regulate breweries in the area. [1]

Gaskell was a talented teacher and lecturer, with a lifelong determination to expand the educational opportunities available to the working classes in Manchester. Such opportunities were limited in the 1830s; a Manchester Statistical Society report from 1834 showed that, with the exception of Manchester Grammar School and Chetham's Hospital, the main establishments involved in the education of the poor were Sunday schools. These schools gave children ages 5 to 15 a few hours of education every Sunday, with two-thirds of the children benefiting. Two-thirds of Sunday schools worked outside the Church of England. [11]

Both Gaskells taught at the two Mosley Street Sunday schools, which instructed the young mill workers. The lessons covered basic numeracy and literacy skills in addition to traditional biblical teaching, and Gaskell defended the practice of giving non-religious instruction on Sundays, saying they were doing "their father's business" by teaching reading. [2] He and others successfully lobbied in 1832 for the two schools to be moved to improved premises, and by 1847 some 400 pupils had been enrolled [1]. 

In 1836, Gaskell began teaching evening classes at the Manchester Mechanics' Institute, which would later become the Institute of Science and Technology at the University of Manchester. Founded in 1824 to teach the poorest mill workers, the institute was the first of its kind in the country [12].

Its main goal was to give factory workers enough knowledge so that they could keep up with the rapid technological progress of the time. [11] Yet from the beginning, Gaskell seems to have embraced the idea of ​​a broader education: his initial lecture series was titled "The Poets and Poetry of the Humble Life."

Gaskell became famous for his reading, which one former student described as "clear and sweet"; his poetry reading was recalled to have "a peculiar charm, because while he had a keen ear for the subtleties of rhyme, rhythm, and meter, none of the meaning or beauty of words was ever lost." [1]

When New College moved to Manchester in 1840, Gaskell continued to lecture on literature. From 1846 to 1853, he was professor of history, English literature, and logic at New College [5] [1]

When the university later moved to London, he served as chairman of the trustees. [2] He also lectured at Owens College, founded in 1846 with a bequest from John Owens. [1] [11] Beginning in 1858, Gaskell taught literature at the Manchester Working Men's College. He also gave private classes to both men and women; Notable students include hymn translator Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and her sister, translator Susanna Winkworth (1820-1884). [1] He was also president of the Portico Library in Manchester for 30 years. [5]

Gaskell had a fascination for the language and was an expert in the Lancashire dialect. Excerpts from her lectures on dialect were published in The Examiner, [1] and the 1854 edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, was accompanied by her notes on dialect. [2] He published numerous pamphlets and sermons, and wrote or translated more than seventy hymns, some of which are still sung. [1] [2]

Gaskell is said to have encouraged his wife to write her first novel as a distraction from her grief over the death of their young son from scarlet fever in 1845. [1] Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novels, Mary Barton and North and South, were directly inspired by her experiences as the wife of a minister in the city of Manchester, a cotton manufacturer. Gaskell always encouraged his wife's writing, advising her on the dialect, editing her manuscripts, and acting as her literary agent. [1] [2]


William Gaskell outlived his wife for nearly two decades, working full time for up to six months before her death, helped by his two unmarried daughters. He died of bronchitis in Manchester on June 11, 1884 and is buried with Elizabeth in the Unitarian Chapel on Brook Street in Knutsford, England. [18]


Gaskell's portrait and bust are on display in the new Cross Street Chapel. [2] Gaskell was portrayed by Bill Nighy in the Granada Television miniseries, God's Messengers (1994). [19]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e f g h i j k l Hughes P. 'William Gaskell', Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (accessed 24 July 2007)
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b Brill pp. 3-4
  3. ^ Brill p. 12
  4. ^ Jump up to:a b c "Mrs Gaskell and Knutsford". Lancashire Faces & Places. 1 (5): 69-71. May 1901.
  5. ^ A Brief History of Cross Street Chapel Retrieved before 10 December 2016.
  6. ^ Cross Street Chapel website (accessed 25 July 2007)
  7. ^ Briggs A. Victorian Cities (2nd ed.) (Pelican Books; 1968)
  8. ^ Engels F The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)
  9. ^ Letter to Marianne Gaskell (December 1863) in Chapple & Pollard
  10. ^ Jump up to:a b c Shercliff WH. Manchester: A Short History of its Development, pp. 35-38 (Municipal Information Bureau, Town Hall, Manchester; 1960)
  11. ^ Stevens THG. Manchester of Yesterday, p.102 (John Sherratt & Son; 1958)
  12. ^ Jump up to:a b Letter to Mary Howitt (18 August 1838) in Chapple & Pollard
  13. ^ Letter to Anne Robson (10 May 1865) in Chapple & Pollard
  14. ^ Gaskell E. Mary Barton (Chapman & Hall; 1848)
  15. ^ A Lecture on the Person of Christ, delivered in Bridge Street Chapel, Manchester, 9 February 1853. By Rev. W. Gaskell, MA, being one of a course on " The True and the False in Religion."
  16. ^ The Religious Opinion of Milton, Locke and Newton, p. 91. "Seventy years later William Gaskell protested against Manchester Unitarians being called " Socinians "
  17. ^ Brill pp. 117-8
  18. ^ BFI Film & TV Database: God's Messengers (1994) (accessed 24 July 2007).


  • Brill B. William Gaskell, 1805-1884 (Manchester Literary and Philosophical Publications; 1984) (ISBN 0-902428-05-5)
  • Chapple JAV, Pollard A, eds. The Letters of Mrs Gaskell (Mandolin; 1997) (ISBN 1-901341-03-8)
  • Uglow J. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (Faber and Faber; 1993) (ISBN 0-571-20359-0)