by Geoffrey Head

The original chapel

The era of the Gaskells at Cross Street Chapel lasted for some 85 years. William Gaskell was appointed Minister of Cross Street Chapel in 1828, he and Elizabeth married in 1832, and Elizabeth died in 1865. William continued as Minister at Cross Street until his death in 1884. The unmarried daughters Meta and Julia continued to live at Plymouth Grove until Meta’s death in 1913, maintaining their parents’ involvement in the affairs of the Chapel and in the social and cultural causes with which they had been associated. For the purposes this short paper, however, I am taking the period of William’s ministry 1828 to 1884.

Cross Street Chapel was of course William’s sole ministry. When he took up his new post as Assistant Minister in August 1828, he came into the midst of a mature congregation. The Chapel had been erected in 1694 and soon occupied a significant position not only in the religious but also the social and political life of the town. During the 18th century, together with the nearby Parish Church of St. Ann (erected some 18 years later), it supported the Hanoverian and Reform interests as against the High Tory (and often Jacobite) sympathies of the Collegiate Church.

The Chapel, founded as the Dissenters’ Meeting House, was the first Non-Conformist place of worship in Manchester and its congregation gradually moved from its early Presbyterian persuasion to a Unitarian position, completed during the ministry of Rev. John Grundy (1810 -1824), a few years before William’s arrival. As Unitarians were excluded from the universities and many civic, academic and other spheres of activity, they had perforce to indulge in the available commercial and manufacturing activities of the emerging industrial and capitalist society. Manchester was on its way to becoming the world’s first industrial city in the modern sense. William therefore came to a congregation with which many wealthy and powerful families were associated, a congregation moreover determined to press for the removal of their cultural and political disabilities, a congregation also of self made men deeply conscious of the need to improve the educational and social conditions of the working class from which they themselves had sprung.

The Cross Street Unitarians, however, were never strongly denominational, unlike neighbouring congregations at Mosley Street and Strangeways. It is true that on occasions they had to react strongly to attacks on their faith, but their stance was in general tolerant and relaxed. This gave them a head start through their ability to co-operate with all those of liberal sympathies in the reform movements of the 19th century. Their wealth and respectability gave them credence as leaders with the establishment. They had too much of an economic stake in society to be put down as potential revolutionaries.

Cross Street Unitarians thus formed the majority of the group of Manchester reformers, which centred on the Cannon Street warehouse of two of their members, Thomas and Richard Potter. By the 1820’s Thomas was a leading member of the Chamber of Commerce with a mansion at Buile Hill in Salford. He preferred a backroom role in committee or administration, whilst Richard was more of an agitator. Both were heavily involved in philanthropy and reform. Before the incorporation of Manchester in 1838, when it was still technically the “biggest village in Britain”, both of the brothers were Police Commissioners. After the Reform Act of 1832, Richard became MP for Wigan. Thomas became the first Mayor of Manchester, served for two years and was knighted by Queen Victoria.

The organ of the Cross Street Unitarians was the “Manchester Guardian” of which John Edward Taylor, a Trustee of the Chapel, was first editor. He was also a prominent town councillor after incorporation. This is not the place to enumerate all of the Cross Street people who were prominent in the life of the growing town and the reform movements, but mention could be made of Fenton Atkinson, who unusually was not engaged in one or other aspects of the cotton trade or other manufacturing activity. He was a lawyer and an effective writer, who gave legal support to the defence of Taylor at a famous libel trial and has represented some of those wounded at Peterloo.

So William found a congregation heavily involved with press campaigns, through the “Manchester Guardian” and other more transitory publications, and with the movement to reform Manchester’s archaic local government institutions, largely controlled by an entrenched Tory oligarchy. In the early years of William’s and Elizabeth’s marriage a major issue was the dissenters’ campaign against the payment of church rates to the established church. There were struggles to establish an effective police force, provide street improvements and introduce town gas – Manchester had outgrown its infrastructure and improvements were urgently needed to alleviate the conditions memorably set down in Engels’s “The Condition of the Working Class” in 1844. [1] The incorporation of Manchester in 1838 and the setting up of a more accountable and democratic form of local government was a major step, but it was only the beginning – 10 out of the first 28 Mayors of Manchester were associated with the Chapel.

On the parliamentary front the drive was to obtain representation for Manchester and this was achieved with the Reform Act of 1832. Apart from Richard Potter, several other members of the congregation became MP’s for various constituencies as far apart as Stockport and Stirling. It was not William’s style to be publicly involved in political issues. His considerable powers of oratory were reserved for the pulpit at Cross Street, or those numerous other chapels to which he was invited. There is no record of his appearing on a secular public platform but the activities of his lay folk in pressing for improvements in education, health and the relief of poverty were mirrored in the practical endeavours of William and Elizabeth. William was of course an inveterate Committee person and he was Secretary of the Manchester Domestic Mission Society set up by Cross Street members to minister in a practical way to the poor. Husband and wife too were heavily involved with the Lower Mosley Schools set up by the congregation to meet the needs of working class children in basic education as well as in religious instruction. Both of them taught in the schools as well as making an administrative input and Elizabeth visited the homes of many of the pupils. Another heavy involvement of Cross Street was in the Mechanics Institute where William gave lectures.

The foregoing relates in general to the public face of Cross Street and has only touched upon part of the vast amount of social and community endeavour with which the congregation and its Ministers were involved, but the kernel of the work was, of course, the Chapel. In its new Chapel, so recently opened, the aim of the Trustees has been to follow this tradition by providing a building with facilities for many socially useful and cultural activities but with a place of worship at its heart.

After 1828 the congregation, under the spiritual leadership of William Gaskell and his colleague the Rev. John Gooch Robberds, continued in its dissenting and reform tradition. The business of the Chapel was firmly under the control of its self perpetuating body of Trustees. The congregation as such had an annual meeting but little or no say in the finances, although it was involved in a wide variety of social activity, such as the Lower Mosley Street Schools serving the areas of wretched housing around the River Medlock. A Fellowship Fund provided aid for poorer congregations in the North West and Cross Street was the main source of finance and manpower for the Manchester Domestic Mission Society that served the necessitous areas of East Manchester and Hulme. A nurse superintended by a lady of the congregation was employed to visit families near to the town centre. Ministerial leadership was prominent in these pursuits, but much of the finance did not go through the Chapel books. The Gaskells and their colleagues were able to tap substantial contributions from wealthy associates of the congregation, who often preferred to give anonymously. The Trustees were of course all male. The Unitarians were the first to admit women to the ministry and many women are numbered amongst their 19th century social workers and hymn writers but … but business was business. William Gaskell was Chairman of the Manchester District based at Cross Street from 1849 until his death in 1884, but there were no women members of its governing body in his time and it was another ten years or more before a solitary one appeared.

The running of the Chapel was routinely financed by some endowment, some donations and by pew and seat rents. Offertories and collections were never taken for Chapel purposes – only occasionally for charitable causes. The Sunday morning service was the occasion for the well to do to occupy their designated pews, where they would find their own hymn and chant books – they had to buy their own. The Cross Street members by and large did not attend evening service. In the evenings, sittings were free and made available to a working class clientele, largely associated with the Lower Mosley Street Schools.

By and large wealthy Unitarians were generous in giving for charitable causes and building new churches, but were not particularly interested in providing future endowments for their congregations. This derived from a Unitarian attitude of mind. They firmly believed that Mankind was progressing onward and upward and furthermore that Unitarianism was the faith of the future – that improved educational opportunities would inevitably lead the population as a whole to recognise the merits of a liberal tolerant faith based on reason and scientific advance. J. A. Symonds’s hymn “These things shall be, a nobler race than e’er the world hath known shall rise, with flame of freedom in their souls and light of knowledge in their eyes” was their anthem. There was therefore no need to provide financially for succeeding generations, as increased membership and the country’s enhanced prosperity would amply provide. This misplaced optimism was of course to lead in the next century to congregations struggling with vast buildings, impossible to maintain for congregations of a size anticipated but never realised. Meanwhile, Cross Street was always able to find money for charitable endeavour or Unitarian expansion elsewhere in the heartland of their faith, which was the North West of England. Yet times change, localities change: nothing is forever. Cross Street, having played a determining role in the rise of Manchester as the world’s first industrial city, was to find itself to an extent the victim of its own success. The town houses of the wealthy manufacturers and merchants were turned into warehouses and their owners moved into the suburbs and further afield. By the 1860’s one senses that the trustees and leading congregational members were increasingly professional men – comfortably off but with finite resources compared with the previous generations. Disquiet began to be expressed about falling attendances at Sunday morning services – the membership list was still healthy but people who had removed out of the city centre were reluctant to travel back for a service, when they could attend another place of worship nearer to their new home.

The decline in the influence of the elite body of Trustees was manifested in a modest move towards a more democratic government. A Chapel Committee elected by the pew and seat holders was formed consisting of equal numbers of Trustees and Non-Trustees plus the Chairman and Secretary of the Trustees with the proviso that it should not interfere in Trust property or Chapel finance.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

The affection of the congregation for the Gaskells was at this time manifested in a number of ways. Soon after Elizabeth’s death an appeal for commissioning the memorial tablet was three times oversubscribed – this is the tablet that was rescued, albeit damaged, from the old chapel when it was destroyed by enemy action in World War II and has successively found a home in the 1959 building and the present Chapel. Concern for the health of the newly widowed William was manifested in the raising of a Guarantee Fund to pay for ministerial supplies so that he could take time off without placing an additional burden on his colleague the Rev. James Drummond. It did however prove exceedingly difficult to persuade William to have recuperative holidays. At all times a workaholic, his reaction to bereavement was to bury himself in his vocation.

The new Chapel Committee’s first act was to address the matter of its ministers’ stipends, which had not been increased for over 50 years – long before William’s own appointment. It is difficult for us today to comprehend that for much of the 19th century and indeed up to the first World War, inflation was unknown and the buying power of the pound was virtually unchanged; if anything prices tended to fall.[2] The congregation’s urge to increase the stipends at this juncture was not because its ministers were worse off in real terms but because of, to quote, “a great advance in the wealth and style of living of this community in which the members of Cross Street Chapel have largely participated”. This was a reflection of the view expressed in the denominational newspaper “The Inquirer” – that “the Ministry as a whole should become the social and intellectual aristocracy of our church – on a social level with the best families amongst us”. The Chapel Committee moreover recorded that “The position held by the congregation of Cross Street Chapel among the leading congregations of the denomination renders it incumbent upon us to give an example of the liberality which is due to those who minister to us in spiritual things by making such provision for their maintenance as shall keep them clear of all anxiety and enable them to devote themselves fully to the duties of their office”. William’s stipend had in fact been £300 per annum since his appointment, although in most years the Trustees managed to produce an additional £50. As a general guide, a multiple of 60 converts 19th century values to the present day, so the modern equivalent of £350 p.a. would be around £21,000. [2] Undoubtedly the Gaskells had some private income and William would have additional emoluments from preaching fees and his considerable teaching and lecturing activity, but the establishment at Plymouth Grove plus the holidays taken by all members of the family plus the style of life and charitable giving expected in their position afford good reasons for Elizabeth’s concern from time to time about the family finances – a concern which at least in part provided an impetus for her literary activity. Mrs Chadwick, with some justice, said that “she delighted in a large house and many servants, in entertaining her many friends, and, above all, continental travel”[3]. The Cross Street congregation having willed the end, in typical fashion, willed the means by establishing a Minister’s Stipend Augmentation Fund so that the stipend of both their ministers were increased to £500 – £30,000 in present day terms. As a sidelight on the Gaskells’ finances it can be noted that Meta on her death in 1913 left an estate worth over £50,000, say £3 million in present day terms, despite the extensive charitable giving of her and sister Julia since their father’s death in 1884 and her purchase of two houses in Plymouth Grove and conversion of them into a nursing home shortly before her death.

After Elizabeth’s death the congregation continued with its outreach. In 1871 it raised £184 for relief in Chicago which had been swept by a disastrous fire with the destruction of much of the city including the Unitarian Church and manse. Well attended Sunday evening lectures were held with speakers including William Gaskell and visiting ministers. Some had a highly theological stance, for example, “Eternal Torments” and “Sin and Regeneration”. Needless to say, William’s contribution tended to have more of a literary interest – “Milton” was a typical title.

The years moved inexorably on to what can only be described as William’s apotheosis – the celebration in 1878 of his 50 years in the ministry and 50 years as Minister of Cross Street. He had become a legend at the Chapel, in Unitarianism generally, and in the life of the City. In August there was a commemoration service in the Chapel. In October there was a soiree in Manchester Town Hall attended by over 1000 people; there was an act of worship, addresses presented by innumerable bodies. A large sum of money was raised, most of which was, at William’s request, used to found a scholarship at Owens College (now Manchester University) for ministerial students from the Unitarian College. The personal gift from the congregation was lavish – an inscribed solid silver centrepiece, four compotières burnished with gold, a pair of antique vases, a gilt jug and two goblets. There were speeches and replies.

Thereafter, we reach the final years. For some years, William’s health had given cause for concern. The congregation had urged him to take longer holidays and had freely provided supplies for his absences. He was excused Sunday evening services during the winter months. By 1883 he was relieved of all requirement for specific duty. Yet he continued to beaver away in his study, meet his important educational commitments as Principal of the Unitarian College in Manchester and as Chairman of Committee at Manchester New College in London. He also continued as Chair of the Portico Library in Mosley Street and in his last year was still busy with the Manchester District A

Although he was approaching his 80th year, he seems never to have thought of leaving his charge at Cross Street. Equally, there was never any suggestion from any source within his congregation that the time might have come for him to retire. The regard in which he was held was all pervasive. He had of course no monetary or household concerns and his daughters kept him effectively insulated from all mundane matters. However, the congregation was experiencing a declining membership, as the flight to the suburbs continued. When Rev. James Drummond, William’s colleague, left in 1869 to take up a Professorship at Manchester New College, the congregation was only able to offer his successor, Rev. S. A. Steinthal, £250 p.a. as a stipend, although it was subsequently increased. It was apparent that William, however esteemed, was no longer able to provide the dynamism to bring adherents into the congregation from further afield. On his death the Rev. S. A. Steinthal was appointed to sole charge of the pulpit and the long tradition of a dual ministry at Cross Street was over.

At the congregational meeting in 1878 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ministry William counted it as no small cause for thankfulness that he had been happy with the four colleagues with whom he had been associated. There had seldom been a difference of opinion amongst them and never a difference of feeling, and they had always worked most amicably together. Those four Ministers comprised Rev. J. Gooch Robberds (1811-54), the anti-sabbatarian James Panton Ham (1855-9), James Drummond, later to become Principal of Manchester College Oxford (1860-9) and S. A. Steinthal, the son of a German immigrant (from 1870). Undoubtedly, the duality of the Cross Street ministry was a major factor in enabling William to pursue his many cultural and community interests as well as providing the support and empathy so influential in Elizabeth’s literary avocations.

William Gaskell’s last service at Cross Street was on 13th January 1884, after which his health obliged him to relinquish all duties. As Barbara Brill says in her book he “slowly faded away”,[4] being taken seriously ill only a few days before his death on 11th June. Yet he died in harness, Minister of Cross Street Chapel to the end.

Adrian Hastings in his “History of English Christianity”[5] writes “the Manchester Guardian, like Manchester University and the greater part of Mancunian civic life had almost grown out of Cross Street Chapel, the original Dissenters’ Meeting House, turned over the centuries Unitarian. Here was Dissent at its most secular, its most assured, its most unparochial”. This was the tradition to which William came. It was a tradition in which Elizabeth was comfortable – although a born and bred Unitarian she was liberally rather than denominationally inclined. It was a tradition that was nurtured and remained intact at the close of over half a century of Gaskell leadership.


1 Engels’s – The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in Leipzig in 1845, did not appear in English until 1887.
2 There is a useful note on 19th century monetary values in Brian R. Law’s Fieldens of Todmorden, an account of the Unitarian business dynasty that controlled the town of Todmorden (pub. George Kelsall 1995, p.12).
3 Mrs E. H. Chadwick – Mrs Gaskell – Haunts, Homes and Stories (pub. Pitman 1913, p.302).
4 Barbara Brill – William Gaskell 1805-84 (pub. Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society 1984, p.117).
5 A. Hastings – A History of English Christianity 1920-85 (pub. Collins 1987 p.120).


The main and primary sources relating to Cross Street Chapel are the Trustees’and Congregational Minute Books held at the Chapel or John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester, together with the various Annual Reports, programmes, tickets and other literature at the Chapel relating to the congregation, the Lower Mosley Street Schools and the Manchester Domestic Mission Society.

Engels (op cit) is a key source for working class conditions in Manchester during the early years of William and Elizabeth’s married life. The impact of Cross Street Chapel on the pressures for reform are well treated in Michael J. Turner’s “Reform and Respectability”(Chetham Society 1995). Barbara Brill (op cit) gives a rounded portraitof William Gaskell’s life.

© 2009 Geoffrey Head