When Elizabeth Gaskell’s mother died a year after she was born, she moved to Knutsford to live with her maternal aunt Hannah Lumb. Not only did she spend her childhood there, but it’s in Knutsford that she married – in the local parish church, despite being a Unitarian: non-conformist churches weren’t licensed to perform marriages – and it’s in Knutsford that she’s buried, in Brook Street Chapel.
She first wrote about her experiences there in an essay published in 1849 The Last Generation in England, and turned those experiences into fiction in a series of stories that were published in Dickens’ Household Words between 1851 and 1853 – later collected together as Cranford.
The novel paints an attractive picture of the community, mocking the social pretensions of its womenfolk with gentle irony. It was turned into an award winning BBC TV series in 2007, with Judi Dench taking the role of the endearing Miss Matty, and Eileen Atkins as her formidable sister Deborah.
The origins of a number of characters and locations in Cranford have been identified: Captain Henry Hill (who fought at Waterloo) becomes Captain Brown in the book, and lived at 15 King Street; when Lord Mauleverer comes to visit him, it’s at The Angel on King Street that he stays; the black and white building just down the road from there, now a Chinese restaurant, was a grocer and draper’s shop in the mid-nineteenth century, Jackson’s becoming Johnson’s in the novel; Elizabeth Gaskell’s cousins Mary and Lucy Holland, who lived with their father in Hollingford House next to the parish church on Toft Road, may even have been the inspiration for the Jenkyns sisters themselves.