Bob Maddocks reports on the
Cranford and Penkridge
The BBC’s new adaptation of Cranford, which was begun on Sunday, November 18th 2007, was eagerly awaited by devotees of Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the original novels, and fans of Judi Dench, who was one of the stars in it. Those who live in and around Penkridge might find it even more interesting and enjoyable when they realise the links between Mrs Gaskell and our area.
Hiacinth Littleton, the first wife of Lord Hatherton, died in 1849. Lord Hatherton was devastated and, truth to tell, never really recovered from this blow. His life of utter wretchedness was somewhat ameliorated when he met a friend of one of his guests at Teddesley, Mrs Caroline Davenport. She, herself recently widowed, was a great beauty (like Hiacinth). Although “whirlwind romance” might overstate their careful, courteous and convenient relationship, they were married in February 1852.
Caroline, who was nearly twenty years younger than Lord Hatherton, was the widow of Edward Davenport of Capesthorne Hall, in Cheshire (who was 30 years older than her). In her twenty or so years at Capesthorne, Caroline became a close friend of Elizabeth Gaskell, who came from Knutsford. They were both keen on social reform and helping the working classes of the Industrial Revolution. Mrs Gaskell wrote one of her earlier stories, “The Sexton’s Hero” as a contribution to her friend’s fete in support of Macclesfield Baths and Wash Houses.
After Caroline moved to Teddesley, Mrs. Gaskell was one of her earliest visitors. Mrs Gaskell published many of her novels and stories in a magazine run by Charles Dickens called Household Words. When she came to Teddesley her journalistic instincts for a good story soon led her to the head gardener, a Mr. Burton. She interviewed him and, briefly, made him a celebrity when she published “The Shah’s English Gardener” in Household Words, in 1852.
Mrs. Gaskell reported that Mr. Burton was “a fine-looking, healthy man, in the prime of life, whose appearance would announce his nation all the world over”. In 1848 he had got job as gardener to Shah of Persia. He went first to Constantinople and then moved to Tehran. When he got there he discovered that the Shah who had appointed him was dead and his successor was not interested in gardening. Nonetheless, he took possession of two rooms with no furniture and mud walls. He was still unpacking when six men arrived outside his house to rob him. “But being a brave, resolute man, he picked out a scythe from among his English implements, threw open the door and began to address the six men”.
Burton’s life in Turkey went from bad to worse. He found that the men appointed as gardeners under him would not work because they were never paid. When Burton was eventually paid himself he had to travel over 100 miles to collect his money and had to steal to make ends meet. He had no means of enforcing obedience or attention. No one cared if the gardens flourished or decayed although he was expected to supply flowers for the harem.
“One day, in crossing the market place, he saw eight men lying with their heads cut off, executed for being religious fanatics. At another time, there were six men put to death for highway robbery and the mode of death was full of horror. They were hung head downwards with the right arm and leg cut off; one of them dragged out life in this state for three days.”
Not surprisingly, in October 1849, Burton decided to cut his contract short. In March 1850 he returned to Constantinople where he remained another twelve months before returning home. Mrs. Gaskell finished her story with the words “The remembrance of Mr. Burton’s Oriental life must be in strange contrast to the regular, well-ordered comfort of his present existence”.
Hiacinth, the first Lady Hatherton had been much loved by the workers on the Teddesley estate and the poor of Penkridge. In many ways she had acted as the conscience of Lord Hatherton, personally visiting the poor, listening to their problems, performing many acts of charity and overseeing the school. Even in the dying days of her long struggle against cancer, the poor who trailed up to Teddesley Hall were received by her. Nevertheless, Caroline, healthier, younger and more dynamic, represented a new type of woman. With her friend Mrs. Gaskell she got involved in great causes and threw herself energetically into great schemes to help the poor. The gardens of Teddesley Hall were thrown open to thousands of people, she persuaded Lord Hatherton to launch a scheme of medical insurance in Penkridge. At a public meeting at Littleton Arms she was the first to offer her services as a district visitor for the “Medical Club for the Labouring Classes”. She spoke at public meetings of a society for the suppression of cruelty to animals and in 1853 signed the anti-slavery petition of British Women, “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters, the Women of the USA”, which was presented to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. She showed Harriet Beecher Stowe around London on her visit to England.
Caroline, Lady Hatherton, and her friend Elizabeth Gaskell lived in a rapidly changing world with great social problems. The genteel upper classes faced challenges and uncertainties. When we see these enacted in Cranford we should recall that similar challenges were being faced here in Penkridge.
© Copyright 2007 Bob Maddocks