The archive is a rich family collection which includes diaries and journals; deeds, inventories and legal papers; memoirs; family pedigrees; manuscript lectures and sermons; commonplace books; and manuscript poems. At its heart is a mass of correspondence, extending to around 1,000 letters. This consists of letters sent to family members by friends and acquaintances, as well as extensive correspondence exchanged between members of the Green and Jamison families. Isabella Green is the addressee of many of the letters in the archive, and it seems she ultimately took custody of many letters sent to her parents and unmarried sisters. There is also a long series of letters from Isabella herself to her brother Philip, which may be due to the practice of returning letters to their sender after the recipient’s death. There are also numerous letters sent to Isabella's daughters Evelyn and Catherine during the twentieth century, some dating from as late as the 1960s.
The archive includes 16 letters written by Elizabeth Gaskell - 13 to her friend Mary Green and three to Mary's daughter Isabella. Her letters to Mary (which date from 1852-64 and have been published in Chapple and Shelston's Further letters of Mrs Gaskell) contain news of their respective daughters’ activities, mutual visits, and anxieties about their children's welfare. Gaskell also articulates more serious concerns in relation to the children; in a letter dating from June 1860, for instance, she refers to Philip Green's decision to join the judiciary in Bombay which he has obviously discussed with her in some detail; she attempts to console her friend and reassure her that Philip's prospects are better in India than at home. In addition to family issues, Gaskell also felt able to discuss her work as a writer with Mary. In one of the letters she refers to her punishing schedule when researching The life of Charlotte Brontë. More significantly, two other letters relate to her controversial novel Ruth (1853), including her anger about the book being advertised before she felt ready or satisfied with the work, and subsequently her relief at hearing of the Greens' positive reaction to the book (having feared they would be shocked by its subject matter).
The three letters to Isabella Green have not previously been published. One of these relates to Isabella's work as an amateur artist; in it Gaskell refers to [Edward] Whelan, stonemason and sculptor, who worked alongside the sculptor Thomas Woolner and architect Alfred Waterhouse in the design of the Manchester Assize Courts (constructed during 1859-1864), for which Whelan produced a series of capitals. It seems that Gaskell was acting as an intermediary between Whelan and Isabella Green, who had promised to produce a design for one of these capitals; in her letter Gaskell gives Isabella a gentle reminder that Whelan is expecting to receive her design.
There are also 17 letters written by Gaskell's daughter Florence Crompton, nine by her daughter Julia Gaskell and one by Marianne Holland. Julia's letters (which date from 1866-1873) are the fullest, and touch on a wide range of subjects, including her grief after the death of her mother, her activities and travels, mutual acquaintances, reading matter, charity work, and cultural, social and political events in Manchester, London and elsewhere (including her thoughts on the Jamaican uprising in 1867, the Fenian movement, and lectures by Barbara Bodichon and the pioneering American army surgeon, Mary Walker). The letters from Florence Crompton date from 1864-74; some of them therefore pre-date Elizabeth Gaskell's death and contain references to her activities, including a tea taken with Garibaldi in April 1864. Florence's letters also contain news of other family members and acquaintances (including her sisters), lectures attended, and news of activities, including a description of the Queen's opening of Parliament in February 1867 and the reform demonstration in London the following week.
Aside from these letters written by the Gaskells themselves, the archive contains much additional information about the Gaskell family, the circles in which they moved, the social and cultural life of the day, and the politics of the time. As close friends of the Gaskell daughters, the letters of the Green girls frequently contain references to visits exchanged and mutual acquaintances, as well as commentaries on the activities of the Gaskells - including a letter written by Isabella shortly after the death of Elizabeth Gaskell in which she suggests that Gaskell had had some intimation earlier in 1865 that she may not live to see out the year. Encouraged by her historian daughter Evelyn, Isabella also wrote some memoirs in 1931 when she was ninety, which include some glimpses of her family's early acquaintance with the Gaskells.
Isabella also kept a number of travel diaries, including an account of a holiday to the Mediterranean and Egypt in 1868, and her trip of a lifetime to Cuba and across America in 1872; both diaries are complemented by correspondence written during each journey. The papers generally offer a fascinating insight into the life of a nineteenth-century middle-class family, including family relationships, details of daily life, individual responses to major political events, and thoughts on art, literature and drama; the Greens show themselves to be a family worthy of study in their own right. There is much valuable information about Knutsford society in the late Victorian period, as well as material which may be of interest to historians of Unitarianism. Two further well known nineteenth-century figures are also represented in the collection: there are seven letters from Mary Mohl (salon hostess, author and friend of Elizabeth Gaskell); and three letters from John Ruskin.
The twentieth-century correspondence of Evelyn Jamison also contains interesting information about life as an early female student and academic at Oxford, women's work during the early twentieth century, home life during the First World War, and the influenza epidemic of 1918 among other topics.