The Gaskell family hailed from Warrington, where various family members were engaged in the town’s thriving sailcloth manufacture. This particular trade had brought much prosperity to the town since its introduction in the 18th century, as it furnished the Navy with much of it heavy sailcloth requirements, using imported Russian hemp and flax landed at Liverpool and subsequently transported by river to the Warrington manufactories.
Samuel Gaskell, (1733?-1813), is described in his will as a sail, canvas and cotton manufacturer, with premises in Buttermarket Street, a property called the Croft and a weaving shop in Foundry Lane, Warrington. The family was somewhat prolific, Samuel being one of nine children. Members of the family lived in the Warrington area, including the once fashionable area of Latchford. The Warrington Gaskells were long associated with the Sankey Street Unitarian Chapel, and the family was active in local affairs, with a propensity towards education. Samuel had three sons, namely Samuel, Roger and William; it was the latter’s eldest son, William (1805-1884), who was to become Unitarian minister at Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel and the husband of novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell (née Stevenson).
In addition to three sons, Samuel Gaskell had a daughter, Ann, who married her cousin, the Warrington merchant and sailcloth manufacturer, Holbrook Gaskell (1771-1842) on 21 July 1809 at the town’s parish church of St Elphin. Holbrook was one of the four sons of Samuel's brother, Roger. Holbrook and Ann lived at Prospect Hill, a large house within Appleton, to the south of the town. It was Ann Gaskell’s death in April 1849 which precipitated the business contained in this collection of papers, dealing with the execution of her various legacies. With no issue of the marriage, the main beneficiaries were Ann’s nephews and nieces, and ultimately their offspring; family friends and servants were also remembered, including old servant Elizabeth Lawton, who received an annuity of £10. Amongst the nephews and nieces feature the above-mentioned Reverend William (1805-1884) and his siblings, and the barrister John Dakin Gaskell (d. 1864), second cousin of the latter and great-nephew of the earlier Samuel Gaskell (1733?-1813).
The Reverend William Gaskell and his wife, Elizabeth, had one son, William (b. 1844; died in infancy), and four daughters, Marianne, Margaret Emily (Meta), Florence Elizabeth and Julia Bradford. William's (second) cousin, John Dakin Gaskell, had sons Roger (b. 1846), Walter Holbrook, who became a doctor, Ernest Holbrook, plus daughters, Mabel and Mary (d. 1888). These second cousins feature in the papers as legatees of trust monies.
John Dakin, the Reverend William and his brother Robert, along with Dennison Naylor of Altrincham, were executors of Ann Gaskell’s will, in addition to having legacies and responsibilities in respect of that part of Ann's late husband's estate over which she had exercised authority. The house itself had been bequeathed to her late husband's nephew, the industrialist and plant collector, Holbrook Gaskell (1813-1909). The three cousins were also trustees of monies, invested in various stocks and shares, for the benefit of their issue. On the death of John Dakin Gaskell in August 1864, Samuel (b. c.1807), doctor, and brother of William and Robert, replaced John as trustee, thereby putting all three brothers in control of the trust estate. From 1873 John Dakin’s son, Roger, became a trustee. William was replaced on his death in 1884 by his son-in-law, Edward Thurstan Holland; that same year, Walter Greg was appointed as a trustee.
Managing the accounts and trust monies was an onerous task; John Dakin suggested to his cousin, Robert, that the latter keep a ledger, which is believed to have been started in October 1850 (or possibly earlier). According to one of his letters, John's son, Roger, admitted to finding the account keeping difficult when he became a trustee in 1873.