The Pilkingtons: A Family on the Edge

Written by Angela Petyt-Whittaker and Lorraine Coughlan, Specialist Library Assistants from the Reading Room at The John Rylands Library.

Continuing from our previous blog on Margaret Pilkington, this time we are taking a closer look at her equally fascinating family.

The family has its roots in the Manor of Pilkington in the Prestwich/Whitefield area and a distant ancestor fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Most people recognise the Pilkington name in relation to the famous glass company. However, Margaret’s father Lawrence (1855-1941) started his career as colliery manager in the Clifton and Kersley Coal Co. (branching out to train the colliery choir!) until the formation with his brother Charles of Pilkington’s Tile and Pottery Co. in 1891. Its famous Lancastrian Lustre ware was sold at Tiffany’s in New York; many pieces were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their high-quality tiles earned them a Royal Warrant and the company commissioned designs from artists such as Walter Crane.

From childhood days, Lawrence and Charles shared a love of mountaineering, particularly in the Lake District, Scottish Highlands and the Alps. Lawrence was the first to scale many peaks and contributed to journals on the subject.  In 1884 he suffered an accident at Piers Gill, where a rock fall crushed his hip and caused permanent damage. This didn’t deter him from watercolour painting up in the hills! Lawrence’s character was described in anecdotes as energetic, a good manager, practical joker, music fanatic and art lover. He wrote four volumes of poetry and two lively stories of Lancashire Life – Tattlefold (1926) and The Chimneys of Tattleton (1928), which contained woodblock illustrations by Margaret.

In 1890 Lawrence married Mary (Mollie) Gavin Stevenson, one of the children of James Stevenson, founder of Jarrow Chemical Works. A week before their wedding, Mollie wrote, ‘We have had a most happy engagement… dear Lawrence I don’t think I could squabble with you.’ They went on to have a long and happy marriage, with Mollie being a great support to Lawrence’s many business and artistic activities. They went on to have two children, Margaret (1891) and Dorothy (1893).

Margaret and Dorothy Pilkington as children with their dog, c.1905, PIL/3/1/6/1

Mollie’s younger sister, May Margaret Stevenson, set an excellent (and radical) example to her nieces, attending Girton College, Cambridge (including a fourth year studying Science) where she achieved a BA, before embarking on a varied and independent life, generously working for women’s and children’s charitable organisations and serving on many committees in honorary positions. Like the rest of the family, she travelled a great deal, visiting Egypt, China, Japan and Ceylon. During the First World War, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, becoming one of the principal officers. In 1917 she was one of the first women to be awarded the OBE.

Margaret and Dorothy enjoyed a happy childhood and the family was very close. They lived first at Southgarth in Pendleton, then moved in 1907 to Firwood in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. This was a large yellow-brick Italianate villa in Woodbrook Road, halfway up the Edge. The Pilkingtons held an important place in Manchester society and associated with other leading families who lived in the fashionable neighbourhood.

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The sisters shared many of the same interests and a deep social conscience, which had a lasting influence on their adult lives. As Directors of the Pilkington Pottery Co., they were able to undertake a range of unpaid honorary roles in other organisations. Although much is known about Margaret’s philanthropic work, Dorothy was as equally involved, her activities including working as a hospital orderly in London during the First World War. In 1923 both Dorothy and Margaret organised and paid for 52 girls to have a week’s holiday in the Lake District as part of their involvement with the Manchester Girls Institute.  Dorothy was Founder President of the Manchester Soroptimist Club for professional women and she also served as Chairman of the Manchester High School for Girls between 1944-63. The sisters endowed the Pilkington chair in the History of Art at the University of Manchester in 1958. Dorothy was awarded an honorary MA by the University in 1964.

Tragically, Lawrence and Mollie Pilkington died within a few months of each other between October 1941 – January 1942. This loss deeply affected the sisters, who, both unmarried, continued to live together. They provided 75% of the money to purchase Alderley Woods, giving over 200 acres in 1943 to the National Trust in memory of their parents.

Margaret Pilkington with her parents, c.1930s PIL/3/1/6/8

In the 1960s, Margaret and Dorothy moved from Firwood to a modern house across the road, called The Dell, where they lived together during their retirement. They gave Firwood to the University of Manchester.

Dorothy died in 1971, the year Margaret celebrated her 80th birthday. As the last surviving member of this close-knit family, she must have felt lonely, but had many wonderful memories of their lives together.

Margaret Pilkington at home, c.1973 PIL/3/1/6/13
Margaret Pilkington at home, c.1973 PIL/3/1/6/13

Margaret died in August 1974 and obituaries praised this pioneering woman, whose character was shaped by those closest to her.

We end our tribute to this talented family with some lines of poetry from ‘Aspiration’ by Lawrence Pilkington –

There is a light beyond the hills,
A golden light which gleams
On lofty ridge and soaring spire
Beyond this world of dreams.

From The Hills of Peace by Lawrence Pilkington, 1930, R74679

P.S. We are feeling so inspired that we will shortly be visiting the Pilkington’s Gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, which holds the largest Pilkington ceramic collection in the country.

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Imaging Team.

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