North and South

Written by: Elizabeth Gaskell (book) adapted into a screenplay by Sandy Welch
Directed by: Brian Percival
Aired: 14 November - 5 December 2004 BBC One
Distributor: BBC








  • John Thornton -
  • Margaret Hale -
  • Hannah Thornton - SINÉAD CUSACK
  • Richard Hale -
  • Nicholas Higgins - BRENDAN COYLE
  • Fanny Thornton -


A BBC Adaptation of the Elizabeth Gaskell book about Margaret, a southerner who is forced by circumstances to move to the northern mill town of Milton where she meets mill owner, John Thornton.

Episode One

North and South opens with an view of a steam train making its way through the countryside. Our heroine Margaret Hale is aboard - looking wistfully through the window, in her hand a yellow rose.

Flashback to two months earlier - Margaret is at the smart London wedding of her cousin Edith, in the house where Margaret had been living since she was a young girl. As she watches the bride dance, Henry Lennox, brother of the Bridegroom speaks to her and makes it clear that he is interested in Margaret though she is oblivious. She is excited about finally returning to Helstone, “the best place on earth…” the village where her parents still live. Once there, Margaret is surprised by a visit from Henry. He has come to see for himself the beauty of Helstone. To Margaret’s shock he proposes to her. She refuses telling him she’s not ready for marriage.

Back on the train, and the Hale family, along with Mrs Hale’s maid Dixon are moving - leaving their picturesque village life for a new start in the industrial city of Milton. Mrs Hale is very unhappy about the move despite Margaret and Mr Hale reassuring her that all will be well. When they arrive, Margaret and her father try to find a suitable house.


As Margaret is viewing one, she overhears two strangers discussing the Hales and their reasons for leaving Helstone. She asks the landlord about the rent but is told that Mr Thornton will discuss such things with her father. Offended, she demands to be taken to see Mr Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Mills. As she walks through the mill, she is appalled when she sees a worker being kicked and beaten by Mr Thornton for smoking. When she intervenes, Mr Thornton shouts at her and orders his foreman to have her removed.
The Hales find it difficult to settle in Milton, they can’t find a servant to help Dixon and people are gossiping about them. However, Mr Hale is determined they will settle and sets himself up as a Lecturer and a Private Tutor, having resigned from the Church. Margaret is pleased to meet one of his private pupils - until she realises it is Mr Thornton. Still very angry with him, she makes her feelings clear and again the two of them clash. Out walking one day, Margaret strikes up a conversation with Bessie and Nicholas Higgins, a father and daughter who both work in the mills. Despite her charitable intentions, when Margaret offers to visit them she is rebuffed and told that things are different in the North. However, Nicholas relents, despite telling her that she will forget them. Margaret eventually does visit and she and Bessie become friends.
Mr Thornton’s mother and his emptyheaded sister, Fanny, pay a call on the Hales. Things don’t go well and Mrs Thornton leaves, disapproving of Margaret, thinking her full of airs and graces and disdainful of Milton and the North. Meanwhile, Mr Hale goes to the Master's Dinner at Marlborough Mills and discovers that Mr Thornton has installed a wheel, which helps clear the fluff from the air in the mill and so leads to healthier employees. The other masters won’t consider installing it in their mills because of the cost.

Mr Thornton goes to the Hales for tea. Margaret provokes him again leading him to telling her of his difficult youth and the deprivation and hard work that led him to becoming a Master. Margaret snubs him when, as he leaves, he attempts to shake her hand, unused to 'Milton ways'. After her father explains more about Thornton’s origins, Margaret begins to soften slightly towards him.
The workers from all the mills hold a meeting. As they arrive they are watched by all the masters, who are taking names. The workers, led by Higgins, decide to strike. Trouble is brewing in Milton.


Episode Two

It’s Spring now and the Hales have been in Milton for some months. Mrs Hale is unwell, so Margaret visits the mill to get the name of a Doctor from Mrs Thornton. The possibility of a strike is discussed and Mrs Thornton sneers at Margaret’s disinterest in industry. As Margaret leaves she sees some young spinners and chats to them about the strike. Thornton overhears her and attempts to explain how his moral duty toward his employees starts and ends at the mill gates.

Margaret and Bessie become closer friends and Margaret discovers that Bessie’s ill health was caused by her work in the mills and that “fluff on the lungs” will eventually kill her. She in turn confides in Bessie and we learn about her brother Frederick, who was involved in a mutiny whilst in the Navy and will be hanged if he ever returns to Britain.

The workers have another meeting and the decision is taken to strike. Thornton knows that as soon as he turns down the wage demands, the action will begin. He vows to bring in Irish workers to his mill if the strike lasts any length of time, despite the fact that this is expensive and he already owes over £300 to the bank.


Despite this however, the Thorntons are making arrangements for their annual Dinner Party, to which the Hales, along with some of the masters and other prominent Miltonians are invited.

The strike begins and Margaret charitably does what she can for the strikers, supplying them with food and donations. One of the workers, Boucher, pleads with Higgins - he has six children and cannot feed them without his wages and the strike has already lasted a month. Higgins tells him he will be looked after but the workers must stick together. Without unity, the strike will fail. Mrs Hale doesn’t attend the Dinner, as she is increasingly ill. However, Mr Bell, Mr Hale's oldest friend and Thornton’s landlord accompanies them. Margaret is struck by the difference in Thornton and to show him she is trying to fit in, she finally shakes his hand. All is well until Fanny tells Margaret she has been seen giving food to the strikers. As Margaret explains that her charity is for a man whose family is starving, Thornton castigates her, telling her that her actions - far from helping the family - are prolonging the strike and making things worse.



As Margaret returns home, she notices a man leaving the house. After speaking to Dixon, she discovers that her mother is dying and that the Doctor has been visiting for some time, unbeknown to anyone but Mrs Hale and Dixon. Without asking Mr Hale, Margaret writes to Frederick to tell him about their mother.

She also visits the mill, to borrow a waterbed, to ease her mother’s pain. The strikers arrive while she is there and begin to riot over the presence of the Irish workers that Thornton has imported. Margaret is trapped with the Thorntons. As the mob approach the house, Margaret demands that Thornton go down and speak to them, but as he leaves she realises she’s put him in danger. She rushes down herself to try and calm the angry crowd, but when trying to shield Thornton, she is hit on the head by a stone, thrown by Boucher. The soldiers arrive and the mob, shocked at the violence, disperses. Margaret is carried inside to recover, but overhears Fanny
talking with a servant about the way she behaved. Mortified, she insists on going back home and when she gets there, she acts as if nothing untoward has happened. Mary Higgins arrives and begs her to come to Bessie who has taken ill. Thornton decides to propose to Margaret. His mother tells him he has no choice as Margaret has thrown herself at him in public and he is bound to her in honour. Despite this, Thornton is convinced Margaret does not care about him, but he loves her and wants her to be his wife.

The strike broken - the workers return to the mills. Thornton calls on Margaret and tells her how grateful he is to her. Margaret bristles at this denying that she has done anything special and when Thornton tells her he loves her, she scornfully rejects him. Thornton leaves, his hopes and heart crushed.

Episode Three

After the disastrous proposal, Thornton goes home and tells his mother that - just as he thought - Margaret will not have him. Mrs Thornton is relieved but also sad on her son's behalf. She tells him that no matter how fickle girls are, mothers always remain steadfast and true. Thornton says that he loves Margaret more than ever, whereas Mrs Thornton confesses to hating her. Despite everything, Thornton sends some beautiful fruit for Mrs Hale. Mr Bell notices Margaret’s strained reaction and wonders aloud to Mr Hale that there might be something between Thornton and Margaret.

Boucher goes to the Higgins’ but despite begging, Nicholas refuses to hide him from the Police. He blames Boucher for ruining the strike, telling him that the workers were united and would have won if it hadn’t been for him throwing the stone. A scuffle breaks out and Nicholas says he’s going to tell the police where to find Boucher.

Margaret tells her father that she’s written to Frederick. Mr Hale, realising the severity of Mrs Hale's illness, tells Margaret that despite the danger to Frederick, she’s done the right thing. Margaret decides to go and see Bessie, but when she arrives, Bessie has died. As Margaret is sitting with her body, Nicholas comes home and is grief-stricken.

Mrs Hale rallies a little so Margaret accepts Edith’s invitation to attend the Great Exhibition in London and she is surprised to see Thornton there. Henry Lennox is rude to him and Margaret is embarrassed by Henry’s behaviour. While Margaret is in London, Mrs Hale asks Mrs Thornton to visit her. She tells Mrs Thornton that she is dying and asks her to be a friend to Margaret. Mrs Thornton promises to counsel Margaret should she ever need to. Boucher commits suicide and Nicholas - feeling responsible - takes in his children to bring up as his own.

 Frederick arrives in time to see his mother. She dies, surrounded by her family, but Frederick has to leave before the funeral as Dixon meets Leonards, a man who had lived in Helstone and remembered the scandal of Fred’s naval career - and also the reward that would come with Fred’s arrest. Margaret waits with Fred at the station and Thornton sees them embracing. Then as Fred is about to board the train, Leonards appears. He tries to grab Fred, but Fred pushes him away and manages to escape. However, when Leonards is found dead a day or so later, it transpires that a witness had seen him with Fred and recognised Margaret.

When the police come to see Margaret about it she flatly denies she was anywhere near the station. Thornton is the magistrate in the case and when he hears of her denial, he knows she is lying as he‘d seen her. He intervenes and ends the investigation. When Margaret tries to thank him, he refuses her gratitude and tells her to be more discreet, not knowing that Fred was her brother. She realises that she is diminished in his eyes and this knowledge both shocks and distresses her.


Episode Four

Marlborough Mills is in trouble, the orders can’t be filled and the debt to the bank is growing. Latimer, the bank manager, warns Thornton that unless something changes soon, he will be going out of business. Fanny, who is engaged to another mill owner, Watson, asks Thornton to join in a speculation that if successful will solve all of his financial worries. Thornton refuses - he won’t risk the worker's wages.

Higgins, still out of work due to being one of the Union ringleaders, goes to see Mr Hale and tells him he’s considering moving south to find work. He has Boucher’s children to provide for now and so asks Mr Hale to help him in finding something - but there's nothing Mr Hale can do. Instead, Margaret asks him not to leave but to try Marlborough Mills as she feels Thornton will give him a fair hearing. Higgins goes to the mill and waits outside the gates all day until Thornton finds time to see him. When he asks for a job Thornton turns him down flat, even going so far as to say he didn’t believe that Higgins would bring up another man's children as his own. Before he leaves, Higgins tells Thornton he only begged him for a job because a woman who thought Thornton kind, had asked him.

Upon closer investigation, Thornton discovers Higgins was telling him the truth and goes to his home to offer him a job. The two men discover a mutual respect and when Thornton comes across Boucher’s boy reading, he and Higgins strike up an unlikely friendship. During the winter, they decide between them to open a subsidised dining room for the workers and their families so everyone gets at least one good meal a day.

Mrs Thornton pays Margaret a visit. Margaret is pleased to see her until Mrs Thornton makes it clear that she has come to admonish Margaret for her indiscretion at the train station. Not knowing that the stranger was Margaret’s brother, Hannah warns Margaret she could lose her good name and reputation. Margaret is affronted at these insinuations and walks out, leaving Mrs Thornton lost for words.

By the time winter is coming to an end, Mr Hale is beginning to get over the death of Mrs Hale. He decides to go to Oxford and spend time with Mr Bell, but while he is there he dies suddenly, leaving Margaret an orphan. Thornton is devastated when he realises that Margaret will be going back to London to live with Aunt Shaw - despite telling her he had no feelings for her, he’s as much in love with her as ever. Margaret visits Marlborough Mills to say goodbye and Thornton stands on the steps and watches her leave.

Three months on and Margaret is living in London. She is still in mourning and Edith is impatiently waiting for her to cheer up. She encourages Henry to propose, not knowing Margaret has already refused him.

Mr Bell comes to visit and to Margaret’s delight, suggests they go to Helstone. As they meet the new Vicar, Margaret realises that, in life, you can’t go back. As they walk around the village, she decides to confide in Mr Bell about Frederick's visit. She tells him that she lied and how the knowledge that Thornton knows she lied distresses her. Mr Bell offers to speak to Thornton about it, but Margaret says no, although she would like him to know she doesn’t want to betray Fred.

Mr Bell, in turn confesses to Margaret that he is dying. He is leaving for Argentina, to live out the rest of his days in the sun, but before he goes, he’s going to turn over his estate to her. Mr Thornton is shocked when he discovers Margaret is his new landlord, but when Mr Bell tries to explain further, Thornton cuts him off.

Watson’s speculation is a huge success, making most of the Milton Masters very rich indeed, but Marlborough Mills fails. As he walks around the empty mill one last time, Thornton see Higgins who tells him that the men would all willingly work for him again, should he ever be in a position to employ them. He asks after Margaret and reveals to a stunned Thornton that it was her brother she was with at the station that night.

Margaret also profits handsomely because Mr Bell had invested with Watson too, but on finding out Marlborough Mills has failed, she decides to visit Milton. When she arrives at the mill, Thornton isn’t there. On the London train home, there is an delay to let another train pass.

As Margaret stretches her legs, she sees Thornton on the Milton train. He has been to Helstone and gives her a yellow rose he picked there. Margaret proposes that he take her money to keep the mill running. Overcome, Thornton takes her hand and finally they embrace with passion and beautiful tenderness on the platform, before returning to Milton. As they finally go home together on the train, Margaret gazes out of the window holding her yellow rose.
This guide by Emerald



Read Reviews of North and South on the BBC website

BBC Press Release 30 April 2004

Vintage Carriage Trust North and South locations

North and South Screencap Gallery

North and South IMDB Page


Published by BBC Worldwide 2007

Parts 6 and 7 of this magazine covered the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South: 2 magazines plus the complete series on DVD.
It is still possible to order these back issues, but they only ship to UK, Eire and via British Forces post (BFPO). Here are the covers & first inside page:

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th_ClassicDramaPt7-Cover  th_ClassicDramaPt7-p3

30 Apr 2006

Move Over Darcy, The Times by Patricia Nicol


02 Jul 2005

Tulsa World 'Lie back and think of England'


13 Apr 2005

In a swoon over me? Surely not, The Times by Penny Wark


05 Feb 2005

Eastern Daily Press 'Will Richard be the new Darcy?'


22 Dec 2004

A dashing object of desire, The Times by Anne Ashworth


06 Dec 2004 'Stepping out of the shadows'


11 Nov 2004

Mills & Swoon, The Northern Echo


10 Nov 2004

Love in a Cold Climate, The Independent by Sarah Shannon


30 Apr 2004

Just like reel thing, The Scotsman

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30 Apr 2004

BBC Press Office: North and South