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How the Victorians saved Shakespeare’s Birthplace for the nation

an old black and white photo of timber framed building with two Victorian men in the foreground - one wearing a top hat

Shakespeare’s Birthplace before restoration in 1850. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust prepares to reveal how eminent Victorians came together to save Shakespeare’s family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Trust’s Interpretation Officers Lucy Dale and Helen Cook tell the story of how the Bard’s house was saved for the nation

In 1847 the sale of William Shakespeare’s Birthplace and childhood home was announced. The will of the previous owner stipulated that the house should go to public auction and so the race was on to save Shakespeare’s house from dissolution and decay.

The press leapt upon the story and fears were raised regarding the fate of the property. The American showman P T Barnum, founder of Barnum and Bailey Circus, provided a focal point for concerns. Newspapers repeatedly talked of the Birthplace being purchased by some ‘showman’, who intended to dismantle the property brick by brick and transport it over the Atlantic. In his memoirs Barnum seemed to give credence to such ideas but the reality remains uncertain.

What is certain is that committees in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London immediately formed and set about mobilising the population, raising subscriptions to purchase the house for the nation as a whole. Membership of the London Committee and the Stratford-upon-Avon Committee included some of the most notable literary and public figures of the day such as Charles Dickens and Sir Robert Peel, also receiving the patronage of Prince Albert.

But the London and Stratford Committees were not alone in their efforts. The People’s Central Committee of the Shakespeare Memorial Fund was formed by American actor George Jones, with the intention, once again, to purchase the house for the nation.

A Punch article with an illustration showing the founder of The People's Central Committee of the Shakespeare Memorial Fund' A Punch cartoon showing Jones as an ape sitting on top of Shakespeare's head.

A Punch cartoon showing Jones as an ape sitting on top of Shakespeare’s head. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive

a coloured print of a Shakespeare's timber-framed house

A coloured print of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, published by F & E Ward, c.1847. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive

a drawing of a Victorian man in frock coat breeches and small top hat

George Jones Esq. ‘Drawn at the Auction Mart on the Day of the Sale’. (September 16th,1847). © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive

a fold out printed plan of Shakespeare's house designed to be cut out and assmebled

Quick’s New Puzzle of Shakespeare’s House, Henley Street, sold to raise money for the purchase. © Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Archive

Jones became something of a figure of fun in the press and was the subject of anger from subscribers who wanted to know the fate of their donations when Jones ultimately failed in his endeavour. The answer seems particularly elusive as Jones was later arrested for debt.

Fundraising efforts were varied and included plays, performances, special newspaper editions and a campaign across the press. Two new plays were inspired by the sale, ‘This House to be Sold’ and ‘Shakespeare, His Life and Times’, the former described on posters as a ‘musical extravaganza’! Corresponding activities were perhaps not aimed at raising funds but captured something of the mood at the time.

Quick’s New Puzzle of Shakespeare’s House, based on ‘a recent drawing’, enabled purchasers to assemble their own cardboard version of the property. A replica of the Birthplace was erected in Surrey’s Zoological Gardens, and alongside it would perform ‘the Harmonic Rock Band every evening’. The replica became a popular visitor attraction in its own right (though later attempts to save it failed).

The auction was held on 16 September 1847, at the Auction Mart, London. Members of the London and Stratford committees were present, as was George Jones.

a Victorian bill poster with classic typeface advertising the auction of Shakespeare's Birthplace

Poster: Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon. Mr Robins at the Auction Mart, Thursday 16th September, 1847. © Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust

a print of a Georgian Portico fronted building

Print of the Auction Mart, St Bartholomew’s Lane. Drawn by Thomas H. Shepherd, engraved by W. Watkins. Published by Jones & Co, Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square, London, 1829. © Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust

a green playbill with Charles Dickens' name on it

Playbill: Theatre Royal. Amateur Performance by Chas. Dickens Esq. and Friends in aid of The Fund for the Endowment of a Perpetual Curatorship of Shakespeare’s House. June 3rd 1848. The Merry Wives of Windsor and Animal Magnetism. Charles Dickens performed Shallow and The Doctor. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

an period drawing showing a Victorian auction scene

Original drawing of the Auction by P.W. Archer which was engraved for the Illustrated London News special edition of 1847. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The sale began and a number of bids were entered, for £1500, £2,000 and £2,100. But then a letter was handed to auctioneer Mr Edmund Robins, offering £3000 for the purchase of the property, on behalf of the London and Stratford Committees.

According to the Illustrated London News, in line with the wishes of the Trustees, ‘the property was then knocked down to the Stratford and London Shakespere Committees for £3000, amidst immense cheering’.

“Dickens was a keen campaigner and put on a number of touring shows”

However there was a considerable shortfall of funding and the members of the committees were left owing nearly £2000. Dickens was a keen campaigner and put on a number of touring plays in support of fundraising efforts with an aim to establish his friend and struggling playwright Sheridan Knowles as its curator but the curatorship never happened.

The house was purchased for the nation but the story was far from over. In 1891, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed by Act of Parliament with an obligation to care for Shakespeare’s Birthplace as a “permanent and national memorial of William Shakespeare” and later also for Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, New Place, Mary Arden’s Farm and Hall’s Croft.

a poster with an illustration of the timber framed Shakespeare's birthplace at the top

Fundraising poster issued by the Stratford-upon-Avon and London Committees formed for the purpose of raising funds for the purchase of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, 2nd August 1847. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive

a colour photo of the timber framed Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace 2017. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

a poster detailing the sale of Shakespeare's House

Poster from 1847. Particulars of Shakespeare’s House. For Sale By Auction by Mr Robbins at the Mart. © Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust

a photo of a an old Elizabethan bedroom with four poster bed on wooden floors

The Birthroom © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

As such, the legacy of those efforts, 170 years ago, is still felt today both in Stratford-upon-Avon and throughout the world. Today, the Trust continues to share Shakespeare’s works, life and times with expanded responsibilities including caring for the world’s largest Shakespeare museum and archive collection, and delivering educational initiatives for learners of all ages and abilities.

Over 31 million people have visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace since records began in 1852, with millions more participating in and benefitting from the Trust’s formal and informal learning and digital programmes in Stratford-upon-Avon and around the world.

The Saving Shakespeare’s Birthplace exhibition runs from September 16 – December 29 2017 at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. A special theatrical re-enactment of the auction outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace takes place on September 16 2017 at 12pm and 2pm. Visit www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/whats-on  for more information. 

venue

Shakespeare's Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an independent charity that cares for Shakespeare's heritage. It owns five Shakespeare Houses in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, all directly linked to Shakespeare. The Trust also cares for Harvard House. The wider work of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust extends to managing one of the largest Shakespeare…