Shakespeare first saw light in this venerated room!

This fragment from 1869 is an account of the early history of Shakespeare’s birthplace, from his birth until the middle of the 19th Century. Factual or not, the details nevertheless contribute to the fascinating historiography of the building.

As one among several steps towards perpetuating the national interest in the great dramatist, the ground of his house at Stratford was purchased by public subscription on the 22nd of October 1861, or rather, some of the ground which had belonged to him was purchased. The truth is, there is a difficulty in identifying some of the property; and there have been two separate purchases made in the name of the public. It is believed that the house in which Shakespeare was bom still exists. His father, John Shakespeare, bought two freehold houses in Henley Street, Stratford, in 1574; and it is now the cherished theory that William was born in one of these houses ten years earlier, while his father merely rented it. The property remained with John till his death, and then it descended to William; who, in his turn, bequeathed it to his sister, Mrs Hart. It is supposed that she lived in one of the houses till her death in 1640, and that the other was converted into the Maidenhead Inn. This latterly became the Swan and afterwards the Swan and Maidenhead. After many years, that which had been Mrs Hart’s portion of the house was divided into two tenements, one of which was a butcher’s shop. The butcher who occupied this shop about the year 1807, put up the inscription: William Shakespeare Was Born is This House. In more recent times the inscription was — THE IMMORTAL SHAKESPEARE WAS BORN IN THIS HOUSE.

It ceased to be a butcher’s shop, and was rented by an old woman, who made money by shewing the house to visitors. The bedroom, said to be that in which the great dramatist was born, was scribbled all over the walls and ceiling with the names of visitors, some illustrious, but the great portion obscure. The last descendant of the Harts, quitting the house under process of ejectment, took her revenge by whitewashing over all these names; and her successor had much trouble in removing the whitewash. In the condition of a show-place, that which was called Shakespeare’s House, comprised about one-fourth of the original building, and consisted of a little shop, a kitchen behind, and two small rooms upstairs. A few years ago, the Royal Shakespearean Club of Stratford-on-Avon purchased some of this property; another portion of the house was purchased afterwards, to be preserved in the name of the nation. There is no actual proof that William Shakespeare was born in this house; but Stratford has believed it ever since Shakespeare became famous. Washington Irving, delighted with the house and the few so-called relics exhibited in his day, said: ‘What is it to us whether these stories be true or false, so long as we can persuade ourselves into the belief of them, and enjoy all the charms of the reality!’ And Mr Charles Knight has said ‘Disturb not the belief that William Shakespeare first saw the light in this venerated room!’ Certain it is that the club would not have purchased the house at so large a sum as they gave for it, had they not clung to the belief that the illustrious man was really born there.

The property purchased in 1861, was land rather than houses. At the corner of Chapel Street, Stratford, was an old substantial house called New Place, which belonged to William Underbill in 1597, and was by him sold to William Shakespeare. The property was described as one messuage [dwelling house], two barns, two gardens, two orchards, and appurtenances.’ In 1643, while occupied by Mrs Nash, Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Queen Henrietta Maria stayed three weeks in the house. It was then owned in succession by Edward Nash, Sir Reginald Foote, Sir John Cloptou, and the Rev. Francis Gastrell. This last-named owner was a most unsuitable possessor of such a place, for in 1756, to save himself the trouble of shewing it to visitors, he cut down the celebrated mullberry-tree in the garden which Shakespeare had planted with his own hands; and, in 1759, he pulled down the house itself—which he did not inhabit—in order that he might not have to pay poor-rates for it!  The gardens and the site of the house being afterwards sold, they fell into various hands, and portions of the ground were built upon. In 1861, a house which stood on the site of New Place, together with about an acre of what had been Shakespeare’s garden and orchard, were advertised for sale by auction, being ‘eligible for building’. Mr Halliwell, lamenting the probability of such a spot being so appropriated, inaugurated a subscription for purchasing it, and also another part of the garden belonging to other persons. This was effected after some difficulty; and the property was vested in the mayor and corporation of the town, on the conditions that no building is to be erected on the ground, and that it shall be gratuitously open to the public.

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2 Comments

  • December 9, 2009 - 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Well, you would…

  • December 8, 2009 - 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Due to a strange sense of humour I’m hoping there’s a sign somewhere that says ‘The immortal Shakespeare died in this house’.

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