The 19th-century auction that saved Shakespeare’s birthplace

While it may sometimes be difficult to preserve or even identify the birthplace of celebrated individuals, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon was recognised as a tourist trap as early as the 1760s. Yet by the 19th century, it was struggling for funds and was put up for sale.

Rev Dr Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust shares the history of the site, including the remarkable story of an early Victorian attempt at crowdfunding which included Charles Dickens and Prince Albert…

Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays; copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

 

Shakespeare’s birthplace didn’t look (very much) like it does today when it came up for auction in 1847, but it was already well known. Descendants of the family of Shakespeare’s sister had been informally showing literary pilgrims around the house for over a hundred years. In 1737, Shakespeare’s great-great-nephew, Shakespeare Hart (then aged 71), welcomed the famous engraver and antiquary George Vertue to the house on Henley Street. Vertue was a Shakespeare enthusiast, and is best known for his drawing of New Place (Shakespeare’s family home from 1597) which he produced on the same occasion. Vertue mentions his visit in his notebook, which makes him the earliest recorded visitor to the birthplace.

Birthplaces are always retrospectively constructed. Usually, by the time a celebrated person has become famous, the house in which he or she grew up has either vanished, or been much altered. Yet when Shakespeare’s birthplace first came into prominence in the mid-18th century, his position as Britain’s national poet had been secured. Biographies of poets had been popular since the late 1600s. The first extended life of Shakespeare appeared in 1709, and in 1741 the Belgian sculptor Peter Scheemakers’ famous statue was installed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


A coloured print of Shakespeare's birthplace c1847. It didn’t look didn’t look very much like it does today when it came up for auction in the same year, says Paul Edmonson. (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive)

 

Early visitors to Shakespeare’s birthplace

Shakespeare’s international reputation was also becoming well established at this time. The first translation of any of his plays appeared in 1741 (Julius Caesar, into German), and his works and reputation spread across Europe as well as an expanding British Empire. In 1769, the great actor David Garrick staged his famous Stratford Jubilee and decided that a room on the first floor of the Henley Street house was (very likely) the room in which Shakespeare was born. Visitors increased in number, and the earliest surviving visitors’ book dates from 1812. The first signature is that of a TH Perkins (“Place of abode: Boston, the United States”). Five years later, on 3 October 1817, came the 21-year-old poet John Keats (“Place of abode: Everywhere”). 


Actor David Garrick as Richard III. He decided that in 1769 that a room on the first floor of the Henley Street house was very likely the room in which Shakespeare was born  (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images) 

In those days, visitors were shown around by Thomas and Ann Court who had purchased the house from Mary Hart (the last surviving member of Shakespeare’s sister’s line to live there) in 1806. It was Ann Court’s executors who put the whole site up for auction: it would be sold at the Auction Mart in London on Thursday 16 September 1847, at noon.

Presenting the birthplace of a writer was unusual. Although Shakespeare’s is the earliest surviving earliest surviving example of an author's commemorated birthplace, the honour of being the first must go to the house in which John Milton had been born on Bread Street, London, and since lost in the Great Fire. 

Shakespeare’s grave had been (and still is) an important focal-point of pilgrimages to Stratford-upon-Avon, and was recorded as being worthy of a mention as early as 1634. But there was the need for another, iconic destination for the town’s growing number of visitors. Whatever had remained of Shakespeare’s New Place was razed to the ground in 1759 (coinciding with the first mention of Shakespeare’s birthplace on the earliest surviving map of the town). Although objects were being made from the mulberry tree that people believed Shakespeare had planted, and even more objects made from mulberry trees that Shakespeare had definitely not planted, it was ‘the birthplace’ on Henley Street that began to take centre-stage in the popular imagination.

 

An evolving site

The building had seen several changes of use over time. Shakespeare himself had leased part of it to become an inn, The Maidenhead, on the death of his father in 1601. A back wing was added, and Shakespeare had allowed his sister’s family to live in an adjoining cottage for a peppercorn rent. By 1847, that long-established inn had become known as The Swan and Maidenhead, and, soon after Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee, part of the house had been turned into a butcher’s shop. Unprepossessing in appearance though Shakespeare’s birthplace had become, its reputation and ability to inspire were undiminished.

In 1835 the Royal Shakespearian Club of Stratford-upon-Avon declared its intention to purchase and conserve the site, followed by Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and New Place. After having raised only £1, they restricted themselves to conservation work on Shakespeare’s monument in the church instead. 

Yet their intentions remained progressive, and they contributed to the excitement surrounding the 1847 auction. The club wrote to Lord Morpeth, the government’s chief commissioner of woods and forests, urging the state to take over the running of the birthplace. Lord Morpeth handed the problem back to the nation by replying that “members of the government are disposed to think that the acquisition of so interesting a property pertains still more to the people of England”. In other words, saving Shakespeare’s birthplace was well beyond both the imagination and will of the government. If the people wanted to save it from falling into private ownership, then the people would have pay for it. A pretty desperate fundraising campaign ensued over the couple of months leading up to the auction, especially since hardly any of ‘the people’ seemed interested.

 

Early Victorian crowdfunding

The archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contain an impressive scrapbook devoted to the 1847 auction. Browsing through it makes the whole enterprise seem like an early Victorian attempt at crowdfunding. The advertisement described the house as “the truly heart-stirring relic of a most glorious period” and the sale would “raise a spirit of competition hitherto unknown”. The auction would also include books of autographs, antique furniture, and “several interesting relics”.

The mounting public mood became intense. 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). A ‘Metropolitan’ fundraising committee was established in London which included the Shakespeare scholars Charles Cowden Clarke and John Payne Collier and, notably, Charles Dickens, whose great love and knowledge of Shakespeare is writ large across his novels. Funds were energetically sought by a Stratford-upon-Avon committee too.


A poster advertising a fundraising performance by Charles Dickens at the Theatre Royal in 1848. (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive)

The prominent writer, Harriet Martineau, appealed to the poor in the Rugby Monthly Advertiser: “Shall not the whole people of this country have the pleasure of securing the property of Shakespeare’s house as the property of the nation forever? … By all the noble thoughts that Shakespeare has aroused in you, I appeal to you to honour him now.” 

But the poor were not as interested as Martineau had hoped. The largest single donation was made by Prince Albert (£250), patron of the Royal Shakespeare Club. It was even rumoured that famed circus master Phineas T Barnum (who had visited the house with his three-foot-tall cousin ‘General Tom Thumb’ in 1844) was interested in buying Shakespeare’s birthplace and shipping it to the States. “You talk a good deal about your Shakespeare being the pride of England,” said Barnum, “but I can see nobody cared a cent about him while he was alive.”

Auctions can often be thrilling, and this one began with a bid of £1,500, then £2,000 then £2,100. And then a pause. Thomas Amyot, chair of the London committee, stepped forward and presented a letter to the auctioneer: “We the undersigned, deputed by the united Committees of Stratford and London for raising subscriptions for the purchase of Shakespeare’s House, hereby offer a bidding of £3,000… Looking at the duty imposed upon them in undertaking to represent the feeling of the nation, they have come to the resolution of making this large and liberal offer for the property now on sale, without regard to the funds which they at present command.” 


Shakespeare's birthplace before its restoration, photographed in 1850. (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

There was an “unseemly interruption”, then a “breathless silence”, the usual “once, twice, thrice” – a rap was heard – then, a “loud, hearty, and prolonged cheer”. The most philanthropic of the committee’s members had decided to cover the shortfall. Their fundraising efforts would continue as they attempted to defray their expenses.

A souvenir of the national, popular sentiment appeared in the autumn of 1847 at the Theatre Royal Adelphi in the West End: This House to be Sold: A Musical Extravaganza by J Stirling Coyne, the creator of popular farce How to Settle Accounts with your Laundress. 

In the musical based on the auction, the imagined new owner of the birthplace, Mr Chatterton Chopkins, visits the house for the first time and is haunted in the night by Shakespeare and many of his characters. At one point Othello enters down the chimney and starts to serenade Mr Chopkins. The next morning, he vows to “have nothing more to do with this awful house. I’ll make a present of it to the nation”. In the grand climax, Shakespeare appears again, surrounded by many of his characters, and flanked by the ‘Genii of Tragedy and Comedy’. Finally, the ‘Spirit of Poetry’ descends and places a crown of laurels on Shakespeare’s head. 

That dramatic auction in 1847 effectively rescued Shakespeare’s birthplace, but even as late as the 1860s, it was assumed that the government would take up the responsibility for looking after it. Fortunately, there was enough energy and foresight instead to found the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which had its first meeting in July 1866. With no public subsidy or direct revenue from the government, the trust continues to be self-funded 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. As such, the legacy of those efforts 170 years ago is still felt today both in Stratford-upon-Avon and throughout the world. 


Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon will host an exhibition, Saving Shakespeare’s Birthplace, which runs from 16 September-29 December 2017. (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

Dr Paul Edmondson is head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and co-author of Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: an archaeological biography (2016).

An exhibition, Saving Shakespeare’s Birthplace, runs from 16 September-29 December 2017 at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. There will also be a special theatrical re-enactment of the auction outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace on 16 September at 12pm and 2pm. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is marking the 200th anniversary of John Keats’s visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in a special evening devoted to Shakespeare and Keats at Eton College on Tuesday 3 October from 6.30pm. Visit shakespeare.org.uk/events for more information

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here