Birthplace, House History
Shakespeare’s Birthplace – the House Through the Ages
The Changing Face of the Birthplace. Like most of Stratford’s sixteenth-century houses the Birthplace was built from local materials, using oak from the nearby Forest of Arden for the timber frame and stone from a quarry at Wilmcote, three miles from the town, for the foundation walls, chimneys and some of the floors. Despite alterations and restoration work over the centuries, much of the original structure of the house survives.
An incredible insight from this reconstruction of 1627.
The arrow on the top left points to The Rear Wing. This part was added to the building, probably in the early-seventeenth-century when the house became an inn. It is likely that the main room with a drinking parlour: beneath it a cellar still survives.
The arrow on the top right points to The Main House. The design of the house where Shakespeare grew up followed a traditional plan. On the ground floor was a parlour and adjoining central hall separated from a service/workshop area by a cross-passage. Above were bedchambers and probably attic rooms.
It is likely there was a separate kitchen and brewhouse at the back of the house, with other outbuildings and workshop areas used by Shakespeare’s father, who was a glove-maker and wool dealer.
The arrow on the bottom left points to Joan Hart’s Cottage. This small dwelling, (where we stood to take this picture) was occupied by Shakespeare’s sister, Joan Hart, and her family during the first part of the seventeenth-century. It was constructed several years after the main house and was originally a separate building.
The property remained in the ownership of Shakespeare’s direct descendants until 1670, when his granddaughter, Elizabeth Barnard, died. As she had no children, Elizabeth left the estate to her relative, Thomas Hart, Shakespeare’s great-nephew.
The main house became a tenanted inn called the Maidenhead (later the Swan and Maidenhead) following the death of John Shakespeare in 1601. Members of the Hart family continued living in the small adjoining cottage throughout the century. The two earliest inventories of the house, dated 1627 and 1648, reveal in detail in which rooms were used and furnished.
The eighteenth-century saw the continued family ownership of the property by the Harts, descendants of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan.
At the beginning of the century, Shakespeare Hart (Joan Hart’s great grandson), divided the main house. The Swan and Maidenhead Inn now occupied only the eastern two-thirds of the building, while members of the Hart family lived in the remaining portion of the main house until 1793.
The Swan and Maidenhead Inn. “Return and sleep within mine inn; for with long travel I am stiff and weary.” The Comedy of Errors. 1.2.13-14. Shakespeare inherited the entire house from his father in 1602, at the age of 37. Shakespeare already owned the sizeable property New Place so did not need to live in the house, and instead turned his eye to moneymaking. This part of the house was leased to Lewis Hiccox who extended it as an inn, later called ‘The Swan and Maidenhead’.
The inn provided weary travellers with a place to sleep and we believe that at one time it included thirteen rooms, most of them with wooden bedsteads. However, if you were on a budget a simple straw mattress and a log for a pillow would have provided your bed for the night.
1769. The earliest illustration of the Birthplace, by Richard Greens, shows the building with windows set into the roof, a gable and a porch. Although the picture depicts the house standing on its own, it was in fact one of a continuous row of properties along Henley Street.
An engraving of the Birthplace dated 1788 by Philip de la Motte.
1790. A drawing by John Jordan shows that by the late eighteenth century the roof windows and gable end had been removed.
A pen and ink drawing by Samuel Ireland of the Birthplace kitchen in the late eighteenth-century.
1807. This drawing by Henry Edridge illustrates the western portion of the main house in use as a butcher’s shop. The eastern part was still functioning as an inn, the Swan and Maidenhead.
Inside the butcher’s shop in 1823. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries the western portion of the main house was let to Thomas Hornby, a butcher, and his wife Mary, who acted as self-appointed custodians of the Birthplace.
c.1835. By the 1830‘s the frontage of the Swan and Maidenhead Inn had acquired a fashionable, brick facade.
The Drinking Parlour. ‘Good company, good wine, good welcome can make good people. Henry VIII 1.4.6-7. Ale was readily available here in the drinking parlour, along with a small selection of wine, and hot and cold food from the buttery. Tudor inns were loud and busy but there were punishments for drunken behaviour, including having to wear a ‘drunkard’s cloak’ (a hollowed out beer barrel) around the town.
In Tudor England, drinking ale was safer than drinking water. Shakespeare’s father had previously acted as ‘ale taster’ for Stratford, but even normal adults could drink as much as 17 pints of ale a week.
The inn did not close until 1846, by which time this house was well established as a destination for literary pilgrims hoping to learn more about Shakespeare. After visiting the birthroom they could come downstairs and enjoy a drink!
‘In Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon’ by Henry Wallis (1830-1916) and Edwin Landseer (1803-1873). We saw this copy hanging on the wall during our visit, the original is in the V&A Picture Library.
The room above Shakespeare’s fathers glove workshop held the Birthroom Window and some display cases.
The Birthroom Window. This window was formerly in the birthroom of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. It became traditional for pilgrims to etch their names into the glass as a symbol of their visit. The earliest recorded date on the window is 1806.
Literary Contemporaries. Tang Xianzu. 1550 – 1616. Tang was a Chinese playwright who created works that were both popular and influential during his own lifetime and beyond. Tang’s great work Peony Pavilion, written in 1598, is often compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is a story of a young woman who dies for love, pining for a man she met in a dream. After the man falls in love with her portrait, she is brought back to life. Any similarity between the work of Tang and Shakespeare is coincidental as England had very little contact with China in the early 1600s.
Miguel de Cervantes. 1547 – 1616. Spanish writer Cervantes’ most famous work was The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha, published in 1605. Cervantes’ wit and use of wordplay was similar to Shakespeare’s and his work also inspired new phrases. One example is tilting at windmills, referring to pursuing the impossible. Shakespeare may have read Cervantes’ work and even been influenced by him. Cervantes published the second part of Don Quixote in 1615.
Cervantes, Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare all died the following year.
Early Pilgrims. In 1769, David Garrick, the greatest actor of his time, staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. This was the world’s first Shakespeare Festival and it was attended by hundreds of people. Garrick’s Jubilee put Stratford on the map as a place of pilgrimage, with Shakespeare’s Birthplace at the heart of it.
1 Glass Jug. 1600s. Actor, manager and playwright, David Garrick sipped wine from this jug at the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. At that time it was owned by the town clerk, William Hunt. According to tradition one of the previous owners of the jug was William Shakespeare.
2. Ceramic Salt Cellar. 1735 – 1769. This salt cellar is believed to have been used during the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769. It was made in China.
3 Three wax impressions made by David Garrick’s personal seal.
In 1838 Charles Dickens visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace. In 1847 when the house went up for sale by its last private owner, Dickens was one of many people involved in a successful campaign to purchase the building for the nation, saving it for future generations to enjoy. Huge public interest in the sale led to the development of all sorts of ‘spin off’ items.
1. Ceramic Nightlight or Cigar Rest. 1847. Shakespeare’s Birthplace was sold at public auction on 16 September 1847. The design for this Birthplace shaped nightlight or cigar holder was registered by Egerton Jacobson Filmore on 21 September, five days later. Cigar smoke would have escaped through the chimney.
2. Two Medals struck to commemorate the sale of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. 1847. Each is decorated with a portrait of Shakespeare on one side and an image of the Birthplace on the other. Engraved by Allen and Moore.
ALL IN ALL A FASCINATING LOOK AT THE PROPERTY HISTORY
NEW KNOWLEDGE, SO INTERESTING