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Traditional Recognition


Shakespeare's Birth-Room

A.D.  1769–A.D.  1777.



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      This little brochure is specially addressed to Professor Karl Elze, the leading Shakespearean critic of Germany, in the hope that its perusal may induce him to modify the views which he has expressed in his recent work against the reception of the Birth-Place traditions. The importance of that work is a sufficient justification for the appeal. Those traditions are, I believe, as well authenticated as any of the kind, referring to so remote a period, can be expected to be,—there is certainly not the shadow of a known fact that is inconsistent with their truth ;—and it will be a p.6 / pity if the pilgrim, without an adequate reason, is unable to direct his steps towards the venerated room in Henley Street without entertaining a suspicion that he may become the victim of an inglorious deception.


Hollingbury Copse,
             11 December, 1888.

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Design at top of page, published size 5.8cm wide by 1cm high.


T is singular how exceedingly difficult it is to meet with the briefest descriptive accounts of the Shakespearean localities at Stratford-on-Avon at any time previously to the closing decade of the last century.
      For fourty years or thereabouts I was vainly endeavouring to ascertain if any portions of the interior of the Birth-Place were shown to visitors as vestiges of Shakespearean interest on the occasion of the Jubilee in 1769. In the Stratford-on-Avon p.8 / Museum there is preserved the largest collection of Garrick-Jubilee records now in existence, and the absence in them of the slightest reference to the inside of the building naturally led one to conclude that the Birth-Room was not at that period an object of exhibition. A few weeks ago, however, I came upon the following passage in Dodd's Essays, 8vo. 1770, p. 278, where the author, referring to the celebration of the previous year, observes,—"the house in which Shakespear was born was distinguished by a flag ; the mistress of it, whose name is Shakespear, got a good deal of money by shewing the room where he was born in, and the chair in which he used to sit when he wrote." Although Dodd falls into an error in his statement p.9 / respecting the owner's surname, there can be no doubt that he is otherwise reliable ; and, indeed, by a strange piece of good collecting fortune, I am enabled to confirm the general accuracy of his account. A few days after I had stumbled on the passage above quoted,—so strange is Fate in her disposal of sequences of either good or bad luck,—I purchased an unpublished manuscript containing a description of Stratford-on-Avon written by a Cambridge man who visited the town eight years after the Jubilee, and who alludes to the chair as "the only piece of his furniture now remaining," an important and decisive testimony against the authenticity of other relics of the kind that were subsequently displayed by the successors to the Harts. p.10 / The writer also mentions the Birth-Room as then shown to visitors, the manuscript being one of great interest and curiosity as containing by far the earliest description yet discovered of any portion of that room's interior.
      These new evidences opportunely reached my hands at the very time that I was being disturbed by the onslaught made by Professor Elze on the accuracy of the Birth-Place traditions in his "Shakespeare, a Literary Biography," a book that, not being able to read a line of German, has only just recently become accessible to me in an English translation. The Professor is of opinion that the Poet may have been born either in Greenhill Street or in the house once an inn and now used p.11 / for the Shakespeare Museum, adding that "there is good reason for believing that the boy William moved with his parents in 1575" into the house now shown as the Birth-Place. There is no good or other reason for such a belief, and, had these views emanated from a less distinguished critic, they would not have been worth a special notice. But it is certain that the Professor's work is destined for many a year to hold a high position in the library of the Shakespearean student, and it would be a pity if, for want of a few timely words, his unchallenged opinions continued to influence the public to the prejudice of their appreciation of one of the most touching memorials of the great Poet. That the position which he has p.12 / assumed in the matter is altogether untenable will be readily gathered from the notes here given on the following houses, each of which has had one or more advocates in favour of its right to the title of the Birth-Place:—
    1.   A farm-house at Ingon.—The long-credited notion that the John Shakespeare of this hamlet was the Stratford glover and the Poet's father has recently been distinctly proved to be incorrect.
    2.   A house in Greenhill Street.—This, with a garden and croft, was purchased by John Shakespeare on October the 2nd, 1556, and sold by him at some unascertained period before 1590.
    3.   The Eastern Tenement in Henley Street, afterwards the Swan and Maiden- p.13 / head, now the Museum.—This estate was purchased by John Shakespeare on the same day, 2nd October, 1556, remaining in his ownership to the end of his life. Both these properties, 2 and 3, were of similar value and extent, the manorial rent due on each being identical. There is no evidence that he bought either for occupation. If either of them were purchased with that view, it is impossible to decide which of the two it may have been. As it is not known where he resided in Henley Street in 1552, or how long afterwards he remained in that street, if tradition be rejected an attempt to fix the site of his dwelling in 1564 must necessarily be merely conjectural. It would be a very strained hypothesis p.14 / indeed to assume that he parted with his estate in Greenhill Street within a few years of its purchase and in the very heyday of his prosperity,—that is to say, between the years 1556 and 1564,—and yet, unless that hypothesis be insisted upon, the claims of the Greenhill Street house and those of the Eastern Tenement stand exactly upon the same trustless footing in respect to the possibility of either having been the Birth-Place. Trustless, for the mere fact of the ownership of a house is obviously no evidence at all of the owner's occupancy.
    4.   The Brook-House.—So long ago as 1808 a petty and conceited litterateur, one John Jordan, thought to astonish the Stratford people by proclaiming that the real Birth-Place was at the Brook-House p.15 / on the Water-side. He succeeded for a time, but, after a little while, they were more astonished at his impudence. The claims for this locality have been so completely exposed by the late Mr. Wheler that a second demolition is unnecessary.
    5.   The House now shown as the Birth-Place.—John Shakespeare owned the freehold of this Tenement in 1590, but how long previously is uncertain. There is a possibility that this estate was the same as that which he purchased from the Halls in 1575, the situation of which is nowhere stated, but this is so merely a possibility that it cannot properly be accepted as evidence,—it is practically nothing beyond a conjecture. Whether it was so or not is, however, of no great p.16 / moment, the evidence of occupation not that of ownership being all that is of main value in the enquiry. And now we come upon a testimony which is of extreme importance in considering our estimate of the value of the tradition, a portion of the land attached to this building being the only locality in all Stratford that we know from positive evidence was ever in John Shakespeare's own occupation. The deed of 1597 distinctly states that the piece of land that he sold in that year to Badger was then "in tenura sive occupacione mei, predicti Johannis Shakespere," the obvious and natural inference being that he was also in occupation of the house. It may of course be said that he had let the house and was only occupying its grounds, but a p.17 / person must have a very bad case indeed if he considers it necessary to have recourse to such a singularly strained hypothesis.
      Another important point in favour of the now-called Birth-Place is the fact of its having been the family residence after the decease of John Shakespeare, his only surviving daughter, and the poet's only surviving sister, being mentioned as living there in 1616.
      The credibility of the tradition is further enhanced by the circumstance of the same house having been the residence of John Shakespeare's descendants from the time of James I. to a comparatively recent period. It must have been well within the family knowledge whether or no that p.18 / house had been occupied by their ancestors in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Nor does an imputation rest on the honour of those descendants. It speaks volumes for their honesty that, notwithstanding their poverty and the crazy demands for Shakespearean relics between the time of the Jubilee and the termination of their Birth-Place interests in 1806, the chair shown at the former period, and which was most likely given to the Harts by Lady Barnard, was the only article in their possession that they ever alleged was a genuine memorial of the great dramatist.
      The only feasible objection to the acceptance of the tradition is the length of time that elapsed before its publication ; but this difficulty fades away upon examin- p.19 / ation. In former days truthful traditions were truthfully carried down through mere hearsay for many generations by the general local public, even when there was not, as in the present case, the great advantage of their continuous preservation in a single family. Two respecting Shakespeare, the accuracy of which has been confirmed by modern research, were first recorded by Rowe in 1709, one over one hundred and thirty and the other over a hundred years after their occurrence. The Birth-Place tradition, so far as we at present know, is first mentioned in 1759 ; but then it must be recollected that there had been no previous opportunity necessitating an earlier notice. Biographers writing before that period were p.20 / not in the habit of naming the Birth-House of an author unless it happened to have been a mansion with a distinctive appellation. The notice of 1759 is in the earliest known plan of the town, an official survey made in that year by S. Winter, the earliest document in which such a notice was called for, and there the now-called Birth-Place is mentioned as being as well-known to have been the real Birth-Place of Shakespeare as New Place was known to have been the site of his death. At one time I too hastily thought that Winter's note referred to the collective eastern and western tenements, but on a re-examination of his plan, which in some respects is more elaborate than the later one preserved at Stratford, I find that he specially p.21 / denotes the western one as the Birth-Place. It is identified by the note-number attached to the out-buildings belonging to it, and which are also included in the plan. Winter introduces the statement as a matter of general belief, and he could have had no conceivable motive for exercising deception. Then, again, the authorities of the town, at the time of the Jubilee, admitted their belief in the authenticity of the now-called Birth-Place by erecting a flag-pole opposite its entrance-door ; while, according to a Stratford manuscript, it was Garrick who suggested that the "emblematic transparency" should be placed outside the window of the Birth-Room. So it is clear that the great actor had no misgivings p.22 / respecting the correct appellation of either the house or the room.
      If it be contended that all this could have happened in the absence of the currency of a genuine tradition, then those who adopt such a view must perforce accept the incredible alternative that not only the Harts, but the town-surveyor with the Mayor and Corporation, were all of them linked together in the perpetration of a disreputable fraud. The result cannot be doubtful. Violent theories "have violent ends, and in their triumph die."

J. G. Bishop Printer, " Herald " Office, Brighton.