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Barnum vs. Dickens: Oh What a Circus!

This year we celebrate 170 years since Shakespeare's Birthplace was purchased for the nation and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed. P. T. Barnum and Charles Dickens both had a part to play.

Victoria Joynes
Shakespeare's Birthplace before restoration
c.1847 Shakespeare's Birthplace before restoration

In 1844 American circus showman, P. T. Barnum, visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace and he liked it so much that he hatched a plan to take it down and move it to America!

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 – 1891) was an American showman and businessman who founded Barnum and Bailey Circus. Born in Connecticut; during his life he was an author, publisher, philanthropist and politician. He had his own museum and promoted human curiosities including General Tom Thumb (1838 – 1883), a distant relative of his (half fifth cousin, twice removed!) who stopped growing at the height of 3 feet. At the age of five General Tom Thumb specialised in impersonations of Napoleon Bonaparte and later appeared twice in front of Queen Victoria.

They both signed the Birthplace visitor book when they visited in 1844. 

The signature of P.T. Barnum in the 1844 Birthplace visitor book
The signature of P.T. Barnum in the Birthplace visitors book, 1844

In Barnum’s autobiography, first published in 1855, he mentions his wish to transport the Birthplace to America to rebuild it there:

While in Europe I was constantly on the look-out for novelties… I obtained verbally through a friend the refusal of the house in which Shakespeare was born, designing to remove it in sections to my Museum in New York; but the project leaked out, British pride was touched, and several ….. English gentlemen interfered and purchased the premises for a Shakespeare Association…”

More detail is revealed in his later autobiography, a snippet of which was reproduced in the Birmingham Post newspaper. The piece is introduced with a comment laced with attitude:

The following account of his visit to Stratford and of his impudent attempt to buy Shakespeare's house will be read with amusement.

“While visiting the house in which Shakespeare was born I conceived the idea of purchasing, removing and re- erecting that building in New York. Americans appreciate the immortal Bard of Avon as keenly as do their brethren in the ‘Mother Country’..and I greatly desired to honour the New World by erecting this invaluable relic in its commercial metropolis. I soon despatched a trusty agent to Stratford…, armed with the cash and full powers to buy in Shakespeare’s House, if possible, and to have it carefully taken down, packed in boxes, and shipped to New York. He was cautioned not to whisper my name, and to give no hint that the building was ever to leave England. After weeks of delay the parties having control of the property consented to name a price which they thought they would accept for the Shakespeare House “to be taken down”. Before my agents received my letter from France, enclosing a draft on Messrs. Baring Bros., the London bankers, for the amount of the purchase money, some English gentlemen got wind of the transaction and bought the house……”

Barnum Conley
2015: visit from Brian Conley and Linzi Hateley from Barnum the musical

But who were these interfering English gentlemen?

It may have disappointed Barnum if he had known that rather than a snap reaction to his plan, the wheels had been set in motion for the purchase of the Birthplace back in 1835. A committee of "Noblemen and Gentlemen connected with the County of Warwick" was formed to raise donations for the renovation and preservation of the Tomb and monument of Shakespeare and his family. It was also agreed that if sufficient funds were raised then this committee would extend their care to preserve and restore the Birthplace of Shakespeare as well as "the residence of Ann Hathaway" and the site of New Place. At this time funds were only raised to cover the monument and tomb restoration. When the last custodian passed away the auction was announced for September 1847 and the Royal Shakespearean Club mobilised their campaign. 

Whilst Barnum's plot of moving the Birthplace to America may not have provided the initial spark of interest in purchasing the Birthplace, it may have spurred the public on to donate more cash as rumours spread through the press:

The interest which the public take in the matter has invested itself in the form of a rumour that the shrine in question has been purchased for removal to America;- a report which has received a direct contradiction from the trustee of the testamentary estate to which it belongs.

Committees were formed in Stratford and London to campaign for the purchase of the property; with Prince Albert himself as Patron, various local heavyweights such as the Mayor of Stratford, Robert Bell Wheler and Charles Holte Bracebridge on the Stratford team and London bringing in Charles Dickens, J. Payne Collier and George Jones among many many others. The London committee produced special performances for the cause:

" Public notice is hereby given, that a GRAND DRAMATIC ENTERTAINMENT will take place in the course of the present month, or early in the next, at the Royal Italian Opera-house, Covent-garden, or other available theatre, under the direction of the People's Central Committee of the Shakespeare Memorial Fund...The eminent artistes of the English stage, Mrs. Butler (late Miss Fanny Kemble), Mrs. Nesbitt, Mrs. Charles Kean, William C. Macready, Charles Kean and others have been invited to grant their distinguished services for the interesting occasion...

London August 25 1847"

The actors mentioned were the stars of their day, the biggest names were getting involved in the campaign. A special play was also written which featured many of Shakespeare's characters: This House to Be Sold.

Playbill and first page of text for "This House to be Sold"
Playbill and first page of text for "This House to be Sold"

There were further amateur productions of Shakespeare's plays including The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Charles Dickens himself played Justice Shallow. 

An extract from the review in May 1848 states:

The apathy which the public has shown in respect to the Shakespeare house, and the exoneration of those who have taken it upon themselves the responsibilities of its purchase, have supplied the "distinguished amateurs" with good reason for another series of metropolitan and provincial performances, which, it is hoped, will realise not only the balance of money not yet contributed, but complete the scheme contemplated by the committee in its fullest integrity. 

The Shallow of Mr. Dickens gave proof at every turn of the dramatic facility of that popular writer and of his quick appreciation of character -  the drivelling pride of the justice, his vain-glorious emptiness, and his effete gallantries, being delineated with great dexterity and effect, combined with an admirable "making-up"  and a most deceiving gait of infirmity.

... The comedy was followed by Mrs. Inchbald's 'Animal Magnetism' , in which the credulity of Charles Dickens, as the doctor, the victim of a pair of lovers whose business it is to outwit him, caused a vast deal of merriment. In parts of this kind, Mr. Dickens has few rivals, even on the stage, for there is nothing in his address detective of the amateur-- nothing "slow" or constrained.  

Charles Dickens playbill
Playbill from amateur productions starring Charles Dickens

P. T. Barnum and Charles Dickens both played a part in stoking the fires of interest in the public consciousness to protect the Birthplace and continue to raise money for its upkeep. The threat of Barnum and other American speculators purchasing the building inspired the movement to purchase it for the nation and as the campaign may have been flagging, Charles Dickens galvanised support further with his productions in London.

Keep an eye out for more blog posts about the history of the Trust as we celebrate the 170th Anniversary of the purchase of the Birthplace in September. 

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