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The Custodians of Shakespeare's Birthplace

Before the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed, the Birthplace was being opened up to visitors by those who lived there, the custodians.

Victoria Joynes
Mary Rose custodian
SC4/18/8 Custodian, Mary Rose, at Shakespeare's Birthplace c.1900

Mary Hornby (Custodian 1793 – 1820)

The earliest custodian we have information for is Mary Hornby, a now notorious figure in the history of life in the Birthplace. Mary acted as custodian when her husband, Thomas, rented the Birthplace from Joan Hart’s descendants. She enjoyed showing tourists the house and its treasures and continued to do so even after the Hart family sold the property to the Court family in 1806. The Birthplace was incredibly popular and even the Prince Regent visited in 1815, signing the wall along with other famous visitors. 

Silhouette portrait of Mary Hornby
SBT 1994-19-152 Silhouette portrait of Mary Hornby

In 1815 the American writer Washington Irving visited the Birthplace and this was his description of Mary Hornby from his Sketchbook:

“The house is shown by a garrulous old lady in a frosty red face, lighted up by a cold blue anxious eye, and garnished with artificial locks of flaxen hair, curling from under an exceedingly dirty cap.”

As well as a guided visit to the Birthplace visitors were “treated” to original plays and poems written by Mary herself in the inspirational house (she felt this meant that they were naturally imbued with Shakespeare’s genius). However, her play Waterloo was described by one critic as “the queerest thing imaginable” and by another as the most execrable verses that folly ever produced!”

Washington Irving also did not escape this honour:

 […] and on this occasion I went even so far as willingly to believe the claims of mine hostess to a lineal descent from the poet, when, unluckily for my faith, she put into my hands a play of her own composition which set all belief in her consanguinity at defiance.”

In 1820 Anne Court’s rent increases meant that Mary was forced out of the Birthplace, now a widow at this point, she stripped the building of the “relics” whitewashed over the famous names on the walls and set up her own rival attraction over the road. The two widows would stand in their doorways hurling abuse across the street at each other and the unfortunate visitors.

One traveller was moved to write these lines:

What-Birthplace here- and relics there!

Abuse from each!  Ye brawling blowses!-

Each picks my pocket – ’tis not fair-

A stranger’s curse on both your houses

Early Trust Custodians

Mrs. Ashwin worked as a custodian until 1871, she was originally solely responsible for the reception, guiding of visitors and for accounting for money taken. As visitor numbers increased an Assistant was employed to take admission money and issue tickets. Around this time in 1871 Mrs. Ashwin decided to resign and was succeeded by Miss Maria Charlotte Chattaway, previously housekeeper at Ragley Hall. She served as resident custodian and was assisted by her sister Miss Caroline and a seasonal guide Mr. Isaac Edwin Baker. Miss Chattaway lived in the custodian’s house at the end of the garden, free of rent and rates and including fuel. During the opening hours of the Birthplace she would be available to receive visitors and generally looked after the housekeeping of the building. The growing pressure of the ever-increasing numbers of visitors forced her to retire in 1899. The Trustees placed on record their appreciation of her work and awarded a joint pension of £50 a year in recognition of her and her sister’s work. This was the first pension to be put in place for a long-serving member of staff.

Chattaway memorial ER25/3/18/12
Joseph Skipsey
SBT 2007-13 Portrait of Joseph Skipsey, painted by Johanna Koster, 1894

Joseph Skipsey (Custodian 1889 – 1891)   

In 1889 Mr and Mrs Joseph Skipsey were appointed by the Trustees, they were formerly custodians of the Durham College of Science at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Joseph was born in 1832 in Newcastle and worked in local coal mines. He was self-educated and published collections of poetry which were admired by leading writers and artists of the day. These artists including Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Bram Stoker, Frank Benson, Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti supported his application in 1899 to become custodian of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. He held the position for over two years before returning to the North-East where he died in 1903.

From the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 14 August 1891:

“Mr Skipsey has been the delight of American visitors and of all who wish to know something about Shakespeare…the intellectual portion of the visitors, knowing his great literary ability, always considered themselves fortunate if they could obtain a few minutes’ chat with him.”

DR1107 Visitors in Mary Rose's book
DR1107 Visitors in Mary Rose's book

Mrs. Mary Rose (Custodian 1900 – 1921)

In 1900 Mr and Mrs Alfred Rose of Erdington were appointed joint custodians and when Alfred died in 1910, Mary was appointed chief attendant at the Birthplace in which capacity she continued until her death in 1921. She carried out her duties with enthusiasm and expertise, and made sure she stayed in touch with some of the more interesting visitors she showed round the property. These included Henry Folger, the American collector and founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. As well as guiding visitors round the Birthplace Mary gave talks on Shakespearian topics to literary societies and in 1905 she published The Women of Shakespeare’s Family and in 1913 a pamphlet called Baconian Myths.

Mary kept her own personal visitors’ book which she invited chosen visitors to write in. It begins in 1907 and continues until February 1921, a few weeks before her death. She recorded overseas visitors from America, Canada, Australia and South Africa including two Australian soldiers in 1915 who were ‘from the Dardanelles where they had both been wounded’. In 1912 the American poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox inscribed the lines ‘So many gods, so many creeds, so many ways that wind and wind. While just the art of being kind, is all the sad world needs’. Other notable visitors in Mary’s book include Marie Stopes, Marie Corelli, Mary Andreson, H.G. Wells and Ellen Terry.

When she died, the Stratford Herald wrote of her ‘a sweet and gracious personality…who gained the esteem, one might almost say affection, of thousands of visitors’. In the same issue, Marie Corelli paid her own tribute, remarking ‘… she had considerable literary ability’.

Guides Annabelle, Scott, James and Edwyna
Current guides in the Birthplace: Annabelle, Scott, James and Edwyna

Nowadays we have a team of guides to show visitors round the Birthplace, they do not live in the garden anymore but they continue the tradition, started by the custodians, of providing a welcome and engaging members of the public with the story of the Birthplace. 

You can research the history of the Trust and your own family and local history of Stratford by visiting our Reading Room. This year we are celebrating 170 years since the purchase of the Birthplace in September, find out more.


- Levi Fox, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: a personal memoir, 1997

With thanks to Madeleine Cox and Mairi MacDonald. 

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