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Gastrell on Trial – Victim or Villain?

The infamous Reverend Gastrell returned to New Place this summer to defend his legacy, begging the question: was he the villain who destroyed New Place or a victim of history?

Vivienne Bayliss

This summer has seen Shakespeare's New Place divided, over one of the most infamous characters in its story. The Reverend Francis Gastrell, or ‘The man who destroyed New Place,’ has come back to life to defend his legacy. Was he really the villain everyone says? Or has he simply been a victim of history? Well, that’s what staff and visitors at New Place have been asking.

New Place 1702

Gastrell purchased the Queen Anne style brick house, known as New Place, in 1753, to add to his burgeoning portfolio of properties. By this point, previous owners had already demolished the building Shakespeare lived in. The principal symbol left from his time was the Mulberry tree, supposedly planted by the playwright himself. This tree was a huge tourist draw, with many requesting access to Gastrell’s garden. Frustrated by the intrusions, Gastrell took drastic action and chopped the tree down. 

Relations with the town were furthered soured when it was uncovered, in the process of applying for planning permission for an extension, that Gastrell had not been paying his taxes. He objected to various charges on principal and refused to back down. The argument brewed until Gastrell found a loophole – if there was no house, there were no taxes. The property was demolished, Gastrell left town, and (rumour has it) a law was passed preventing any Gastrell returning. The initial research into the Reverend was conducted by James Halliwell-Phillipps in the 1860s and the Victorian penchant for a good old-fashioned villain gave us the story we tell today.

It’s taken a bit of digging to determine that there is at least some doubt over the accuracy of Halliwell-Phillipps’ research. Thanks for this must go to Phil and Matt, hard-working New Place guides, and our own Gastrell himself, Kerry Frater, who has been embodying the controversial man in the Great Garden at weekends over the summer.

They’ve been uncovering all sorts of alternative facts (not of the Trump kind!) and trying to convince visitors of other reasons for Gastrell’s actions, rather than that he hated everyone in Stratford as much as they hated him. For example, Shakespeare’s New Place had an elegant courtyard, which may be where the original Mulberry tree was planted. However, the walls of the new building were much closer to the tree and it may have been damaging the house. Can we really be angry at him for removing a tree ruining his property, despite its importance to the town?

Gastrell Kerry Frater

Kerry Frater in particular, has been doing some very in-depth background research for his character, going so far as to scour the archives in Cheshire, the site of Gastrell’s parish. Giving an excellent immersive and interactive performance, ‘Gastrell’ patrols the grounds and argues his case with the visitors with varying degrees of success. We’ve been tracking the tide of public opinion with a voting board upstairs in the exhibition room. At the start of the summer, the public were still firmly against him, but now as summer draws to a close, Gastrell is winning more round to his side. Whatever the final outcome of the vote, he’s won praise for his role here and we shall miss his stern looks dearly.

There have been a range of activities running at New Place alongside Kerry’s performance to help visitors engage with the debate, the most popular of which has been the badge making. In our Learning Room, visitors can make their own badge and pick a side: #GastrellVictim or #GastrellVillain. Which side visitors come down on can often depend on which guides they’ve met during their visit.

All the guides have been proudly wearing their colours and it has split the team right down the middle. Phil is very sympathetic to Gastrell’s cause. Eve claims she can’t change sides as she’s been declaring him a villain for twelve years. Matt wears both badges to let everyone know “I’m Switzerland.” Tom regularly squares up to Gastrell for a full-blown battle. Jayne will wear either badge as long as she’s got a good story. Whatever team we’re on, it’s made all the guides think a little bit harder before we trot out the same old Gastrell stories.

This project has created many memorable responses, but these are two of my favourites. I’d been talking to a couple at the start of their visit, giving them a balanced view (I hope), and passed them again after they’d met Gastrell. They’d been so convinced by Kerry of his innocence that the gentleman said he’d “pay Gastrell’s taxes for him!” And Phil has enjoyed this summer so much, he wrote a poem about it: 

Gastrell Returns

Our tale well practiced, repeated each day
‘Francis Gastrell cut the Mulberry down.
Tax for the poor, he refused to pay
Instead, razed New Place and angered the town.’

The belligerent cleric ‘Hated all tourists,
Refused them entry to New Place grounds.’
The old myth endures, the truth often missed
Of Gastrell no good, just foul rumours abound.

But see yonder, a sombre figure appears
In vestments black with opinion bold.
Returned from the grave, his name to be cleared
And once and for all, this mystery to solve

“That tree was too close and broke our foundation,
Needs must it was felled or damage our dwelling.
Far be it from us to sour relations
Just hear me out, t’will be clear in the telling.”

“Do you not wonder who preserved a scion
To keep the Mulberry alive for the town?
Examine the facts, it won’t take you long
It was me of course, just count the years down.”

“The issue of tax? You need to be clear;
Hand outs are wasted, (it’s not that I’m tight)
Instead help the poor to build a career
A fish is just lunch, while fishing’s for life!”

“Indeed it was I who levelled New Place
In 1759, but it’s always forgot’n
That Shakespeare’s home was a different case
Five decades before, destroyed by John Clopt’n!!”

“So when next you hear the tale of New Place
Please think on my words, it’s not all my fault.
I may be no saint, but I ask in good grace
To take what you hear with a bucket of salt!”