As I began to find my way around the collections here at the Shakespeare Centre, and those that are on display in the Trust houses, I was struck by the curiously large number of objects made from mulberry wood. This was not a wood I had come across often in my career and yet we are in possession of a large number of small souvenirs and articles made of it.
The answer, that many of you I am sure will know, is that these objects are supposedly made from the wood of the mulberry tree that was thought to have been planted by William Shakespeare in his garden at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. I am not the first person to remark that it must have been an extremely large tree! A recent enquiry prompted us to count, and there are 63 items made from mulberry wood in our collection alone. This is an extremely large number, especially considering that the original number will have dropped dramatically as these pieces have been lost over the years.
The mulberry tree was the earliest known point of pilgrimage for tourists interested in Shakespeare. They must have come in large numbers, because they irritated the owner of New Place, Reverend Francis Gastrell, so much that he had the tree felled some time in the 1750s. Famously he also demolished New Place, the second house on the site where William Shakespeare's house of the same name had stood. The poet had purchased the original house in the 1590s and lived in it until his death in 1616. The archaeological dig currently taking place in the garden of Nash’s House is to find out more about New Place and Shakespeare’s life there.
In 1769, the actor David Garrick, who was very famous at the time, held a Grand Jubilee in Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s life and works. It was around this time that the fashion for souvenirs made from the wood of the felled tree really got going. The small box pictured is just one example of the many items produced by local man Thomas Sharpe. A label underneath the lid reads:
This box was made of the real mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon just after it was cut down and before it was used up at the time of the Jubilee, when much fictitious mulberry wood supplied its place, for the purpose of memorial articles.
Sharpe seems to have worked for self-styled local historian and tour guide John Jordan. Together they produced and sold mulberry wood items for about thirty years after the Grand Jubilee.
The little bust of Shakespeare also pictured may well have been produced by Sharpe, although it is also thought to have been carved by Henry Cooper. Written in ink on the base are the words:
Remember ye Mulberry tree
Shakespear's Jubilee at Stratford on
Planting living trees supposedly taken from grafts of the original tree was also popular, and these can still be seen today. In 2006 a mulberry tree in Central Park, New York - said to be a descendent of Shakespeare’s tree - was found to be only 80 to 85 years old.
It is tempting to believe the claims of these little labels, inscriptions, and rumours, but it is more than likely that hundreds, possibly even thousands, of fakes were produced. However, like holy relics, they are a testament to the power of objects. In the seventeenth century people were obviously keen to see, touch, and own things that were linked to Shakespeare and this is no less true today. I dread to think what the Reverend Gastrell would have made of the hundreds of thousands of people who now visit Stratford every year!