Share this page

Looking Back 100 Years: Shakespeare’s Birthday and Stratford-upon-Avon in 1922

Reader Services Assistant Suzanne Lithgo explores what Shakespeare's Birthday celebrations would have looked like a century ago.

Suzanne Lithgo

2022 marked the first highly-anticipated ‘live’ Shakespeare birthday celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated innovative online alternatives.

Excitingly, 2022 also denotes my first time attending the town’s famous festival. In January 2022 I moved from the north to Stratford-upon-Avon when I started working as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections team. After years of desiring to be a spectator, my wish has finally come true!

For my first blog article, I thought it fitting to explore the library and archive to uncover how the town celebrated its most famous Stratfordian 100 years ago in April 1922. Reflecting upon this relatively optimistic period in the wake of the devastation of WWI, I have also discovered some other interesting events which Stratford-upon-Avon commemorated during the same year.

Two girls reclining in a rowing boat in the River Avon in front of The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

Annual celebrations of William Shakespeare’s birth and death day (on or around 23rd April) were initially instigated by Britain's foremost theatre actor-manager and Shakespeare devotee David Garrick. His legendary Jubilee of 1769 involved street processions of Shakespearean characters and public orations in a specially constructed pavilion on the Bancroft beside the River Avon. This landmark event has influenced immensely all yearly gatherings since.

Similar to festivities 253 years ago, the fanfare in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1922 was equally full of bardolatry. As today, civic dignitaries, foreign ambassadors and members of the local community attended. The visitors’ book for this year includes the Mayor and Mayoress of Warwick, Hubert and E. Lucy Tibbits, and several representatives from New Zealand and Australia, such as Sir Henry Newman Barwell, Premier of South Australia.

Crowds gathered to witness the unfurling of the flags in Bridge Street.

The participants processed with pride through the crowd-lined streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, as reported in several contemporary national newspapers. Walking from Shakespeare’s Birthplace to Holy Trinity Church, concluding with the laying of floral tributes on Shakespeare’s grave, the birthday events (which usually coincide with St George’s Day) are considered quintessentially English; the unfurling of flags along Bridge Street and the playing of the national anthem were just as central to celebrations as they continue to be in the 21st century.

Peacetime post-WWI and the advent of cars and motor-coaches signified a remarkable increase in the number of visitors to the town. Each year of the 1920s saw visitor numbers to Shakespeare’s Birthplace exceed the last; over 100,000 people visited in 1927, more than double the annual average at the beginning of decade.

The frontispiece and title page of ‘Shakespeare's Garden’ by Ernest Law (1922). On the left page is a black and white drawing of two men inspecting the gardens at New Place.

In April 1922, pilgrims to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon could experience the newly designed gardens of Anne Hathway’s Cottage and New Place. In 1920, renowned horticulturist Ellen Willmott reimagined the romanticism of the Cottage gardens. In the same year, Ernest Law designed and created the Knot Garden at New Place. He wrote a book on his design work which was published in 1922.

The boom in domestic tourism during the 1920s was also a consequence of the attraction of Stratford's annual Shakespeare Theatre Festival. Between 17th and 23rd April 1922, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (now the RSC Theatre) hosted six Shakespeare play performances, including ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ which was selected as the birthday play to debut on 23rd April. The actors who featured in these plays formed the first resident theatre company in the theatre’s 43-year history. Established under the theatre’s first director, William Bridges-Adams envisioned his ‘New Shakespeare Company’ as a forerunner to a National Theatre company. The theatre was granted a royal charter in 1925 to improve its provincial theatre-status and fundraising efforts.

A selection of collectable postcards published by The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to promote ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ (1922)

Although the birthday performances of April 1922 did not feature who we would now consider ‘star’ actors, on 28th April a one-off matinee performance introduced a future acting legend. On invitation of Theatre’s Governors, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by boys’ chorister All Saints’ School in London was performed. This was on recommendation of renowned theatre actress Dame Ellen Terry, who was quoted as exclaiming, “the simplicity, the beauty, the dawn-like fragrance of it all moved me to happy tears”. Playing Katharina was fourteen-year-old Sir Laurence Olivier, about whom the Stratford Herald commented “has fire of [her] own”. Olivier would return to the theatre in the 1950s at the height of his fame and success as the world’s greatest living Shakespeare stage and screen actor.

British actors who were born in 1922 who would later perform at the theatre include Academy Award-winning actor Paul Scofield and BAFTA- and Tony Award-winning Margaret Leighton.

Aside from the 1922 birthday celebrations, a noteworthy event in Stratford-upon-Avon was the erection of the WWI war memorial in Bridge Street. The unveiling ceremony was held on Sunday 12th February. The accompanying pamphlet lists over 200 townsmen who died during the conflict whose names are inscribed on the monument. The cross was later moved to its current location in the Garden of Remembrance near Holy Trinity Church.

The unveiling ceremony in Bridge Street was attended by crowds of locals and the Town Band following a gathering at the Town Hall (12th February 1922).

Also in 1922, the town gave a wedding gift of ten bound volumes of the ‘Stratford Town Edition’ of Shakespeare to Princess Mary, daughter of the monarch George V, for her marriage to Henry Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood, on 28th February. A newspaper article in the Oxford Journal Illustrated featured photographs of their manufacture by Morley Bros of Longwall on 22nd February. Two days later, the volumes were presented to Princess Mary. Interestingly, 22 years later on 21st April 1944, the town also gifted to Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II) on the occasion of her eighteenth birthday a collection of Shakespeare’s works. In light of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this year, this was an intriguing discovery.

A bulletin printed by the Shakespeare Head Press announcing the presentment of the wedding gift to Princess Mary (24th February 1922).

Looking back 100 years, I have found a great deal of similarity to celebrations in the present day. Indeed, both 1922 and 2022 could be considered periods of readjustment and reemergence following global turmoil when the country is striving towards happier times and seeking occasions to celebrate as a community. I am certain that the level of fanfare in 1922 will be mirrored this year.