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Meet the Distinguished Visitors to Shakespeare's Birthplace

Norma Hampson is a long-standing volunteer at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, and has written this blog to share details from her current project: listing visitors from the early Birthplace visitor books, including one Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist.

Norma Hampson
A woman sits at a desk in front of a laptop making notes. To her left is an old book from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's collection which she is reading.
Norma Hampson studying the Birthplace visitor book

This large volume records the names of visitors to the Birthplace in the first decades of the Trust’s existence, and demonstrates the popularity of and interest in the works of Shakespeare by people from all walks of life and from all over the world. The largest number of overseas visitors hail from the USA, but more exotic countries feature periodically.

Many signatures are difficult to decipher, especially when scrawled or written in an elaborate style. Even the signature of such a famous person as Charles Dickens, who visited in 1838 and 1840, was on one occasion misread and recorded on the data base as Carlos Dressens.

I am currently recording the period 1851–1853, and so have the opportunity to refer to the census returns of 1851 to assist in the identification of visitors if their place of abode is clear. Clues left by visitors regarding their occupations or educational standing enable further information to be gleaned from such sources as Clergy Lists, Army Lists, the Alumni of Oxford and Cambridge, and of course ‘Google’ which reveals  much interesting information.

The latter proved to be the case regarding the signature of Emily (Tennyson) Jesse (1811-1887). A search revealed that she was the younger sister of Alfred Lord Tennyson . His poem ‘In memoriam of A.H.H.’ was penned in memory of Arthur Henry Hallam to whom she was engaged to be married. He died suddenly in 1833 while travelling abroad, and she married Captain Richard Jesse RN in 1842. Their son, born in 1843 (Free BMD), was named Arthur Henry Hallam Jesse. Emily featured as a character in the story "Conjugal Angel" in the book Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt. She died in 1887, and a picture of her grave in Margate Cemetery can be seen at

It was quite a coincidence that I should index the signature of Dante Gabriel Rossetti last year, the well-known Pre-Raphaelite artist, in the year which marked the 185th anniversary of his birth and 160 years since his visit to the Birthplace. This visit took place on the 12th July 1853.

A close up on a page of autographs.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

He was born on the 12th May 1828 at 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, the second child of Gabriele Rossetti (a political refugee from Abruzzi, Italy) and Frances Polidori Rossetti (a governess whose father Gaetono Polidori, from Tuscany, had married an English woman).

Having, some years ago, entered the names from the visitors’ books at the Lord Leycester Hospital on to a database (now at Warwick County Record Office), I was aware that Rossetti had visited there in December 1859. On that occasion he was accompanied by Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who also signed the book. They were married the following year on 23rd May at St. Clement’s Church, Hastings. On 2nd May 1861 Elizabeth bore a stillborn child, and in February the following year she died after taking an overdose of laudanum. The grief stricken husband interred the sole manuscript of his original poems in her coffin. Rossetti died on the 14th April 1882 and was buried in the All Saints' Parish Church Graveyard at Birchington-on-Sea.

A memorial window was designed by Frederic Shields and a memorial cross on his grave by Ford Madox Brown.

Norma will be sharing more discoveries from the visitor books with us as she continues with her project.

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