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New Light through Old Windows

What began as a window onto 19th century Henley Street now stands as a monument not only to Shakespeare but also to the pilgrimage of the many - both the famous and the ordinary - to the place of his birth.

John Benson

I (that’s John Benson, by the way, newly arrived at the Shakespeare Centre as Collections Archivist) was recently asked to look into the history of the so-called ‘Shakespeare Window’ - the window that, until the mid 1990s, lived in the ‘birthroom’ of the place where he was born. The window has come to have a special significance in its own right. This is because a great many people autographed them, using a diamond ring! The names are many and include those as luminous as Walter Scott, Ellen Terry (who just signed ‘Ellen’), the great Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher Thomas Carlyle and the equally great hymn writer Isaac Watts (who wrote, among many other hits, ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’). In fact Watts seems to have been particularly enthusiastic and signed his name on several panes. Apparently many people also autographed the walls although the evidence has long since been painted over.

birthplace window signatures
Detail of the signatures on the Birthplace Window. Copyright Amy Murrell

So how did this all begin? Did it start out as small acts of vandalism and turn into a tradition participated in by the great and the good? By the mid 19th century was a charge levied for the privilege? We just don’t know. Almost as intriguing as those names of famous writers are those of people of whom we know nothing, like ‘Little Jack Stubbs’ in 1816, who signed his name both on the inside and outside of the window (did he have to hang out of the window to do it?) and ‘W Armstrong’ who did the same thing no less than three times in 1815. One of the panes includes visitors from New York and Boston (I’m guessing that’s Massachusetts rather than Lincolnshire). The earliest date recorded on the window is 1806 and the latest is, er, 1967.

And what of the origins of the window itself? Again, we don’t know. It does, however, incorporate a so-called turnbuckle (the handle by which the window was opened) which can be dated from about 1800 and which was presumably contemporary with the window itself. By the 1990’s the window had become in serious need of restoration and in 1995 was removed from its frame and the process of professional conservation begun. This was completed the following year and the window then installed in the exhibition room in Shakespeare’s birthplace, where it can be seen today. What began as a window onto 19th century Henley Street now stands as a monument not only to Shakespeare but also to the pilgrimage of the many, both the famous and the ordinary, to the place of his birth.