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The Restoration of Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare's Birthplace has looked very different at different points in time, but why is this and how did it come to look as it does today?

Victoria Joynes
Birthplace restoration
SC67/2 Shakespeare's Birthplace before and after restoration

When Shakespeare’s Birthplace was purchased for the nation in September 1847 it was looking rather sorry for itself. Maintenance of the building had been neglected and early drawings showed that its appearance had changed. The earliest drawing of the property is from 1769 and shows the building with dormer windows and gable, a deep porch and projecting bay window. In Samuel Ireland’s sketch of 1795 these features had been removed, the bay window had become an ordinary lattice window, the porch had been taken away and the front had been fitted up as a butcher’s shop. Essentially what had been Shakespeare’s living room was being used for selling meat. Meanwhile the adjoining part of the building, traditionally used by John Shakespeare for his trade as a glover and wool dealer, had come to be used as an inn called the Swan and Maidenhead. When Thomas Court took possession in 1808 the Swan and Maidenhead part of the building was rebuilt at the front in red brick. Some of the old timber framing was removed, but the main cross-beams remained hidden behind the new brick frontage. Luckily there was enough timber framing remaining behind the brick facade to later reinstate the half-timbered frontage that we know and love today.  

R. Greene's drawing of the Birthplace 1769
R. Greene's drawing of Shakespeare's Birthplace 1769
Eldridge's drawing, 1807
Eldridge's drawing 1807

The decay of the building was put down to the years that the Hart family lived there in humble circumstances in the 18th century. With a heavy mortgage to worry about they were unable to keep up with repairs to the building.

Once the Birthplace Committee had acquired the property they had a task on their hands to reinstate the fabric of the building and needed further funds for this purpose. Towards the end of 1855 a new Shakespeare appeared on the scene with a welcome windfall. John Shakespeare of Worthington Fields, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and of Langley Priory, Leicestershire, claimed to be a descendant of the poet and intended to preserve and restore the Birthplace fabric and so ensure “the rescue of England’s most interesting relic from the risk of destruction by fire and from decay.” The Committee immediately made plans to carry out the necessary work in consultation with John Shakespeare. 

There is a copy of the initial notes of what could be done in the collection: 

In compliance with Mr. Shakespeare’s wishes we have received estimates of the different works we consider desirable for the protection and preservation of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

1.    Isolation of the Birthplace

To purchase the adjoining premises on either side so as to completely isolate the Birthplace to prevent risk from fire.

2.    Restoration of the Birthplace

To restore the House to the state it appeared according to the old drawings and secure it from destruction by fire.

3.    Museum and Custodians House

To erect a Building as a Repository for all the Editions of the works of the Poet. Portraits, sculpture, manuscripts to be illustrative of his works, fire proof with residence for a custodian. 

4.    Glass Roof

To cover the Birthplace with a Glass Roof so as effectually to preserve it from the effects of the weather. 

Thomas Thomson

W O Hunt

14 June 1856

It is interesting to note that these original thoughts included a glass roof presumably to cover the entire building for protection. It seems this is one proposal which did not become a reality. 

1890 painting Birthplace and Swan and Maidenhead
SBT1994-19/95 Watercolour painting of Shakespeare's Birthplace by Paul Braddon c. 1890

It was agreed that it was important to isolate the property from all adjoining buildings to protect it from the risk of fire. Steps were taken to purchase the house adjoining the Swan and Maidenhead and other surrounding land and buildings. These surrounding cottages were taken down and a fence erected along the street frontage. In 1857 this work was completed and next an architect was called for. An approach was made to E.M. Barry, the architect of the House of Commons who visited the Birthplace and made a detailed inspection and survey alongside local architect Edward Gibbs. The report that followed stated that the Swan and Maidenhead part of the building should be restored in accordance with the old drawing. The restoration was designed to remove anything which was the result of “modern innovation” 

“to uphold with jealous care all that now exists of undoubted antiquity, not to destroy any portion about whose character the slightest doubt does now exist, but to restore any parts needing it in such manner that the restoration can never be mistaken for the old work though harmonising with it, and lastly to adopt such measures as modern science enables us to bring to our aid for the perfect preservation of the building.”

By 1858 the majority of the work had been completed. When the brickwork in front of the Swan and Maidenhead was removed the original main beams showing the mortice holes remained. Edward Gibbs drew up a plan based on these to show how the timbers should be put back in order to keep the positions of the original structure. This was crucial as in some respects it differed from the original drawing of the building that they had been working from. Further work was carried out on the interior such as floors and staircases, the warming and ventilation of the building was worked on and outside a garden and orchard “with the taste of the olden time” was laid out at the rear of the property.

An 1858 photo of the Birthplace. It shows doors to each side of the house, a shop counter and shop door in the first house with a fixed canopy over each, and the further house has a first-floor bay window. That house, with the gable ends facing the street, appears to have brick replacing wattle nd daub, and to be in much better condition than the nearer ppart with the shop.
Photograph of Shakespeare's Birthplace in 1858

In 1858 it was reported that John Shakespeare had died on 11 June and he had bequeathed £2500 and an annuity of £60 a year to be paid to the Birthplace Committee from his estate, however in 1859 Shakespeare’s solicitors stated that they were unable to pay any portion of the legacy and a ruling would need to be secured by the Court of Equity. The Committee’s claim was ruled against and they ended up in debt meaning that restoration work had to be halted. At this stage they once more appealed to the public to raise funds for work to continue. There were fundraising events and the sale of small pieces of oak from the timber recently taken from the Birthplace. This became a popular souvenir and some of these pieces are in our museum collection.

In 1862 Charles Holte Bracebridge stepped in and offered to lend the Committee £300 without interest to complete the restoration work. Gibbs prepared further specifications and estimates and work continued. The former public house was fitted up as a library and museum to display Shakespeare’s relics and in December 1862 the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation were given rooms at the north-western end of the Birthplace to accommodate the Borough collection of historical records.

It was a team effort to restore Shakespeare's Birthplace to its former glory and undo some of the changes it had gone through since Shakespeare's family lived there. There were many key figures without whom we may not have the building we have today. From the mysterious John Shakespeare and his generous donations, the heads of the Shakespeare Committee to Edward Gibbs the local architect who discovered the true shape of the building from the evidence left hidden behind the facade of the Swan and Maidenhead, to Charles Holte Bracebridge and his generous donation for the final push. Credit must also go to those artists such as Greene who recorded the true face of the Birthplace back in 1769.  

The front of Shakespeare's Birthplace, showing the porch with Shakespeare's arms over the door and the timber frame building with a red-tiled roof with two gable windows.
Shakespeare's Birthplace today

This blog has been written using original documents which can be viewed by anyone visiting our Reading Room. A significant source was  Levi Fox, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: a personal memoir, 1997

You can of course visit Shakespeare's Birthplace yourself and help us celebrate 170 years since the purchase of the Birthplace in September.

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