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The sale of Shakespeare's Birthplace

170 years ago today, Shakespeare’s Birthplace was sold at auction.

The auction gets underway
An illustration of the auction room, from a sketch by P W Archer. London Illustrated News, 25 Sept 1847.

In 1847 the sale of William Shakespeare’s Birthplace and childhood home was announced. The will of the previous owner stipulated that the house should go to public auction for the benefit of the remaining heirs and the date was fixed for 16th September of that year.

The day of the auction approached amid huge press interest. Committees based in Stratford-upon-Avon and London both launched fundraising campaigns to save the building for the nation and were supported by some of the most notable literary and public figures of the day, including Prince Albert, author Charles Dickens and former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Despite their efforts, donations were not as large or as numerous as had been hoped and tensions rose as the 16th September grew near.

The auction was held at the Auction Mart in London. The room was crowded and the sale started over an hour late at 1.45pm. Among those who attended were Sir F Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, Mr Amyot and Dr Thomson, Chairmen of the London and Stratford Committees respectively, Mr J P Collier, a well known Shakespearian scholar and Mr G Cruikshank, who illustrated the works of Charles Dickens. There was only one woman present, a Mrs Fletcher of Gloucester.

The Auction
Auction Mart, London, 1829. Drawn by Tho. H Shepherd. Engraved by W Watkins.

The sale began and a number of bids were entered, for £1500, £2,000 and £2,100. Then a letter was handed to auctioneer Mr Edmund Robins offering the sum of £3000 for the purchase of the property on behalf of the joint London and Stratford Committees. According to The London Illustrated News Robins asked if there were any higher offers and after a few tense moments the house was sold to the committees amidst loud cheering. However, though they were the highest bidders, there was a considerable shortfall of funding and the members of the committees were left owing nearly £2000. They continued with their fundraising campaign to pay off the debt.

The sale was completed in 1848 but the story was far from over. A programme of restoration was begun in the 1850s and in 1891, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed by Act of Parliament with an obligation to care for Shakespeare’s Birthplace as a “permanent and national memorial of William Shakespeare”. Today the Trust is still an independent charity caring for the Birthplace and four other Shakespeare properties. The legacy of those events in the auction room can still be felt 170 years later.

Our informal exhibition Saving Shakespeare’s Birthplace runs from 16 September – 29 December 2017 at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Don’t miss a special free theatrical re-enactment of the auction outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace today (16 September 2017) at 12pm and 2pm.,

A new range of souvenirs and images  relating to the auctioning of the Birthplace are also available from our shop