If most people were asked to name the oldest Shakespeare organisation in the world, they would probably think of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. But there is an older one, set up by Stratfordians nearly two hundred years ago, that surprisingly still exists today: the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon. A new book revealing its largely forgotten history and achievements has just been published, co-written by Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris.
The Shakespeare Club was founded in 1824, and one of the stories told in the book is its little-known involvement in the acquisition of the Birthplace. As early as 1835 the Club suggested purchasing the building to save it from unscrupulous exploitation by its owners who allowed visitors to chip off and take away slivers of wood from "Shakespeare's Chair". It was closely involved in the purchase of the building in September 1847, and for years made strenuous efforts to pay off the debt incurred. The minute book also records the Club’s concern to provide “for the future conservation of the property”, a responsibility only handed over in 1866.
By this time the Trustees of the Birthplace were collecting the records of the town. Most of our research for the book was carried out at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections Department, where the Club’s archives are kept along with those for other local organisations. It was not always so, and one of the greatest difficulties we encountered was the almost complete lack of real evidence about the Club’s early years. In its first two decades, it had become the organiser of events of national significance, including hugely successful celebrations for Shakespeare’s Birthday and the restoration of Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church, but these gaps were only filled by using other records.
We wondered why the early records of the Club did not survive. The first existing minute book dates from 1845 when it’s clear that the club fell out with John Ashfield, the owner of the Falcon Inn. Meetings were held there, and Ashfield had custody of “the Archives, Banners, and other properties belonging to the Club”, but during 1845 he refused to produce them when asked.
Part of the fun of researching the book has been the need to read between the lines and at this point we speculated about what might have happened. It’s most likely that the Club owed Ashfield money and he held on to the books as security. The matter was never resolved: the Club began to hold its meetings at the Town Hall, and the archives of the Club from its first foundation until 1845 disappeared, never to be seen again.
Much more about the Club’s place in the history of the town can be found in our fully-illustrated book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016, now available via the Club’s website
http://www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org/, as well as the Shakespeare's Birthplace Bookshop.