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Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club reaches 200!

Secretary of the Shakespeare Club, Sylvia Morris, delves into the fascinating story of the oldest Shakespeare organisation as it celebrates its 200th anniversary.

Sylvia Morris

On 23 April 2024 the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon celebrates 200 years of its existence. It was the first Shakespeare organisation in the town and is now the oldest Shakespeare Club in the world, completely independent of any other body with members united only by a love of Shakespeare. During its earliest decades the Club worked hard to bring Shakespeare to the fore and ensured the transformation of the town into the centre for Shakespeare that it now is. Without the Club Stratford might well be a very different place.

At the time of its foundation, Stratford was waking up to the fact that Shakespeare’s heritage was under threat. His grand house, New Place, had been demolished, the Birthplace was in a poor state, there was no proper theatre for performances of his plays, and little was done to celebrate his life. A national project to create a national memorial in the town had failed for lack of agreement.

In frustration, local people set up their own Club, and their ambition grew from simply holding a Birthday Dinner to staging public celebrations. This was a big project for a small club made up of local tradesmen: bakers, a grocer, a hatter, teachers, a printer, and a few members of the gentry, but none experienced in managing big events. In 1827 and 1830 they staged the first processions of people dressed as Shakespeare’s characters, and thousands of people thronged the streets. In recognition, in 1830 the Club was granted Royal patronage.

For its first hundred years the Club organised the town’s Birthday Celebrations. It set up a Committee to conserve the monuments in Holy Trinity Church, and as early as 1835 suggested that the Birthplace and Shakespeare-related buildings should be taken out of private hands. When the Birthplace finally came up for sale in 1847 the Club set up a local Committee which with another in London raised money for its purchase. Afterwards the local Committee headed by the Club continued to manage the Birthplace until the formation of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the 1860s.

The Club’s relations with the SBT have traditionally been strong. Its own records form part of the Trust’s Collections. One amazing resource for the history of the Club are the notebooks created by Captain James Saunders (1775-1830). This antiquarian obsessively copied documents relating to Shakespeare and town history over several decades. He recognised that ephemeral contemporary events should also be fully recorded, sketching many of the town’s buildings, even the most humble. He even copied down the words and music for the songs sung by the Shakespeare Club, and for a second Shakespeare Club that for a few years rivalled the original Club.

After Saunders died the notebooks remained in his family’s possession until his son Henry Caulfield Saunders gave them to the Shakespeare Club, which in turn cared for them until they were able to present them to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for addition to the Library and Archive Collections. It would have been easy to find another home for them but Henry, and the Club, recognised the importance of keeping them in the town.

In 2016 the Club published its own history. The authors did most of their research at the SBT’s Library, Archive and Museums collections which include almost all the documentation that still survives. The material was very diverse including a sizeable engraved glass goblet presented to the Club in 1830, theatre playbills, pamphlets, books, tickets, medals, newspaper articles, photographs and paintings. Because the SBT’s collection have been gathered over such a long period, they also include a number of personal collections of archives and objects.

The richness of these collections relating to an important, but largely forgotten part of the town’s history have encouraged two further spinoff projects: research into the history of the first permanent theatre built in Stratford, which members of the Club paid for in 1827, and more recently investigation into the songs which were written specially for the Club and its rivals. Many of these were transcribed by Saunders but they have also been found in printed broadsides, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and manuscript notes. The illustration shows Saunders’ version of one of them, the Shakespearean Club Catch. In doing this research mystery objects have been found, and it’s hoped that some items that, not surprisingly, have been wrongly or inadequately catalogued will be better documented.

Captain James Saunders notebook: The Shakespearean Club Catch written by Mr James Bisset. SCLA ER1/94
Captain James Saunders notebook: The Shakespearean Club Catch written by Mr James Bisset. SCLA ER1/94.

By these projects it is hoped that the Club will take its rightful place as an important part of the town’s history, acknowledging the extraordinary Collections that made the research possible. The 2016 book* is still available and a souvenir booklet containing articles about the Club’s history has just been published.

Fittingly, the Club has just held a celebration of its 200th anniversary with a tea held at Shakespeare’s Hall on 13 April 2024. This beautiful the room is where for many years the Club held banquets celebrating the birth of our Shakespeare. No fewer than five previous Presidents were present and around 70 members. Thanks to its discovery at the SBT’s Library and Archive we sang a rousing chorus of another song from the Club’s earliest days, Rule Great Shakespeare!

SBT blog 200I MG_5851 Toast to the immortal memory
The Shakespeare Club tea, 13 April 2024. Photograph by Richard Morris.

Sylvia Morris Secretary, Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon


*Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris. The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d ‘Shakspearean’. Published by the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 2016.