Share this page

On the Trail of Mary Hornby

Mary Hornby's descendants visit from Australia on the trail of items relating to their illustrious ancestor.

Madeleine Cox

This week has been a busy week for family history research as we've welcomed people from around the world trying to learn more about their Stratford ancestors. We were particularly excited to welcome Craig Hall and his son Aidan to the Reading Room as we are quite familiar with their ancestor, Mary Hornby. We often talk about Mary Hornby in our Trust Treasures sessions for visiting groups, and items relating to her featured in our recent Heritage Open Days event. Craig and Aidan wanted to find out more about Mary and her life in Stratford.

craig and aidan hall
Craig and Aidan Hall, descendants of Mary Hornby

Who was Mary Hornby?

Mary Hornby acted as custodian of the Birthplace when her husband, Thomas, rented Shakespeare’s Birthplace from Joan Hart’s descendants. She took great pleasure in exhibiting the house and its treasures to tourists and continued to do so even after the Hart family sold the property to the Courts in 1806. The Birthplace was incredibly popular and even the Prince Regent visited in 1815, signing the wall along with other famous visitors. Mary also wrote plays and poems, notable only for the fact that they were written in the Birthplace, as though somehow the location could imbue any work with Shakespeare’s genius. One such work was her play Waterloo, described by a sympathetic critic as ‘the queerest thing imaginable’ and by an unsympathetic one as ‘the most execrable verses that folly ever produced’!

In 1820, forced out by the widow Court’s vast rent increases, Mary Hornby stripped the premises of relics, whitewashed over the names of the great and good on the Birthplace walls and set up her own rival attraction across the road. This caused an ongoing rivalry between the two women, who stood at their doors hurling abuse at each other and anyone visiting the other attraction. One traveller was moved to write these lines:

What-Birthplace here- and relics there!

Abuse from each!  Ye brawling blowses!-

Each picks my pocket - 'tis not fair-

A stranger's curse on both your houses

Family history research can be time-consuming and frustrating and isn't always as straightforward and fast as Who do you think you are? would suggest. However in this case, within their short visit, we were able to find a number of items to help Craig and Aidan in their quest to know more about Mary Hornby.

1. A watercolour portrait thought to be of Mary Hornby

mary hornby watercolour
A watercolour portrait of Mary Hornby

2. An original edition of her play The Battle of Waterloo

mary hornby preface
Mary Hornby’s preface in which she explains how she wrote the play in Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
mary hornby play extract
An extract from Mary Hornby’s play

3. A wonderful description of Mary, the visitor experience at the Birthplace and the various relics she showed off, including a sword purported to have been used by Shakespeare in Hamlet.

We were able to show Craig and Aidan this account as it was transcribed and illustrated in one of the volumes created by local antiquarian Captain James Saunders (1775 – 1830). Saunders copied out several thousand local records and created beautiful drawings as a record of places and documents. In one volume he copied out the American author, Washington Irving’s account of a visit to Stratford in 1815 from his Sketchbook. 

mary hornby birthplace
Mary Hornby and the Birthplace, in a volume compiled by Captain James Saunders

Here is a description of Mary and the Birthplace taken from The Sketchbook of Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle):

"The house is shown by a garrulous old lady in a frosty red face, lighted up by a cold blue anxious eye, and garnished with artificial locks of flaxen hair, curling from under an exceedingly dirty cap. She was peculiarly assiduous in exhibiting the relics with which this, like all other celebrated shrines, abounds. There was the shattered stock of the very matchlock with which Shakespeare shot the deer, on his poaching exploits. There, too, was his tobacco-box ; which proves that he was a rival smoker of Sir Walter Raleigh ; the sword also with which he played Hamlet ; and the identical lantern with which Friar Laurence discovered Romeo and Juliet at the tomb ! There was an ample supply also of Shakespeare's mulberry-tree, which seems to have as extraordinary powers of self- multiplication as the wood of the true Cross; of which there is enough extant to build a ship of the line.

The most favourite object of curiosity, however, is Shakespeare's chair. It stands in the chimney nook of a small gloomy chamber, just behind what was his father's shop. [...]In this chair it is the custom of every one that visits the house to sit : whether this be done with the hope of imbibing any of the inspiration of the bard I am at a loss to say, I merely mention the fact ; and mine hostess privately assured me, that, though built of solid oak, such was the fervent zeal of devotees, that the chair had to be new bottomed at least once in three years. It is worthy of notice also, in the history of this extraordinary chair, that it partakes something of the volatile nature of the Santa Casa of Loretto, or the flying chair of the Arabian enchanter; for though sold some few years since to a northern princess, yet, strange to tell, it has found its way back again to the old chimney corner.

I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived, where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics, legends, and local anecdotes of goblins and great men ; and would advise all travellers who travel for their gratification to be the same. [...] and on this occasion I went even so far as willingly to believe the claims of mine hostess to a lineal descent from the poet, when, unluckily for my faith, she put into my hands a play of her own composition which set all belief in her consanguinity at defiance."

The Sketchbook had been published in America in 1820 but was not widely known in England. Saunders illustrated his version of the work with beautiful thumb-nail sketches and added a series of footnotes to be referred to in order to expand upon Irving’s account. For example, Irving describes a ‘garrulous old lady’ who showed Irving round Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Saunders identifies this lady in his notes as being Widow Hornby.

mary hornby relics
The relics on show

4. An advert for Mary Hornby's attraction, detailing the history of her custodianship and including the certificate of Jane Iliff, only surviving daughter of the late Thomas Hart. Mary asked Jane to add this to her advert in the Warwick Advertiser in 1822 in response to attempts by Mrs Court to discredit her attraction and cast doubt upon the authenticity and provenance of the relics. Note that she also take the opportunity to promote her play!

mary hornby jane iliff
A declaration from Jane Iliff, only surviving daughter of the late Thomas Hart to refute Mrs Court’s claims that the relics never belonged to Shakespeare

5. A poster advertising the rival attraction when it was run by Mrs Hornby's daughter.

mary hornby poster
A poster for the rival attraction

6. A silhouette of Mary Hornby

mary hornby silhouette

We were very happy to help Craig and Aidan and hope their family enjoyed seeing the reference photos they took of these items. We never know who will come in next and that is partly what makes our jobs so varied and interesting. If you have a Stratford ancestor, why not pop in, or have a look at our online catalogue.