When I left school I probably didn’t know what an archivist did or that there were archives in Stratford. In fact the Birthplace Trust Archives predate both Birmingham City Archives and Warwickshire County Archives. Additionally Central Library Birmingham burnt to the ground in the 1870s and they lost almost everything including their Shakespeare and Warwickshire collections. I was asked to volunteer a few years ago by Maddie Cox and Amy Hurst to sort and catalogue 13 boxes of “unsorted correspondence” of Richard Savage who had been Secretary and Librarian to the Trust from 1884 to 1910. This got me involved with the origin and development of Trust collections. Since then I have seen every deed relating to the ownership of every Trust property. What are more interesting are the ones that got away such as the first four entries in the catalogue for New Place. These are in the Folger Library in Washington D.C. and had been destined for Birmingham in 1889 when J.O. Halliwell (purchaser of New Place for the Shakespeare Fund) died. But Birmingham Corporation refused to pay the £7,000, (about three-quarters of a million pounds in today’s prices) for part of his collections which he left them in his will and they were bought by an American collector. The Shakespeare Library and Archives has got many things that were presented by J.O. Halliwell but not much was known about how some of them had been acquired by and from him.
A few months ago I was left with a list of four Trust collections related to Halliwell. If this did not answer some questions I was running out of places to look in Stratford. The last item on my list was described by the Royal Commission on Historic Manuscripts in 1972 as “Papers relating to Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare from the collection of J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps” and it turned out to be a goldmine.
There are the “Shakespeare Folio Papers” and the “Shakespeare Fund Papers” and two individual items. The “papers” are pasted into volumes which sometimes bear some relation to each other but overall seem to have no particular order. They must remain in this order. Therefore I proposed to make an overall index by correspondent for the letters, with all the invoices and receipts by supplier and other documents such as sale catalogues showing the relevant dates for the Shakespeare Fund items only.
I have around 1600 items for the “Fund” on my index at the moment which will be extended to about 1800 to include a book of 1870s bills and receipts. The thing about sorting correspondence is (as I have found) not to categorise by subject as many letters have more than one subject. So it is by type, from and to and date.
The Shakespeare Fund was raised to repay Halliwell for the purchase of New Place. But looking at the contents under “Fund” it became obvious that this is not just about raising the funds to purchase New Place and setting out the gardens – it is also about the origins of the Library, Museum and Archive collections. In fact there are about six different general subjects which will have to be written up afterwards.
One subject of Shakespearian interest in the collection is the London Tercentenary Celebrations in 1864. It seems (and a Times article confirms this) that the crowd was ordered to disperse by the police because General Garibaldi was in town at the time. And there do not appear to be any other celebrations.
Another thing in the collection is the only known original example of the work of J.T. Blight who was the illustrator of Halliwell’s book about New Place. This is a story in itself but all of his other original illustrations for that book and also Halliwell’s “Life of Shakespeare” have also ended up in the Folger Library except this one which I have asked to be photographed. J.T. Blight F.S.A. was a very talented Cornish artist who wrote books about Cornwall. He hit on hard times and ended his life in the Bodmin Institution. His drawings of Stratford in the 1860s and copies of earlier ones are very realistic.
Occasionally I write pamphlets about what I have found in the collections. “A Monument to Shakespeare” was written about the Grade II* listed monument in New Place Gardens. This monument is at the far end of the garden where C.H. Bracebridge Esq. ordered it to be placed in 1870. He had bought the statuary in London where it had been in Pall Mall on the front of the Shakespeare Gallery and later the British Institution. At least two other people have written pamphlets about the same subject and one of them was the subject of a talk to the Dugdale Society. But it is obvious that in both they had a problem in that some of the documents about this were missing and I hit the same problem. Some of these have turned up and the next project will be version 2 of “A Monument to Shakespeare”. We now know as I suspected that all of the monument except the statuary by Thomas Banks was made in Stratford and designed by Edward Gibbs, architect of Ely Street.
So that is why when things emerge from bundles or volumes in boxes (in this case after 140 years or so) it is called “The Wonder of Archives”.
Written by Robert Howe, Archive Volunteer