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The Purchase of Shakespeare's Birthplace

In 1847 Shakespeare's Birthplace was put up for sale, find out how it was saved for the nation

By the 1840s the Shakespeare property on Henley Street had been split into three separate entities: the Swan and Maidenhead Inn, a butcher’s shop and an adjoining tenement. The whole premise was owned by Anne Court. Her husband (Thomas Court) had placed restrictions in his will on how the property could be sold. He has stipulated that on Anne’s death the house had to enter into public auction rather than being privately sold. 

The calibre and quantity of visitors to the property (even in its disused state) were enough to warrant it being desired at a public auction. Early visitor books contain the signatures of eminent writers including Washington Irving, John Keats and Charles Dickens. The visitor books provide proof that the house was appealing to interested parties, even before it was purchased and adapted into a specific tourist attraction. 

In the 1830s The Royal Shakespearian Club had already become involved in the restoration of the bust and grave at Holy Trinity Church. The Club had begun to debate the idea of buying the Henley Street house before the sale became public knowledge. So, they set up The Shakespeare Birthplace Committee with the intention of buying the property. The Birthplace Committee was divided between Stratford and London. The London part of the committee even had Charles Dickens as a prominent member. They needed to raise sufficient funds for a deposit and the purchase proper, plus enough money to make a start on the conservation project. 

fundraising poster
A fundraising poster to save the Birthplace

In 1846 the Henley Street house was put up for sale. The advertisement declared the house to be - 

‘the truly heart-stirring relic of a most glorious period’

and promised a public auction on 16 September. Public excitement was high. Rumours circulated that the notorious American showman, P.T. Barnum, intended to buy and ship the house to New York to join his fleet of theme park attractions.

The Surrey Zoological Gardens capitalised on this public excitement, building a replica of the house (without the adjoining buildings) in the middle of their fifteen acre plot. They even hung a sign above the door bearing the words ‘the immortal Shakespeare was born in this house’ (as Mary Hornby has done outside the real house fifty years before). People queued for days to see the replica in Surrey. The neat, stand-alone house became something of an icon and was to inspire, in part, the removal of the adjoining properties on Henley Street surrounding Shakespeare's actual Birthplace.

Flyers and pamphlets were circulated to encourage private donations to the Birthplace Committee. Prince Albert (another member of the London Shakespeare Committee) made a private donation of £250. Later, a bank loan was taken out for the sum of £470. In total, the Committee had managed to raise £3000 by the day of the public auction.  

The Action Catalogue containing the Birthplace

On September 16th 1847, there were notable figures in attendance at the London sale room. Representing the Stratford Committee were the significant Shakespeare scholars and founding member of the Shakespeare Society, J. P. Collier (of Perkins Folio infamy), Charles Knight and J. O. Halliwell-Phillips (who was instrumental in the creation of the museum).  Until their bid, the highest offer stood at £2,100. Very dramatically, the Stratford and London Shakespeare committees passed a letter to the auctioneer following one Mr. Clapton’s bid, offering the full sum of £3000. Once the property was acquired and restoration underway, the Shakespeare Birthplace Committee eventually became known as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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