Stratford landmarks ‘not as old as previously thought’

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New research has led to a rethink of the age of the almshouses. Left, Dr Bob Bearman.

NEW research has revealed that the Falcon Hotel and Church Street almshouses in Stratford are actually around 100 years younger than originally thought.

The dating of the timbers in old buildings along the Stratford Historic Spine has thrown up some surprising and fascinating results – including the age of the almshouses and the Falcon.

The Guild register, researched by Mairi Macdonald.

The dating was carried out as part of a project run by Stratford Society to highlight what’s known as the Historic Spine – the route from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street to his grave in Holy Trinity Church, about a mile away.

The route, which takes in High Street, Chapel Street, Church Street and Old Town, was identified by Stratford historian Dr Bob Bearman around six years ago. He observed that, as well as the birthplace and final resting place of the poet and playwright, the route also took visitors past many of the town’s most important and historic buildings.

The project to draw attention to the Historic Spine involves not only installing pavement plaques identifying those buildings, but also checking their age by analysis of the timbers used in their construction. This is done by a process called dendrochronology, in which a sample of the timber is taken and the pattern of tree ring growth is compared with a sample of known ages until a match is found.

In the case of the Falcon, investigated by the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, the result suggests a construction date of 1624, some 100 years later than previously supposed. For the almshouses, examined by York University as part of its study of all the Guild buildings, the result of 1495-1520 means a significant re-evaluation of the circumstances in which they came to be built.

An excerpt from the 1502 will of merchant Thomas Hannys provides a vital clue.

Before the analysis, it was thought that they were constructed in the early 1400s by the Guild of the Holy Cross – a religious and mutual benefit organisation for the town’s merchants and tradesmen – that flourished from 1269 until its suppression in 1547 as part of King Edward VI’s religious reforms.

In the course of transcribing a register of guild members, local archivist Mairi Macdonald came across a merchant called Thomas Hannys, who had business interests in both Stratford and Bristol. When he died in 1502, he left money for the “newe building and setting up of the almeshowses now being within the towne of Stratford upon Aven… adioynyng next unto the Scolehowse.”

He specified that the almshouses should be in the form of a 75ft quadrangle, with a parlour, kitchen, buttery and chapel. In the event of the almshouses not being built, he stipulated the money should, among other things, finance an Oxford University priest to pray and sing for his soul and those of his parents.

Since the almshouses were previously thought to pre-date his death, it was always assumed that his bequest had not been acted upon and that the money had passed to the other legatees of his will. However, the new date for their construction strongly suggests that they were indeed built according to his bequest, although not in the full form specified.

Dr Bearman, former head of archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, added: “The main hope is that, in dating some of the other fine timber-framed houses, especially in High Street, we will find out if, like Harvard House (dated 1596), they were built soon after the town fires of 1594-95.”

The Historic Spine Project is still running and an appeal for funding is due to be launched in the autumn.

Kevin Bond, chairman of the Stratford Society, said: “Along this route is grouped a fine series of buildings from all periods, medieval to Victorian, including all but one of the town’s Grade I buildings and 11 of its 15 buildings scheduled as Grade II.

“Our current scheme is the placing of ceramic plaques by the buildings describing their history and significance. Ten of the 18 initially planned are in place or ready. Accurate dating of the buildings is critical both to the project and to enrich our knowledge of the town’s heritage, and so we propose, wherever possible, dendrochronological analysis for the timber-framed buildings.”