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200 years of the Stratford club that gave Shakespeare a home

The protection of Shakespeare’s birthplace, the celebrations each April to mark his birth, and Stratford’s first theatre... they all were originally the work of one town organisation that still exists today and is about to turn 200 years old. Sylvia Morris delves into the rich history of The Shakespeare Club.

IT’S now taken for granted that Stratford is William Shakespeare’s town. He’s everywhere: statues stand ready to share a selfie with us, or to be admired from below. His name adorns buildings, shops, and road signs, and his characters and plays are named on boats, taxis and cafes. King Henry V even waves his sword at us from the traffic island where his statue stands.

It hasn’t always been like this. For the first 200 years or so after his death in 1616, Shakespeare was hardly visible for anyone coming to the town. The lack of a memorial was often commented on and an influential committee was set up to address the issue, raising money, even getting royal approval.

Still nothing happened. But then, 200 years ago this year, something changed. There weren’t any fanfares or big announcements in the newspapers. During a convivial evening spent at the Falcon Inn a few local men decided to set up a ‘Shakspearian Club’.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound very significant, but this club was the first organisation in the town devoted to honouring the memory of Shakespeare. The members were enthusiastic but inexperienced. One critic, deliberately misquoting Shakespeare, called them “Hard-handed men that work in (Stratford) here which never labour’d in their minds till now”.

Nods to Shakespeare can be found all around Stratford, but it wasn’t always like that.
Nods to Shakespeare can be found all around Stratford, but it wasn’t always like that.

They were a mixture of young tradesmen that included two grocers, a hat-maker, a corn-dealer and a baker, two teachers, and a small number of local landowners and gentry.

The story of how this unlikely group set the town on its journey from relative obscurity to international tourist attraction was told in 2016 by Susan Brock and myself in our book, The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon. The research revealed how many projects the early members had initiated, and how a direct line can be traced from their early activities to the organisations that dominate the town today.

In 2024 it is the oldest Shakespeare organisation in the world, so the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon’s 200th anniversary is an event worth celebrating.

David Garrick, with his 1769 Jubilee, is usually given the credit for starting the town’s tourist trade. But Garrick’s Jubilee had been entirely imposed on the town by the most famous actor of the day and his metropolitan admirers and left little behind. Just a couple of years after that event, the only visible change to the town was the statue of Shakespeare that still adorns the town hall, rightly now restored to its original beauty.

Garrick’s Jubilee had been on a magnificent scale. He had built an amphitheatre in which to perform his Ode, music had been specially written by famous composers, there were banquets, balls, an oratorio in Holy Trinity Church, where flowers were also laid on Shakespeare’s grave. Starting a grass-roots organisation of local people to do something similar must have been a daunting prospect, so it is perhaps not surprising that it took around 50 years for it to come to fruition.

It did, though, offer the early club a model at which to aim. To begin with, they marked Shakespeare’s birthday with a magnificent annual banquet held at Shakespeare’s Hall (the town hall), for over 200 men (ladies were not admitted until 1848), complete with dozens of toasts, speeches and songs. Tables groaned under huge amounts of food, and fine wines flowed. Local newspapers wrote extended reports of this important civic occasion, chaired by the town’s mayor, beginning around 3pm and sometimes not drawing to a close until dawn the next morning.

Club members reading at Shakespeare’s Coming Home in March 2022.
Club members reading at Shakespeare’s Coming Home in March 2022.

But the club soon decided to put on a crowd-pleasing event, one that would appeal to the many, not just the few. It was risky though: even Garrick, with all his resources, had failed to pull it off. But on 23rd April 1827, just three years after it was founded, the Shakespeare Club staged a procession of people dressed as Shakespearean characters, acting out moments from the plays, all around the town. It was the first such event anywhere in the world, and was so successful that 20,000 people visited to watch it.

The committee’s aims were not entirely altruistic; drawing so many people in to the town meant profit for those who provided food, drink, accommodation and transport. It also helped advance the town’s commercial life attracting businesses whether or not they were connected to Shakespeare.

On the same day in 1827 the foundation stone was laid for the first permanent theatre to be built in the town. Most of the shares that paid for it were bought by members of the Shakespeare Club. It stood on what is now the garden of New Place, the first theatre in the world named after Shakespeare, acknowledged by Charles Flower as the precursor to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre that opened, largely paid for by the Flower family, in 1879.

In 1830 the club reached the peak of its respectability when the King granted it royal patronage, allowing it to be called the Royal Shakespearean Club.

The club began taking itself more seriously, declaring its aim of preserving Stratford’s Shakespeare heritage. It initially raised funds to conserve his memorial bust in the church. It then took on the much larger undertaking of helping to save Shakespeare’s birthplace, organising the local appeal for public funding, and later taking responsibility for its upkeep until the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was fully set up.

In later years the club scaled back its efforts, using its monthly meetings to educate its members about Shakespeare and his works while continuing to organise the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday.

Women were finally admitted as members of the club in 1901, one of the first being the novelist, Marie Corelli. In 1904 the club invited visitors and townspeople to join its members in processing to Shakespeare’s grave, carrying flowers, a tradition that continues today. In 1907 the club put Stratford at the centre of the worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare, increasing the scale of the celebrations to include the flying of national flags and inviting representatives of those countries to take part. The whole route of the procession was magnificently decorated with banners, evergreens and heraldic shields.

The club has its own songs.
The club has its own songs.

While researching the club’s history many long-forgotten physical reminders of it were uncovered: a banner, rosettes, tickets, medals, photos, all represented in the book. Among the wonderful hand-written notebooks of a founding member, Captain James Saunders, are the words and music to songs written by members and sung at club dinners. They celebrate Shakespeare as a man of the people, and a man of Stratford:

Since to honour the birth of the bard

Who by virtue of Nature’s kind bounty,

Has been of all nations the theme

And the boast of fam’d Warwick’s bold county,

I say – on a day such as this,

Set apart your own Townsman to honour,

The humblest of all humble Muses

The task has now taken upon her

At the club’s celebratory afternoon tea some of these songs will have life breathed into them for the first time in well over a century, at the town hall, in the same room in which they were originally performed.

Over the years the club has changed its constitution to reflect its situation and aspirations. Today’s club is very different from that of the past. Its monthly meetings are mostly held during the winter months, and consist of talks given by a variety of expert speakers, followed by discussion. Recent presidents of the club, who visit to give an address, have included the distinguished American academic Prof Lena Orlin, actor Dame Harriet Walter, and, this season, Prof Emma Smith.

Occasional events are held at other times. In 2022 the club contributed to the play reading marathon Shakespeare’s Coming Home, and in 2023 held its own lunch on Shakespeare’s birthday.

Reflecting its history, the club always takes part in the Birthday procession, pulling its own flag and marching under its own banner.

The club has moved on, now hosting a website and Facebook page. During lockdown its meetings moved online, recording lectures with introductions from members of the committee that ensured it survived and even thrived, enlarging its mailing list to include people from around the world. A couple of lectures each year are now recorded for those unable to attend in person. Visitors are always welcome at meetings for just £5, and membership is open to all for £20.

The club is keen to promote education and is about to launch a modest annual grant to help students visit Stratford to research at its libraries and archives.

A book noting the history of the club.
A book noting the history of the club.

In 2024 to mark its bicentenary the club members will march en masse at the front of the parade wearing specially-designed black and gold rosettes. During April an exhibition relating to the club’s history will be held in Stratford Library.

No matter how the club has changed, it has always been run by and for local people, independent of those other organisations with Shakespeare in their titles. The appreciation of Shakespeare’s work remains at its heart, offering Stratford’s most famous son “A local habitation and a name”. After 200 years it is still possible to say, as an early member sang:

Long life to the club call’d Shakspearean, boys,

Long life to the Avon’s fam’d Jubilee joys.

Copies of the club’s fully-illustrated book can be purchased by emailing stratfordshakespeareclub@gmail.com, or bought direct from one of its meetings. Details of the club’s activities are available on the website www.stratfordshakespeareclub.com.

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