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Sylvia Morris shares memories of the Birthday Celebrations from The Shakespeare Club of Stratford

Sylvia Morris shares memories of the Birthday Celebrations from The Shakespeare Club of Stratford.

Local people are used to the formalities of the Birthday Celebrations: military bands, barricades, flags, police, dignitaries in uniform. It’s easy to see it as just an official parade but it is really the time when, uniquely, people of the town get to remember their great fellow-Stratfordian. Celebrating the life of “their Shakespeare” was the aim of the founders of the Shakespeare Club in 1824, initially deciding to hold a “periodic meeting, and to pay an annual tribute to Shakespeare’s memory by a public dinner on his birthday”. Those first committee-members were almost all small-businessmen and shopkeepers from the town, professional people like schoolteachers, and a few landowners, and from their small beginnings grew the Celebrations we have today. Club members, still mostly local, now have a limited role, flying the Club’s flag and walking in the procession behind their banner, carrying a traditional wreath.

Since October the Club’s monthly meetings have been virtual and pre-recorded, and the Birthday Celebrations are inevitably cancelled for the second year. So to highlight this personal connection with the day, for the 939th meeting in April 2021 members were invited to share their own stories of Birthday Celebrations past.

Sylvia Morris, left, and Susan Brock of the Shakespeare Club (46324375)
Sylvia Morris, left, and Susan Brock of the Shakespeare Club (46324375)

Some members own items from early Celebrations. The statue of Shakespeare on the Town Hall is one of the few actual relics of David Garrick’s 1769 Jubilee, but the souvenir trade was in full swing and commemorative medals were struck. One now belongs to a member of the Shakespeare Club committee, Eileen Geldard, who was given the silver medal as a gift by her husband, and another is in the possession of a member of an old Stratford family, Roger Bliss. I met him at the Birthday Luncheon several years ago. His medal has been in his family’s possession for generations, perhaps even since the Jubilee itself.

Another relic of an early Celebration of Shakespeare’s birth is owned by Nicholas Fogg. “ I am the proud possessor of a magnificent bust (it could only be of the Bard) created by the sculptor, Felix Martin, for the 1864 Tercentenary Celebrations. I used to think that it had once breathed the wholesome air of Stratford until I discovered that it had been produced ‘under the special sanction of the “National Shakespeare” and “Stratford-upon-Avon” Tercentenary Committees by Howell James & Co. who were retailers in London’s Regent Street.”

Once the Club decided to organise a procession, ambitions grew. In 1830 the parade wound its way around the town for three hours, attracting crowds of between 25,000 and 30,000, before trains or cars, and when the population was not much more than 2000. They even repeated it the next day! An account was published naming 180 people, many local, who dressed as characters from Shakespeare plays. It proved impossible to maintain Celebrations at this level, but following the Tercentenary an outdoor display came to be expected.

The “Cradle to Grave” route was introduced in 1907, as were elaborate street decorations, and in 1908 an international flavour was added with flagpoles bearing national flags erected in Bridge Street. A letter from the organisers said “It must not be forgotten that we have the eye of the whole World upon this Town, and it is for us all to prove that we are willing and able to maintain the World’s appreciation”. Before long ambassadors from around the world were invited to attend the Celebrations, wearing national dress and carrying floral wreaths before attending the Luncheon and, in the evening, the Birthday Performance of a Shakespeare play at the Theatre.

Several members have memories of the Quatercentenary Celebrations in 1964, the grandest and most elaborate ever. A new Shakespeare Centre was opened in Henley Street, and a Shakespeare Exhibition was created in a Pavilion on the gardens on the other side of the river. Daphne Ingram was working at the Shakespeare Institute at the time, busy with international academic scholars, and remembers being impressed by the exhibits. Ruth Ors remembers: “I left school aged 16…and came to work as a Cadet Nurse at Stratford Hospital, just before the 400th Year Shakespeare celebrations began. I remember the enclosed exhibition in the field, south of the river, which had a very 1960‘s feel for Tudor times! Another memory was going to the Theatre with another member of the staff, due to free tickets donated by the RSC and handed out by Matron. I don’t remember a thing about the play but was very impressed by the art deco interior of the theatre and my male companion!”.

Nick Fogg’s mother was the Box Office Manageress for the Exhibition so he spent quite a lot of time there, describing it as “splendid” and “magnificent”.

The first time I attended the Birthday Celebrations was in 1966. My brother’s photo shows my father, me, my mother and grandmother striding down Old Town, clutching bunches of daffodils. Like many people, we tagged along at the end of the procession. My father, Eric Tompkins, had been to KES as a boy and insisted that although it was an official occasion, anybody could join in as it was, like Shakespeare, for everybody.

The Club’s Chairman, Susan Brock, worked for many years at the Shakespeare Institute, and then for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: ““My own special memories of the celebrations are of introducing visitors, students, actors and diplomats to the traditional, and sometimes esoteric, events.”

“In 2004 when I was ex officio Deputy Director of the Birthday Celebrations at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I walked in the procession with two diplomats from the Chinese embassy. We were accompanied by my niece Lizhi (as her uncle says ‘born in Guang Dong, made in Yorkshire’) to mark her seventh birthday the day after the Celebrations. We all had a lovely time!”

Susan also notes that the first Chinese visitor to attend the celebrations was in 1911. “With relations with China now strained, will there be a Chinese delegate in the procession next time?”

As a steward it was always possible you would be allocated someone from a country you had no experience of. One year Richard Morris had to look after the High Commissioner from Botswana. “I knew nothing about the country, but I remembered watching a TV documentary on the Okavango Swamp in Botswana. I mentioned this to the High Commissioner, and found I had hit on his favourite subject. I didn’t need to worry about making conversation and by the end of the walk we were on such friendly terms he invited me and my wife for drinks that evening at the hotel where he was staying.”

Shakespeare Club committee member Melissa Mailer-Yates remembers the parade in 2018 for a different reason: the Shakespuss childrens books that she creates had their own flagpole in Bridge Street for the first time, a sign they had really arrived.

Children have always been part of the parade, and one Club member remembers taking part every year while he was at Broad Street Primary School, as well as folk dancing on the Bancroft.

Dressing up as Shakespeare’s characters was revived in the 1980s and I have a photo of a group of locals as Othello, Henry IV, Isabella and myself as Portia. That year I hosted Fabia Drake, the grand elderly actress who had been both the first Rosalind and the first Lady Macbeth in the 1932 Memorial Theatre. After pulling our flag she needed a rest, so while the rest of the procession headed to the Birthplace we strolled to the Shakespeare Hotel for coffee where she regaled me with stories from the 1930s about Peggy Ashcroft and her affair with the great director Komisarjevsky, before rejoining the parade for the final walk to the Church.

Features of the procession sometimes echo the concerns of the early Club. In 2018, Stratford-upon Avon’s Labour Women dressed as suffragettes to celebrate the centenary of women achieving the right to vote. I don’t know if they were aware that Stratford had its own Women’s Suffrage Society from 1907 and from 1909-1913 Suffragists and Suffragettes regularly appeared at the Birthday. The Shakespeare Club made Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, a Shakespeare scholar and famous campaigner for womens’ rights, its first female honorary life member in 1915, the same year that local woman Kathleen Scriven delivered a paper to members arguing that Shakespeare would not have denied women the right to full citizenship.

In 2019 the Shakespeare Club’s President was Theatre Director Emma Rice. She had already endeared herself to members by giving an outstanding talk, and she gamely turned up to walk in the procession with the Club. It was the coldest, windiest Birthday for many years and I watched as she and Susan Brock struggled up Bridge Street towards the Club’s flagpole as the freezing wind buffeted the banner they were carrying.

Music has always played an important part. In the 1820s, Shakespeare’s Garland, the music composed for Garrick’s Jubilee, was republished, and its songs were sung at the Dinners. One tune, Charles Dibdin’s “Warwickshire Lad”, remains the piece of music most strongly associated with the Celebrations. It has been adopted by the Royal Warwickshire regiment as its Quick March, and this version is played by the band that leads the procession. Other kinds of music such as steel bands and a New Orleans jazz band have taken part, and songs from Shakespeare’s period are often sung around the town.

Member Janet Polson: “I have particularly special memories of the 400th weekend in 2016 when, in addition to the “usual activities” I somehow crammed in an amazing amount of Shakespeare-related music. That was the weekend when BBC Radio 3 took over The Other Place and broadcast many programmes from there, all highlighting music inspired by Shakespeare and some of which also featured readings. I spent the weekend dashing between their broadcasts and other Birthday-related engagements, including a wonderful concert of Shakespeare Odes at Holy Trinity Church, which memorably featured Sam West in the guise of David Garrick.”

A good meal has always been a key part of the Birthday Celebrations and a number of venues have been used including the Town Hall, marquees in the gardens near the Church, and most recently the Crowne Plaza hotel. The original dinners went on for several hours, with many speeches, toasts and songs. The main toast, “The Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare” has been proposed by an important guest since the earliest days. Guests have often been from the world of entertainment. Nick Fogg remembers actress Peggy Ashcroft: “One of my memories of the Birthday Luncheon is of what must have been the briefest lines to receive a standing ovation on record. Dame Peggy merely uttered the words ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen’ in her own mellifluous tones and the place erupted. It brought the house down within seconds.”

Four locals dressed as characters from Shakespeare (Photo by Joe Cocks Studio) (46324069)
Four locals dressed as characters from Shakespeare (Photo by Joe Cocks Studio) (46324069)

Stratford’s Birthday Celebrations can even be life-changing. This is member Jenny Whybrow’s story:

“1972, four sixth formers from an unusual girls boarding school in the Chilterns, RSC crazy since Brook's 'Dream' (Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970-71). The Aldwych (the RSC’s London theatre) was like a Saturday home with a headmistress who would put us on the Great Missenden train to Marylebone to attend a matinee and collect us from the station in the evening.”

“This was bigger. Booked rooms at The Red Horse for an April weekend. The eldest of the four drove us, on our own, to Stratford for the start of Trevor Nunn's Roman's season.”

“On arrival, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, daffodils blowing, the flag poles were up and a sense of anticipation was palpable. We didn't know the significance of the date, and then discovered The Birthday Celebrations, joining the procession to Holy Trinity and the seed of my future was sown. What a welcome to the town!”

“We wasted away the day, tea at The Cobweb, sitting in the theatre gardens, chatting to anyone who passed, including actors we'd seen at The Aldwych. Then in the evening the magic of Chris Morley's new hydraulic stage and Ian Hogg's Coriolanus.”

“And yes, I returned. Two of us got a summer job living in at The Falcon. The next year I started part time front of house at the theatre and temping through the departments through the summer: Brierley, Flanagan, Daniels, Nunn, Goodbody and all (administrators and directors at the RSC). By 1975 I was secretary to Terry Hands (one of the most important directors). Happiness! And eventually married one of those actors we'd chatted with.”

“23rd April...important date!”

The Tompkins family in the parade in 1966 (46324071)
The Tompkins family in the parade in 1966 (46324071)

Most of our memories are positive. One member commented: “All my memories of past celebrations are good. Why do I always remember the sun shining?”

The Shakespeare Club is proud of the role it has played in the town’s unique Shakespeare Celebrations over the past two centuries, and hopes to be involved long into the future. A link to an online version of its video tribute is now available on the website where there is also information about the Club. www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org.

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