The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1945.

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'The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, (London, 1945), pp. 244-247. British History Online [accessed 12 June 2024].

. "The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres", in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, (London, 1945) 244-247. British History Online, accessed June 12, 2024,

. "The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres", A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, (London, 1945). 244-247. British History Online. Web. 12 June 2024,

Shakespearian Festivals and Theatres

'One thing more, in reference to this antient Town, is observable,' says Dugdale, 'that it gave birth and sepulture to our late famous Poet Will Shakespere.' (fn. 1) There is evidence that Stratford's principal claim to fame was recognized even as early as 1630. (fn. 2) Fuller, Aubrey, Rowe, and a number of lesser known writers record scraps of local Shakespearian tradition, and several travellers and topographers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries copied out the inscription on the tomb. (fn. 3) In 1756 the importunities of visitors anxious to see Shakespeare's mulberry tree in New Place Garden drove the owner, the Rev. Francis Gastrell, to cut it down, leaving sightseers to content themselves with the souvenirs made out of the wood by Thomas Sharp, the local watchmaker who purchased it. When Gastrell, in a fit of pique, caused New Place to be demolished altogether in 1759 he was forced to leave Stratford 'amidst the rage and curses of its inhabitants'. (fn. 4) Ten years later, local pride found expression in the Jubilee of 1769. The original impulse was due to John Payton, the landlord of the 'White Lion', a genuine enthusiast and a friend of the Shakespearian editor, George Alexander Steevens. (fn. 5) In 1768, when Steevens was staying at the 'White Lion', Payton invited some of his friends among the leading inhabitants to meet him. The new Town Hall was then just finished and it was regretted 'that an open niche had been constructed on the north side of it without any prospect of obtaining a statue or even a bust to grace it'. A statue of Shakespeare was suggested as the most fitting adornment and Steevens offered to persuade Garrick to present one. (fn. 6) The corporation seconded his endeavours by conferring on Garrick the freedom of the borough in a box made from the wood of Shakespeare's mulberry tree. (fn. 7) This led Garrick not only to present a statue of Shakespeare, but to come down and organize a Shakespearian festival at Stratford. (fn. 8)

Garrick's Jubilee has often been described. The preparations for it occupied the whole summer of 1769 and rivalled even the Middlesex Election in public interest. (fn. 9) A rotunda almost as large as that at Ranelagh was erected on the Bancroft. 'Scarcely a house', says Saunders, 'remained without some alteration and improvement.' The town was crowded with carpenters, cooks, and upholsterers, a masquerade warehouse was opened and sedan chairs, a new sight in Stratford in 1769, were brought from Bath and London. (fn. 10) The Jubilee lasted from 6 to 8 September. The chief feature was Garrick's recitation of his Shakespearian Ode with Arne's music. But the programme also included serenades, processions, and salvoes of cannon, a performance of Arne's 'Judith' in the church, concerts, public breakfasts, and horse-racing on Shottery Meadow, a ball and a masquerade (in which Boswell figured as a Corsican patriot and Mrs. Crewe as one of the Witches from Macbeth); fireworks and transparencies at night; and in fact almost every conceivable attraction except a performance of a Shakespearian play. The procession of Shakespeare's characters—a principal feature of all such celebrations in Stratford for the next sixty years—had to be abandoned owing to the weather. Garrick's lavish expenditure involved him in considerable financial loss, which he only recovered by presenting a stage version of the Jubilee in the winter season at Drury Lane.

Garrick was therefore unsympathetic to a proposal that a Shakespeare Jubilee should become an annual event. Local celebrations, however, were held on the anniversary of the 'Great Jubilee' for some years afterwards. But these had to be discontinued, apparently in the later '70's, owing to the great decline in the trades whose members principally composed the processions. The foundation of the Shakespeare Lodge of Freemasons, in 1793, was made the occasion of a special tribute to the poet's memory. (fn. 11) Malone, the first Shakespearian scholar to have access to the local records, (fn. 12) proposed that a jubilee should be held to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Garrick's famous festival. But in the national gloom and distress of 1794 the suggestion found no response. No further celebrations were held until 1816, when 'a very respectable committee' organized a ball, public banquets, and a firework display to mark the bicentenary of Shakespeare's death. (fn. 13)

A proposal to erect a monument and mausoleum to Shakespeare at Stratford seems to have originated with Charles Matthews, who submitted it to the audience after a performance at the Town Hall, (fn. 14) but it came to nothing. In 1824 the Shakespearean Club, which is still in existence, was founded at the Falcon Inn. One of the objects of the club was to arrange periodic Shakespearian festivals, but the first of these, held in 1826, was such a failure that Saunders compares the promoters of it to Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (fn. 15) A second attempt in the following year was much more successful. (fn. 16) The programme included the laying of the foundation stone of a new theatre and the procession, in which the characters were taken by professional actors, was said to have been watched by 30,000 to 40,000 people. The club was thereupon encouraged to announce a festival on Shakespeare's birthday as a triennial event. The growth of the Shakespeare Club during the first few years of its life was indeed remarkably rapid. Even by 1826, when Saunders contemptuously described it as 'composed chiefly of the younger tradesmen of the town', it had 150 members. By 1830 there were 400, including Saunders himself and the majority of the corporation and distinguished actors such as Charles Matthews, Serle, and Macready. In January 1830 the club obtained the official patronage of the corporation (fn. 17) and two months later of George IV himself, who permitted it henceforth to assume the title of the Royal Shakespearean Club. By 1827 there was already a rival club in the town, probably the 'True Blue Shakespearean Club' at the 'Golden Lion', which unsuccessfully appealed for corporation patronage in 1830. (fn. 18)

The Royal Gala Festival of 23–7 April 1830 was more ambitious than any such undertaking since Garrick's. As in 1769, a wooden rotunda was erected, this time in the Rother Market, in which banquets and masquerades were held. Moreover, for the first time a play was given, with Charles Keen as Richard III. During the next 30 years, however, though occasional festivals were held, the only regular celebration of the Birthday was the annual dinner of the Shakespeare Club. A revival came with the Tercentenary of 1864, when a series of Shakespearian performances was given in the temporary Pavilion on the Paddock in Southern Lane. (fn. 19) The traditional pageant of Shakespeare's characters, which the committee refused to provide, was organized at the last moment by an independent committee of the inhabitants. (fn. 20)

The early theatrical history of Stratford is to be sought in the frequent entries of payments to strolling players in the Elizabethan Chamberlains' Accounts. (fn. 21) The performance of plays in the Gild Hall was prohibited by the corporation in 1602 (fn. 22) and in 1612, when the penalty on the bailiff for licensing the players was increased from 10s. to £10. (fn. 23) In 1622 the King's Men were given 6s. 'for not playing in the Hall'. (fn. 24) The prohibition was still in force in 1665 and extended to any dramatic performance in the Town Hall, the Gild Hall, the School, or the Market House. (fn. 25) But that it was sometimes relaxed appears from a payment made by the bailiff's orders in 1618 and another 'to the players at Christtide by Mr. Alderman's appoyntement' in 1633. (fn. 26) In 1633 also Edward Whiting and Robert Bradshaw and their company of strolling players, who were charged at Banbury with performing without licence, admitted to having played during the past two years at Stratford and at Sir Thomas Lucy's at Charlecote. (fn. 27)

The first performance actually recorded of a Shakespearian play in the town is of Othello by James Ward at the Town Hall in 1746. The proceeds were given to the renovation of the bust in the church. (fn. 28) Ward was the grandfather of John Philip Kemble and Mrs. Siddons, and family connexion may therefore help to account for the frequent visits of his son-in-law Roger Kemble's company between 1761 and 1782. (fn. 29) Kemble performed both at the Town Hall and at 'the Theatre'. The site of the theatre at this time cannot be identified, unless it is the same as 'The New Theatre at the Unicorn' mentioned in 1771. This was no doubt the large barn adjoining the Unicorn Hotel near the Clopton bridge, and it may have been for this theatre that an actor named Marriott obtained a licence from the County Justices in 1789. (fn. 30) About 1777 there was also a theatre at the 'Woolpack'. (fn. 31) Playbills are extant for 'The Theatre' for 1805, 1806, 1807, and 1818 and for 'The New Theatre' for 1795 and 1812, but it is not clear if there were two separate buildings. The King's Players from the Theatre Royal, Cheltenham, had the theatre for a season in 1805 and it was fitted up 'in the best style of accommodation' by J. Marshall in 1806. It seems likely that this theatre was in a timber-framed barn in Chapel Lane on or near the site of the present Union Club. (fn. 32)

No less than four new theatres were opened in Stratford during the 1820's. The first of them, known as the New Theatre in Moor Towns End, was opened in November 1821 by one Linley, who claimed that it was 'decorated in a manner superior to that of any other opened in this town'. This theatre was a converted barn still standing next door to the cinema in Greenhill Street and recently used as a garage. The incongruous classic front bears witness to Linley's adaptations. (fn. 33) In 1823 it was altered and reopened by Chamberlain, manager of the Leamington and Walsall theatres, and Douglas, a former member of Linley's company, was proposing to take it in 1824. (fn. 34) In the autumn of 1823 Davenport, manager of the Woodstock Theatre, was refused permission by the mayor to bring a company to Stratford 'as being too soon after the closing of Mr. Chamberlain's season'. He prevailed, however, in the following spring (fn. 35) and took the Corporation Tithe Barn in Windsor Street at a rent of 30s. a week. 'The scene was bad and the lighting worse', says Saunders, who has left a description of the members of this company which sufficiently accounts for their ill-success. (fn. 36) Davenport, whose real name was Carnegie, was a young Scotsman whose strong accent made him 'utterly unfit to open his mouth before a Southern audience'. Having had little experience of the stage he was under the domination of one Melmoth (alias Edwin), a man of bad habits and violent temper, who had left the Bristol Theatre after knocking down the manager and once drew his sword on Davenport during a performance. The rest of the cast included Sheares, a former manager of the Theatre at Southend, 'mutinous and ill-disposed, dirty in person and of bad principles'; his wife, once an actress of some reputation, both in England and America, but coarsened and degraded by her marriage; the young Misses Hewell, who were totally inexperienced and 'could not articulate beyond a whisper'; and 'supers' such as Cleaver, 'a little duck-legged makeweight, without memory or any other qualifications'. Byrne, the musician, had also some talent in representing 'testy old men' and 'after his performance in the Act, ran round and played the fiddle in the orchestra until his resumption of stage character was necessary'. The most capable actor, White, left to join the Worcester Company after the first few nights. The season at the Henley Street Theatre, as it was called, lasted about two months; and at the end of June Davenport disbanded the company at four days' notice, leaving them to make what they could out of the proceeds of the last two nights. The piece chosen for the last night was The Manager's Last Kick!

In 1826 the Henley Street theatre was taken by Francis Raymond, manager of the Leicester and Northampton theatres, who in the following year moved to the new Shakespearean Theatre erected in Chapel Lane. (fn. 37) Scowton's Theatre in the Rother Market was most probably in existence in 1823, and in 1826 its name was changed to Scowton's Royal Pavilion. (fn. 38) It was used for a circus during the Gala Festival of 1827. Like Raymond, Scowton seems to have been the manager of a number of provincial theatres (fn. 39) and his connexion with Stratford may have begun some time earlier, since in 1825 he was thanking the public 'for the liberal support he has for many years experienced'.

The Shakespearean Theatre in Chapel Lane is the only one of the early Stratford theatres with any continuous history. It was built by a company formed in 1826, which included several members of the corporation and of the Shakespeare Club. (fn. 40) The site, purchased from the landlord of the Shakespeare Inn, was at the west end of what are now the public gardens of New Place. The foundation stone was laid at the Gala Festival on 23 April 1827, and the theatre was opened, with a performance of As You Like It, on 12 December following. It was leased by the proprietors for seven years to Francis Raymond, who was entitled to use it as a theatre for not more than three months in each year. For the first three years the new venture was a success. Madame de Vestris appeared here in 1828 and Charles Kean during the Gala Festival of 1830, in which Raymond was one of the moving spirits, though it seems to have marked the beginning of his financial misfortunes. In 1831 his lease became forfeit and in the following year he went bankrupt. For the next few years the theatre was let by the season and kept open more or less regularly; the lessee in 1837 being C. W. Elliston, probably a son of the famous manager of Drury Lane. In 1844 the building having become delapidated, it was extensively repaired and reopened as the New Royal Shakespearean Rooms, and the Company of Proprietors was reorganized soon afterwards. After 1846 the County Court sat at the theatre, (fn. 41) though it was still used from time to time for its original purpose. Jakeman and Morgan were the lessees between 1849 and 1862, and in 1869 it was refitted for the last time and opened by Alfred Walmisley as the Theatre Royal. Three years later it was bought by Halliwell Phillipps, who demolished it and threw the site into the New Place Gardens. The last performance, of Hamlet, took place on 30 April 1872.

The Shakespeare Memorial Association was founded in 1874 by Charles Edward Flower, to whose efforts was mainly due the erection of the first Memorial Theatre, opened in 1879. It was burnt down in 1926 and the present theatre, on the same site, was completed from the designs of Miss Elizabeth Scott, and opened in 1932. (fn. 42)

So far as the evidence of extant play-bills goes, Shakespeare was more often performed in Stratford during the later 18th century than at any time before the opening of the Memorial Theatre in 1879. The lesser theatres of the 1820's confined themselves for the most part to melodrama and farce, (fn. 43) with an occasional comedy of Goldsmith or Sheridan. The Shakespearean Theatre began by attempting to live up to its name, but with each season Raymond con formed increasingly to the current taste. (fn. 44) After his time Shakespeare was quite often played here, but usually on the occasion of the visit of some eminent actor. Among Shakespeare's plays the tragedies were always the most popular and about half the recorded performances, 1761–1862 (fn. 45), were of Hamlet or Othello. The Merchant of Venice and the Merry Wives of Windsor seem also to have been favourites, but the romantic comedies were rarely presented.


  • 1. Dugd. 697.
  • 2. See Munro, Shakespere-Allusion Book, i, 347.
  • 3. The relevant extracts are printed by Sir E. K. Chambers, in William Shakespeare, ii, 238–302.
  • 4. Wheler, Hist. of Stratford (1806), pp. 136–8.
  • 5. Evidence of Payton's Shakespearian enthusiasm remains in the names of some of the streets—Great William St. and Shakespeare St.—which he built on land allotted to him in the inclosure of 1775. His son, William Shakespeare Payton, was buried in the churchyard in 1789.
  • 6. Saunders MSS. 82, fols. 4–6.
  • 7. F. 524, 525.
  • 8. According to Murphy, Garrick had 'long meditated' holding a Shakespearian Jubilee at Stratford: Life of Garrick, ii, 66–7.
  • 9. It was noted that the cavalcade which accompanied Garrick from London to Stratford consisted of 45 persons: Saunders MSS. 82, fol. 28.
  • 10. One Hart, one of the last surviving descendants of Shakespeare, is said to have been among the Sedan Chair proprietors who came down from London for the occasion: ibid. 23–4.
  • 11. Ibid. 181–5.
  • 12. For Malone's connexion with Stratford see The Correspondence of Edward Malone with the Rev. James Davenport D.D. (Vicar of Stratford), ed. J. O. Halliwell (privately printed 1864); also Hist. MSS. Comm. 13, 57, pp. 220–1. The first sign that the corporation took an official interest in the Records occurs in 1807, when it was resolved that someone should be employed to examine and arrange them: G. 604.
  • 13. Saunders MSS. 82, fols. 185–6.
  • 14. Playbills, Birth-place.
  • 15. Loc.cit. 187–91.
  • 16. The most important pamphlets on the Shakespeare Club and the gala festivals of 1827 and 1830 are: A Concise Account of Garrick's Jubilee, 1769, with a Brief Notice of the Rise and Progress of The Shakesperean Club (Ward, Stratford, 1830); J. Jarvis, Correct Detail of the Ceremonies attending the Shakespearean Gala celebrated at Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1827. Together with some account of Garrick's Jubilee in 1769 (Bacon, Stratford, 1827); A Descriptive Account of the Second Royal Gala Festival at Stratford-upon-Avon. By a Member of the Royal Shakesperean Club (Lapworth, Stratford, 1830).
  • 17. H. 263–4.
  • 18. H. 266.
  • 19. 'Tercentenary Festival Recs.'—bound vol. at Birthplace.
  • 20. Day and Trewin, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 31, 35–6.
  • 21. 1569, 1573, 1575, 1576, 1577, 1579, 1580, 1581, 1582, 1583, 1584 (3 companies), 1586, 1587 (5 companies) (see Mins. & Accts., ii, 35, 77, 105; iii, 14, 46, 83, 98, 119, 136, 148; iv, 16, 32, 159).
  • 22. B. 95.
  • 23. a Bk. of Orders (Misc. Corporation Rec. unbound, 2).
  • 24. B. 220.
  • 25. Bk. of Orders (Misc. Corporation Rec. unbound, 3).
  • 26. a Chamberlains' Accts.
  • 27. Cal. S. P. Dom. 1633–4, p. 47.
  • 28. Saunders MSS. 96, fol. 906.
  • 29. The following paragraphs are chiefly based on the collections of Playbills at the Birthplace and the Memorial Theatre.
  • 30. Quarter Sessions Min. Bk. 1789–1805, fol. 3. The 'Unicorn' was just outside the borough boundaries.
  • 31. There appears to be no other reference to an inn of this name in the 18th century. The 'Crown' in Bridge Street, an important Elizabethan inn on the site of nos. 12–14, became 'the Woolsack' during the Commonwealth and is so referred to in 1661: D. 45–7; Fripp, Shakespeare's Stratford, 13.
  • 32. See sketch in Saunders MSS. 96, fol. 89.
  • 33. See sketch, before alteration: ibid. fol. 87.
  • 34. Saunders MSS. 95, fol. 7, on which the remainder of this paragraph is based.
  • 35. a The Woodstock Theatre had just been closed by order of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, 'owing to the great irregularities committed by the gownsmen leaving their studies in groups to attend the neighbouring theatricals'.
  • 36. Saunders seems also to have written an account of Linley's Company at Moor Towns End, which, however, has not survived.
  • 37. Raymond's first recorded appearance in Stratford was in Sotherne's Isabella in 1818.
  • 38. Not to be confused with the Pavilion in the Rother Market erected by Raymond for the Festival of 1830.
  • 39. One of his play-bills was printed at Luton and another at Nottingham.
  • 40. The Minute Book of the Proprietors, 1826–46, is preserved at the Birthplace. Robert Bell Wheler was interested in the scheme and drew up the conveyance of the site free of charge.
  • 41. Cf. Kelly's Directories of Warws. 1854–72.
  • 42. For the history of the Theatre and the Festivals since 1879, see Day and Trewin, op. cit.
  • 43. Thus one of the principal attractions of the season Jan.-Feb. 1822 at the Moor Towns End Theatre was the dog Nelson, who appeared three times in the popular melodrama The Dog of Montargis, though Serle, the principal actor there, also played Hamlet Richard III, and Othello.
  • 44. Raymond's most spectacular production was the melodrama The Floating Beacon, or the Norwegian Wreckers, which was performed at this theatre in Feb. 1828, more than 18 months before it appeared at the Adelphi, a London theatre with which Raymond appears to have had some connexion.
  • 45. a Shakespeare was the principal attraction in 31 out of 200 recorded performances during these years.