Shakespeare obviously loved historic Stratford Upon Avon, the town in which he was born: although he went to work in London and made his career and his fortune there, he maintained the strongest links with Stratford. He visited his family and his Stratford friends regularly, he bought property in Stratford, and he involved himself in the affairs of the town.
Situated right in the centre of England, Elizabethan Stratford was an important river-crossing settlement, market town and regional centre. A striking medieval bridge spanned the Avon River, which ran throughStratford, and farmers and people from other towns and villages attended the weekly markets. The market building (burnt down in 1826), the place where Shakespeare’s father sold the gloves he made, would have been one of Shakespeare’s most familiar sights throughout his life.
Stratford received its borough charter in 1553, just eleven years before Shakespeare’s birth and his father, John, became Bailiff (mayor) of Stratford when young William was three years old. By that time John Shakespeare had become prosperous enough to buy two adjacent houses, which he made into one. That was the house on Henley Street, now known as ‘The Birthplace‘, and that was where Shakespeare grew up.
As the son of a leading Statford citizen, William would have attended the Grammar School, which still stands on the corner of Church Street and Chapel Lane.
It is not known what Shakespeare did when he left school. In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a local farmer, Richard Hathaway. Her home, now known as ‘Anne Hathaway’s Cottage‘, still stands in the village of Shottery, a mile from Stratford.
Shakespeare left Stratford in 1587 or 1588 and went to London. By 1592 he had made his mark as an actor and playwright. He earned good money doing that because he bought New Place, one of the biggest houses in Stratford, in 1597, and installed his family there.
How Shakespeare’s House Was Demolished
You are able to visit the site of New House, but all you will see are signs of the foundations, as the house was demolished in 1759.
It’s an interesting story of spite and a tragedy of cultural attitudes towards property. This year, 2013, marks a hundred years since the first legislation was passed giving the British government power to act directly when an historic site is under threat. That Britain has very strict and powerful conservation laws will prevent such further tragedies but they came far too late to save New Place. We can only be grateful that the Birthplace is still there, and that so many such buildings survived: up until the time the new law was introduced property owners had the right to do what they liked with the buildings, gardens, fields and so on, that they owned. They could alter them or completely demolish them.
The Reverend Francis Gastrell bought the house in 1753. He soon made himself unpopular by chopping down a mulberry tree that the Shakespeare family had planted. So he wasn’t very happy, and he became increasingly unhappier as people were always leaning over his garden fence, staring, and knocking on his door, wanting to see inside the house. At this time, too, he was in a prolonged dispute with local officials concerning his taxes. In a fit of rage and incredible spite he had the house demolished in 1759. He never rebuilt anything on the site and it remains vacant to this day, with only traces of the foundations for tourists to view.
The residents of Stratford were horrified but there was nothing they could do about it. Gastrell became impossibly unpopular and eventually moved away from Stratford.
Those people who own listed buildings in Britain and complain about not being able to change as much as a doorknob should think about this little horror story and be grateful that for a hundred years no-one has been able to do anything as monstrous as the Reverend Francis Gastrell was allowed to do.