The Rev Francis Gastrell Knocks Down Shakespeare’s Last Home: New Place
The Rev Francis Gastrell, not only lived in Shakespeare’s last home, New Place, but also knocked it down in a fit of anger in 1759.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1742, the actors David Garrick and Charles Macklin, were sitting drinking wine with Sir Hugh Clopton under the huge mulberry tree in New Place’s great garden. They were celebrating the 27 year old Garrick’s acting debut in London, as King Richard III, just a few days before. The great garden stretched down to the river’s edge, where the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) sits today, with Shakespeare’s old house a cool and welcoming timber building with ivy and clematis covering virtually all of the outside walls. Shakespeare had died there in 1616 propped-up in bed so that he could see the mulberry tree he’d planted just a few years earlier.
The first Sir Hugh Clopton, a courtier of Henry VII, had not only built the stone bridge over the Avon in the 15th century but also New Place as a family home.
A much later Sir Hugh — the one now drinking wine with Garrick and Macklin — had recently purchased the house and gardens so that he could ensure it became a proper monument to Shakespeare’s memory.
Suddenly Garrick stood and proposed a toast.
“ Sir, I propose a toast to Shakespeare’s dear house, his dear garden, and his very dear mulberry tree planted by his own dear hand. May they never perish and remain forever a reminder of the people’s poet.”
“ Well said, Garrick.”
“ Well said indeed, sir.”
The three men drank Shakespeare’s health to the full.
Nine years later Sir Hugh Clopton died and the house and gardens had to be sold to pay off debts. Which, as it turned out, was a mixed blessing.
The man who purchased New Place was one Francis Gastrell, a wealthy Cheshire clergyman who wanted a quiet country retreat. Instead he got visitors, hundreds of them, every day, and every week, who flocked to see Shakespeare’s house, garden, and famous mulberry tree.
This interest in all things Shakespearean was due to the aforementioned David Garrick, who had popularised Shakespeare so much that the theatre hungry London crowds who had devoured Shakespeare’s works now wished to discover his origins as well. But the dour, Scrooge-like Gastrell, was having none of it, not one little bit.
In 1756 Gastrell fenced off the beautiful garden and pad-locked the gates. When that didn’t stop people breaking in and helping themselves to a branch or two of the famous mulberry tree he cut the thing down.
Although well within his legal rights the rather self-righteous town council of the day accused Gastrell of ‘wanton vandalism’, and threatened to take him to court. Gastrell, a man not phased by secular criticism, told the town council to get lost and promptly sold the mulberry tree timber to a local watchmaker, Thomas Sharp, who, as promptly, turned the wood into toys and souvenirs. Sharp then sold the souvenirs to an even larger number of visitors who came to Stratford to see where Shakespeare’s mulberry tree had once stood. The outraged, and by now probably quite mad, Gastrell now left Stratford to seek refuge elsewhere. Bad move.
The Reverend Gastrell could have dismissed his servants and locked-up the house, but he was a caring man at heart and allowed his servants to remain living in New Place. In leaving his home occupied by other than his direct family he immediately incurred the so called ‘poor rate tax’ (levied to help feed Stratford’s poor) which became payable as soon as the owner was absent for more than a month.
On hearing of the tax Gastrell returned to Stratford and argued that had he dismissed his servants and locked-up the house he would have added to the number of poor and hungry. His actions had, he argued, saved the town money.
Stratford Town Council were not falling for that one and demanded their forty shillings tax. Our man of the cloth objected vehemently. The Town Council demanded their taxes just as vehemently and threatened Gastrell with imprisonment if he didn’t cough up.
Gastrell would not budge and again refused to pay. The council dug in their heels and early one morning, in true pantomime style, sent two bailiff’s men round to collect the tax. Gastrell — now almost permanently apoplectic with rage — flipped his ecclesiastical wig and chased off the Bailiff’s men with threats of everlasting damnation.
Then, in a fit of Old Testament rage, and with the help of his hapless, and soon to be homeless servants, the reverend began the demolition of New Place.
The deconstruction took a while, but before he could be arrested for more wanton vandalism a virtually incoherent Gastrell fled Stratford, his taxes still unpaid, to the cathedral city of Lichfield where he sought refuge in the home of his wife Jane (who had found her husband’s excesses irritating to say the least), and where the mention of Shakespeare, and his mulberry tree, was now strictly forbidden.
With the demolition of New Place even more people came to Stratford to stare into a hole in the ground where Shakespeare’s house had once stood.
The town council soon forgot all about Gastrell’s unpaid taxes and started charging people to walk around the great gardens of Shakespeare’s last home. It became a nice little earner.
The sight has recently had a major ‘Heritage’ makeover, but there’s still no plaque — as far as I can see — saying ‘Thank You Reverend Gastrell’.