For over twenty years Clive Francis has been involved with David Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare in Hampton, and for the past ten years acting as Chairman for its Trustees.

Garrick built the Temple in the riverside grounds of his magnificent villa to celebrate the genius of William Shakespeare. The Temple is open to the public on Sunday afternoons (14.00-17.00) from late March to the end of October. Admission to the Garrick Exhibition and most events is free.

Clive Francis
Nathaniel Dance-Holland’s painting of David Garrick as Richard III. Courtesy of Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall.
Clive Francis
Johan Zoffany R.A., The Shakespeare Temple at Hampton House, with Mr and Mrs David Garrick
Courtesy of the Garrick Club London.

2017 was Garrick’s tercentenary and we celebrated it most royally with a variety of concerts all of which have yet to be announced. We would also like to extend a hand of acknowledgment to the Lichfield Garrick Theatre, Garrick’s home town of Lichfield.

David Garrick (1717 – 1779) was not only one the greatest actors of his day, but also a leading playwright, entrepreneur, theatre manager, copious letter writer and someone who influenced nearly all aspects of theatrical practice throughout the 18th century. He took London by storm with his portrayal of Richard III at the age of 23, bringing with it a naturalism audiences had not witnessed before. He was billed as, ‘A Gentleman who had never set foot upon the stage.’ But anonymity did not remain with him long. Very soon after his debut, Garrick made the leap to the west end, to the Theatre Royal , Drury Lane, where he eventually purchased a share of the theatre with James Lacy. Garrick's management lasted 29 years, during which time it rose to prominence as one of the leading theatres in Europe. At his death, three years after his retirement from Drury Lane and the stage, he was given a lavish public funeral at Westminster Abbey where he was laid to rest in Poets' Corner.

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Much Ado about a Mulberry Tree

Clive Francis’ fascinating and humorous account of the tragicomedy surrounding the ill-fated mulberry tree which William Shakespeare planted in the garden of New Place, his home in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mulberry tree at Garricks Villa
The mulberry tree at Garrick’s Villa in Hampton, March 2018. The tree, planted by David Garrick following his is three day Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769. The tree is said to be a cutting given to Garrick from the original mulberry tree which stood in the garden of Shakespeare’s home, New Place.
One cloudless spring day in 1743 a bespattered post-chaise rattled its heavy load across Clopton Bridge into the quiet, unspoilt market town of Stratford- upon-Avon. As it jostled to a halt outside the White Lion, a large bulk of a man stepped awkwardly out. His battered and grotesque appearance resembled that of an ageing pugilist, whose nose had been generously fashioned in all three dimensions. This was Charles Macklin, regarded as possibly the greatest Shylock of his day and the true innovator and practitioner of naturalism upon the English stage. Following in his wake jumped a small, stocky, mercurial lad whose face beamed like a well-groomed apple. David Garrick was still basking in the warm glow of success after a mesmerizing Hamlet, a haunting Richard III, and a quite brilliant Lear- all of which he’d neatly accomplished at the age of twenty-four.

Billowing like a battered oilcloth, Macklin strutted up Chapel Lane with young Davy Garrick before him to explore Shakespeare’s magnificent home, New Place, which had proudly dominated Stratford since the reign of Henry VIII. The two actors wandered through a labyrinth of corridors and musty rooms, heavy with dust and history, and paused to look out upon a neat, manicured garden. This was indeed the main purpose of their visit, for in the centre, surrounded by a flourishing display of herbs, stood a huge, overhanging mulberry tree. Now, according to legend, King James I had encouraged the growing of this particular tree in order to promote the breeding of silkworms, and Shakespeare, like everyone else, would most certainly have obeyed the decree by the planting of a small seedling. Anyway, that is what the townsfolk wanted to believe, as the tree, like the house, had become a kind of shrine, a place of pilgrimage to the good people of Stratford-upon- Avon. Garrick was greatly impressed and, having seen all that he needed to see, returned with Macklin to London.

New Place Stratford-upon-Avon
George Vertue’s sketch of New Place, 1737. Demolished by Francis Gastrell in 1759. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
New Place by Megan Taylor
New Place Garden as it looks today. Photograph by kind permission of Megan Taylor,
Ten years later the house and garden were sold to the vicar of Frodsham, a certain Francis Gastrell. The Reverend Francis Gastrell was a pinched, mean, irascible man; sallow complexioned, wild in appearance with a misanthropic distrust of his fellow men. He and his wife bought New Place in 1753 not as one might have expected for its famous association, but simply as a summer retreat, which they intended to use occasionally as an escape from the trials and tribulations of ecclesiastical life. Neither of them showed any interest at all in its history, nor even in Shakespeare, whom Gastrell regarded as a bit of a painted player who’d thrown his life away writing licentious and worthless plays. But no matter how uninterested the Reverend Gastrell was in Stratford’s famous poet he couldn’t escape the town’s ever-increasing fascination with the house, the garden and especially the magnificent, far-reaching spread of the mulberry tree. This powerful monument of nature with its huge expanding branches upon which flourished, during summer months, delicate heart-shaped leaves, had become a source of pilgrimge to those wishing to worship and perhaps possibly touch the only living connection with their bard. It had also become one of annoyance and deep intolerance with the Reverend Francis Gastrell. Day after day they pounded on his door requesting permission to view the tree, which he begrudgingly gave, instructing his wife to stand sentinel in case of possible damage. Like a little sparrow she would hover and flutter ineffectually as twigs and leaves were blatantly snapped and taken away as souvenirs. The vicar would gaze down with great loathing from his study window, his aquiline nose pressed firmly against the pane, watching in disgust as his lawn and garden became at once quagmired from the trampling of so many feet. For three years he put up with this enforced bombardment, the tree becoming more and more an object of distaste, of bitter resentment, to the extent that he began to detest its very presence.

Then one morning in 1756 Gastrell’s patience finally exhausted itself. As yet another party tramped their muddy feet down his hall, his composure, or rather the tight-fisted serenity which he kept for these occasions, snapped, and a thin, reedy smile crept warily across his face. An idea was beginning to formalize, a plot so fiendish and brutal, so destructive and venomous in its execution that he couldn’t even communicate it to his own dear wife. Why he didn’t simply capitalize upon the situation and charge a few pence for the privilege of viewing the tree is, of course, a great mystery, for without a doubt he would have made an enormous amount, retired peacefully, and no one would have been any the wiser as to the existence of the Reverend Francis Gastrell.

But late one night, the good folk of Stratford awoke from their slumbers to the sounds of surreptitious chopping coming from the garden of New Place. Together with Mr. Ange, his faithful gardener, the mad vicar was destroying once and for all the object of his hatred. It was a fearful, chilling sound, puncturing the hearts of all that heard it. The mulberry tree, then at its full spectacular height, was being systematically and brutally flattened to the ground. The citizens stared in horror as the shadowy outline was seen to crumple and divide, before disappearing ignobly in one final splintering roar. By the following morning Shakespeare’s historic tree, that had graced his garden for over 147 years, had been reduced to nothing more than a simple pile of logs.

Thundering through the swirling mass came the post-chaise of the local magistrate, who successfully beat back the mob and managed to drive the petrified couple away and out of Stratford. A decree was put about that no one bearing the name of Gastrell would be welcome to their town again, but within two months the wretched man returned.

Opposite New Place, down a small dingy lane, lived a clock maker and his wife, one Thomas Sharp. This young man was also an experienced carpenter and silversmith, though clock making would be deemed his chief source of income, keeping them in ‘good full working order.’ Every day he would leave his little shop in Tinker’s Lane, trundle past the impressive façade of New Place and gaze despairingly at the mulberry logs still piled high in the garden. Over the months he’d watched the bark turn ashen grey and felt a ‘sincere veneration towards the memory of its celebrated planter.’

Mulberry tree at Garricks Villa

Box made by Thomas Sharp supposedly from the wood of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. A note on the inside lid reads: ‘This box was made of the real mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon just after it was cut down and before it was used up at the time of the [Garrick] Jubilee, when much fictitious mulberry wood supplied its place, for the purpose of memorial articles’. Photograph courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Determined to save the wood from rotting entirely, Sharp talked the matter over with his wife until one morning he sprung upon an idea, an idea so fantastic that it was about to change his life completely. First, though, he would have to confront the Reverend Gastrell; not an easy task as the man rarely answered to visitors, though on this particular morning Sharp was in luck. As he rode up Chapel Street he saw Gastrell alighting from a carriage and hovering outside the house. Immediately he seized the opportunity and approached. Under the pretence of needing firewood Sharp asked the priest what he had in mind ‘with all them logs, that were serving no good purpose’, and whether he could purchase them all. Gastrell, never one to let a good transaction slip through his sinewy fingers, agreed a sum and arranged for Sharp to come and collect them later that week. Within two days Sharp had conveyed the logs and stacked them neatly in the yard behind his store. He first cut them into pieces of varying sizes and stored them in his tiny workshop. As I say, apart from repairing clocks, Sharp was also an experienced carpenter and it was to this craft that he now applied himself. First he began to carve simple little snuffboxes, tea caddies and hat trunks, and then, after he had amassed quite a collection, he displayed them in his window. This was to be the beginning of a souvenir trade which has lasted for over two hundred and fifty years, but not as crude as we know it today, with Shakespeare mugs, Shakespeare key-rings, and ‘I♥︎Stratford’ T-shirts. No, this had style and class.

The shop soon became known as the Mulberry Store and instantly attracted a large clientele; and as the demand for carved curios grew so Sharp’s imagination was ignited in all directions. Quickly he turned his hand to producing an assortment of cups and goblets, punch ladles, tobacco stoppers, cribbage boards, toothpick cases, nutmeg graters, ink horns, comb cases, and soon even small intricate busts of Shakespeare began to appear. As the orders expanded, the faster he had to produce, sometimes working through the night into the small wee hours.

New Place Stratford-upon-Avon
David Garrick reciting the ‘Ode in Honour of Shakespeare’ at the three-day Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon. 1769. Royal Collection Trust / ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
One morning he noticed a grey, disgruntled face peering at him through the window. It was the Reverend Francis Gastrell. Furious that he’d been so deviously cheated out of his wood, he branded Sharp a blaggard and a cheat, threatening to close the shop down if Sharp didn’t give him full share of the profits. The carpenter, incensed by such disruption, turned on the demented priest and hurled him into the street. The less he saw of this miserable little man the better. But I’m afraid Stratford was in for another shock. Within a month Gastrell found himself at loggerheads with the town council, a quarrel that was to have barbaric repercussions. Apparently, any occupied house valued at over 40 shillings a year was liable to taxation, a tax which Gastrell categorically refused to pay on the grounds that he only spent half the year in Stratford, and so felt entitled to pay considerably less. The council were adamant and even threatened to increase his tax if he delayed a moment longer. This was the last and final straw for the Reverend Francis Gastrell. In an act of wanton self-penalizing temper he gave instructions that the house should be demolished, razed to the ground, thus leaving it free from taxation. Once again brutal destruction came to Stratford as Shakespeare’s noble home was slowly dismantled and destroyed; by the end of a week not a stone remained, not a beam, not a lintel to remind them of what, at one time, had been its chief ornament and most valued relic.

The mood around the town was sombre and bleak, and although hostility was strongly in the air, it was contained. As Gastrell emerged from the White Lion to board his coach to Lichfield, the good citizens of Stratford, 3,000 in all, surrounded the vehicle in silent vigil and accompanied it down Sheep Street, along Waterside, over Clopton Bridge, making sure that this time he never returned to plague their town again.

And as for Thomas Sharp, well, Gastrell’s destruction soon became his fortune. He moved from the cramp surroundings of Tinker’s Lane to double-fronted premises on Chapel Street, where he and his wife settled to a life of wealth and security.

Only a few years later the town built an impressive new Town Hall, a symbol of its aspirations. In order to show its loyalty to Shakespeare it invited David Garrick to donate a statue to decorate it. To woo him, he was offered the freedom of the borough, presented in a box made of the wood of the sacred mulberry tree. Garrick ran away with the idea and created the famous three-day Jubilee in 1769. The tree itself was replaced by a cutting of the original tree, and this still stands in New Place Garden. One such cutting was given to David Garrick, which he planted in the grounds of his magnificent Villa at Hampton. It flourishes to this very day.

Copyright © 2022 Clive Francis. All rights reserved. Main photograph of Clive Francis by Simon Annand.

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