Topless in Arden: Guide Friday and the Shakespeare Experience

Holy TrinityIn the early 1970s, a young Cornishman arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon. Out of funds, he dossed down that first night in the dry grasses under the wall of Holy Trinity Church, not many yards away from the bones of the man he had come to discover. Next morning, clutching guide-book, map and all the impedimenta of a tourist, he set out to learn the town.

Roger Thompson had the mind of an entrepreneur and an instinctive feeling for social and cultural history. In previous years, realising his own bright idea, he had made money by driving rich Americans around the UK in a vintage Rolls Royce. His quick brain absorbed material about tourist destinations anywhere south of Edinburgh. If clients fancied veering off the beaten track, he would mug up the details overnight. He spoke of himself as ‘a mine of useless information’.  But this was far from the case, for as he drove, telling stories and jokes, entertaining and informing, he would draw on an apparently inexhaustible fund of appropriate and accurate knowledge.

But not everyone could afford the Rolls Royce treatment: this was the great era of the coach tour when visitors came in droves from the United States and Japan, sometimes performing the remarkable feat of ‘Doing Britain in Five Days.’ Stratford-upon-Avon was inevitably on the route and, as enormous coaches, belching fumes, edged through town, locals would mutter sourly ‘It’s Tuesday, so it must be Stratford.’

Roger had already assessed the tourist potential of Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare in particular. Not only were there the Birthplace, New Place and Hall’s Croft- much visited since the eighteenth century – but there were too the relatively new Shakespeare Centre, the Avon and the riverside walks, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a number of historic buildings, monuments and sites of interest. And the homes of Shakespeare’s mother and wife were only a short way out of town. All the Shakespeare-related houses could, in fact, comprise the key points of a circular tour.

In the days of his car tours, Roger had noticed how high streets had begun to look very much the same. But a different, far more interesting panorama was offered at roof level and besides, elevation gave a more comprehensive view of tourist venues. Might not a two-tier, open-topped vehicle do the job?

guide friday logoSo, Guide Friday came into being: two double-decker buses were acquired with the roofs of their upper decks removed and a smart dark green and cream livery. The ‘Stratford-go-Round’ linked the three in-town Shakespeare houses but then drove out to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm before returning to town a different way.  Passengers could get on or off at will, taking time to linger at one or all the properties. They might spend an hour or a day, for the second bus was only fifteen minutes behind when they were ready to move on. ‘Hop on! Hop off!’ ‘Go topless!’ ‘Experience the Shakespeare Story!’ were slogans which drew the visitors.

Tour busThe other essential ingredient of the Guide Friday vision was that of a driver-guide service. Roger had long understood the appeal of a real person leading the tour rather than a mechanised voice-over. Shakespeare aside, an on-the-spot, hands-on guide would welcome, inform and reassure as well as being   available to advise on accommodation, services and a whole miscellany of useful tourist information.

As a result, the first Blue Badge Guide course, in partnership with the Heart of England Tourist Board, was set up. The first wave of applicants comprised students, a doctor’s wife, an ex-bank manager, retired or resting teachers and salesmen, and even a former member of the cast of the scandalous musical Oh! Calcutta!  Though disparate in age and background, group members shared varying degrees of communication skills and local knowledge.

open top busIt was made very clear that this was to be a professional qualification tested by written and practical examination. Roger himself, of course, had already amassed a formidable body of information having read around his subject, visited the Shakespeare properties and talked at length with the house guides. He had even approached and questioned scholars at the Shakespeare Centre and sought out local historians. He had a clear vision of what he expected Blue Badge Guides to know.

Aspiring trainees were invited to interview with Roger and a member of the Tourist Board. For one woman, used to professional formality, it was an experience made extraordinary by the sight of Mr Thompson lounging elegantly in a chair whilst consuming a bag of salted pistachios. Every so often, as discussion proceeded, he would throw her a nut which, unable at such short notice to devise an alternative strategy, she caught and ate. Either Roger had missed lunch, or else a subtle psychological test was underway in which applicants were being assessed for their ability to deal with the unscripted. Such a skill would, after all, be extremely useful when dealing with the vagaries of the general public.

Apart from classroom lectures, the course consisted of practical trips during which trainees took turns on the microphone, told the story of Shakespeare  and familiarised themselves with the route. Roger, naturally, demonstrated how it was done.  He was a born raconteur and could hold an audience rapt. Passing Hall’s Croft he would relate John Halldetails of Dr John Hall’s treatments – the frog on a string, swallowed to treat a putrid throat, symptoms of the Black Death, leeches bloated with blood.  Then, standing up front with the microphone, he would move on to Tudor Stratford – plague pits and open sewers , whipping post, stocks and brothels, pisspots emptied from upper casement windows. Finally, arriving at the topic of personal hygiene and, raking the rows of seats with compelling eyes, he would declare  ‘You stank. I stank. Everybody stank.’   The phrase entered the Guide Friday vernacular and was repeated verbatim on tours for years afterwards. Or else two guides, meeting each other, might for no obvious reason, suddenly break into the refrain before doubling up with laughter.

Facts, as far as they were known, were insisted upon: stories, anecdotes and local myths about Shakespeare and his times might be related as long as they were correctly introduced by ‘It’s thought that..’ or ‘Some versions of this story say…’  If stumped for information when questioned, guides were instructed to take a contact number, look up the answer (no Google or I-pads in that decade) and ring later to pass it on.

So Guide Friday set the highest standards of customer service. It was a point of pride which was, however, memorably flouted one afternoon when a truculent party of Americans joined the tour. After being told that her commentary was ‘bulls***’ and that Christopher Marlowe had, in fact, written the plays attributed to Shakespeare (he had transmitted them by spirit message from the Other Side) the guide struck back. As the former Motor Museum came up on the left, she informed the group that Shakespeare’s car was the prime exhibit. Honour was satisfied when exclamations of interest and murmurs of ‘Gee! That’s really something!’ rose up.

In any tourist town there will be those who dislike visitors. But tourists create employment, swell the local economy and bring a number of community benefits. Guide Friday’s success helped to enhance the status of Stratford-upon-Avon;  without being patronising, it educated and interested those whose knowledge of Shakespeare was slight and provided information about a relatively distant period of history.  It might even have drawn some, whose experience of school Shakespeare had been negative, to see or read one of the plays.

Before the concept assumed such a high profile in service industries, Roger was committed to setting a high standard of customer care and quality of experience.  His concern for the environment influenced the introduction of buses which produced low levels of pollution. He was for many years a director of the annual Stratford-upon Avon Festival and became vice president of the Heart of England Tourist Board.

The company was awarded the British Tourist Authority’s ‘Come to Britain’ trophy and the English Tourist Board’s ‘England for Excellence’ award in two separate years. And fittingly, Roger Thompson received an OBE for his services to tourism.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant


Shakespeare at Abington Park

As a follow-up to my blog in April about a wartime production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream  ( last weekend I visited Abington Park in Northampton where it was staged. The church where Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bernard, was buried was open on Sunday as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme as mentioned in Sylvia Morris’s blog


St Peter and St Paul Church is a beautiful little church dating back to the twelfth century, built in typical Northamptonshire ironstone.

Elizabeth’s second husband, John Bernard, has a grave stone in the church and, when Elizabeth’s coffin was found in a vault beneath the Lady Chapel, a plaque was placed on the wall nearby.


The house where John and Elizabeth lived is now the museum next to the church and in the grounds is the mulberry tree planted by David Garrick in 1778 as a cutting allegedly from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree at New Place in Stratford. There is a plaque marking the event and an explanatory sign.



Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant

‘My Folly’: Garrick and the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769


Portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough

When the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon rebuilt its new Town Hall in 1767, the Council approached David Garrick with an irresistible proposal. Garrick was the foremost Shakespearean actor-manager of the day, a Bard worshipper and the self-appointed guardian of the Shakespeare flame. It was proposed that he should donate to Stratford ‘some very handsome bust, statue or picture of Shakespeare’. In return, Garrick would be made an Honorary Burgess of the town.


Garrick received the honour in an elaborately carved mulberry wood chest, made from the very tree which had stood in the garden of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home.  Inspired with a new idea, he decided to stage a formal tribute to Shakespeare in the form of a Grand Jubilee in Stratford itself. This would last several days and might convince a wider audience of the pre-eminence of his great hero among dramatists.

He began by mounting a massive country-wide publicity campaign. In May 1769, he spoke at Drury Lane inviting all the world to meet ‘on Avon’s banks’ where ‘first breathed our matchless Bard’. The news provoked a flood of satirical attacks: Garrick and the Stratford Council were accused of money-grubbing and even heathen idolatry. But adverse publicity was still publicity and the Jubilee was set for August 6th.

The prospective programme included an oratorio, various grand meals, a ball, fireworks display, masquerade and a pageant featuring a procession in Shakespearean costume. Garrick would use the singers and full orchestra from Drury Lane Theatre, as well as its costumes and props. He would also employ the new ‘transparencies’ – large illuminated paintings on silk – as special effects.

Meanwhile, Garrick was painted by Gainsborough and, in return, offered a leaden bust of Shakespeare and a portrait of his hero to be hung beside his own. He began to compose the long Ode upon Dedicating a Building and Erecting a Statue to Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon – the centrepiece of the Jubilee which he himself would deliver. He also composed a number of songs which, when set to music, would become Shakespeare’s Garland.

Carpenters from London arrived to construct the octagonal Rotunda, modelled on the building in the Ranelagh Gardens in London. It was to be erected on the site now occupied by the RST complex and would host the important events of the Jubilee.  Supplies of timber ran out, however, and the August deadline was not met. The Jubilee would now begin on September 6th.

Accommodation for a huge influx of visitors to Stratford also had to be considered. There was only one inn – The White Lion – and this was already booked. Canny locals began asking inflated prices not just for rooms but for attics, cellars and even hen-houses. A number of empty properties in town were kitted out as makeshift dormitories but the whole exercise demanded a huge expenditure of time and money by the organisers.

It had also become clear that a number of townsfolk were anti-Jubilee – hostile, uncaring or uncomprehending. Fear and uneasiness was produced by the sight of people in costumes and weird garb. There were mutterings about house-breaking and looting. When, as Steward of the Jubilee, Garrick flourished his mulberry wood wand, it was thought that black magic was involved and that he might fly around the town. And to confirm the general unease, Halley’s comet was seen in the September skies. Comets, in popular imagination, suggested ill omen or divine punishment and their tails carried a great deal of water. One flick of the tail and….  But for now, all seemed set fair.


The Jubilee began on schedule with the thunder of thirty cannons from the riverside and the ringing of hand- bells on every street. People emerged, many from lawlessly parked carriages which had acted as overnight accommodation. Townsfolk aside, the catalogue of nobility present read like a selection from Burke’s Peerage. Literary figures, dramatists and actors also attended, though it was, on the whole, a theatrical rather than a scholarly gathering. The event had been shunned by Samuel Johnson and his circle – Goldsmith, Burke, Reynolds  – but the young James Boswell, supporting Corsican Independence, put in an extraordinary appearance dressed as a chief of that island, in scarlet waistcoat and breeches, and wearing a hat with Viva La Liberta embroidered in gold.

After breakfasting at the new Town Hall and receiving the regalia of Steward of the Jubilee, Garrick led the company to Holy Trinity Church for a performance of Thomas Arne’s Oratorio Judith, though its relevance to Shakespeare was unclear. Then, at the Rotunda, dinner was served to around seven hundred people. In the evening, the whole town was lit up and the Rotunda hosted a Grand Ball. The first day had gone well.

The second day began with heavy rain. Garrick awoke with a cold, which did not bode well for his delivery of the Ode. His barber, probably hung-over from the night before, slipped mid-shave and cut him from mouth to chin. Outside, two hundred costumed characters stood ready to march, but the rain had intensified. Clearly props and costumes would be ruined. Reluctantly, Garrick rejigged the day, cancelling the Pageant and rescheduling the Ode for midday in the Rotunda.


A damp audience gathered and became damper under a roof that was leaking like a colander. Garrick performed the Ode in magnificent style, however, managing to rise above the mishaps of the day and turning to praise of the ‘silver’ Avon. As the words were given, Garrick threw open the great doors at the side of the Rotunda facing the river. This bold coup de theatre disclosed a muddy brown torrent and water creeping ever nearer.

Undaunted, the audience cheered causing a number of benches to break under the strain. In some places, walls began buckling, a large door fell inwards injuring Lord Carlisle and water began coming up through the floor. The Masquerade was to come in the evening.

Guests had been encouraged to wear Venetian-style masks for the event, but it seemed that a fleet of gondolas might be more appropriate. Rain continued and the Rotunda was now surrounded by water. Horses drawing carriages had to wade knee deep and planks were laid down to allow people to alight. The dancing commenced and went on all night in an increasingly leaking and crumbling space, with the water rising to cover the dancers’ shoes.

Outside, the fireworks display which had promised a number of pyrotechnic marvels, was eagerly awaited by a large crowd. But touch papers were sodden, fuses and matches fizzled out and rockets failed to ascend. The display was a washout.

At dawn the situation was becoming critical: planks again had to be used to reach carriages. Some took their chance by wading through the flood, others floundered in muddy ditches. The river continued to rise. So ended the second day.

The rain poured down all night but stopped at noon on the third day. There was no hope of staging the Pageant and the Rotunda was marooned in floodwater. Garrick had envisioned it as a permanent temple to Shakespeare but it was now dangerous and unusable. It was later demolished and the wood sold off in lots.

At noon, the horse race for the Jubilee Cup took place at Shottery. Despite water up to the horses’ knees, five raced, the winner swimming to victory with his jockey Mr Pratt on board. After receiving the prize of a silver cup, Pratt disappointingly declared that he knew little about plays or, indeed, Master Shakespeare.

A very weary and disallusioned Garrick thankfully yielded up the insignia of his office as Steward. The Jubilee had been one of the worst set-backs of his career. Among the many criticisms he was now forced to endure was the fact that no Shakespeare play had even been planned, much less performed, throughout the entire three days. He was heard, ever afterwards, to refer to the event as, ‘My folly’.


Portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough

If the Jubilee was in the short term a failure, a fiasco and a folly, great things were to come of it. It had held the attention of England for three days but its influence rapidly spread to Europe, immediately influencing the works of Herde and Goethe in Germany, and eventually giving rise to hundreds of other worldwide Shakespeare festivals following 1769. In Stratford-upon-Avon, every major Shakespeare anniversary has been celebrated there, including the annual birthday event. The very existence of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre complex owes something to Garrick , the 1864 Festival having inspired Charles Edward Flower to begin campaigning for a permanent Memorial Theatre in the town.

As a year of special commemorations on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death gets underway, it is remarkable that Shakespeare is one of the major figures of the English-speaking world. The language is permeated with his vocabulary and expressions, his plays are performed in even the most inaccessible-seeming parts of the world and his work has had a huge influence on generations of artists of all kinds, spawning works in every possible genre and medium. And books, books, books about the man and his works – perhaps more then have been devoted to any other human being – continue to come and show no signs of stopping.  David Garrick was certainly one of the catalysts that created the God of Literature he had worshipped for most of his life.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

Othello: Discovering Robeson

At the Shakespeare Institute Library we like to involve all our staff in the production of exhibitions which highlight the breadth and depth of our collections. Our current exhibition on Othello in Performance was a truly collaborative effort. In this blog, Othello; Discovering Robeson, our LSA, Sara Westh captures the wonder of discovering a legend and exploring a period in performance history new to her.



Photograph from exhibition on Othello in Performance

Not so very long ago, I was told to start work on Paul Robeson for the current Shakespeare Institute Library exhibition on Othello. I had absolutely no idea who Robeson was, but I assumed since the subject was Othello, that he was probably an actor, and probably the lead.
I picked up his autobiography Here I Stand from among the books set aside for exhibtion research, and started reading. He had me at once: “I am a Negro. The house I live in is in Harlem – this city within a city, Negro metropolis of America. And now as I write of things that are urgent in my mind and heart, I feel the press of all that is around me here where I live, at home among my people.” (from the author’s foreword).

Photo shows Harlem in the early 1900’s. Credit:

Photo shows Harlem in the early 1900’s. Credit:

I kept reading through his early years, his awe for his father, the loss of his mother, his love of Harlem, the first time he met his wife, completely forgetting about the tea-break! Robeson was born into segregated America, had lived through hatred most of us find it hard to imagine, and had been outspoken against the ever-present racism of America in the 1890’s. Another biography by Duberman, and very concisely titled Paul Robeson, told me that he had played Othello at the start and end of his Shakespearean career: at the Savoy Theatre in 1930 and at the RSC in 1950. Duberman also supplied some truly captivating behind the scenes stories, that really brought the background to Robeson’s two performances to life, from squabbling between production team and cast in 1930 to pleas and stress in 1950.
What I didn’t know until I discussed my task with the other LSA, Eilis Smyth, was that Robeson was famous for his voice long before he trod the boards. Her response when I looked up from my books for long enough to utter a whole sentence was something close to “Wait. THE Paul Robeson?!” His 1928 rendition of Old Man River in Show Boat defined the song for generations to come – you can listen to it here:

As it turns out, he was the first black performer to sing in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, as well as being the first black actor to play the moor since Ira Aldridge.

Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1950

Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1950

Peggy Ashcroft & Paul Robeson, Othello, Savoy Theatre, 1930

Peggy Ashcroft & Paul Robeson, Othello, Savoy Theatre, 1930

The materials carefully collected by the SI Library in their archive, pamphlet and newspaper cuttings collections, along with the extensive RSC Archive held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provided the final fleshing out of this 2-decade story. From carefully preserved Savoy theatre programmes to a thick album of production photos and reviews, it all highlighted how the shows had been received, and opened a window to the theatre world of an age ago.

Sara Westh, Library Support Assistant

Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand (New York : Othello Associates, 1958)

Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson (New York : New Press, 1989)

SIL 20th Anniversary – The History of The Hut

the hutLong-standing members of the Institute may remember The Hut – the shed that used to stand in the Paddock behind the thick hedge. Access was gained via a tunnel cut through the hedge behind the gazebo.

The Hut was built by the National Fire Service as a temporary structure in 1943. They took over use of the Paddock after Marie Corelli’s will had been declared null and void, the house contents had been auctioned and the Air Ministry had requisitioned Mason Croft for war-time use.

The University of Birmingham bought the building and grounds in 1951 and established The Shakespeare Institute. The Hut was used by external groups and eventually housed the collections of microfilms and the viewing equipment and it became a study room for students. Many an essay was written out there by students lucky enough to be assigned a desk in the Hut and not minding the chill or the spiders, or the inky blackness crossing the garden at night.

In 1992 Westmere, the Institute’s base in Birmingham, was vacated and the Institute, formerly split between the two sites, was reunited in Stratford together with its Library. Lack of space meant books were fitted into every corner of Mason Croft and the Hut. Re-shelving was a particular problem as the books had to be carried in armfuls across the garden come rain or shine.

the hut2

Finally the wonderful new Library was completed in 1995 and all the books were safely housed in a new purpose-built modern building.

No longer needed and now over 50 years old the Hut was finally demolished in 1999. The passageway through the hedge has been allowed to grow over, Friday footballers run across the site and no trace of it now remains.

Kate Welch, Information Assistant

Henry V and the Boys of King Edward VI School, S-u-A


This time in November is an emotional one in any year but especially in this 100 year anniversary of WW1. At the Shakespeare Institute Library we thought it important to mark this centenary commemoration in some way – and what better way than to connect with our neighbours.

Our exhibition this month focuses on a production of Henry V staged by Frank Benson and the King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon in 1913. The play was restaged a century later by the Edward’s Boys under the direction of Assistant Headmaster, Perry Mills. The theme of the exhibition provided us with a great way of linking our subject specialism with our local community and this important anniversary.


It’s not often I get emotional putting out an exhibition but in this case it is impossible not to be deeply moved by the stories and images of the KES boys involved in this display. The loss inflicted by the First World War is too unbearable to contemplate. In our exhibition we tell the story of 4 boys, Victor Hyatt, Herbert and Henry Jennings and Albert Whately who only a few years after performing in the 1913 production lost their lives in the war. Their loss is brought painfully home to us – four of millions that died in that war.

When putting together this exhibition it struck me that, considering how Henry V has been used to represent conflicts following WW1 it’s almost as if Frank Benson had some dreadful premonition of the significance of the play to our country at War.

The production, we can tell from the prompt book was very heavily edited and reduced to key scenes and a series of tableaus. The 2013 revival of the play, directed by Perry drew on this 1913 production and the tragedy of war that followed. From the accounts and descriptions of the 2013 production it was an incredibly moving affair, fitting to the memory of those boys. A clip and more details of that production are available via their web site.

Indeed The Edward’s Boys seem to go from strength to strength under Perry Mills’s guidance and we’re very pleased to house copies of the DVDs of their productions in our collections. The standard of the productions and indeed the art work for these by local artist David Troughton is equal to many professional productions.

KES HViiiThe archive material kindly loan from KES Archivist Richard Pearson, is complimented beautifully by material from our own collections: books, theses and other material written about Shakespeare and War. Our sincere thanks to KES and Richard for sharing this archive and this story with us and enabling us to alert our students to a very long tradition of performance at the school – there’s a theses in there!

The exhibition will continue until the end of the month – do come along and catch it if you can.

You can find out more about the 2013 production on Sylvia Morris’s excellent Shakespeare Blog.

Many thanks to Anne Phillips, Information Assistant at the SIL for all her work on this exhibition.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian