Midland Archive: Shakespeare's Rubbish; Chris Upton Tracks the Financial Rise of John Shakespeare, William's Father, in Stratford-upon-Avon, While below, Ross Reyburn Discovers the Modern Day Efforts Being Made to Restore the Bard's Home

Article excerpt

Initially I'm going to talk rubbish. The rubbish I have in mind was of a particularly stagnant and unsavoury kind and lay in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1552.

The Elizabethan authorities were well aware that refuse, and the careless disposal of effluent and household waste, was one of the reasons that plague and disease ran rife through their towns.

And we know that Stratford itself suffered from an especially severe outbreak of plague in the summer of 1564.

Not only did the minister make a note of it in the parish register - 'Here begins the plague,' he solemnly wrote in Latin - but he also had to bury an abnormally high number of its victims. Some say as many as 200.

Chucking out your waste on the street was therefore not only anti-social, it was also dangerous.

There was a 'comyn mukhyll' set aside at the end of Henley Street for just such a purpose and anyone caught offending could expect to face the full force of the law, in this case the manorial court.

But it was also one of those laws more often seen in the breaking than in the observance.

It was unlikely to offend one's neighbours, since they were probably doing it as well, as was clearly the situation in Stratford.

Such was the case on April 29, 1552, when the manor court of Stratford slapped a hefty fine of one shilling (equivalent to around two day's wages for a labourer) on three men from Henley Street for the unauthorised dumping of rubbish.

If only the authorities today were as attentive. The individuals concerned were Humphrey Reynolds, Adrian Quiney and John Shakespeare and you won't be surprised to know that it is the third name on the list that attracts all the attention.

For one thing, this is the first documentary mention of the man who 12 years later - shortly before the plague hit town, in fact - was to become father to England's greatest poet.

And for another, it places him in Henley Street, that road in Stratford trodden by so many visiting feet, on their way to pay homage at the shrine of Shakespeare.

We know a fair bit about John Shakespeare. We know, for instance, that his origins were not in Stratford itself, but out in the Warwickshire countryside at Snitterfield. But he had abandoned the rural life some time in the 1550s to take up a trade in the market town and there had become apprentice to a glovemaker, one of the more lucrative of the Elizabethan professions. …