When Dickens Confronted PT Barnum

P.T. Barnum was larger than life. and distinctly American.

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The show was everything for him. The reality? Well, that was less important. You might imagine how this would have ranckled Charles Dickesns, a man who was also larger than life, and who treasured “honest” or at least “authentic” feeling.  A man steeped in Victorian values — and not very fond of American bombast.

The difference between these men came to head over William Shakespeare’s birthplace. Dickens saw it as a shrine to be preserved. Barnum saw it as a potential part of his museum of curiosities New York.

Then the building came up for auction in 1846,

Barnum dispatched an agent to make a secret bid so that he could buy the property and have it shipped piece by piece to the US. But word got out.  Dickens was horrified. BTW, he was a young man in this 30’s at that time, but already well known. Here he is just a few years later

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He worked behind the scenes to ensure that Barnum would be outbid.  When fundraising fell short, Dickens himself added to the pot with earnings from readings and performances.

And so at the key moment, Barnum was outbid. Which is why we can still visit Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratfor on Avon.  Perhaps you have been there yourself!

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It was likely built in the 16th century and is typical of structures of that time. William’s father, John Shakespeare owned it,

Records show that in 1552 John Shakespeare was fined for leaving a pile of muck outside his home in Henley Street, proving that he resided in a house there at the time. The house remained in the family until it was handed down for the final time to William Shakespeare’s daughter and, given that he was born in 1564, it is fairly certain that he was born and brought up there

In other words, we know little about the property other than John Shakespear dumping some muck in front of the house and William inheriting it, renting it out, and passing it on.

BTW, we also know that John Shakespeare was a bit of a rascal. He dealt in hides and wool and craved respectability.  He succeeded for a time, even becoming the chief magistrate of the town council. But apparently, he got caught lending money at usurious rates and dealing in illegal wool. Things fell apart somewhat. He would not go to church for a time, fearing arrest.

William apparently had the same craving for respectability. He renewed his farther’s application for a coat of arms. This was not an easy thing to acquire.

 In order to get a coat of arms, an application had to be made to the wonderfully medieval-sounding College of Arms, grants being made by several men known as Heralds. Coats of arms were ceremonial rather than practical, though they took the form of a shield and the grant conveyed the right to bear a sword. The College of Arms still exists and continues to approve coats of arms to this day.

William’s application was approved, though later it was contested on the grounds that as an actor, William was not worthy of the title  “gentleman”. The challenge was rejected. While it was true that William was a man of the stage, his father had been a magistrate and had married into a respectable family (the Ardens). What’s more, there was some mention of Shakespeares serving in a military capacity for Henry VII (that would have been the Wars of the Roses). Here it is

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The actual usefulness of a coat of arms? Minimal, though it did entitle you to carry a ceremonial sword.



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