Between the 6th and 8th of September 1769, the town of Stratford-upon-Avon held the first jubilee celebration commemorating the life of the great playwright, William Shakespeare. The event was organised by David Garrick, who was both an actor and the manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, Covent Garden. Garrick had portrayed many of Shakespeare’s best-known characters on the stages of London and of Dublin and so was invited to dedicate a statue of the bard at the new town hall: Garrick had other ideas however and turned the event into a three-day spectacular.
The 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, also known as Garrick’s Jubilee, was ostensibly to celebrate Shakespeare’s birth but was held five years too late (Shakespeare was baptised in April 1564). Regardless of the discrepancy in dates, it was hugely popular and helped to fix Shakespeare as England’s national poet.
Stratford-upon-Avon was flooded – a somewhat unfortunate metaphor, as will be seen – with visitors for the duration of the Jubilee. The town’s only inn was fully booked and townspeople made a small fortune in renting out rooms (albeit while grumbling about the inconvenience to their daily lives) but even so, many visitors were forced to sleep in their carriages overnight. A masquerade warehouse had opened in the town, in anticipation of the extravaganza and, a new sight to the townsfolk, sedan chairs had been brought from London and Bath.
The celebrations opened on Wednesday 6th September to cannon fire and a breakfast at the town hall. A portrait of Shakespeare by Garrick’s friend Benjamin Wilson hung at one end of the dining room and one of Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough at the other (both portraits were sadly lost in a fire in 1946). At 11 o’clock Dr Thomas Arne’s Oratorio of Judith was performed in the church, featuring, amongst others, the celebrated Mrs Sophia Baddeley.
After that, attention turned to a specially built wooden structure on the banks of the River Avon, the Jubilee Pavilion or rotunda, where a dinner was held with almost a thousand ladies and gentlemen crammed in at the tables, many more than anticipated. The food was accompanied by the sound of workmen hammering in nails: the rotunda had not been completed in time and work was still ongoing to make it sound. Garrick, ever the showman, carried on regardless and proclaimed the toast while holding a goblet made of mulberry wood ‘cut out of the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare’. Following the dinner was a ball which was opened by John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset and the Duke of Ancaster’s sister, Lady Mary Greathead.
The Jubilee, despite Garrick’s best-laid plans, now began to descend into a comedic farce and the typically British weather was to blame. It didn’t just rain, it poured and the pageant and attendant processions through the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, with participants dressed as characters from Shakespeare’s plays, had to be abandoned. Instead, after a public breakfast, Garrick delivered an ode in honour of the bard, wearing a medallion of Shakespeare on his breast and brandishing a wand both made, like his goblet, from mulberry wood. In the window frames, were large transparent portraits representing the most popular Shakespearian characters.
The evening entertainment was a masquerade ball, held in the rotunda, and a planned firework display. Unfortunately, the masquerade guests had to be carried in, or risk their footwear as they waded ankle-deep through the river water which was rapidly rising, and the roof was discovered to leak in places. Despite this, a good time was had by all, with the guests attired in a myriad of fantastical costumes. James Boswell, newly returned from Corsica, and having just published a memoir of his travels, appeared finely dressed as a Corsican. He subsequently had his picture engraved and published in the London Magazine with a puff-piece of an article written by himself.
One of the most remarkable masks upon this occasion was James Boswell Esq.
The fireworks ended up being little more than damp squibs in the deluge. At the close of the festivities, various masked guests including drunken witches, harlequins, sultans and one Corsican had to wade knee-deep across the meadow on which the rotunda was sited to reach their carriages and beds.
It rained until midday on Friday 8th September. The River Avon had overflowed to such an extent that the rotunda was flooded. All that could be salvaged of the last day’s planned entertainment was an extremely waterlogged horse race on Shottery Meadow but by this time it was too late and many guests had abandoned the Jubilee altogether and were heading as fast as they could on jam-packed roads away from the town. As Boswell noted:
After the joy of the jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.
Bizarrely, there had been no performance of a Shakespeare play planned for the event, not even one scene, a fact which garnered much criticism. Referring to the event afterwards as ‘my folly’, Garrick was forced to admit that, although this was an intended omission with the idea that people would discover the bard ‘all around them’ instead of through his plays, this was a glaring error and – coupled with the complete washout of the event – it marked a low point in his career. He also lost a large sum of his own money in staging the event. However, as we shall see in a later blog, all was not yet lost. The redoubtable Garrick had one more trick up his sleeve with which he hoped to salvage both his reputation and the Jubilee celebrations.
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14th September 1769
Boswell’s Jubilee: against the backdrop of the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, James Boswell’s willpower is tested. Andrew McConnell Stott, 2016 (Lapham’s Quarterly)
‘The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, ed. Philip Styles (London, 1945), pp. 244-247. British History Online
The actor and theatre manager David Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III by William Hogarth, c.1745. Walker Art Gallery.