By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an organization in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England which oversees the historic home in which the William Shakespeare was born. Through the centuries, millions have visited this 16th century abode in order to pay their respects to the Immortal Bard.
A few weeks ago, I was greeted one morning with a reference question from the staff of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The question focused on the oldest guestbook that the Trust holds in their archives. The item dates to the year 1812 and the first recorded visitors are a TH Perkins of Boston, and Joseph Curwen of Philadelphia.
DR185/1 Shakespeare’s Birthplace Visitors’ books, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
The question coming from Stratford was whether this TH Perkins is Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a prominent Boston businessman and successful merchant of the China trade. Here at the MHS we hold the Thomas Handasyd Perkins papers, 1764-1854 and the folks at the Shakespeare Birthplace were looking for confirmation that these were the same person. So, I started digging to see what I could find about Mr. Perkins’ travels in the early 19th century.
Within the collection is a “Journal of Reminiscences of England and Wales, 1 July 1812,” which seemed promising for answering this question. I scrolled through the microfilm looking for keywords that would jump out at me and, sure enough, about thirty frames in I saw mention of Stratford, so I slowed down and started paying attention. As I read, more and more pieces slid into place.
Altho’ I had before visited Stratford, yet it gave me great pleasure to have an opportunity of passing a few more hours here…
When here before, I went to the house, and into the room where the Poet was born, but as Mr. Curwen had not visited this place before, I passed thro’ the town with him and visited, both the house and the church with him…
Perkins then goes into some detail about the people residing in the house
It is now occupied by a Butcher, who hangs up his mutton at the windows of the front room, and whose wife who is a very loquacious sort of a woman, shows you all the Relics which are said to have been the property of the bard.
He continues to describe some of the rooms in the house, making special mention of some walls which were whitewashed and then covered over in the penciled scrawling of visitors, signing their names and leaving messages to show their passage through.
When I was here before, I asked the woman why she did not keep a Book, in which persons who came to visit the house might subscribe their names, as the walls were full. She said she had frequently thought of getting one, and had been often asked if she had one, but that she had no one to prepare it for her; at that time I was much hurried, but determined that if I ever again passed thro’ Stratford I would purchase one and give it to the woman. I now put my resolution into execution by buying a quarto blank Book containing about four quires of paper, and giving to be applied to his purpose I ruled it, making a column for the date, another for the name and a third for the Residence__and having written in the beginning of it “Tribute of Repsect to the Memory of the Bard of Avon” and furnished the woman with an ink stand and some pens, I subscribed my name, and wished her to deliver the Book when filled to the Librarian of the town, who is to deposit it in the Library, and furnish another blank Book in its stead.
When taking on this reference question I was fairly confident that the “TH Perkins” in the guestbook would be the same as the man whose papers we hold. However, I was tickled when I read this passage and learned that our Perkins was actually the person who purchased and inscribed the guestbook, even going so far as to provide instructions for its preservation. Perhaps in another life this businessman will make a good librarian.