In a small series of sheds in Sussex an 19th-century joker and eccentric hoarded the evidence that reconciles Shakespeare the playwright with Shakespeare the man. Charles Nicholl uncovers a remarkable story.
Hollingbury Copse is a pleasant suburban cul-de-sac on the northern outskirts of Brighton, but nothing remains of the curious property that once stood here, and was the first to have this address. It was built amid dense woodland in the late 1870s by the celebrated Shakespearean scholar and collector James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps. The views across the downs and out over the Channel were splendid, but the house itself was not the commodious sort of residence one might envisage for this eminent if eccentric Victorian. It was not really a house at all, but a rambling spread of single-storey timber buildings, roofed with galvanised iron and connected by wooden corridors. An early visitor likened it to a squatters’ camp in South Africa, but with time it mellowed. An American journalist, Rose Ewell Reynolds, who saw it in 1887, thought it very “picturesque” – it was “simply a collection of bungalows bought ready-made in London, but grouped as they were they made a most comfortable home”. They had “criss-cross timbering on the outside”, which reminded her of the “quaint little houses” she had seen in Stratford-upon-Avon.