In the early afternoon of Saturday 6 March 1926 a man was cycling down Chapel Lane in Stratford when he spotted smoke coming from the roof of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in front of him.
He immediately took action to raise the alarm, but found the fire had already taken hold. The building was full of smoke and timber could be heard cracking. People rushed to help, but there was little they could do even with a river so close. Horse-drawn fire engines had to come from surrounding towns, and I was once told by a person who was there that the horses were near exhaustion when they arrived, so hard they had been driven.
It was all in vain, and I’ll let Ivor Brown and George Fearon, authors of the 1939 book Amazing Monument, tell the story.
Soon hoses innumerable were being played on the flames which threatened, at any minute, to bring the hideous baronial towner crashing on to the roof of the Library and Museum, where were kept so many treasures of Shakespeare and his day. These had to be saved. Volunteers were called for and quickly responded. A human chain was made across the road from the interior of the Museum to the Memorial Lecture Room. Books, pictures, and relics were transferred from hand to hand and finally deposited in safety well away from the flames. So great was the enthusiasm that two men were able to carry out, with the greatest of ease, an enormous marble bust which required seven men to put it back. It speaks well for the honesty of Stratfordians that not one single relic was lost during this excitement. There were no snappers-up of unconsidered treasures.
The things which were removed to safety, whilst the flames were roaring round about them, included the first four Folios, the Droeshout portrait, numerous large oil paintings, hundreds of valuable books, relics of famous Shakespearean actors, a piece of the inevitable mulberry tree, and a hundred and one other exhibits. Whilst all this was going on the fire was spreading. It looked as though the tower would crash at any minute.
By a lucky chance the wind direction changed so that the fire was blown towards the river, and away from the Library and Art Gallery wing. It took three hours to move all the treasures, and the fire still raged in the rest of the building. Eventually the tower collapsed, as did the roof of the auditorium. By the next morning, only the walls of the main building were still standing. But the Library and Art Gallery wing was untouched, and is the only part of the original 1879 building that still contains original architectural features, including, incredibly, its stained glass windows.
The contents of the Library and Art Gallery returned to their places, and became part of the new building when it reopened in 1932. In 1964 the Theatre’s Library and Archive collections were transferred to the newly-built Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street where purpose-built fireproof strong rooms had been created for both the theatre’s and the Birthplace Trust’s paper collections. The RSC’s paintings, costumes and memorabilia are also now located in secure storage well away from the theatre itself.
Theatres have a terrible record for burning down. Shakespeare’s own Globe burned in 1613, the fire starting in the theatre’s thatch. Who knows what treasures might have been lost in that fire?