Ever since the town of Stratford-upon-Avon was granted the right to hold a weekly market in 1196 it has thrived on trade. The goods bought and sold were the agricultural produce of the area, still remembered in some of the street names: Swine Street (now called Ely Street), Sheep Street, Rother (or Cattle) Market. The corner where the town hall stands is still known as Corn Market.
During Shakespeare’s time the inhabitants of the town had occupations based on the processing of these goods: butchers, tanners, glovers (like Shakespeare’s father), millers and bakers, and there were several farms just on the edge of the town centre. As one of the town’s burgesses, John Shakespeare, was in 1557 one of the ale-tasters who had to enforce the order “that all the brewers, that brew to sell either ale or beer, shall sell their ale or beer for threepence the gallon”.
Many places catered for the influx of people who needed refreshment on market days: there were thirty ale-houses in Stratford during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Shakespeare himself occasionally traded in agricultural produce, as we know from the survey undertaken by local Justices of the Peace in 1598. After a series of crop failures some people in the area were close to starvation and there was a real fear of rioting. Goods needed to feed people were being hoarded to be kept until the price rose. Corn and malt, mainly used in the brewing industry, were surveyed, and Shakespeare was one of the people who were holding more than he needed for his own use.
The 1850 town directory still listed many trades dependent on farming, and many businesses were related to it. Agricultural suppliers have been centred in the town, and a canning factory was opened in 1932 to process the market-gardening produce of the area. A different sort of business, but one still relying on agriculture, was the insurance company The National Farmers Union which now has its headquarters in Tiddington just outside Stratford.
The town’s reliance on providing food and drink has been continuous. Markets are still held, mainly in Rother Market: a general market on Fridays, a farmers’ market on alternate Saturdays, and a host of other markets held in different parts of the town around the year. It’s still notable how many pubs, cafes and restaurants are to be found in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The business that has had the most impact on the town and its history must be Flowers’ Brewery, and not just because it was a major employer, or the excellence of its beer. The brewery was founded in 1830. Edward Fordham Flower and his wife Sarah were philanthropists, holding parties for the children of the brewery workers and beginning a charitable infant school. He had been elected Mayor in 1851 and 1852, and as the 1864 Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth approached, he was approached again, and took the lead in organising the celebrations.
The pavilion was built on land owned by Flower, and he presided at the opening event, a huge Birthday dinner. Although there was much eating and drinking during the three weeks of the festival there were several presentations of Shakespeare’s plays including Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. The success of the festival in drawing in many people did not however ensure its financial success, and it lost money. It did, though, encourage Flower in the belief that a theatre for the presentation of Shakespeare’s plays was a viable proposition for the town.
The Shakespeare Memorial Association was created in order to raise funds, Flower himself giving £1000 and a two-acre site by the river. The plan was derided by London critics, but Flower succeeded in building a theatre for Shakespeare, which London had failed to do. In 1926, after the disastrous fire which destroyed most of the original theatre, it was another Flower, Archibald, Edward’s nephew, who ensured that a new theatre was built. Without the Flower family there would be no Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the Flower family remains as an Honorary Governor of the theatre today.
Nicholas Fogg ends his book Stratford-upon-Avon: The Portrait of a Town with a postscript that links the theatre, the Flower family, and the heritage of the town:
“Around that time  Flower’s Brewery closed, victim of a tendency to bigger units. With its demise went what had been one of Stratford’s staple industries over the centuries and also part of the heritage of local initiative which had given the town its character. All that remains is a logo on a beer brewed elsewhere and the concrete slabs which cover the artesian wells of the vanished brewhouse”
This year Stratford-upon-Avon‘s Food Festival coincides with Heritage Open Days over the weekend of 14-15 September. With food and drink playing such an important part in the heritage of Stratford and its immediate surroundings, the town council will be celebrating both events with an exhibition in the Town Hall on Brewing and Feasting in Stratford-upon-Avon, and they are inviting people to contribute material to it. If you have memorabilia relating to Flower’s Brewery, or anything that relates to this topic which you would be prepared to lend or share, please get in touch with the Civic Secretary, Charles Wilson, at email@example.com