Heritage: Meet the Shakespeares of Havering

Children performing a work by the real Shakespeare. Picture: Ken Mears

Children performing a work by the real Shakespeare. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

The surname may be similar to that of the Bard but it’s unlikely they were related, says Prof Ged Martin

You may be surprised to read that William Shakespeare was born in Romford in May 1637.

Surely, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564?

Experts believe that the surname “Shakespeare” arose as a nickname, for aggressive people who angrily shook an imaginary weapon.

That means the world’s Shakespeares aren’t necessarily related.

The “real” William Shakespeare was indeed born in 1564.

He wrote 42 plays between 1590 and 1613 (nobody’s sure about the exact dates). He died in 1616 (possibly after a drinking bout with fellow dramatist Ben Jonson), and was buried in his Warwickshire home town, Stratford-upon-Avon.

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We can’t even be sure how the great playwright pronounced his name.

He never signed himself “Shakespeare”, preferring forms such as “Shakspere”, “Shaksper” and “Shakspear”.

But a piece of theatrical bitchiness back in 1591 dismissed Will from Warwickshire as a “Shake-scene”, so his name probably rhymed with “bake”, not “back”.

Our local crowd weren’t consistent either. The 1637 Romford baby was recorded as “Shakspurre”.

In 1863, as Britain prepared to celebrate the Bard’s 300th birthday, a gentleman called Augustus Charles Veley Esquire explored the Essex connection, “in case any future investigator should think fit to pursue the inquiry”.

Augustus, a century and a half on, that day has arrived!

Was Romford’s William Shakspurre a relative of the Bard?

To simplify the story, it’s unlikely there was any link between the playwright and the Havering Shakespeares.

Aged eighteen, the Bard hurriedly married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. They had one son, Hamnet (not Hamlet). The boy died when he was eleven.

At most, our local Shakespeares could only have been distant cousins. Parish registers began in 1538, but birth records were often sketchy, so we can’t be sure.

Joseph Shakspeare, alias Shakespeare, of Havering died in 1640. He left forty shillings for a sermon to be preached at his funeral in Romford. His brother was Samuel Shakspurre, whose baby son William we’ve already met. Samuel was a “yeoman” (farmer).

Samuel’s “widdow” Susan, who died in 1678, called herself “Shackspear”. Her home was “in the Northend of Hornchurch in the Libertie of Haveringe atte Bower in the Countye of Essex”.

In the next generation, two sons of Samuel and Susan lived locally. Thomas “Shakesphere”, who died in 1703, farmed in the Southend of Hornchurch.

Hornchurch was divided into two segments, North (up to Harold Wood) and South (down to Thames). Southend Road in Elm Park recalls the division.

His brother, another Samuel, actually used the spelling “Shakespeare”. He lived at Squirrels Heath, in the parish of Romford – somewhere near today’s Gidea Park station – and died about 1710.

Then the family moved away. John Shakespear, another “yeoman”, who died around 1727, farmed at Rawreth, between Wickford and Rayleigh.

He seems to have been a nephew of both Thomas and Samuel, the Havering brothers.

There’s no trace of any connection with England’s greatest playwright.

Augustus Veley found a priest called Thomas Shackspere, who wrote a quaint will as he faced “the howar of dethe” in London in 1557. But neither Father Thomas, nor a James Shakespeare who lived in Barking in 1586, can be fitted into the Stratford-upon-Avon story. They can’t be linked to Havering either.

Without any evidence, Veley also suggested that our Joseph Shakespeare was perhaps the playwright’s nephew.

The great Shakespeare did indeed have three brothers. Two followed him to London. Both died young, one of bubonic plague. None of the three married. The William Shakspurre, born in Romford in 1637, is described in Susan’s will as her son, “William Shakspere”, but she did not say where he lived. He was 40 in 1677. Perhaps he was tired of jokes about his namesake.

Maybe they’re all related, not to author of Hamlet, but to the former manager of Leicester City Football Club. Craig Shakespeare doesn’t like drama!