Apr 172012

You have to feel sorry for poor William Henry Ireland: his father, a keen Shakespeare buff, regarded him as a total waste of space and even went so far as to suggest he might not have been the father to the child anyway; the mother went further – she denied being the boy’s mum and claimed that she was simply the housekeeper. To make matters worse, although his name was William Henry his family called him Samuel (after a brother, who had died before he was born). One suspects that he felt a trifle unloved, unworthy and un-appreciated!

Nothing he ever did matched up to his father’s expectations, wrapped up as his father was in Shakespearian lore, and pursuing his personal Holy Grail of finding and owning a manuscript written by the Great Bard. At some stage in his youth the boy watched his father make a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon, and noted the simplistic awe with which his father paid good money for “a genuine chair William Shakespeare had actually sat in.” He also noted the reverence with which father looked after ‘ a piece of mulberry tree Shakespeare had planted at Stratford.’ In later  years (1832) the son was to write “Frequently, my father would  declare, that  to possess a single vestige of the poet’s hand-writing would  be esteemed a gem  beyond all price.”

Perhaps desperate to be appreciated, the boy hit upon the plan of giving his father a ‘Shakespeare original’. For hours he practised the signature until he could do it blindfold. Then came the easy bit: he worked as a clerk in a law practice with a huge stock of old mortgage deeds, each with its own seal. A simple cutting exercise obtained suitably-aged blank vellum, onto which he appended an old seal and scrawled “W. Shakspeare” across it. He then handed it to his delighted, if somewhat gullible, father.

Encouraged by this success, young Ireland manufactured an imposing variety of items which the literary world was waiting for – original love poems written by Will to Anne Hathaway, an old promissory note, a letter confirming that Shakespeare was a true adherent of the Protestant faith. and so on. I particularly like the wondrous mastery of the English language in one of the love letters to Anne:

Is there inne heavenne aught more rare
Thanne thou sweete Nymphe of Avon fayre
Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe
Thanne Willy Shakespeare is toe you.

I mean, that’s yer actual Shakespeare, innit?

Eagerly his father invited prominent fellows round to view his growing Cabinet of Curiosities, Most, if not all, were totally taken in by what they saw – precisely because they wanted to believe in it. James Boswell paid a house call and was enthralled to be holding what he was convinced was a genuine piece of Shakespeariana, and announced that he could now die a happy man. And die he did, just a few months later.

Others were greatly impressed, including family friend Sir Frederick Eden, who was an expert on old seals. He saw that the seal which had been used had a picture of a quintain on it (a target used in jousting). Why, this was indeed a pun worthy of Shakespeare, since it was clearly an emblem showing a target for a man to shake his spear at! (The pun was totally unintended – indeed William Henry Ireland had never noticed the emblem).

Oh, if only Dad could have kept it all to himself! Oh that Master Ireland had not decided to get a bit above himself! Dad wanted more – so he got it. A hand-written version of the entire play King Lear (faithfully copied out and annotated, in Elizabethan script). And then the coup de grace, an entirely new play by the Bard, the hitherto unknown masterpiece entitled Vortigern and Rowena. It was based, as was many of Shakespeare’s actual plays, upon one of the stories contained in Hollinshed’s Chronicles. Conveniently  old man Ireland kept a copy of the Chronicle in his library, and his son simply lifted the tale from it and hammed up as many verses as he could until, hey presto, he had himself a whole play!

Father then decided to publish a book so that all could share in his great scholarship. Entitled Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare it appeared on Christmas Eve 1795. It immediately provoked a barrage of hostile criticism and outright condemnation as a fake, with its liberal scattering of ‘ees’ at the end of most words! The Telegraph published a mock letter from the Bard to his friend and  rival Ben Jonson: “Deeree  Sirree, Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too  dinnee wythee meee onn Friddaye nextte, attt twoo off theee clockee, too  eattee sommee muttonne choppes andd  somme poottaattoooeesse.”

But Master Ireland was nothing if not brazen. He took the play to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and asked if he would like to put it on at his newly extended Drury Lane theatre. Sheridan read the script, realized that whereas it might be a load of tripe, it was surely good enough to get bums on seats, and promptly agreed a fee of £300 and half of the profits. The run was due to start on 1st April 1796, but Ireland insisted that the first night be delayed by a day ‘in case people thought it a hoax.’

John Philip Kemble was actor manager at the theatre and clearly had his reservations about the authenticity of the play in which he was to play the role of Vortigern against Dorothea Jordan’s Rowena. But for two Acts the capacity crowd watched and listened politely, fully aware of the question marks over the play but willing to judge it on its merits.

Then came the point in the play where Kemble, playing the part where King Vortigern addresses Death, was to utter the stanza:

O! then thou dost ope wide thy hideous jaws,

And with rude laughter, and fantastic tricks,

Thou clapp’st thy rattling fingers to thy sides;

And when this solemn mockery is ended…

He hammed it up something rotten, and for good measure he then deliberately repeated the final line. The audience went berserk and threatened to tear the theatre down. Bedlam ensued before Kemble prevailed upon the audience to let the Third Act be played. At the end there were catcalls galore and although Kemble came on to announce that there would be a performance of the play on Monday next, he was met by a barrage  of abuse and in the chaos was hauled back on stage to inform all present that Sheridan’s School for Scandal would be performed in its place. Order was restored…

After the 1796 public debacle Master Ireland went to confess all to his father – who basically could not believe that he had been duped. He died a couple of years later, his reputation in tatters. William Henry Ireland decided to make a bob or two out of his notoriety and published the story of the hoax and his part in it as The Confessions of William Henry Ireland in 1805

He struggled to make a living as a poet and writer after that. He was to die exactly 177 years ago today, an impecunious  scribbler who spent time in the debtor’s prison, and who left a wife and children destitute. But for a while, a very brief while, he had got to live the dream: he had been The Bard!

P.S. There was speculation at the time that the entire Ireland family was involved in the scam producing fake manuscripts – simply because many did not think it possible that all the forgeries were the work of one young man. Hence in this John Nixon caricature,  we see William Henry, sitting on the floor. with his parents and two sisters busy churning out fakes. In fact, all the evidence points to Willliam Henry being the only wrong-doer – his father was guilty of stupidity but nothing more.

  2 Responses to “To be, or not to be, William Henry Ireland (2 August 1775 – 17 April 1835)”


    Well as Shakespeare was a bit of a hack at times – albeit a hack with a wonderful grasp of language – playing for cheap laughs and smutty chuckles [even in a tragedy like Hamlet for pete’s sake] I wonder what merit there was in Vortigern and Rowena… and whether it would have survived had not Kemp hammed it up [a phrase of course taken from the tendency of actors to overplay Hamlet].
    I was reminded of Tom Keating who did such successful forgeries of Constable and an extant Giles cartoon where a museum curator is peering at the corner of the ‘Haywain’ and saying ‘Good Lord! it says ‘Constable – after Tom Keating”
    I have to say I find forgeries of any kind fascinating. And this one was never intended to make money but only to make his father happy…


    The astonishing thing was that young William Henry was not particularly well educated or well-read. He had picked up enough from his father to know what sounded right, and he put together a passable pastiche which his father (and others) were determined to believe was authentic. Nothing changes – academics always want to approve of anything which reflects their own views of the world, just as they wish to denigrate anything which is hostile to their entrenched views.
    Tomorrow I will add a cartoon by John Nixon. which echoes the contemporary view that ALL the Ireland family was involved – father, mother, William Henry and both of his sisters! I am sure that only the son was involved, but father must have been blind to the obvious. The son was never prosecuted – probably because he was under 21 (just!), and perhaps because he never really gained much from the deception.

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