Harvard House: no ghosts but plenty of history

Harvard House Stratford-upon-Avon. Remains of a wall painting on 2 plaster panels, probably from the late 16th century and currently undergoing conservation. Adjacent walls have been painted to show the original appearance.‘the college agreed upon formerly to be built at Cambridge shall be called Harvard College’  (1639)

On rare occasions, both locals and visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, have the chance of a glimpse at a slice of history. The history in question is Harvard House and although to my knowledge there aren’t any ghosts, there are plenty of stories. The visit starts outside the property.

The house was rebuilt in 1596 (probably because of the local fires of 1594 and 1595) by Thomas Rogers, whose initials, along with those of his wife, can be seen on the elaborate facade.Harvard House Stratford-upon-Avon

Rogers, who was a wealthy businessman, also owned numbers 27-28 High Street, and it’s supposed but not proved, that the original staircase for Harvard House, located in a turret, could have provided access to the other house too. After Harvard House was sold in the mid-seventeenth century, the staircase was rebuilt inside the house, and subsequently moved to its present location. The external staircase had been removed.

Rogers had a daughter by the name of Katherine, and it’s through her that the house gained its name and became well-known. She married a man called Robert Harvard of Southwark, London, and, because of Southwark’s theatrical connections, it’s possible that Harvard knew Will Shakespeare and maybe that’s how Harvard met Katherine. Alternatively, however, Harvard and Rogers were both butchers, so maybe a meeting came through trade – or through Thomas Rogers’ connections on the local council.

Harvard House Stratford-upon-Avon: earlier construction materialsKatherine’s married life as Harvard’s second wife wasn’t easy. They lived in London but in 1625 an outbreak of plague killed her husband Robert and four of their children, leaving Katherine alone with just two sons, one being John (baptised 1607). Robert left £600 to the two boys and provision for his widow, who married again (twice), but her second husband died within just five months. He too, left her well provided for. The estate remaining on her subsequent death in the 1630s, allowed John to be a generous benefactor.

John Harvard was focused on the ministry and after extensive study at Cambridge University and the death of his mother, he and his wife, not long married, set sail for New England. He made his home at a place called Charlestown, working with the pastor and teaching the Scripture. But success was brief as he died shortly afterwards, in 1638, aged just thirty-one.

His spoken bequest left half of his estate and all of his library to a proposed new college at Cambridge, Massachusetts. A plan for the college was already in place but John’s bequest made the plan more feasible.

Harvard House Stratford-upon-Avon: staircaseToday, Harvard House is managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, but its current preservation is thanks to the work of  popular novelist Marie Corelli who purchased the property in the 1900s ‘to save it from ruin’ (Teresa Ransom, p146). She brought it to the attention of some American contacts who generously funded its restoration, Corelli having already purchased the property. The restoration took four years and the opening ceremony was held in Stratford-upon-Avon on 6 October 1909.

Harvard House Stratford-upon-AvonMiss Corelli has exercised her own taste and simply removed all modernities, and allowed the house to show itself as it is and as it was in the days when John Harvard saw it as a child.’  Whitelaw Reid, American ambassador (Teresa Ransom, p 168)

Sources

Harvard House/John Harvard and Harvard University [leaflet, n.d.]

Ransom, T. The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli, Sutton Publishing, 1999.

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