She was also very fond of taking people to court…
Marie Corelli (real name Mary MacKay) was often two-faced and careless with the truth. She was extraordinarily Shakespearean, and, in 1900, decided she wanted to build a free library in Stratford, bearing her name, which was a noble thought. So she contacted an old friend, Fred Winter, a local store owner and part time real estate agent to find out the cost of a plot of land adjoining the Technical School in Henley Street, just fifty yards from Shakespeare’s Birthplace. When Fred Winter informed Corelli of the price she immediately changed her mind saying the plot was too expensive. Fred then persuaded Archibald Flower to buy the land, who then gave it to Stratford Town Council with the clear instruction that they contact Andrew Carnegie to see if he would like to build a free library on the site. They, and Carnegie, agreed. So far so good? Well, almost.
When Corelli heard about the plans (which included knocking down some cottages between Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the site of the library to create a fire-break) she complained bitterly, and very publicly, that the cottages were of great historical importance (doubtful) and that the ignorant peasants of Stratford didn’t need a library, especially one built by Carnegie, a man she hated.
The doughty Fred Winter wasn’t going to let her get away with that and immediately sent off a letter to the Stratford Herald informing its readers, and reminding Corelli of her desire to build her own library, and her request to him to find out the price of that plot of land in Henley Street. Corelli reacted by denying she had ever spoken to Fred Winter about building a library, let alone the cost of a plot of land in Henley Street.
She didn’t leave it there either but accused both Fred Winter, and George Boyden (the owner of the Herald newspaper) of libel and took them to court.
The case (which created world-wide interest) was heard at Birmingham Crown Court just before Christmas 1903, with the famous prosecuting lawyer, and MP for Southport, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, retained as Corelli’s barrister. Hall — who later became involved in the Dr Crippen murder case — naturally won the legal day, although the jury gave Fred Winter the moral high ground by awarding Corelli just one Farthing in damages.
On the day after the trial Fred sent his secretary round to Corelli’s home to pay her the Farthing. She refused saying she was sure Mr Winter could a find a better use for it than she.
And Mr Winter did find a better use by setting-up his “Farthing Fund”, which eventually attracted enough donations to help build a new wing at Stratford Hospital.
Stratford’s Carnegie Library opened in 1905 with the Chief Librarian making sure there were no novels by Corelli on the shelves.
During the First World War Corelli, with the assistance of the same Fred Winter, helped feed and house hundreds of Belgian refugees who came to the town.
Then, after the war, again with Fred’s help, she raised a huge amount of money to reveal many of the black and white Tudor buildings hidden beneath bland Victorian plaster.
And as Gerald Jaggard has written:
“To her staff, indoor and outdoor, Miss Corelli was uniformly loved kind, and they adored her. Her companion, Miss Bertha Vyver, was the soul of devotion, discretion and tolerance. Large, amiable and uncomplaining, she bore the brunt of the despair, the raging’s and the bitterness that were the sequels of failure.”
I have to say that some of her novels are rather good.