The Baker Who ‘Built’ The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

“ The majority of the crowd were Freemasons, all dressed in black…”

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre soon after completion. Image: Daniels

When the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre burned down on Saturday March 8th, 1926, my grandfather, Harry, was just finishing cleaning up in the Co-op Bakery in Wellesbourne when my thirteen year old father ran in…

“ Dad, dad, the theatre’s burning down.”

“ Who told you?”

“ Jim, the bus driver. Can we go over?”

And they did, on their bikes.

By the time they arrived the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was engulfed in flames.

“ There’s going to be some work here, Roland,” said my grandfather.

Three years later a job advertisement for builders and labourers appeared in the local press: they were offering good money too.

After reading the ad Harry took off his apron and put on his jacket.

“ Here, where’re you going?” asked the foreman.

“ Into Stratford, I’m going to build the new theatre.”

“ You’re a baker, not a builder.”

“ I was a baker before I became a soldier in 1915, managed that alright, unlike some I could mention…”

“ What d’ya mean?”

“ Look Frank, I’m going into Stratford, alright?”

“ No, it’s not alright…”

“ You going to stop me?”

“ If I have to.”

Frank then grabbed Harry. My grandfather — who was normally a very mild-mannered chap — punched Frank, who fell to the floor like a sack of Co-op potatoes.

Harry was in the office of the building company foreman within half an hour of leaving another foreman out cold. He got a job too, as a labourer, working on an hourly rate, with loads of overtime. He was to start the following day.

“ Seven on the dot, alright, mate?”

“ Who do I report to?”

“ Me, here. By the look of you I’d say you were in the last bit of trouble?”

“ Yes, and you?”

“ Army, Mespot.”

“ Me too, Devonshires.”

“ Well, I’ll be, small world.”

“ See you in the morning.”

With that Harry cycled home and started to tell my grandmother, Daisy, what he’d done…

“ The police have been round asking where you were. I said you’d gone to see your brother. They said you’ve nothing to worry about. After police advice, Frank isn’t going to press charges, he’s even offered to give you your job back.”

“ Well, he can whistle. I’m going to build the new theatre.”

Although Harry had dug more than a few trenches in Mesopotamia during the Great War, he found the digging of the foundations for the new theatre the hardest work he’d ever done; followed all the concrete that had to be mixed for the basement ‘raft’ on which the building was to sit.

But it has to be said he was relieved, and not a little proud, to see the foundation stone laid, on the 2nd of July 1929, just a few weeks after he’d started digging. He got a good view too, and could see the Right Honourable Lord Ampthill do what he had to do (not much)with a chunk of Horton stone, from Edgehill, that weighed over a ton. There was a huge cheer as the stone was lowered over a time capsule (containing coins and newspapers)by a crane.

The majority of the crowd were Freemasons, all dressed in black, and with the exception of Sir Barry Jackson and Sir Frank Benson, not a single actor had been invited. One can only assume that actors were still considered to be vagabonds and thieves. The chances are that if Shakespeare had still been alive he wouldn’t have been invited either.

But, in 1929, Harry was just happy to be working and earning good money at a time when unemployment was heading towards two million.

Grandfather Harry

Roland, my father, sixteen in 1929, was in work too, helping to make cast iron street and road signs at the Royal Label Factory, just round the corner from the theatre.

With most of the ground work completed my grandfather was told to find a bricklayer called Albert. He was to be his labourer.

Albert had been a young bricklayer’s apprentice back in 1877, when work started on the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and by the time the theatre was finished, in 1879, Albert was considered a very competent bricklayer. Now, some fifty years later, he was beginning to struggle, and needed as much help as he could get. He reckoned that Harry Newman could learn bricklaying pretty fast. He’d have to if Albert was going to hang on to his job before retiring. He was banking on the bonus they’d all been promised if the building came in on time.

Building the lower part of the wall was relatively easy, with Harry bringing the bricks to Albert in a wheelbarrow. It was also easier for Albert to have a pee every twenty minutes or so. Albert had a bit of a problem with his waterworks. Things would only get more difficult for Albert (and Harry) as the wall rose higher and higher over the days and weeks.

Like clockwork, every twenty minutes Albert had to climb down the ladders to take a pee in the river.

“ Why note pee up top, Albert? Just whistle and we’ll know when to take cover,” said another brickie, laughing.

“ Can’t do that, not right is it.”

“ I feel sorry for the fish,” said another brickie.

Up and down the ladders went Albert to pee.

“ Why don’t you show me how to lay bricks, Albert? You’re lagging behind the rest.”

“ I don’t know about that?”

“ Come on Albert. It’ll make life a bit easier for you.”

Albert thought for a minute or two.”

“ Right. Come over here and watch me lay the next course, then you can lay the next one after that, okay?”

And that’s what they did, and Harry, after about three courses, was doing a pretty good job, with Albert just finishing off. The trouble was that Harry had to take more bricks up the ladders in the hod than he should have done. He could manage it, just about, but he was starting to feel the strain. But he and Albert were now level with the other brickies, and the foreman was none the wiser.

When they reached the top they had to move at right angles to do the walls of the gents lavatories. It started okay, but Albert collapsed just before lunch with only four courses laid. The other brickies held a bit of a conference, and suggested to Harry, to give Albert a rest, that he finish the bricklaying in the gents.

“ Right,” Harry replied, “ I better get a few more bricks then.”

And he did, six hod loads, which kept him going for quite a while, before he had to get some more.

By the time Albert recovered, around tea time, the lavatory was finished. It was then the foreman came in.

“ Evening gents how we doing?” No one answered. “ Looks good. What’s it like working for a champion bricklayer then, Harry?”

“ I’m learning a lot…”

“ Good man. You lot better get off.”

By the end of that week most of the bricklaying was done. Albert retired and Harry was laid off.

Harry Newman had earned quite a bit, as had my father, and with my grandmother borrowing some money from her policeman brother, Harry and my father, in 1933, started the bakery, H. Newman & Son, Bakers & Confectioners.

With the bakery up and running Harry decided to build a small extension to one side of the main building. Then, one day, lifting some timber for the roof Harry suffered a hernia. For the rest of his life he had to wear a surgical support. My grandmother tried to persuade him to have an operation, but he never would.

“ You don’t come out of those places.” he said.

My grandfather was always proud of the work he did on the theatre, and once, during an interval of a charity performance of Charlies Aunt, starring Norman Wisdom, he took me to see his bricklaying in the gents lavatory just off the gallery.

“ I did that, Stevie.”

“ It looks great, granddad. ”

And it did.

At Christmas he always loved to tell how he’d built the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. My grandmother always laughed and gave him a withering stare.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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