A brief history of Mason Croft

Photograph of the rear of Mason Croft with an arched gatewayMason Croft, now the home of The Shakespeare Institute, takes its name from the family who lived in the building for more than 150 years.

Sepia photograph of the front of Mason Croft

 From Church Street the house appears to be an elegant eighteenth-century town house of two storeys, with a simple symmetrical line of three windows on either side of the oak front door and seven on the first floor. The rear of the building, however, is gloriously different, with its seemingly haphazardly-placed pointed gables, conservatory and extensive gardens. The site was originally occupied by two houses: one a large freehold property owned by the Bartlett family since 1610 or earlier; the other a tenement belonging to the manor of Rowington (near Warwick), but associated with the Bartletts since 1632.

When John Bartlett married Mary Handy in 1676, a family arrangement settled the tenement on John. The buildings the Bartletts lived in were most likely timber-framed, although this cannot be verified as no images from the period survive. In 1698 Ann Bartlett, John and Mary’s only surviving daughter, married the lawyer Nathaniel Mason and in 1710 they began to create a bigger, more modern dwelling. Their first additions were to the rear of the house, building a kitchen wing and chambers above, along with a ‘portal’ and a tiny gable.

Ann Mason died in 1717 and two years later Nathaniel married Elizabeth Rowney, a wealthy heiress from Halford. The joint income from Nathaniel’s business and Elizabeth’s leasing of property meant that substantial rebuilding of the family home could now take place. A new phase of building, beginning in or around 1724, created a more symmetrical house, with a butler’s pantry behind, ‘a place for coals’, a study, rear staircase and cellars. Above were bedrooms and, at the top, new attics. On 2 July, 1724 Nathaniel took out an insurance policy with the Sun Fire Office to the value of £400 for buildings and contents. The brass fire mark, bearing its policy number, is still in its original place just below the gable at the front of the house.

In 1727 Nathaniel bought the adjoining house, and in 1728 he had a plan for an expanded dwelling drawn up. When he died, in 1734, his son Thomas Mason looked out Nathaniel’s plan with a view to extending his newly-acquired home, giving the document its present heading and date of 1735. That same year he bought an additional strip of land to the south of the house, and the following year he acquired two cottages on the northern boundary where the ‘great gates’ to the rear were still sited. This impressive stone gateway was moved to its present site on the south side. The kitchen wing was extended, and to commemorate his improvements he fixed a new rainwater head, inscribed ‘1735 TM’, onto the rear of the building – unaccountably placing it not on the new extension, but on the old kitchen wing.

Thomas Mason rebuilt the study wing in 1745 but did not live long to enjoy his improvements, dying in 1748. His will stipulated that the paddock, acquired the previous year, should be encircled with a brick wall, with ‘handsome gates, pillars and stone balls handsomely erected and finished’. These still survive. The house remained in the family until the death of the last of the line, Thomas Mason, at the age of 90 in 1867.

Stereoscopic image of the rear of Mason Croft.

The property was bequeathed to Thomas Mason’s cousins John Paget and William Harcourt Clare, who sold it on to a Stratford ironmonger, Henry Newton. It was at about this time that the earliest surviving photographic image of the building – a stereoscopic view of the rear – was taken. In 1869 the property was acquired by one William Daniels, who sold it five years later to Dr John Day Collis. Dr Collis was founder and headmaster of Trinity College, next door to Mason Croft, and he used the newly-acquired building for teaching purposes.

Marie Corelli and Mason Croft

Photograph of a watchtower covered in IvyIvy watchtower

In 1900 the famous novelist Marie Corelli was living at Avon Croft in Stratford when she became aware that Mason Croft was available for rent. Although it was somewhat dilapidated, the house appealed to her sense of romance. She and her lifelong companion, Bertha Vyver, made it their permanent home. Corelli was initially attracted to Stratford by its association with Shakespeare, and to Mason Croft in particular not only by its eighteenth-century elegance, but also by its Tudor origins. In fact the ‘Watchtower’ in the garden, which she supposed to be Elizabethan, is an eighteenth-century folly. She liked to imagine Mason Croft as it might have appeared in Shakespeare’s day, supposing that it had been called ‘Ye Crofte’ in the playwright’s time, and that it had belonged to a Rychard Mason.

In 1901 she was able to buy the property outright, and set about fashioning it to suit her taste. The interior decoration was renewed and she converted what had been the dining room of Trinity College into a music room. She also made a significant addition to the street frontage, adding a low wooden fence along the front of the house and a portico over the stone entrance steps. Striped blinds also appeared, a swathe of Virginia creeper, and window boxes packed with flowers according to the season. At the back of the house Corelli built a large conservatory called the ‘Winter Garden’, filling it with wicker furniture and palm trees. Bertha Vyver, in her Memoirs of Marie Corelli (1930), said:

Photograph of a conservatoryConservatory

 ‘It was a dilapidated old place when we went in, but together we set to work, and in good time it was improved out of all recognition; and after a few years, during which shrubs and creepers grew outside and alterations were made within, it became the charming and homely house that it is to-day.’

Within the building, Corelli stamped her own personality firmly on the fittings and furnishings. Oak panelling was installed in her music room, now home to a grand piano, harpsichord, harp, and all manner of objets d’art. A raised platform was built at the far end, ostensibly to accommodate the piano but more likely a prop to make her seem taller than her actual height of five feet. Here she greeted her guests, one hand resting nonchalantly on the piano. She adored flowers, with which she stocked each room in abundance, and on display were many pictures and ornaments, lacquered furniture, indoor plants, and singing birds in cages. Books were artfully displayed, left open at particular passages; and manuscripts – with ink pens carefully laid across them – were placed on desks to catch the eye of visitors.

Signature of Marie CorelliSome rooms at Mason Croft remain substantially as she left them. The sitting room retains its oak display cabinets over the fireplace, and the latter its copper hood with recurring motif of waves and a single heart. The massive fireplace in the music room still bears the intertwined initials M.C. and B.V., encircled by laurel leaves, and with the legend Amor Vincit (‘love conquers’).

1924 to the present

Photograph of Marie Corelli sat in the conservatory with her back to the camera.Marie Corelli died on 21 April 1924 and was buried five days later after a service in Holy Trinity Church. Crowds of mourners gathered outside Mason Croft hours before the funeral procession was due to start, and the mourners included the Mayor and Corporation of Stratford as well as personal friends and national literary figures. Marie left her whole estate to Bertha Vyver, after whose death Mason Croft was to become a trust ‘for the promotion of Science, Literature and Music among the people of Stratford upon Avon.’

Corelli wished the house to become a residence for distinguished literary visitors to the town, but firmly insisted in her will that all actors, actresses ‘and all persons connected with the stage’ be excluded from the premises. She also intended that the land surrounding the house be preserved as ‘a breathing space and air zone for the health of the town . . . now endangered by the overcrowding of buildings entirely disadvantageous to the well being of the population.’

Bertha Vyver maintained Mason Croft exactly as it was in Corelli’s lifetime, and the house now became something of a museum, with Marie’s room being ritually dusted and aired each day and its flowers replaced. Every object which had last been touched by her was left where it stood. Vyver herself was increasingly impoverished as the income from Corelli’s novels diminished, and the lack of funds led to problems with maintaining both house and garden. By 1934 a visitor found the garden neglected, the paddock entirely overgrown and much of the house shrouded in dust sheets.

During the Second World War the music room was requisitioned by the WAAF, which used the paddock for physical recreation. After Bertha’s death, on 20 November, 1941, attempts to assert the terms of the trust failed because the income was insufficient to maintain the property.

Photograph of a pony on a path

 In 1943 Corelli’s will was declared null and void. Consequently her books, furniture, goods and personal possessions were sold off, auctioned over three days (28, 29 and 30 October, 1943), much to the distress of her remaining servants and friends. Accounts of the sale indicate that many items were sold for derisory sums. Arthur Severn’s massive oil painting The Angry Sea, which Marie had bought for 500 guineas, was sold to a Stratford alderman for a mere 2 guineas. The auction over, the Air Ministry requisitioned the house for the war effort and the National Fire Service took over the paddock.

After the war Mason Croft became, for six years, the home of The British Council. All accretions to the frontage – the wooden portico, fencing, blinds and window boxes – were removed, along with the Virginia creeper. At the back, the Winter Garden had by now lost much of its wrought-iron ornamentation and the balcony its Venetian-inspired pergola.

Photograph of a porch

In 1951 the building was listed Grade II and bought by the University of Birmingham, and the paddock was reclaimed from the Fire Station. Mason Croft has now been the home of the University’s Shakespeare Institute for 60 years. Much of the building is still as it was in Corelli’s day. The most obvious addition to the grounds is the Shakespeare Library, a purpose-built research library designed by alumnus V.H. (‘Johnnie’) Johnson, which was officially opened in 1996.

Marie Corelli : novelist and Stratford resident

Mary Mackay, probably the illegitimate daughter of the journalist Charles Mackay, assumed the name Marie Corelli in the early 1880s while attempting to make her name as an improvisatory pianist and singer. Despairing of musical fame, she turned to writing and quickly found celebrity as a novelist. The letters MCHer first book, A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), was a winning combination of morality, mysticism, out-of-body experiences and electricity. Despite attracting ridicule from reviewers, she found a wide and enthusiastic readership. A rapid succession of novels followed, in which she drew on her imagination for settings historical and exotic: Vendetta (1886) featured Naples; Thelma (1887) Scandinavia; Ardath: the Story of a Dead Self (1889) followed, and in Wormwood (1890) she tried French realism in a novel about the sins of absinthe-drinking. Amongst her early admirers were Oscar Wilde and William Gladstone.

Drawing of Mavis Clare, the heroine of 'In The Sorrows of Satan'

The peak of her success came with Barabbas (1893), in which she retold the story of the crucifixion, and The Sorrows of Satan (1895), which combined an attack on the vices of high society with melodrama and spirituality. Readers from all walks of life enjoyed the social satire and the rather conservative cast of her ‘modern’ take on religion. The critics, however, continued to sneer. Her ignorance was much mocked: in Barabbas, for example (and a century before The Life of Brian), she named Judas’s sister ‘Judith Iscariot’, mistakenly assuming ‘Iscariot’ to be a family name. Despite the carping of her critics The Sorrows of Satan sold more than any previous English novel and established Corelli’s reputation as best-selling author. It also invited scorn, in that – like others of her novels – it features as its heroine a female figure immediately identifiable as an impossibly idealized self-portrait. In The Sorrows of Satan, the heroine Mavis Clare (Satan’s worthy adversary) resembles Corelli not only in her initials, but also in her embodiment of soft femininity, creative power and moral certainty.

Celebrity

Formal portrait photograph of Marie Corelli

Mary Mackay’s rise to fame as Marie Corelli was an early – and breathtakingly assured – example of commercial self-promotion. From the first she had presented herself as a young, innocent and unworldly writer. Once she had secured a large and committed readership, she was besieged with requests for recent photographs, which she refused (presumably because of the wide disparity between her actual age and her claims of youth). Eventually she engaged a local Stratford photographer to satisfy her fans, making sure that she had control of every detail: clothes, poses (usually on steps to add to her height), props (flowers and girlish headgear). The proof copies were disappointing and, upset by her appearance, she pencilled adjustments to face and figure, scrawled the question ‘Why so stout?’ on them, and returned them to the photographer for further attention. Duly ‘improved’, the photographs maintained the illusion of youthfulness for a public as yet unfamiliar with the deceptions of photography.

The proponents of another, even newer, technology – the cinema – were attracted by Corelli’s popularity and powerful narratives. Numerous attempts were made to film adaptations of her novel; stage versions, too, appeared. George Bernard Shaw, who had read her novels and reviewed (unfavourably) the stage version of The Sorrows of Satan, was later accused by Corelli of plagiarism in his own depiction of the devil. In 1911 she fought off an unauthorized American attempt to film The Sorrows of Satan. In Britain it was filmed in 1917 starring Gladys Cooper. D.W. Griffith’s silent version of 1926, starring Adolphe Menjou as the devil, appeared only after Corelli’s death. Adaptations of other novels including Thelma and Holy Orders were negotiated, and an option taken on Vendetta.

Stratford’s buildings

As Stratford’s resident celebrity Corelli proved an active, if irritating, citizen. She participated willingly – and generously – in community events, such as regattas, sports days, and Shakespeare commemorations. Local businessmen came to loathe her, however, when she threatened their commercial interests by mounting an effective opposition to their plans for the town. Her flair for publicity and vast network of influential admirers made her a formidable campaigner. The first battle was over plans to demolish two cottages in Henley Street, close to Shakespeare’s birthplace, in order to construct a Carnegie library.

Photograph of Marie Corelli in an open carriage

Corelli was in any case opposed to public libraries but, more particularly, she feared the wanton destruction of buildings associated with Shakespeare. She published her own magazine, The Avon Star, detailing the case for preservation, and used the national press, as well as her formidable political and literary networks of friends, in order to oppose the plan. In The Plain Truth of the Stratford on Avon Controversy (1903) she set out her own historical research into the buildings and gave an account of the battle with the trustees of Shakespeare’s birthplace. While she succeeded in preserving the cottages, the library was nonetheless built and the bitter arguments caused lasting ill-feeling. Corelli later pursued a law suit against Winter, the local draper, for publishing a libellous letter about her in the local newspaper. She won the case, but was awarded only a farthing in derisory damages.

Her next good cause was to rescue Harvard House by obtaining financial support from America. In her pamphlet America’s Possession in Shakespeare’s Town (1909) she berated the town authorities for their ‘deplorable, though ludicrous indifference’ to Harvard House’s international interest, ‘as may be recognised by the fact that no account of its recent rescue, preservation and presentation to America appears in their so-called “official” guide to the town . . .’ Unsurprisingly, she remedied this by producing her own rival guide book: Harvard House Stratford-upon-Avon. Guide Book (1909).

Painting depicting Marie Corelli on the river.

Corelli took a close interest in anything affecting the town. She considered its streets, trees and houses as sacred to the memory of Shakespeare, and opposed improvements such as the installation of electric street lights. But in acting as self-appointed guardian of Shakespeare’s heritage, she provoked many Stratford residents of much longer standing than herself. Some took pleasure in baiting her: the local stationer, for example, provoked the author’s wrath by issuing unauthorized images of Corelli on a set of postcards for tourists.

War and after

At the time of her move to Stratford, Marie Corelli had been at the height of her career. By 1901 each novel was making an estimated £10,000. Translations and international distribution gave her a world-wide following. At Mason Croft she continued her output of novels, notably Temporal Power (1902); Treasures of Heaven (1906); The Devil’s Motor (1910, in collaboration with the artist Arthur Severn, with whom she was infatuated); and The Life Everlasting (1911). She was also much in demand for short stories and other contributions to women’s magazines, and for her pamphlets on topical issues. Compilations of extracts from her books were anthologized, and in 1913 The Marie Corelli Calendar offered a quotation for every day of the year.

When the First World War came, she was characteristically energetic in the cause, not only through her patriotic writing but also through public speaking, fundraising and her very generous contributions to the Red Cross. It was embarrassing therefore that, on 2 January 1918, she was found guilty of hoarding sugar, despite her defence that the sugar was a personal gift from Sir Thomas Lipton and intended for jam-making, and for public distribution.

After the war her novels still sold well, but her immense pre-war popularity waned as tastes changed. In The Young Diana: An Experiment of the Future (1918) she drew on pseudo-science to posit the discovery of an elixir of life, and the futuristic The Secret Power (1921) features airships, germ warfare and atomic weapons. Her final novel, Love – and the Philosopher: A Study in Sentiment (1923) was less successful. The year after her death, two more books were published: a collection of Poems and an account of her relationship with Arthur Severn, Open Confession: To a Man from a Woman. The latter was described by Leonard Woolf as ‘a fierce orgy’ of sentimentality and bathos.

And now?

Today Corelli’s reputation as a novelist stands higher in the former British colonies than in the UK, where her books have been forgotten. She still has a certain notoriety in Stratford, but is remembered as local eccentric more than celebrated author. The gondola which she imported from Venice has been restored and reappeared on the Avon in 2010.

It was, however, the novels which brought her vast fame, wealth and admirers amongst royalty, politicians, clergymen, and millions of ordinary readers across the globe. Academic interest in popular romance fiction is growing, and in 2006 a conference was held at Mason Croft entitled Suitable for the Boudoir and the Circulating Library: Marie Corelli and Popular Women Novelists 1880-1910. A large international group of scholars is now working on Corelli and her contemporaries, and is at last beginning to reassess this contradictory and often controversial writer and her works.

Maureen Bell, 2011

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Rebecca White, Kate Welch, Elaine Jackson and David Hopes for enthusiasm, information and practical help. The text incorporates, with thanks, some of Dominic Guyver’s research into Mason Croft’s early history.

Photographs and other images appear courtesy of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham; The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; Nickianne Moody; Warwickshire County Record Office).

For information on Mason Croft see N. Pevsner, Buildings of England: Warwickshire (Penguin: 1966-); and R. Bearman, Stratford-upon-Avon: A History of its Streets and Buildings (Nelson: 1988).

The website for listed buildings gives the full listing text, with separate entries for Mason Croft, gates and wall; the gazebo; and Trinity College.

Information on Marie Corelli is plentiful (but beware websites provided by new age fans with mystic/occult tendencies).

By far the best introduction is to read one of the novels, cheaply available second-hand. Innocent: Her Fancy and His Fact (1914) or Boy: A Sketch (1900) make a good introduction, and are short.

For those with reading stamina, The Sorrows of Satan is currently in print (World’s Classics: 1989) as is Wormwood (Broadview Press: 2004). Biographies abound: see in particular Brian Masters’ Now Barabbas was a Rotter (Hamish Hamilton: 1978) which is mocking but admirably detailed; and Teresa Ransom, The Mysterious Miss Corelli (Sutton: 1999) which is more sympathetic if less scholarly.

See also Katherine Mullin, ‘Mackay, Mary [Marie Corelli] (1855–1924)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 13 April 2011]