Mason Croft, which now houses the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute, was formerly the home of the novelist Marie Corelli.
In 1901, at the height of her popularity as a best selling novelist, Corelli made Mason Croft her permanent home, becoming a controversial as well as celebrated figure among Stratford's residents. She had already published fifteen novels and was equally adored by her readers and vilified by critics. As a newcomer to Stratford she attracted a similarly polarised response amongst the residents of the town by engaging in spirited local campaigns to preserve Shakespeare's heritage, most notably to save the houses neighbouring the Shakespeare Birthplace in Henley Street from demolition. She also bought Harvard House and oversaw its restoration as a rendezvous for visiting Americans.
Early twentieth-century postcards and photographs of Mason Croft show the frontage festooned in creepers and blossom, with a porch and low railing. Bertha Vyver, in her Memoirs of Marie Corelli (1930), said '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.' Visitors to Mason Croft welcomed by Corelli on behalf of the town included: Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Adelina Patti, Clara Butt, Ada Crossley, Frank Benson, Florence Barclay, Mark Twain, General William Booth, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and visiting dignitaries and parties from Belgium, South Africa, Australia and the USA .
Much of Mason Croft, now a listed building and in daily use as a centre for Shakespeare Studies, still bears traces of Marie Corelli's life here. In the music room, now used principally as a lecture room, can be seen the grand fireplace with intertwined initials 'MC' and 'BV', memorialising the lifelng friendship of Corelli and her companion Bertha Vyver. Refreshments after seminars are served in Corelli's 'winter garden', an airy conservatory overlooking the garden.
The 'Elizabethan Tower' (now known as the Gazebo) in the grounds, reputed to have been the site of composition of Corelli's writing, still overlooks the old archway which, in Corelli's time, supported a vertical double sundial.
Modern additions include the Shakespeare Library, built in 1996 to house the University's unparallelled Shakespeare collections and attracting scholars from all over the world.
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 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 maintained the house exactly as it was in Corelli's lifetime, but lack of funds led to problems with upkeep and 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 WAA, who wished to use the paddock for physical recreation. After Bertha's death on 20 November 1941 the Air Ministry prepared to take over the whole house, intending that the paddock be turned over to the National Fire Service. Attempts to assert the terms of the trust envisaged by Corelli were legally overturned in 1943 and her will was declared null and void. Consequently Corelli's books, furniture, goods and personal possessions were sold off, auctioned over three days on 28, 29 and 30 October 1943, much to the distress of her remaining servants and friends.
Corelli's books and papers have since been scattered across many archives and collections in the UK and abroad. Items acquired by friends and residents of Stratford and later purchases and donations constitute a significant Corelli archive at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Record Office and the Shakespeare Institute has a few remaining items including the manuscript of her novel, Life Everlasting. After the war Mason Croft housed the British Council for six years, after which the University of Birmingham acquired the house and grounds.
Corelli's wish that the house remain a resource for distinguish figures in literature and the arts is thus happily fulfilled, though her prejudice against actors is not honoured, and members of the Royal Shakespeare Company are among the building's regular and welcome visitors. An unobtrusive plaque to the right of the building's front entrance is the only sign visible to the passer-by of Corelli's long connection with Mason Croft.
Virtual tour of Mason Croft today
Use the interactive virtual tour below to move around the Shakespeare Institute today. Drag the image below to rotate your view and click on doorways to change rooms. Navigate through the library, gardens, music hall, seminar rooms and main hall. A full screen version is available on Google maps.