Shakespeare expert overturns fly-tipper myth about playwright’s father

<span>Fallow said his work challenged ‘some of the deep tropes that have been built up over the years about the Shakespeares’.</span><span>Photograph: Art Images/Getty Images</span>
Fallow said his work challenged ‘some of the deep tropes that have been built up over the years about the Shakespeares’.Photograph: Art Images/Getty Images

The earliest record of William Shakespeare’s father in Stratford-upon-Avon famously notes his fine in 1552 for making a “muckhill” on a street.

Now the long-held assumption that John Shakespeare was a 16th-century fly-tipper has been overturned as a myth. Far from being punished, he was simply paying a waste disposal toll for detritus relating to his trade as a glover and tanner of leather.

David Fallow, a former financier who has spent years studying the Shakespeare family’s wealth, has discovered that a fine had other interpretations then.

He told the Guardian: “The meanings of a lot of these words have changed over the last 500 years. A fine was simply a charge, a rent or rates. There was absolutely no moral imputation to John Shakespeare’s fine at all. Stratford muckhills in his lifetime were a rentable resource, for which the town could collect taxes.”

The 1552 document records that John Shakespeare and two associates paid 12d (a shilling) for a midden heap or “mukhyll”.

Fallow said this had long been misunderstood by various academics, including the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who “wrote about how ‘barbarous’ John Shakespeare was – and it’s absolutely wrong”.

He said that while the heap was certainly muck, it was related to Shakespeare’s trade. It included urine, which decayed into ammonia, to be used for softening and tanning leather hides, among other processes.

Over three years’ of research, Fallow found that such muckhills provided Stratford with a lucrative and not uncommon source of borough rent and revenue.

He was taken aback to discover that the town’s 16th-century inhabitants had a far more sophisticated approach to waste disposal than had been realised, with citizens paying a fee for the convenience of keeping a muckhill on their property.

Noting that since the 19th century Shakespearean England had been portrayed as dirty, he said there was evidence to change that image, showing that its citizens were environmentally aware.

“It’s attacking the whole idea that Elizabethan towns and villages were just rivers of excrement going down them. It’s not just heaving buckets of you-know-what out of the window. This changes the way we look at Shakespearean England, based on how the society uses waste and how it’s moved around and what they do with it.”

Documentary evidence shows Stratford’s gravel resources, two streams and the Avon constituted a network of interrelated waste-management technologies and practices upon which the borough relied in the mid-16th century.

There were also formal requirements for clearing gutters and repairing pavements, while residents were responsible for cleaning the area in front of their property. Muckhills were neatly piled outside houses and shops and their owners were expected to scatter their contents over their fields or otherwise dispose of them.

Fallow is a former financier. In 2015 his study of the Shakespeare family’s financial transactions and other surviving records revealed that the portrayal of John Shakespeare as a failed trader was also a fable, that he was also a national-level wool dealer.

It led to Fallow being commissioned to contribute to a major publication for Cambridge University Press marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

He said that when he told academics about his latest findings, there was initial scepticism before they had seen the evidence. “Nobody would believe it because it’s challenging some of the deep tropes that have been built up over the years about the Shakespeares, William and his father.”

Fallow’s research will be published this month by the academic journal Shakespeare Quarterly, an Oxford University Press publication for the Shakespeare Folger Library in Washington, having been peer-reviewed by leading scholars.

Titled John Shakespeare’s Muckhill: Ecologies, Economies, and Biographies of Communal Waste in Stratford-upon-Avon, circa 1550–1600, it is co-written with Elizabeth Tavares, an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama.

Their findings are apposite given all the litter strewn on streets today. They write: “In sum, waste was not deposited indiscriminately but carefully managed in a partnership between the municipality and its citizens …

“As a whittawer, whose trade was to lighten sheep hides before turning them into finely crafted leather goods such as decorative gloves, John Shakespeare – along with the town haberdashers, mercers, milliners, woollen drapers, felt-makers and tanners – would have needed ready access to urine for several stages of their finishing processes. [Shakespeare’s] muckhill … may have been a crucial urine collection site for the cluster of fabric and leather working tradesmen living in this area of town.”