Gaskell House Blogs

Skipton, Shakespeare and a sprinkling of Bronte…

8th December 2022
in blog, Literature, People

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, John Heminge and Henry Condell, his friends and colleagues from The King’s Men theatre company, compiled and arranged for publication thirty six of his plays in what has come to be known as the First Folio. Of the thirty six plays included in the First Folio, only seventeen had been published in Shakespeare’s lifetime with one published after his death. The remaining eighteen existed only as Shakespeare’s own drafts and as handwritten actors’ stage notes. Without Heminge and Condell’s work of love and respect we probably wouldn’t know Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar or The Tempest.

Seven hundred and fifty copies of the First Folio were printed and of these, there are around 230 known copies in the world – the British Library has five. Only four of these 230 copies are on permanent display. One of these – drumroll please! – is in Skipton in North Yorkshire!

This was my second visit to see the book and I am always so moved to see it. But the question to ask is how on earth did a copy of the First Folio arrive in Skipton Museum?

The book was gifted to the museum in 1936 by Ann Wilkinson who had been left the book by her brother, John James Wilkinson, when he died in 1919. The Wilkinsons were a prominent Skipton business family – their father John Wilkinson established the local Primrose Mill in Embsay , and at one point he was blending – and selling – his own brand of tobacco which he called Skipton Shag. The story told with the donation was that John James had bought the book early in 1900, though from where seems to be mysterious.

There might be a clue in nearby Ponden Hall, the family house of the Heaton family, which in the nineteenth century had one of the largest private library collections in Europe. Robert Heaton V (1726-1894) founded the family library and his grandson, another Robert , contributed to it . The collection included a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

This grandson Robert was a contemporary of Patrick Bronte who baptised his five sons. We know that the Bronte children visited Ponden Hall and that they read the Shakespeare First Folio in the library there. The library collection was sold in 1899 at a truly chaotic house sale. While a newspaper account of the sale describes an unbound copy of the First Folio as being among the books, it isn’t listed in the sale catalogue. The Ponden Hall copy was also thought to be complete while the one donated by the Wilkinsons isn’t, though many of the books were broken up and exist as incomplete copies.

Is the copy I see in Skipton Museum the same one read by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte? There is no direct line of provenance, but I find it hard to believe there were two copies of the First Folio knocking around in North Yorkshire in 1900! What do you think?

Lesley, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

2023 is the year of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio and Skipton Museum is planning celebratory events. Keep an eye on their website for details. Many thanks to the lovely member of the Museum staff who was so helpful answering my questions when I visited. The photograph which heads this blog shows a corner of the guest bedroom at 84 Plymouth Grove where Charlotte Bronte slept when she visited the Gaskells. There is proper documentary evidence of this – so not just a flight of fancy on my part!

Plans are like a card-house-if one gives way, all the others come rattling about your head

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1864