By Danda Humphreys
Politics, not poetry, for this Shakespeare
“Beware the ides of March!” you might say, as you stroll along Shakespeare Street in Victoria. “Is this a dog-leg I see before me?” you ask, as the street zig-zags from Begbie to Hillside. “Why is Shakespeare all alone,” you muse, “instead of near streets named for fellow poets Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Browning?”
The answer is simple: Shakespeare Street is named, not for William, but for a man named Noah. Oh, he was English too, and his parents claimed direct descent from the Bard of Avon, but the two young Shakespeares trod very different paths. In the 1500s, William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glove-maker, was well educated and enjoyed a childhood without hardship. Times were tougher for his 19th century namesake. Noah Shakespeare was born in Staffordshire, in 1839. By the age of eight, he was working 14 hours a day, six days a week in a chain shop. Having little formal schooling, he faced a lifetime of hard labour in one of the county’s huge rolling mills.
For a recently married 23-year-old with few prospects in his hometown, the lure of gold in a land far away was like light at the end of a tunnel. In August 1862, Shakespeare boarded the Robert Lowe with 140 others and set sail for the new colony across the sea.
After five months at sea, they dropped anchor in Esquimalt Harbour late one Saturday in January 1863. Landing on the Sabbath was forbidden, but the devout Shakespeare could not bear to miss one more Sunday service. Begging permission to leave the ship, he trudged five kilometres along the muddy trail from Esquimalt to the Methodist Church in Victoria (where A-Channel News is today), then trudged all the back again, as per the captain’s orders, to spend the last night on board with his fellow passengers.
Learning he was unlikely to find a fortune in the goldfields, Shakespeare signed up with coal master and mine manager Robert Dunsmuir and sailed to Nanaimo. Working two shifts a day in the mines, at $2 a shift, he made enough money to send for Elizabeth, the wife he had left behind in England.
With his family at his side, Shakespeare returned to Victoria. He became a photographer, then found a job with Amor de Cosmos, editor of the brand-new Standard newspaper. Shakespeare worked at the hand-press, then as a carrier. Victoria was small; he and one other man delivered newspapers to the entire town.
Over the years, Shakespeare dabbled in many different ventures, but it was politics that pleased him the most. He served three terms as alderman, then in 1882 was elected to the highest office. Later that year, when the Marquis of Lorne, Governor-General of Canada, and Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise came to visit, Mayor Shakespeare was honoured to be their host.
At the end of his mayoral term, he moved to Ottawa and a seat in the House of Commons. In 1887, he resigned and returned to Victoria to take up the position of Postmaster. When he retired, in 1913, there was no question that he had come a long way from his humble beginnings.
In May 1921 he died at his Dunedin Street home. Four hundred years after William Shakespeare was laid to rest in Stratford-upon-Avon, his lesser-known namesake was buried in Victoria-by-the-sea.
Danda Humphreys used to be a tour guide at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage—an exact replica of the childhood home of William Shakespeare’s wife—at the Olde England Inn in Esquimalt. She has written three books about the historic origin of Victoria-area street names. Dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the March 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.