J P Collier: Scholar and forger: in amongst the Alleyn and Henslowe Papers, 1830-46
By Jan Piggot
Security at the College Archives in the nineteenth century was rather lax. In 1806 the theatre scholar Edmund Malone borrowed a trunk and basket full of documents, including the star of the collection, Philip Henslowe’s Diary, in which he recorded performances and his box office takings at the Rose Theatre and contracts with actors and playwrights; these were not returned until his death, six years later. It was later discovered that he had cut out signatures to put in his own albums; he had also lost important items. In 1840 when John Payne Collier was permitted to borrow the Diary, out of Alleyn’s great studded oak Treasury Chest (now in the Lower Hall at the College), his two-month loan extended to five years, and he returned it with seventeen additions he had forged. In 1860 the College had to admit that the Diary was missing, until Canon Carver found it in ’a locked cupboard’.
Collier (1789–1883) for all his crimes was an astonishing bibliophile and scholar. His origin was humble, but he knew Charles and Mary Lamb well and met many luminaries of the day such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Without a degree, and rather than taking up the Law for which he qualified – title-pages of his books call him Collier ‘of the Middle Temple’ – he made his living by journalism, but was one of the many mono-maniac literary antiquarians of the age: for over seventy years he studied almost all the surviving Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, especially the drama, in books and manuscripts.
His was an age of factual and textual scholarship; the dating of plays and their authorship, the annals of the theatre companies, and especially the elusive facts about Shakespeare’s life (however trivial), were sought with cut-throat rivalry among scholars, as they still are – witness the Letters page of the Times Literary Supplement. Collier might be forgotten today, however, were it not that he ruined his reputation by substantial forgery, making additions to manuscripts at the British Museum, the State Papers Office, and elsewhere; at Dulwich he made a total of roughly forty identified interpolations. The secretive psyche seems to entertain a gleeful cunning in deception; Collier’s enthusiasm led him to pencil in ‘discoveries’, mostly Shakespearean, in gaps on manuscripts, in studied ‘secretary’ hand of the period (sometimes tremulous, sometimes assured) which he would then go over in ‘antique’ ink; sometimes he did not bother to erase the pencil properly. He also forged whole documents on old paper, with a special facility in inventing whole ballads and letters. At Dulwich he too cut out sections from the documents, including a page of Henslowe’s Diary; he claimed it fell out of some old books he bought at auction.
Collier was the Director of the Shakespeare Society, and brought out three remarkable publications with full and fairly careful transcriptions of many Dulwich papers. Though a rogue, it was he who really popularised Edward Alleyn with the Society’s first publication, Memoirs of Edward Alleyn (1841), followed by The Alleyn Papers (1843); and the Diary of Philip Henslowe (1845). Among Collier’s spuria at Dulwich were his addition to cloaks listed in Alleyn’s inventory of costumes (1600) of the words ‘for Leir’ and ‘Romeos’, as if the genuine ‘Faustus his jerkin his cloke’ were not romantic enough. To Alleyn’s Diary he added references to attending performances of As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet, to Ben Jonson coming to dinner at the College, and that Alleyn ‘went to see poor Tom Dekker’. To one of Joan Alleyn’s letters to her husband (when he was acting outside London during the plague) Collier printed additional sentences about a man calling on her who claimed to know both Alleyn and ‘Mr Shakespeare of the globe’; when challenged that this was not in the original ms. he said that the edge of the paper must have crumbled away subsequently. He interpolated ‘Mr. Shaksper’ twice in Alleyn’s Southwark papers, to make a case for his being a Bankside resident in 1596 and 1609.
When Sir George Warner, of the Manuscript Department at the British Museum and the meticulous author of the Catalogue of the Dulwich papers (1881), composed Collier’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography he concluded that ‘in one fatal propensity Collier sacrificed an honourable fame won by genuine services to English literature’; he cautioned that ‘none of his statements or quotations can be trusted without verifying, and no volume or document’.
In 2004 Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman published John Payne Collier, Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century (Yale), assessing in 1483 pages the complexities of Collier’s achievements and forgeries. When I was Keeper of the Archives at Dulwich his known forgeries gave me constant anxiety about items that seemed too good to be true, and I tended to suspect further impostures. One day Katherine Duncan-Jones and I decided that Alleyn’s record of buying ‘a book Shakesper Sonnets’ for 5d, written at the end of a column of his shopping list for ‘howshowld stuff’ of 1609 on the back of a letter [MS II, 12] was Collier’s work. Luckily, Arthur Freeman pronounced it quite genuine, as Alleyn’s handwriting and the ink were kosher; Collier, ironically, must have overlooked this genuine reference to Shakespeare; a final proof of its authenticity is that he did not publish it, as he did all his faked ‘discoveries’. And so, Edward Alleyn bought the first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. What became of it?
Collier was in time rumbled for his Dulwich and other forgeries, a challenge first made in 1848. Howard Staunton (1810-74) was the greatest chess player in the world of his day (and in 1868 a Dulwich Village resident who gave the Estates Governors great vexation), but was also a notable Shakespeare scholar who exposed many of Collier’s forgeries in his famous edition of the plays in 1860. The same year Nicholas Hamilton published a detailed and convincing Inquiry into Collier’s impostures. Collier, at 71, continued working and publication; he replied to these exposures in print, with obvious lies: he was a feeble old man; his friends who could have vouched for what he saw were dead; it was Malone who made the Dulwich interpolations; manuscripts crumble away. In a diary entry, however, the year before his death at 94, he wrote of his ‘many base’ actions, that ‘my repentance is bitter and sincere’.
In 1856 Charles Dickens chaired a meeting petitioning the Charity Commissioners to assign some of the new ‘astounding wealth’ of the College Estate to support indigent actors. Brian Green has pointed out to me that in his speech, reported in the Illustrated London News for March 22, he referred to what he had learned about Alleyn from ‘the industry of my friend, Mr. Payne Collier’: Collier had helped the young Dickens to get work as a parliamentary reporter on the Morning Chronicle. Dickens actually quoted from Alleyn some sentences ventriloquised by Collier: these were an interpolation to a genuine draft letter of Alleyn’s [MS III, 93] printed in the Memoirs and often quoted since then in books and articles about Alleyn, but a significant forgery, incidentally, not noted among the thousands by the Freemans. Dickens quoted (Collier’s) Alleyn saying he was not ashamed of his past, retorting to an imagined taunt by Calton about his being an actor before he was a landed gentleman:
‘And where you tell me of my poore originall and of my quality as a Player. What is that? If I am richer then [= than] my auncesters, I hope I maye be able to doe more good with my riches than ever your auncesters did with their riches… That I was a player I can not deny, and I am sure I will not. My meanes of living were honest, and with the poore abilytyes wherewith god blesst me I was able to doe something for my selfe, my relatives and my frendes, many of them nowe lyving at this daye will not refuse to owne what they owght me. Therfore I am not ashamed’.
Collier noted in his Memoirs of Edward Alleyn that these sentences were ‘on a loose slip’ (never seen by anyone else) at the end of the letter, and marked with corresponding asterisks. The genuine original letter is in Alleyn’s own characterful voice, bitterly complaining to Sir Francis Calton about dodgy dealing in selling him the Manor of Dulwich; Collier must have believed he was enlivening this further by creative writing. It must have given gleeful private satisfaction to Collier at that meeting to hear this romantic fiction of his delivered aloud from the stage of the Adelphi Theatre in 1856 by the world-famous novelist believing it to be the authentic words of old Alleyn. He must also be smiling on the ledge of the circle of Dante’s Hall reserved for literary forgers at the fact that a ballad he forged is printed as authentic in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘Love me little, love me long’, ascribed to ‘Anon.’, 1569-70; it is a something he made up for his Extracts from the Registers of the Stationers’ Company, 1557-70, published by the Shakespeare Society in 1848.
Note: over 2,000 pages of the Dulwich College manuscripts can now be studied online with the marvellous Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project (www.henslowe-alleyn.org.uk).
Dr Jan Piggott, FSA, was formerly Head of English and Keeper of Archives at Dulwich College