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Photo © Annette Laing, 2021
“I have often walked past a shed before, but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before. All at once am I several stories high, knowing I’m near the shed where you live . . .” My Fair Lady (sort of). Apologies to Alan Jay Lerner, but, on reflection, given the hatchet job he did on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion? Tough.
He shed, she shed, sheds are all the rage now. I think their popularity has only grown with the pandemic: A cozy place to banish the demons of loneliness for some, and a separate place to banish the demons of people for others. A place to pursue all those hobbies you took up in 2020. You can put enough distance between you and the house to keep the kids (temporarily) at bay. Or you can buy a lock. And a pitbull. And a flamethrower.
For a writer, a shed is a place that makes Starbucks look so 2019.
But this isn’t a story about any old shed, plain or fancy. This is a story about a special shed. A shed so important that it’s preserved by England’s National Trust, frozen in time, exactly as it was when its occupant died in 1950. Or so I was told as a kid.
This is George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed. This is where the Irishman who spent most of his life in England being Britain’s greatest playwright after Shakespeare, spent his days tapping on typewriter keys. He's the author of many brilliant stage plays, and at least one play that might be familiar to everyone, Pygmalion (1913),
Okay, not to worry if you never heard of him, or the play. Pygmalion was an international hit in its own right. But maybe you know it as the much-corrupted basis for Lerner and Loewe’s fabulous My Fair Lady (1956), the musical that made Julie Andrews famous on Broadway. Then there was the movie starring Audrey Hepburn (her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Rex Harrison (his non-singing dubbed by nobody). Shaw was dead by then, and considering what the musical (a great show, I love it, but . . .) did to his play, that was probably just as well.
I have strong views on this. Can you tell?
Here’s what we see when we visit the garden of Shaw’s Corner, George Bernard Shaw’s home, and peek through the window’s of Shaw’s Shed:
© Annette Laing, 2021
Just imagine if Shaw were miraculously alive and writing today: We would see a laptop, cell phone charger, and a few pencils and ballpoints instead of ink bottles and pen stands. Possibly there would be a more ergonomic chair, and maybe, just maybe, an air conditioner for Hertfordshire’s warm climate change summers (he’s a rich guy, could happen).
But otherwise? I bet we would find his shed unchanged, right down to the hideous monkey ornament on his desk.
When Shaw wants a nap, he has no need to return to the house: He just needs to turn around, lay down, stretch out.
Wonderfully tidy, efficient, professional. A shed among sheds.
© Annette Laing, 2021
SHAW’S CORNER, AYOT ST. LAWRENCE, HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND, January, 1938
Bernard, as is his custom when in the country, takes himself off this crisp sunny morning, down the garden path for the brief but bracing walk to London.
© Annette Laing, 2021
Not really London, of course. London is the name Bernard has given to the little shanty where he works at the far end of the sweeping garden.
By naming his shed “London”, Bernard provides his wife and his housekeeper a way to avoid telling lies when they need to repel invaders on the phone or at the door. Instead of saying “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid Mr. Shaw is unavailable,” which might give offense to Important Callers, they say, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Shaw is in London. Would you care to leave a message?”
It took a long time for Bernard and Charlotte to find a house they both liked, two middle-aged people who married late, set in their ways. But Shaw’s Corner, as the locals soon named it, fits the bill.
It’s a very modern house. The Church of England built it as a rectory in 1902, and then realized that it was far too grand a residence for the clergyman of such a small parish. Some poor vicar’s loss is Bernard and Charlotte’s gain: Four years after it was built, the Shaws rented it from the Church, including, conveniently, all the furniture. They bought it outright (and bought land to extend the garden) in 1920.
Shaw’s Corner is not enormous, but it is a grand house: It has all the modern things a couple who married in their forties might desire, including an upstairs lavatory, and world-class Arts and Crafts design features. It looks down the slope of a magnificent garden.
The shed? Built on the land they added in 1920, the shed is Bernard’s touch. It was intended as a She Shed (or summer house) for Charlotte, but somehow it became Bernard’s writing hut instead. Imagine that. Shocked, I am.
They also have a flat in London (the city), of course, but Bernard’s short commute to his shed at Shaw’s Corner, and the quiet solitude he finds there, make it a most agreeable place to work.
Bernard notices that he needs to turn London to catch the morning sun, and for the view he feels like seeing today. Yes, you read that right. He literally turns it, shoving the shed a few feet on its axel around its track. Clever idea that, a rotating shed.
Bernard unlocks the door. Why would he need a lock? He’s in the wilds of the Hertfordshire countryside in 1938. Is he worried the hedgehogs will stage a break-in? Obviously he doesn’t share my optimism, because he has a key on a short string. Or maybe he doesn’t yet have a key in 1938, and that comes later.
Now he steps inside. I want us to follow him, to see what he sees.
Shaw’s Corner, Ayot St. Lawrence, 1946.
A year after the Second World War ends, a newsreel crew visit Shaw’s Corner, for a puff piece on the Great Man at Home. He turns 90 years old this summer. Charlotte died in 1943. This is the film crew’s raw footage. It’s silent. If you are a lip reader, and can give us any idea of what he’s saying, that would be fantastic, although I realize the camera angles and beard don’t help.
So let’s see Shaw’s Shed as it was in Bernard’s lifetime. Why don’t we let him show us himself? Watch carefully what we learn. If you like, start where he reaches in his pocket for the key around 1:30:
And would you look at that! It’s a complete mess! Crap everywhere, on the floors, the desk, the bed. Boxes! Papers! You can hardly get inside!
Now that’s more like it! The place left just as it was when he died? Please. It sure as heck didn’t look like that while he lived. Now here’s someone writers can actually relate to.
The National Trust, which owns this property, has become a whole lot better about containing its obsessive-compulsive tendencies in recent years, allowing a few of the properties it has acquired to be themselves, and not get all gussied up for company, as I hope to show you in future posts.
Maybe, one day, the Trust will reinterpret Shaw’s Shed. :)
This second video, produced by the National Trust, DOES have sound, but lets you see the shed turn.
And as for George Bernard Shaw? Where is he these days? He continues to do very well for himself on stage and television, in bookshops and classrooms, and it can only be a matter of time before he’s back in movies.
But, as it happens, he’s not gone far: His ashes, and those of Charlotte, were mixed together and scattered on the paths and garden of Shaw’s Corner.
Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021
At Shaw’s Corner in 2018, for my first visit since childhood (I grew up a few miles away). I’ll bring us back here sometime for a bit more on Shaw and Shaw’s Corner.
Or go visit yourself. Only the garden is currently open, so you can walk where he walked, and see the shed. Ayot St. Lawrence is as remote as it’s possible to get in south Hertfordshire today, and I do recommend, Americans, that you let someone else drive. Just saying.
Brits, if you aren’t already, do consider becoming a National Trust member. Americans: Join The Royal Oak Foundation instead. This is the American friends organization of the English National Trust, so if you join it instead, well before your vacation, it’s cheaper than joining the NT while you are there, AND you can deduct your membership fees AND you still get into all NT properties around the UK, not just England, absolutely free! Couples and family memberships also available. If you are in the UK for a few weeks, and not just London for a week, it may be worth a wee splurge.
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