Falstaff of Brentford
The Three Pigeons was once a bustling tavern that used to grace the south-west corner of the Brentford Market Place. In its heyday in the 17th and 18th century, when Brentford was a busy market and resort town, it was a coaching inn, which could stable up to one hundred horses. It sadly closed in 1916.
There is an etching of The Three Pigeons done in 1848 which gives some idea of the Inn.
Fortunately for us, its reputation for entertainment has been captured and preserved in many references to it in literature. I have been uncovering a few, which build a picture of a lively and attractive place and a source of material for writers.
But first let me introduce a great Shakespearean actor who was the landlord of The Three Pigeons, John Lowin, and appropriately enough his great role was Falstaff.
John Lowin was an actor who became the innkeeper of The Three Pigeons Inn, and died there in 1659. With Shakespeare, he was a member of the King’s Men theatre company, well remembered for his Falstaff role. An article on “Falstaffs, Past and Present” in the New York Times (1894):
“The original Falstaff is said to have been John Heminges, but Davies in his “Dramatic Miscellanies” disputes this, and gives the honour to William Lowin. Lowin played the part for forty years, until the Long Parliament made the giving of “stage plays and interludes” a crime. Then Lowin opened a public house at Brentford, called The Three Pigeons, and here he had as a companion Joseph Taylor, said to have beeen the original Hamlet. Lowin and Taylor led a precarious life, only brightened now and then by a few members of royalty and several commoners, who apprecaites the drama, and patronised The Three Pigeons to hear Lowin and Taylor recite Falstaff and Hamlet.”
In “Shakespeare and the Modern Stage with Other Essays” (1907) Sidney Lee refers to Lowin and Taylor’s time at Brentford:
Of the twenty-five actors who are enumerated in a preliminary page of the great First Folio, as filling in Shakespeare’s lifetime chief roles in his plays, few survived him long. All of them came in personal contact with him; several of them constantly appeared with him on the stage from early days.
The two who were longest lived, John Lowin and Joseph Taylor, came at length to bear a great weight of years. They were both Shakespeare’s juniors, Lowin by twelve years, and Taylor by twenty; but both established their reputation before middle age. Lowin at twenty-seven took part with Shakespeare in the first representation of Ben Jonson’s “Sejanus” in 1603. He was an early, if not the first, interpreter of the character of Falstaff. Taylor as understudy to the great actor Burbage, a very close ally of Shakespeare, seems to have achieved some success in the part of Hamlet, and to have been applauded in the role of Iago, while the dramatist yet lived. When the dramatist died in 1616, Lowin was forty, and Taylor over thirty.
Subsequently, as their senior colleagues one by one passed from the world, these two actors assumed first rank in their company, and before the ruin in which the Civil War involved all theatrical enterprise, they were acknowledged to stand at the head of their profession. Taylor lived through the Commonwealth, and Lowin far into the reign of Charles the Second, ultimately reaching his eighty-third year. Their last days were passed in indigence, and Lowin when an octogenarian was reduced to keeping the inn of the Three Pigeons, at Brentford.”
I have not found any evidence for Shakespeare having visited the Three Pigeons, but it would be magical if Shakespeare had thought up the character of the Old Woman of Brentford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, from a visit to the Three Pigeons!