In winter of 1794, a young man whose father apparently cared more for this worldly treasures than his family presented his elder with a sealed document he said he found in a trunk. It was a mortgage with Shakespeare’s name on it.
That document became the first of many fraudulent discoveries William-Henry Ireland revealed to London society, to the excitement of his father and many notable scholars. He even produced a long lost play, Vortigern and Rowena, which was performed in a large theater, though many viewers and performers remained skeptical of its authenticity.
Perhaps all of this was for his father. “Frequently,” William-Henry wrote, “my father would declare, that to possess a single vestige of the poet’s hand-writing would be esteemed a gem beyond all price.”
But his estimation of his son was not so high. Doug Stewart writes,
Samuel Ireland, a self-important and socially ambitious writer, engraver and collector, went so far as to hint that William-Henry was not his son. The boy’s mother did not acknowledge her maternity; as Samuel’s mistress, she raised William-Henry and his two sisters by posing as a live-in housekeeper named Mrs. Freeman. Samuel had found the boy an undemanding job as an apprentice to a lawyer friend whose office was a few blocks from the Irelands’ home on Norfolk Street in the Strand, at the edge of London’s theater district. At the lawyer’s chambers, William-Henry passed his days largely unsupervised, surrounded by centuries-old legal documents, which he would occasionally sift through, when asked.