On a cold night on 6th February 1812, Mrs Elizabeth Dickens, heavy with child, attended a Naval ball, accompanied by her husband, John, at the Old Beneficial School building, Portsea.
Not far from the high walls of the thriving dockyard, the Old Beneficial School was a rare architectural gem in an area of squalid housing inhabited by artisan dockyard workers, alehouse keepers, tradesmen and prostitutes.
We cannot know what music was played and what little dramas and intrigues were entered into inside the Old Benny’s walls that night. But one thing of note happened, whose impact echoes around the world.
On that night, Mrs Elizabeth Dickens went into labour, and was rushed by carriage from The Old Benny along the streets of Portsea to nearby Number 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport, where she gave birth to her son, Charles, the following day.
Two centuries later, on the anniversary of that very night, another ball was held in the same building, including a gentleman dressed as a naval officer, another as a soldier – and plenty of women in bright cotton Empire Line dresses reviving the past for a few brief hours – and celebrating Portsmouth’s most famous son.
The staff of The Groundlings Theatre, along with the Hampshire Regency Dancers, who instructed the attendees in the art of period dancing, made a fabulous job of it.
Considering Dickens’s love of the theatre, how right that the Old Benny is now a theatre, dedicated to the performing arts.
Dickens would have loved it. He would have loved the brilliant acting of the kids who put on a short piece on the novels of Dickens – performing the books “both forwards and backwards at ten lines a novel!” He would have been delighted by the acting of the strict schoolmistress and her pupils in the “schoolroom” upstairs, and would have revelled in the spirit and comedy of the shows in the bar.
This was a great evening. It serves to remind the people of Portsmouth something we should be proud of. Over the coming weeks, the extraordinary imagination of Charles Dickens will be celebrated by nations the world over who have never seen his mother country, let alone the city of his birth. Films will be watched, books read, stories told to children, radio plays listened to and plays performed…
…But here, right here, in this street, in the seething, jostling, dirty, alive and vibrant alleys of the Portsea of two centuries ago – this is where all of it started. If we learn one thing from that birth, it’s this – it’s possible for anyone, no matter where they come from to feel that they, too, can have great expectations…