The intriguing possibility that Charles Dickens acted on a Portsmouth stage as a young man, on the site now occupied by Portsmouth Grammar School, has been raised by school archivist John Sadden.
Dickens visited Portsmouth ‘to obtain local colour’ for Nicholas Nickleby, his third novel, first published as a serial in 1838-39.
Sources suggest he visited the Portsmouth Theatre (later known as the Theatre Royal), which stood in High Street, where the Cambridge Officers’ Barracks was built and which now serves as part of the grammar school.
The theatre was immortalised as the setting for the exploits of actor-manager Vincent Crummles and his troupe. The pantomimist of the company, Mr. Folair, who delights in mischief ‘and was by no means scrupulous’, is said to be based on Billy Floyer, the Portsmouth Theatre’s leading comedian.
Biographer Frederic Kitton, writing in 1902, describes how ‘the story is current in Portsmouth’ that, while at the theatre, Dickens ‘went on the stage’ and ‘asked for a small part’.
John says: ‘This is entirely possible. A few years earlier, before his literary success, he decided he wanted a career as an actor, and, though it never materialised, he clearly had talent and devoted much of his time and energy to taking part in amateur productions.’
But, according to correspondence from writer and critic Walter Herries Pollock, cited by Kitton, ‘there may well be some truth’ in a story that Dickens, ‘as a very young man, was for a time a member of the company’. Pollock wrote that ‘this was told me a few years ago by one in authority’, who is not named.
The Portsmouth Theatre was established on the site in 1761. Edmund Kean was probably the most famous actor to appear there, but in 1836 it was closed for ‘lack of support and unseemly behaviour’.
In February, 1838, after a complete refurbishment, it re-opened to huge audiences under the management of William Shalders.
That same month Dickens was researching background for Nicholas Nickleby, visiting Yorkshire to research schools for unwanted boys on which to base Dotheboys Hall and, of course, the Portsmouth Theatre.
Dickens would have seen the theatre and possibly performed there when it was at its best and most prosperous.
The Hampshire Telegraph described ‘boxes literally crowded with beauty and fashion’ and ‘an orchestra of which we cannot speak too highly’.
A surviving playbill for the theatre, dated May 17, 1839, advertises a production of Nicholas Nickleby, though the serial did not complete publication until that October.
Dramatisations had started to appear all over England after only eight instalments. Coincidentally, the part of headmaster Wackford Squeers at the Portsmouth Theatre was played by Billy Floyer.
By the 1840s the theatre was in decline and in 1854 it closed. The building was bought by the military.
John adds: ‘Its demolition was witnessed by a teacher at Portsmouth Grammar School, Samuel Hudson, who remembered chains being attached to the walls and soldiers, quite literally, pulling it down. The officers’ block of Cambridge Barracks was built on the site and opened as the Senior School in 1927.’