From its inception on Lady Day (March 25th) 1788 to the launch of the Rickmansworth Masonic School on 1st September 1978, the funding of the School depended on charitable donations, much of which – albeit not all – came from Masonic sources. An occasion dedicated to raising those funds was the annual dinner. Presided over by a senior Freemason, there was, in addition to the loyal toast, one made to the School “Prosperity to the Freemasons’ Girls’ School”. The assembled audience were appealed to for support in the venture – an appeal which never failed in its efforts. Throughout the nineteenth century, these dinners were reported in national and provincial newspapers. Indeed, Charles Dickens wrote about them in Sketches by Boz in the short story Public Dinners. The point was made, both for the diners and for the girls who were present, that the School offered support at any time during the girls’ lives.
Naturally, the “healthy and happy appearance” of the pupils did much to promote their own cause but, in addition, the assembled diners were given verbal encouragement to support a cause of which they could boast, unblushingly, that every girl had turned out well.
As well as a hearty meal for the assembled throng, there was professional entertainment provided.
As reported in 1850 and, below in 1856
Often the girls performed songs and played music too. In the report from 1856, we are told that girls received prizes and then sang a hymn which had been written by two of them.
Although, when it came to entertainment, the dinners mid-century probably didn’t have quite the razzmatazz of this fund-raising event in 1796:
The references to Mr Bolgna jun and Mr Bolgna sen are to John Peter Bologna (1775 –1846), known as Jack Bologna on stage, who was an Italian actor and dancer, and his father Pietro.
An image of Jack Bologna in the Harvard Theatre Collection, reproduced in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage personnel in London 1660-1800 by Philip H Highfill, Kalman . Burnim, & Edward A Langhans (1973)
The father, Pietro, was contemporaneously described:
The phrase ‘clown to the rope’ referred to the compere who clowns about when the rope-dancer is not in motion and who comically fails to perform the tricks himself, thus demonstrating the skill of the rope-dancer.
Drama, music, ballet, tight rope dancing, a pantomime – not to mention displays of horsemanship and, surely the highlight of the event, “poney races”.
Now that’s a spectacle!