Founded 1946, by Geoffrey Beard
Trevor Sidaway, President of the society, welcomed 89 members and 8 visitors. He introduced Ned Williams, a regular speaker and author of fifty-two books, whose talk was entitled Mrs Patch and other Stourbridge Mysteries.
Ned explained that he was inspired by a research project whose findings led to more being known about Philip Astley the inventor of the circus. The research resulted in a statue being erected in Astley’s honour in Newcastle under Lyme; the area in which the first circus took place. Ned subsequently drew up a list of 7 possible subjects for his own research and subsequent publication of a book entitled Four Swallows and Two Elephants. His intention was to put his seven subjects back on the local historical map. He discovered that they were all not quite who they appeared to be and research would be made difficult because they operated under stage, pen or assumed names. He explained that his talk would focus on Mrs Patch (Eliza Bennet) and Benjamin Kennedy.
Benjamin Kennedy built Dudley Hippodrome which is currently earmarked for demolition. It opened in 1938 and Benjamin’s sons Maurice and Bob ran it after his death. Ned showed the audience a photograph of Ben Kennedy wearing a horseshoe shaped tie pin given to him by his father on his 21st birthday. It is in evidence in many of the photos of Ben. Ned discovered that Ben was actually born with the surname Bernhard in London in 1866 and both his sons had the middle name of Bernhard. In 1900 Ben married Theresa Levy and when they went on the stage, he adopted the name Ben Kennedy. He had a minstrel and variety show named Kingston Excursions. From the late 1890’s into early 1900 he added film to the variety shows. From the start of the twentieth century Ben settled in the Black country. His first real association with Dudley was when Dudley Opera House presented his comedy troupe Kennedy’s Comics (aka Kommics) as did the Theatre Royal in West Bromwich. He was eventually associated with the building of 17 theatres over a period of 8 years. In 1936 the Dudley Opera House burned down and Ben rebuilt a Class A provincial theatre on the site. This was the Dudley Hippodrome. It opened in December 1938 but Ben was too ill to speak so someone spoke on his behalf. At this time Ben, now married to a lady named Annie, was living in Bourneville House Bridgnorth Road Wollaston. Ned explained that he has never been able to locate the house or even the site and would be grateful for any information that anyone may have. Both Ben and Annie Kennedy are buried in Stourbridge Cemetery and mysteriously the wording on both their gravestones has been removed.
Ned then moved on to Mrs Patch a subject who had fascinated him for many years. She was born Eliza Bennett in Dudley in 1824 and between 1834 and 1844 travelled with her father in his portable theatre business where she gained great insight into the world of theatre. In 1844 she married William Patch who was also a travelling showman who interestingly travelled with a whale show. The 1851 census shows that Bennett and Patch were in Stourbridge on Census night in Barlow’s Yard which Ned located for the audience on a map. They eventually settled in Stourbridge in Barlow’s Yard and Mrs Patch became the well-known proprietress of the permanent theatre which they named the Alhambra. Adverts for it appeared regularly in the County Express. Her husband ran the Coach and Horses Pub which is where she died on 28th November 1900. Her gravestone is in Wollaston churchyard.
Trevor noted the depth of Ned’s research, thanked him for his talk and invited questions.
The next meeting of the Society will take place on 19th March when Brian Barkway will deliver Pegasus Bridge: My Father’s Contribution. All are welcome.
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