The story of Pollock's Toy Museum
To understand the history of Pollock's Toy Museum and how it came to be we must venture back to London in the 1780's. Needless to say things would have been very different back then, electricity had not yet been invented and reading was generally the preserve of the wealthy. To the millions who couldn't read, a book merely looked like a pile of bound up paper. For those that could read the choice of reading material would have been a bit limited and serious or religious. Certainly no brightly printed magazines or comics. Times were hard for adults but for children, especially poor children, the options for how to spend your idle times were severly limited, by comparison to today. But in some ways less is more and they probably valued what they had more highly. If your only toy is a wooden spinning top then you will value that more than the child of today would their 100th Lego set.
Image above shows brightly coloured wooden spinning tops on display in the museum. Probably not of much interest to the child of today, but adults can likely see that they have a certain charm. Thinking about it Lego is perhaps not a good example because speaking from experience you can never have too much Lego!
But my point is that the less you have the more you value it. One option that was available to the Georgian child was the theatre. Tickets were cheap, no reading ability was required and the audience would be carried away to lands and times far away. A place where heroes and heroines performed wonderous and heroic deeds. After the show you would no doubt want a souvenier, perhaps a photograph of your favorite actor? But wait a minute-photography had yet to be invented.
Image shows magic lantern projectors, magic lanterns were a forerunner of photographic projectors. Glass slides would be painted and projected using lenses and a candle or oil lamp for light, the results were low definition but had a magical quality that still appeals today.
To return to our young theatre goer looking for a souvenier, Theatrical Portraits were available of the leading actors. They could be bought plain or professionally hand coloured for twice the cost. Giving rise to the famous toy theatre saying..." A penny plain and twopence coloured"
Theatrical Portrait by J.K Green 1842
A classic Theatrical Portrait depicting Red Rover, a character in a popular nautical drama of the day. The process for producing this portrait would have began with an artist in the audience making drawings of the actors on stage. This drawing would then be transferred (in reverse) on to a copper or zinc plate. This plate would be etched by acid creating a permanent image on the plate. The plate would then be used to print multiple copies of the image.
Image shows the printing press in Pollock's Toy Museum used to print toy theatre sheets. The paper and inked up plate are pressed through the roller thereby transfering the image onto the paper. The demand today for such prints is limited but in the heyday of the theatrical print business it was quite a different story. There were many publishers : W.West, Orlando Hodgson and Green being the earlier ones. But whole families were involved in the case of the Skelt's, Park and Webb. And not forgetting Benjamin Pollock who came along later.
The theatrical portrait was the beginning of what came to be know as the toy theatre or juvenile drama.
What you may ask is the toy theatre or juvenile drama? It was a very popular Victorian pastime for children and sometimes adults. You would be able to buy a complete toy theatre and a scaled down version of your favorite play complete with characters and script. You would then colour, cut out and construct the theatre and play which you would then perform to family and friends. This performance could be accompanied by creative lighting, sound and the occasional smoke bomb! This was the heyday of the toy theatre but back in 1780 the idea had yet to take root.
There is much debate among toy theatre enthusiasts as to who "invented " the toy theatre. The main contenders are Mr William West and Mr J.K Green. Mr West had a shop that he referred to as a Circulating Library off the Strand, perfectly sited beside the theatres in the Strand and around Covent Garden. From his shop he catered to the growing market for theatrical prints. He was in the habit of wearing a hat of folded paper and was said to keep a pet fox in the shop. Mr Green was a printers apprentice to a Mr Simkins and there he learnt the trade of engraving and printing. At some point West comissioned Green to produce some theatrical prints. These were different in that Green had the idea to produce several small theatrical portraits on the same sheet, especially aimed at children, a bit like a comic strip.
This was good news for the customer, instead of having to buy individual portraits you could buy one sheet with 4 or 6 portraits or characters on it. The next step was to place as many of the characters from one play onto a single sheet. Eventually the whole play was reproduced including scenery, wings, script with stage directions. Obviously a whole play would not fit on a single sheet, so in order to complete the play you would have to buy every sheet for that play. This increased the market for the publishers as it became a sort of collecting game, you would go each week to buy more sheets until you had the whole play.
So you have your play collected with your hard earned (or given) pocket money. If you were wealthy you could opt for the pre (hand) coloured sheets in brilliant shades of carmine, gamboge and prussian blue. But hardened toy theatre fans including one by the name of R.L.Stevenson would never stoop to such things. At home you would colour, mount on card and cut out the characters, scenery and wings. But what good is a play without a stage to perform it on? A toy theatre is what you needed. But this was a bit of an investment and might involve asking a rich uncle or aunt if they wanted to help with your career as a stage designer or sum such thing. The theatre front or proscenium was easy enough to aquire and could be purchased from the same shop that sold the plays and portraits. But the superstructure was a bit more tricky. This could be purchased complete (at a price) or you could build your own wooden structure at home. The finishing touches to your theatre were little footlights and wire slides to move the characters on and off stage.
So there you have it, the juvenile drama is complete. Except for one thing, the actual performance of the play. By this stage a lot of children including R.L.Stevenson would have lost interest. Setting the characters and scenery up in the theatre but more to look at than perform the play. One of the reasons for this was that the play text was quite illegible, badly written, complicated and depending on the play extremly long. A daunting task for any young theatre director.
One play that did stand a fighting chance of actually being performed was The Miller and his Men. Easily the most popular toy theatre play ever produced with some publishers printing five versions of it. The image above shows the last scene of the explosion in the mill. This scene was the most popular toy theatre scene to perform as it gave you ample scope for pyrotechnics, noise and smoke. To make your audience leave the room coughing and spluttering was the mark of a well performed play.
What, you may well ask, does all this drama have to do with a toy museum in Fitzrovia? It all started with the small wire slides shown above. These slides are used to move the characters on and off stage during your toy theatre performance. A small but vital item. Marguerite Fawdry went to buy some of these slides from the last remaining shop in London selling them, Benjamin Pollock's. Only to discover that the business had gone bankrupt. She contacted the recievers. The accountant dealing with the matter said to her : "The problem is, Madam, that they are all in a warehouse and there is no one to look them out for you, but I suppose if you wanted you could buy the whole lot" Being a determined Breton that is what she did. The entire stock of Benjamin Pollock's Ltd then landed on her doorstep. As Benjamin Pollock's was the last surviving publisher of the toy theatre the stock consisted of all the copper plates used to print the sheets as well as a huge quantity of printed plays, theatrical portraits and theatres.
What to do now with all this stock? Open a shop and museum and call it Pollock's in homage to Mr Benjamin Pollock the.... "last of the toy theatre printers....."
Impossible, ridiculous, totally improbable.
"A word of moral: it appears that B. Pollock, late J. Redington, No. 73 Hoxton Street, not only publishes twenty-three of these old stage favourites, but owns the necessary plates and displays a modest readiness to issue other thirty-three. If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's, or to Clarke's of Garrick Street. In Pollock's list of publicanda I perceive a pair of my ancient aspirations: WRECK ASHORE and SIXTEEN-STRING JACK; and I cherish the belief that when these shall see once more the light of day, B. Pollock will remember this apologist. But, indeed, I have a dream at times that is not all a dream. I seem to myself to wander in a ghostly street - E. W., I think, the postal district - close below the fool's-cap of St. Paul's, and yet within easy hearing of the echo of the Abbey bridge. There in a dim shop, low in the roof and smelling strong of glue and footlights, I find myself in quaking treaty with great Skelt himself, the aboriginal all dusty from the tomb. I buy, with what a choking heart - I buy them all, all but the pantomimes; I pay my mental money, and go forth; and lo! the packets are dust."
Robert Louis Stevenson , Memories and Portraits 1887
After purchasing the entire stock of Benjamin Pollock's Ltd, Marguerite Fawdry set up shop at 44 Monmouth Street, near Covent Garden. Originally in one room up stairs but as other rooms and the ground floor became available, she expanded. Marguerite noticed that most of her toy theatre customers were male and that their partners seemed a bit board with the subject. That's when she decided to add the toy museum as a way of appealing to a broader audience. The museum began to outgrow it's premises and a new home was found at 1 Scala Street in Fitzrovia. The building's, one Georgian and one Victorian were the ideal place to display the collection of toys and theatres. Initially free, the new larger premesis allowed for an admission charge. The museum and toy shop have, until recently, remaind at this location for the last 50 years.
But what is this? Mon dieu qu'est-ce que c'est? It looks like a re-creation of Mr Pollock's shop. But this is the centre of modern day London Town. Hold your donkeys Mr Stevenson the toy theatre world has not yet turned to a pile of dust and you may still be able to purchase WRECK ASHORE or SIXTEEN STRING JACK. How can a place like this exisit in the centre of London ? Quick, call an architect, and have it removed immediately. Venture inside this intriguing shop and you will be back in Stevenson's dream...."A dim shop, low in the roof and smelling of glue and footlights...." Except that the ceiling is actually quite high and hopefully the smell of glue has gone....but the footlights flickering in the miniature theatres and the Victorian atmosphere is undiminished.
Image above shows the title sheet for Skelt's Wreck Ashore. Although Skelt's original engraved plates are no longer around. With modern technology it is easy to make copies from the printed version. I like to think that if Stevenson had come into Pollock's we would have been able to supply him with his "ancient aspirations". Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the more famous and interesting toy theatre enthusiasts. He grew up in Edinburgh and this passage recalls his fascination with the toy theatre.
"There stands, I fancy, to this day (but now how fallen!) a certain stationer's shop at a corner of the wide thoroughfare that joins the city of my childhood with the sea. When, upon any Saturday, we made a party to behold the ships, we passed that corner; and since in those days I loved a ship as a man loves Burgundy or daybreak, this of itself had been enough to hallow it. But there was more than that. In the Leith Walk window, all the year round, there stood displayed a theatre in working order, with a "forest set," a "combat," and a few "robbers carousing" in the slides; and below and about, dearer tenfold to me! the plays themselves, those budgets of romance, lay tumbled one upon another."
Stevenson's most famous book, Treasure Island is in the popular 19th century literary genre of the desert island romance. Which features shipwrecked or marooned characters confronted by treasure-seeking pirates or angry natives. But I like to think that the toy theatre played its part in the imagination of R.L. S. The toy theatre publishers' list's of plays are awash with nautical dramas and piratical goings on.
What is it or rather what was it that made the the toy theatre so appealing to the Victorian child or adult? From todays perspective a toy made of paper and wood that you have to make yourself could seem a little dull compared with a playstation. But in order to understand you have to imagine what life was like 180 years ago. Victorian child poverty has perhaps become a bit of a well worn reference. But I think I will use it just the same. The streets of Victorian London were grindingly grey and grimly grating. And quite possibly pretty grimy. And after dark it was not unknown for things to start turning grotesque. If things got really bad by the morning the scene would be very gruesome. Any sensible child would be tucked up in their pile of rags dreaming of toy theatre sheets . The appeal of the brightly coloured, tinseled, dramatic, glowing minature stage was pure escapism. You could create your own imaginary adventue. In some ways not unlike a modern computer game but just using different tools and materials.
WILLIAM WEST (1783-1854) The greatest publisher of the juvenile drama, his list was extensive.
JOHN KILBY GREEN (1790-1860) Claimed to be the "inventor" of the toy theatre.
JOHN REDINGTON (1854-1901) Green's agent and forerunner to Pollock's
BENJAMIN POLLOCK (1857-1937) Continued the business by marriage to Redington's daughter.
LOUISA POLLOCK Mr Pollock's daughter, continued the business 1937-1944
ALAN KEEN Bought the business from Mr Pollock's daughter in 1946. Went bust in 1952.
MARGUERITE FAWDRY Bought the business from the recievers in 1955. Set up shop in Monmouth Street and started the toy museum. Business and museum moved to Scala Street in 1967.
M.FAWDRY, K.FAWDRY and J.P.FAWDRY continued the business at Scala Street 1967-1995
E.FAWDRY continued the business at Scala Street 2004-2022
J.TATHAM continued the business 2022-2023
200+ YEARS OF TOY THEATRE PUBLISHING