English Toy Theatre

Sleeping BeautyIn the nineteenth century Toy Theatres were very popular in England and the output of the numerous publishers was very prolific. The English Toy Theatre was closely linked to the real stage. It had its beginning in the popular and highly coloured prints of actors and actresses that were sold in the print shops of London’s Theatre Land. In 1811 William West published prints consisting of portraits of the performers in particular plays on one or two sheets. He had used the format of the “Children’s lottery sheets” that featured about eight drawings of figures in small boxes, the first ever “play” issued in this way was “Harlequin and Mother Goose”. Sheets of scenery and prosceniums followed; using these it was possible to set up Toy Theatres and with some imagination, perform plays.

The development from portraits in proper Toy Theatre plays was a gradual process. Major steps were the representation of the characters in the different costumes and poses they adopted through the play, and the publication of specially adapted playbooks. Plays were printed from etched copper plates and coloured by hand, they were sold at the rate of one penny plain or tuppence coloured. By 1830 numerous publishers were producing very artistic Toy Theatre plays, the problem was that the sophistication had greatly increased the cost and few children could afford them.

The popularity of the Toy Theatre owes much to the “Halfpenny publishers” such as Green and Skelt who by some simplification were able to halve the price and thereby reach a much larger market. “Skelts Juvenile Drama” sold all over the country and became a household name.

Later in the century, as the real theatre changed in character so the popular appeal of Toy Theatre declined. the established publishers were driven out of business by foreign theatres imported for the upper class market and cheap prints given away with boy’s magazines. the quality of the work of the remaining publishers greatly declined, reduced to cheap prints from worn secondhand plates sold in packets at a penny a play or even a halfpenny. The traditional Toy Theatre was kept alive by the two minor London publishers Webb and Redington.

The survival of the Toy Theatre in the twentieth century has been based on nostalgia and the efforts of a handful of enthusiasts. Up until 1939 one could still buy Toy Theatres from Webb and Benjamin Pollock (who had succeeded Redington), old men who struggled on with an old fashioned trade but whose work was increasingly being appreciated by the artistic world. At the end of the war, only the Pollock business survived but with a bombed out shop the final curtain was due for the Toy Theatre.

There had been several attempts at revival, none of which had much success. In 1946 a company was formed, Benjamin Pollock Ltd., to take over the Pollock stock and to publish new productions on a large scale. After ten years the project had failed as a business. The wreck was salvaged by Mrs.M.Fawdry who with family friends and enthusiasts created Pollock’s Toy Museum which diversified but at the same time ensured the survival of traditional Toy Theatre in England.

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