You are currently browsing the daily archive for May 25, 2018.

It was a year ago at this time in May that I visited one of London’s best kept secrets, Pollock’s Toy Museum.

I’d not heard of it until a good friend of mine suggested it as a place I could take my two American friends who were in town during the Whit Sun (Pentecost) Bank Holiday weekend. (Incidentally, this particular weekend was renamed some time ago to Spring Bank Holiday. But, I digress.)

My friends asked to go to a place that was non-touristy. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue, and, for that, I am ever grateful to my friend for the suggestion. He had been there as a boy.

If you want information only about the museum, skip the History part which follows and go to The Pollock’s Toy Museum experience section near the end.

History

The museum

How Pollack’s got to be a museum and in its current location near Goodge Street Tube station is a real rabbit hole.

The museum’s website glosses over a number of moves and transitions. No doubt most visitors aren’t that interested in the finer details:

Pollock’s was originally a shop and printers, dating back to the 1850’s, based in Hoxton, then a poor quarter of London. Benjamin Pollock’s hand printed, constructed and coloured much of the toy theatre material housed in the museum today.

The museum was created and the shop stock re-designed during the 1950’s and 60’s by Marguerite Fawdry It came to it’s current location in the late 1960’s where it has remained. The collection has been built up by purchases, donations from friends, family and the public. It is an independent family run concern. It is run more for the benefit of the public and to display the collection than for profit.

The museum’s Wikipedia page states:

The museum was started in 1956 in a single attic room at 44 Monmouth Street, near Covent Garden, above Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, where Pollock’s Toy Theatres were also sold. As the enterprise flourished, other rooms were taken over for the museum and the ground floor became a toyshop. By 1969 the collection had outgrown the Monmouth Street premises and Pollock’s Toy Museum moved to 1 Scala Street, with a museum shop on the ground floor to contribute to its support. The museum continues today to be run by the grandson of the founder Marguerite Fawdry.[2]

I then ran across a December 2014 page at ArenaPAL, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Pollocks Toy Theatre Shop Factory Workshop’, which begins with this (emphasis in the original):

‘If you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s’ …wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in an essay which immortalised Pollock’s Toy Shop – a business that was started in 1856 and still runs today from Covent Garden in London.

Robert Louis Stevenson? I will get to his role in a moment.

ArenaPAL‘s page has interesting photographs from the mid-1940s, showing a little boy admiring one of the toy theatres and men in the workshop building them out of Bakelite and wood.

The text went on to say (emphases mine below):

Pollock’s speciality was in fact the sale and manufacture of Toy Theatres – otherwise known as Juvenile Drama. Traditionally the kits comprised a paperboard stage and accompanying set design with cut out characters according to the play being sold – and sometimes the likeness of popular actors of the time. The miniature production would be performed to family and friends using an abridged script and, until the introduction of the television, was one of the most popular forms of home entertainment in Europe. Toy theatre has seen a resurgence in recent years and there are numerous international toy theatre festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.

That, I did not know.

The museum has a lot of these toy theatres of varying sizes and with different scripts.

Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop

The Wikipedia page on Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop clears up much of the confusion. A summary and excerpts follow.

The original shop was in Hoxton (east London). Its proprietor was:

John Redington (1819–1876), who described himself as a “Printer, Bookbinder and Stationer; Tobacconist; and Dealer in miscellaneous articles” …

The premises were located at 73 Hoxton Street. In 1851, Redington opened a theatrical print warehouse there:

Redington was an agent for the toy theatre publisher John Kilby Green, and when Green died in 1860 Redington bought up his engraved copper plates. Redington ran the Hoxton Street business until his death in 1876, following which his widow, youngest son William, and daughter Eliza carried on with the business; but soon only Eliza Redington was left to run the print business.[2]

In 1877, Eliza Redington married Benjamin Pollock. The couple ran the shop together. They also had eight children — four boys and four girls.

Pollock was still using Green’s and Redington’s plates and theatre sheets, although:

with the imprint changed to ‘B. Pollock’.[5]

The shop was in an excellent location. The Britannia Theatre was across the street.

Despite that, Pollock wasn’t exactly making a fortune. In the 1880s, he began making toy theatres:

or the ‘juvenile drama’ as it was called at the time, selling toy theatre drops and characters from contemporary dramas for “a penny plain, twopence coloured”. Pollock generally republished older plays by using existing plates, simply changing the names of the actors. His version of Cinderella, for example, which could be bought from Pollock in the 1880s, used plates from 1844.[6]

Pollock’s business was not a success as tastes in the 1880s changed towards magic lantern shows and other innovations

Magic lanterns were early slide shows. The museum has a collection of these.

Robert Louis Stevenson

One day in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson paid Pollock a visit at his shop. Stevenson’s subsequent essay about his visit proved to be a boon for Pollock’s business.

A considered article from 2009 about that visit appears on Spitalfields Life, ‘Benjamin Pollock, a penny plain, tuppence coloured’.

It says that Stevenson was an only child who enjoyed juvenile drama — toy theatres — at home growing up. He was also aware that as toy theatre manufacturers died and others inherited their materials, the names also changed:

the theatres of his childhood that he purchased in a shop on Leith Walk in Edinburgh were produced by Skelt’s Juvenile Drama and the names on the printing plates were altered with successive owners, “This national monument, after changing its name to Park’s, Webb’s, Reddington’s and last of all to Pollock’s, has now become, for the most part, a memory”, he wrote.

Assembling the theatres was more fun than putting on the play:

… even Stevenson admitted “The purchase and the first half hour at home, that was the summit.” As a child, I think the making of them was the greater part of the pleasure, cutting out the figures and glueing it all together. “I cannot deny the joy that attended the illumination, nor can I quite forget that child, who forgoing pleasure, stoops to tuppence coloured.” Stevenson wrote.

Pollock’s in the 20th century

Wikipedia says that the First World War altered Pollock’s intended line of succession, as his son William died in active duty. Pollock’s daughter Louise helped her father run the business.

One year before he died:

The theatre historian and writer George Speaight was first associated with Pollock’s when he gave a toy theatre performance of The Corsican Brothers at The George Inn in Southwark for Pollock’s 80th birthday in 1936. Speaight was already gaining a reputation for his juvenile drama performances using characters and settings obtained from Pollock’s.[10]

Pollock died in 1937. The Spitalfields Life article says:

toy theatres had become an anachronism and the business was in terminal decline. Yet such was the celebrity that Stevenson had brought, Benjamin Pollock received the unique accolade for a Hoxton shopkeeper of an obituary in the Times.

After Pollock’s death, Louise continued with the business, assisted by her sister Selina. In 1944, they sold the business. Shortly afterwards:

the building was destroyed by an enemy bomb.

Today, a plaque is on a brick post outside of the Hoxton Street location. Spitalfields Life has a photo. The site has council flats on it now.

Wikipedia says that, before the bomb hit, bookseller Alan Keen had bought the shop’s stock from Louise and Selina. Keen ran his business in the Adelphi Building just off The Strand — theatre district — and called it Benjamin Pollock Limited.

In 1946, Keen appointed the aforementioned George Speaight as shop manager. Speaight was associated with the shop — and, later, the museum — for the rest of his life.

Keen popularised his toy theatres by using classic films of the postwar years and their famous stars:

Keen modernised the stock to appeal to a contemporary audience with a toy theatre version of the 1948 Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet devised by Speaight[13] among other innovations. A supporter of the shop at this time was the actor Ralph Richardson, who wrote introductions to the plays.[9]

Unfortunately, nothing could return toy theatres to their previous success. In 1950, Keen had to move the premises to Little Russell Street in Bloomsbury. The following year, Benjamin Pollock Limited went into receivership.

In 1955, a BBC journalist, Marguerite Fawdry, was looking for wire character slides for her son’s toy theatre. She ended up buying not only the stock but also the business. She rented a shop at 44 Monmouth Street — in Seven Dials near Holborn (quite a smart street of boutiques and restaurants these days). In 1956, she opened Pollock’s Toy Museum in part of the shop. In 1957, she purchased the plates from Skelt’s, as George Skelt had recently died. Robert Louis Stevenson had Skelt toy theatres as a child, so this was an important acquisition for the company.

In 1969, the rent in Monmouth Street was too high for the business to survive. Fawdry moved Pollock’s to 1 Scala Street near Goodge Street Station.

In 1980, Fawdry maintained the museum in Scala Street and moved the business to the newly renovated Covent Garden Piazza.

In 1988, Fawdry sold the business to brothers Christopher and Peter Baldwin. Peter Baldwin had a collection of toy theatres and was best known for his role as Derek Walton in the long-running evening soap opera, Coronation Street. He had also managed the shop between acting jobs. A lady by the name of Louise Heard was working in the shop at this time. She, too, would play a role in developing the business.

In 2008, Christopher Baldwin retired. Louise Heard became co-owner along with Peter Baldwin. In 2010, the two opened a second Pollock’s Toy Shop at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

In 2015, Peter Baldwin died. Louise Heard continues to run both shops. Wikipedia tells us:

Today the shop produces its own range of toy theatres by contemporary artists such as Kate Baylay and Clive Hicks-Jenkins[19] which have been displayed at Liberty, Fortnum & Mason and the Royal Opera House. It sells reproduction and original toy theatres from around the world in addition to books, puppets, music boxes and other traditional toys.[9]

The museum and trust

Marguerite Fawdry’s grandson Eddy Fawdry currently runs the museum.

There is a Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust which helped to populate the inventory at the museum. They are no longer interested in receiving toy donations, only stories. Their main web page also states:

The trust’s collection remains there, although we have been prevented from having free use of it for the benefit of the public, as our trust deed requires us to do.

However, the museum’s contact page states:

Please note that if you come across a site calling itself Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, this is not the museum, please ignore it.

The Trust are no longer connected to the museum but continue as a sort of strange purpose less entity!

The Pollock’s Toy Museum experience

I will never forget going to Pollock’s Toy Museum.

First, some practical information.

Getting there

By Tube, alight at Goodge Street Station.

When you exit the station at street level, take a left. At the corner, take another left. When you get to the next corner, take another left. That’s three lefts in total. The museum is at the end of the first block on the opposite side. You cannot miss its colourful exterior!

Admission and opening times

The museum is closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

If you want to go this weekend, it will have to be Saturday. But, don’t worry, it is likely to be quiet.

Their Contact page has more details on opening hours and admission prices.

Normal admission is £7 per person, with discounts for seniors and children. Credit cards accepted.

Other notes

There is no tour guide or attendant. Once you pay, you’re on your own.

The museum is in two old adjoining buildings — one from the 1780s and the other from the 1880s — with narrow staircases, which isn’t good for anyone with mobility issues.

The museum’s content is also not recommended for young children:

We recommend it for slightly older children and adults of all ages.

Nor would I recommend it to anyone who is triggered by weird looking toys. Seriously, anyone falling into that category will have nightmares.

It will take between 90 minutes and two hours to complete the museum in full. By that, I mean reading all the brief typewritten notes with the exhibits.

There are chairs in some rooms for those who need to sit down.

There is a restroom near the reception area.

Admission

We had a rather eccentric thirtysomething man at the entrance.

There were three of us and he gave us only one pamphlet to the museum.

My friends, who paid for me (thank you!), asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to give us two more pamphlets?’

He paused, looked at us and grudgingly gave us two more.

He had no personality at all, and I think he had a ‘problem’ of sorts. It’s a charitable act giving people like him a job.

The same went for the young woman who had taken his place by the time we left. I don’t think she could feasibly work anywhere else, either.

My friends said ‘Goodbye!’ on the way out and she just stared at us. Finally, she muttered ‘Goodbye’.

The pamphlet

The pamphlet is really helpful in guiding you from room to room.

Of course, they cannot list every type of exhibit, but the text only gives you a good summary of what you’re going to see.

That said, look carefully as you are going around, because there are some unmentioned gems on the walls and in the display cases.

Touring the museum

Everything is chocka with exhibits.

The first little room before the first staircase has mostly American toys from the 19th and early 20th centuries. All are described, including the provenance of the metal of the money boxes.

The first staircase shows that toys weren’t meant to be sources of fun and jollity. There are a number of 19th century — maybe slightly older — education aids for young children, who were expected to learn, not play. These large boards have pictures on them with a variety of small squares with aphorisms and other short items to memorise. The one I recall most vividly — and not mentioned in the pamphlet — is an Italian board depicting a schoolroom scene. A very comely schoolmistress is sitting behind a desk. A long switch is next to her. A little boy is sobbing his eyes out. The other children are quietly doing their schoolwork. Some of these boards depict scientific concepts children were meant to learn. I felt rather stupid looking at them. I’m not sure I learned those until a later stage at primary school.

If you pause on the landing and look opposite, you’ll see — if I remember rightly — Buzz Lightyear. That’s the most modern toy on display.

Things got more normal in the first room on the first floorthe boys’ den. There are Dinky toys (cars, delivery vehicles), train sets and tin soldiers. There are also a number of futuristic toys from the postwar era. Near the window are 19th century optical toys.

Going up the stairs to the second floor, you’ll see early board games as well as some modern ones. There are also some boys’ comic books that are at least a century old and folk toys from the Subcontinent.

The main room on the second floor is devoted to toy theatres, many of them from Pollock’s. You can also see a photo of Pollock there.

By the time you’re on the third floor, you’ve moved from the 1880s building into the one dating from the 1780s. The first room is devoted to dolls. You can see why they were out of the reach of most little girls two centuries ago. These are quite exquisite — and were very expensive. Don’t miss the 4,000 year old toy mouse from the banks of the Nile!

The next room has toy soldiers and teddy bears interspersed with a grand collection of dolls houses. I did not know that the late Victorians and Edwardians thought that little boys should have a masculine equivalent of a doll to comfort them; that’s where the idea of the teddy bear originated. The dolls houses are fascinating, even for men. One English father built his daughter a replica of the family home, complete with vehicles in the drive. The windows on the house open, and everything is exactly as it was in real life. She must have loved that.

The next room has more dolls from the first part of the 20th century. One of these is a black doll that belonged to a London girl who was from the West Indies. It’s got a great family story associated with it, the finer details of which I cannot remember well enough. Be sure to check it out.

There are also tea sets, prams, farm carts and more.

Again, nearly every room has an international collection, so it’s worthwhile looking at everything. The staircase leading down to the gift shop has a lot of toys from Africa and China.

The gift shop is okay, nothing to write home about.

The restroom is on the way out, just past the gift shop. It’s nice and clean.

Any visitor or Londoner who hasn’t visited Pollock’s Toy Museum should certainly consider adding it to their list of activities for a day out.

I want to go again. I think I’ll treat my English friend to an afternoon out.

For more information and photos, see TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews. That said, I disagree with everyone who says it needs updating. Egads. It most certainly does not! This is about the history of toys, not the latest trends. For that, head to Hamley’s, the toy shop in Regent’s Street.

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