Dating Toy Theatre Sheets


Although JK Green dated his imprint on most of the plates he engraved, this is of little help in actually dating the sheet of paper the engraving was printed on.

So how can we date the printed sheets?


We can split the dating of sheets into five distinct periods: -


A.     Those printed by JK Green himself.

B.     Those printed by JK Green’s successors namely J Redington and WG Webb, who between them acquired all JK Green plates after the latter’s death in 1860.

C.     Those printed by B Pollock following the death of his father-in-law J Redington in 1876.

D.     Those printed after the death of Benjamin Pollock, by Benjamin Pollock Ltd also known as the Keen period.

E.      Those printed after the demise of Benjamin Pollock Ltd, namely Pollock’s Toy Theatre Museum commonly known as the Fawdry period.


Ai. JK Green 1808 to 1815


Prints from Green’s early period are few and far between, with most residing in the British Museum and the like. Prints from this period are almost certainly printed by JK Green himself. Once I have gathered sufficient information about these early prints I will expand on these more.


Aii. JK Green 1832 to 1860


The earliest prints, from Green’s second period, were obviously those printed by Green himself. Each of his plates has the imprint date clearly engraved and this gives the earliest date a print could be made, however Green reprinted most of his plays from time to time. Certain sheets such as the “multiples” (“multiples” being scene sheets used in more than one play) and the side wings were reprinted each time the play they appeared in was reprinted. Therefore we have to rely on other clues to give an indication of the date Green carried out his printing. The three major criteria for dating sheets printed by Green himself are as follows: -


1.      The type of paper.

2.      The presence of named agents, such as J.Redington or G.Harriss.

3.      The plays the print was used for.


1.The Type of Paper


Green was consistent in the paper he used throughout his second career from 1832 to 1860, so this does not help in dating his own prints, but they are different from all other prints created afterwards. All examples of Green’s own printing, that I have seen, appear on light brownish paper, but I suspect this is the effect of age, as nearly all these sheets will be over 150 years1. The paper was fairly thin and designed to be glued on to card for creating the characters and back scenes. On most of the prints you can see the impression (albeit reversed) of the same image on the back. It is unclear whether the printing has bled through to the back of the sheet or whether the image has been picked up from the sheet below it when placed in a pile. I believe it to be the latter, as many appear to be blurred and have double images, except that I have not seen a single sheet with a different image appearing on the back. Such images on the back can be quite clearly identified, as can be seen from the example below.



More often than not, two wholes appear on the left hand side of the print, which were created when they were sold as a complete play and stab-sewn.


2. The Agents


Green used agents to sell his prints throughout most of his career and he engraved their names on the plates. The appearance of an agents name gives a good approximation as to the date of printing, however there are a few traps to be aware of.


John Redington of 208 Hoxton Old Town became Green’s agent in late 1851 or possibly early in 1852. Therefore any sheet, with the exception of Goody Goose, that doesn’t have Redington’s name thereon was printed prior to 1851. There has been much debate as to exactly when John Redington became Green’s agent and I believe the following three sheets give us a clear picture of the chronology of the events: -


Firstly we have Scene Plate No.9 in Wapping Old Stairs which names “Blackbeard the Pirate” as one of the plays the sheet was used in. “Blackbeard the Pirate”, was published by Green on 18th November 1851. On this first example there is no mention of Redington.



Secondly we have the same sheet, which still names “Blackbeard” but not “The Battle of Alma” which was the next play this sheets was to be used in and which Green publish in 1854. This sheet does however name Redington as agent



All the plates and prints I have seen for Green’s next play after “Blackbeard” namely “Mary the Maid of the Inn” have had J Redington named as agent. I am therefore confident that Redington became Green’s agent after “Blackbeard” was first published on 18th November 1851, but before “Mary the Maid of the Inn” was published on 1st July 1852.


Furthermore there are no playbooks with Redington being named as agent before 1851.


There is always an exception to the rule. The example shown below is from “Harlequin Riddle-me-ree” which was published in 1842. Therefore this sheet should have been printed sometime between 1842 and 1851, as there is no sign of Redington being named as agent. However this plate is the only one I have seen which, still doesn’t have Redington’s name added.



It would appear that Green added Redington’s name to nearly all the plates thereafter until they quarrelled sometime after 1857 but before 1859. Other than Goody Goose, all the plates for the plays have Redington named as agent. After the quarrel, Green didn’t remove Redington’s name from any plate, but instead he added his new agent; G Harriss of 60 Bell Street, Edgeware Road, Marylebone. Green subsequently added Harriss’s name to all the plates he made re-prints from thereafter. Therefore if G Harriss is named on the sheet, it was printed after 1857.



Green’s last production was “Goody Goose” in late 1859. All scene plates in Goody Goose that were used in previous plays had both Redington and Harriss named as agents, but the unique sheets to “Goody Goose”, such as the character plates, only had Harriss named as agent. The example here is a print direct from the plate made in the 1950’s but it does show that G Harriss was the only agent.



3.The Named Plays and the Bracket System


Appearing at the top of every scene/wing sheet produced by Green were the words “Green’s Scene in” or “Green’s Side Wings in” followed by open brackets thus “{“ and then the names of the plays the sheet was used in. In some cases, such as Side Wings No.6, which was used in 17 different plays, there wasn’t enough room to fit all the names of the plays across the top, so Green used the sides and even the bottom of the plate to name the plays. We know the precise release dates for all of Green’s plays except for “Goody Goose”, which was released sometime late in 1859. So depending on the names of the plays that appear on the print, it can be possible to date the print. For example if any expected plays are missing from the print then we know that the print was made prior to the release of the missing plays. The following example clearly shows that “Sixteen String Jack” is missing from the first example. As “Sixteen String Jack” was released on 1st January 1857, we can be quite confident that the first sheet dates from before this date, and the second sheet dates from after this date.



B. John Redington 1860 to 1876 & WG Webb 1860-1896?


When JK Green died in 1860, most of his plates and stocks of sheets were acquired by John Redington, Green’s old agent, however a few plates came into the possession of WG Webb. These were predominantly the portrait plates, but included were the character plates and scene one for “Blue Beard”. Webb doesn’t appear to have reproduced any of Green’s portraits, but he did bring out his own version of “Blue Beard” using Green’s plates, adding his own scene and wing plates. The only changes to Green plates being the imprint changed to WG Webb and the removal of all agents.


When Redington ran out of old stock of Green’s prints, he re-printed many of the plays bearing his own imprint. Although Redington never put a date on anything he printed, his sheets can be roughly grouped because of changes to the addresses of himself and his agent, J. Webb. Thus,

208 Hoxton Old Town + 75 Brick Lane = 1857-61,

208 Hoxton Old Town + Central Street = 1861-66, and

73 Hoxton Street = 1866-76.

Ex-Green sheets with Redington’s imprint are few and far between. The paper has become very brittle in most cases and haven’t survived the test of time nearly as well as the earlier Green sheets.

C. Benjamin Pollock 1876 to 1937

David Powell writes:-

For Pollock, there is often little to show at what time between 1877 and 1937 any of his printing was done. Certain styles of lettering left over from Redington (stick lettering, "aesthetic" lettering with ornate ascenders and descenders) probably indicate an early-ish date (before 1890, say), but otherwise the appearance and quality of Pollock's printed sheets stayed amazingly consistent from beginning to end. Playbooks with "N.1" rather than the simple "N." at the end of his address must date from 1917 or later, but this is no help with the characters and scenes.

The consistency of Pollock’s printing is perhaps the main reason why Pollock’s sheets are so sought after. The purchaser can feel confident that any single sheet purchased can be put together with others of the same play to make a set. The purist may argue that the imprint design needs to be the same, but the quality and consistency of the printing will not be questioned.

D. Benjamin Pollock Ltd 1944 to 1950 – The Keen Period

After Benjamin Pollock died in 1937, his daughters Louisa and Selina ran the business for a short time, but they didn’t print many new sheets. As World War II hit London, so did it hit the trade of the toy theatre. In 1940 the Pollock sisters shut up shop and 1944 Alan Keen bought the remaining stocks of prints and all the plates in their possession.

After the end of World War II, Keen set about rekindling the interest in toy theatre and brought out many lavish new productions. He also delighted the existing toy theatre fraternity by reprinting many old sheets with Green’s imprint.

David Powell writes:-

The thin-paper reprints (with Green's name, not Pollock's) seem to have been made immediately after Alan Keen bought the business from Pollock's daughters in 1944. They are sometimes called "'47 printings" by collectors, but I think c. 1945 would be nearer the mark.

My own opinion on the “thins” (as I call them) is that there were actually two distinct periods for these. An early period, probably around 1944-1945 and a later period created around 1946 and after. The first batch can usually be told apart because of the slightly darker (almost light brown) paper and roughly cut edges. The fibres of the paper can also be seen quite clearly in close up. I suspect that this was the best paper available immediately after the war. The later “thins”, on the other hand, were printed on very light cream coloured paper with a perfectly cut edge.

In 1946 Keen brought out a, 500 print-run, penny plain limited edition set of Green’s Red Rover. These were printed using modern techniques by a separate printing firm, Favill Press. These were printed on thicker paper than the “thins”.

Also in 1946 Keen brought out a complete re-run of Green’s Therese. These were printed on oversized paper, which was relatively thick compared to the thins. These prints were printed using the original plates on a Victorian printing press. The imprint of the edge of the plate can be seen quite clearly. They had good definition but perhaps used too much ink for the purist, as they have quite a greyish appearance.

Keen also brought out three tuppence coloured versions of Green’s plays, “The Silver Palace” (complete), Cinderella (abridged) and Aladdin (abridged). These were printed on card, so that no gluing of characters to card was required. The “Silver Palace” was a complete version and printed on slightly thicker card than the other two plays. Both Cinderella & Aladdin were heavily abridged, both in terms of words and characters & scenes. All three plays were sold in brown paper envelopes with a Redington ½d theatre on the front. They were sold separately, but more commonly as part of theatre sets, with the “Regency” and the “Victoria”.

The final act of the Keen period was the invention of the “Model Stage” toy theatre club. The first two editions came complete with a play. Issue number one came with “The Harlequinade”, which was a new play written by George Speaight, but all the characters and scenes were extracted from Green’s plays with the exception of the Policemen which came from a single plate of Policemen created by Pollock to compliment his Pantomime Characters sheets. Issue number two came with a heavily abridged version of Green’s Blackbeard the Pirate. Edwin Smith printed both the Harlequinade and Blackbeard the Pirate on the same card at Cinderella and Aladdin mentioned in the previous paragraph. These too were rearranged, coloured and printed by Edwin Smith.

E. The Marguerite Fawdry period (1950’s to 1970’s)

David Powell writes:-

Thick-paper reprints are slightly more complicated. Unsold copies of the 1946 Red Rover were evidently raided by Marguerite for some of their wings and for scenes to fill gaps in nautical plays, such as The Flying Dutchman. But she also had a few plates of wings and various other sheets printed to fill further gaps in the Pollock plays, and these were done on thick paper, thicker than the Red Rover paper and sometimes slightly larger as well. Her reprints were done from whatever prints came to hand, old Pollock prints, thin-paper reprints, pulls from the plates, etc., so that they are as likely to bear Pollock's name as Green's. These reprints date from the late 1950s or early 1960s (as must the Gevaert photocopies), after which Marguerite gave up trying to keep up the old stock, and finally allowed the Pollock plays go out of print one after the other. By the time of the move from Monmouth Street to Scala Street in 1969 little of the genuine old material was still available.

The Fores of Bond Street reprints date from the later 1950s, as (presumably) do the rougher pulls taken from the plates by Marguerite and her assistants. (One of these, Leonard Petts, used to sign and date his prints.) It is not clear why some plays were given first-class treatment and others second-class (or worse). Perhaps there was no demand for a highly-priced Collectors' Series, and it had to be brought to a premature end.

It has subsequently come to light that the Fores’ prints were initial designed to be a one off record of all the plates in Marguerite’s possession, however she also created a list of the plays available from the original plates and these became known as the “Collector Series”. It is unlikely that more than a couple of sets were made of each play for stock and most were produced to order, hence the rarity of these items today. Fores of Bond Street continued to provide this service for Marguerite until the early 1970s.

The rough pulls taken from the plates by Marguerite and her assistants can usually be identified by the unevenness of the printing, especially at the top or bottom, depending on which way round the plate was placed in the press at Pollock’s. The press had developed a lazy side and pressure wasn’t even across the whole surface of the plate. Another telltale sign of one of these prints are excess amounts of ink used by inexperienced printers and often these prints have very dark areas, especially compared to the Fores’ prints.

David Powell continues:-

During the 1970s Roger Thompson used to do some printing from the plates, as well as colouring. The plain and coloured frontispiece of Uncle Tom's Cabin are examples of his work. In an ideal world Roger would have preferred to be an opera singer, and he certainly liked prints with operatic connections. But, apart from his work at Pollock's, he was mainly employed as a black-and-white minstrel. I don't know whether this fact influenced his choice of what to print and colour in the present case.

Round about 1984 I did some printing from the plates myself. My initial training from Debby Brown, the then curator of Pollock's, included enough origami to make the essential "carpenter's hat". Some of my portraits were coloured and sold in the shop, and for many years, a row of my plain sheets were hung up on a string, as if they were the prints that Mr Green had just been producing before taking a rest on his chair in the corner of the room. All went well until I was struck down with a mysterious illness. When after many months I was able to return to the printing press, I seemed to have lost the knack of producing even the half-decent prints I had been turning out, so I gave up. I had intended to do much, much more, but copper-plate printing involves a taxing combination of hard labour and finesse, and although this is bearable if the results are worth it, when the results are below par it all becomes too depressing. Apart from the interesting prints I might have produced, I never had the pleasure of going to the printing suppliers in Bleeding Heart Yard and asking for "half a pound of Heavy French".



1 The colour of the paper referred to above, depicts the paper as it is seen today. However I recently came into possession of 3 albums kept by Robert Scott. The sheets in these albums were mostly of Pollocks and Redingtons imprint. The paper of most was nearly white, which I believe is how they would have appeared when first printed. However there are several sheets, which are labelled as being ex-73 Hoxton Street window displays. These latter sheets are very dark brown in colour. I surmise that light causes the paper to darken rather than bleach and this affect is consistent with most toy theatre prints. I have seen some very dark sheets at Pollocks Toy Museum but with a much lighter cross mark, evidently these were the top sheet of a bundle tied with string.