John Kilby Green & the History of the Toy Theatre
Chapter 6 – JK Green – The Final Years
JK Green’s wife Susannah died of bronchitis on 21st August 1857 at the age of 45 and was buried at the Church of St Mary’s, Newington on 26th August 1857. It was said that JK Green lost all interest in the Juvenile Drama thereafter and only produced one more play; “Goody Goose” in 1859 and this was not fully published. It was the only play of Green’s not to include the date of production on each sheet. AE Wilson author of the book “A Penny Plain & Twopence Coloured” suggested that JK Green retired to Mayfair (I think not!). George Speaight suggested that he might have drunk himself to death. I like to think he died of a combination of a broken heart and old age.
John Kilby Green died on 29th February 1860 aged 70 at 29 Thurlow Place, Walworth, Southwark. There was an inquest held by the county coroner. The reason for this is unknown as the cause of death was give as “Natural Paralysis & General Decay” and doesn’t appear to be suspicious, perhaps the circumstances surrounding his death were. I have yet to explore the newspapers of the time. These may give an insight into what happened. Coroners reports occasionally still exist and if so they may give further information as to the circumstances behind JK Green’s death.
JK Green’s career as an engraver spanned more than fifty-six years and he spent a vast majority of this time in the “Juvenile Drama” industry. During this time he saw the birth and decline of probably the most successful toy in English history. There has certainly been no other toy that has dominated the market for so long a period. Green’s contribution was probably the most significant of the publishers. His work may not have been of the quality of West and Hodgson, he may not have produced as many works as West and the Skelts and as we have seen a lot of his work was not original. But where Green fails to be the best in these respects he more than compensates by his skills of invention and respect for the real theatre.
Green was the original inventor of “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”. He was almost certainly the catalyst for West to develop these “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” into a commercial product. Arguments will continue indefinitely as to whether Green was first to develop the toy “proscenium”. His first proscenium is certainly the oldest in existence. Maybe it was a copy of West’s first proscenium, but it could equally be possible that Green and West worked together on the project as West mentions that a person by the name of Green was his apprentice in his interview with Henry Mayhew of 1850.
Green’s early plays were undoubtedly copies and he continued his practice of copying his competitor’s works on his return from exile (whether self inflicted or not) in 1832. But again his inventiveness led to the concept of the halfpenny size play. The introduction of which helped to keep the toy theatre as number one toy for two more decades, by making the toy theatre more accessible to a much larger population. He may have been guilty of a breach of copyright, but I would argue that he actually helped continue the existence of the toy and probably showed other publishers the way forward. The Skelts, the Webbs and many others turned their attention to the halfpenny play. It wasn’t the end for the penny plays, but they certainly took a back seat from 1830 onwards.
During Green’s second career based in Walworth, he created 53 different productions. Probably a third of which were direct copies, probably another third were Green’s own version of popular plays, with a limited element of plagiarism, but the final third were unique to Green. At least twelve of his plays were not produced by any other publisher. Plays like, “Wapping Old Stairs”, “Belphegor the Conjuror”, “Sixteen String Jack” and “Goody Goose” would have been lost forever to the toy theatre fraternity if Green had chosen to produce them. Although most of these plays were somewhat obscure, Green created a record of the play for everyone to enjoy indefinitely. I doubt if these plays were particularly successful in terms of financial profit, but through them Green showed his love and enthusiasm for the theatre.
Like most of his contemporaries, JK Green did not die a rich man. There was not a fortune to be made out of the toy theatre. Looking at the evidence, I would argue that in fact toy theatre publishing was borderline in terms of its profitability. Green’s own career shows most of the signs that this was so. JK Green left no will, so any knowledge of his wealth at the time of his death died with him. His premises were rented so his wealth could only be seen in the plates etc, he left behind.
In the early part of his second career we see signs that he made use of second-hand plates and often using both sides of the plates. On many occasions he resorted to plagiarism, copying the popular work of his fellow publishers, but he certainly wasn’t alone in this practice, as there is strong evidence that this practice was rife in the toy theatre industry. Finally we see evidence that he used his family as free colourists and maybe even went to the lengths of changing their ages to keep them in his employ.
There must have been good times, especially when the “Juvenile Drama” enjoyed its heyday from the 1830’s to the early 1850’s and I think Green’s own prolific works showed this to be true during this period. Demand was high and Green often produced four new plays including the playbooks in a year. When you include the likes of his 1839 production of “Jack Sheppard” with 64 sheets, the longest toy theatre production in history, then there must have been a good number of buyers to warrant such an investment in time and energy.
During these halcyon days, JK Green produced some quite stunning works, with the great battle scenes in “The Battle of Waterloo”, the watery splendour of “The Silver Palace” and numerous pantomimes with the regular appearance of Harlequin. It was at this time we see the two sides of JK Green’s brilliance as a publisher. First we see the only productions ever produced for the toy theatre. These were completely new plays, some like “Harlequin and the Giant Helmet” which were entirely composed of new character and scene plates and only the wing plates consisting of “stock” items, reused from earlier plays. Then there was the other side of JK Green’s engraving skill, that of the plagiarist. Plays like “Tom Thumb” in which the character sheets are believed to have been drawn direct from George Cruickshanks illustrated playbook, but uses 100% “stock” scenes and wings from earlier productions. This may have been done to counter any claim against his copying the whole production. These copied plays must have been relatively quick to produce, so giving more time to produce the unique plays that only JK Green was going to produce. So JK Green was a plagiarist out of necessity as it gave him time and money to produce more works, works that only he was going to contribute to the toy theatre world!