ARTICLE BY FRANK JAY (1921)
Peeps into the Past; being a History of Oldtime Periodicals, Journals and Books.
VIII. THE JUVENILE THEATRES.
Fifty years ago, when most of us “oldsters” were “youngsters,” our amusements in the evening were generally confined to the home. Unlike the boys and girls of to-day, who are allowed by unwise—some democrats will say “up-to-date”—parents to roam the streets at all hours often to their disadvantage and worse, we were seldom permitted out of doors after dark, and if it was not “home lessons,” then our recreation was found in studying or reading books. I have already dealt with the Brett publications at length, and those of my readers who took them in will call to mind the advertisements that appeared in most of them announcing the publication of “plays”—penny plain—twopence coloured. Having cut out the characters we were induced to buy a “stage” on which to portray the incidents contained in the book. I propose in a few short notes to deal with this part of the boys’ literature of those days—in fact, most people will be surprised to hear that these wooden theatres are still obtainable.
There is a certain small, queer old-fashioned shop in Hoxton, not far from the celebrated Britannia Theatre, the home of melodrama, where the writer saw not so very long ago, a sight which he ventures to assert cannot be seen elsewhere in the British Isles; nay, nowhere else in the wide world where English is spoken, namely, a manufactory and establishment for the making, colouring and “fitting-up” of those priceless gems of our happy boyhood days, the small wooden stages, sheets of scenes and characters, footlights, slides and other necessary details for the juvenile theatre.
In the window were displayed stages, resplendent in colours of every hue, ready for use, with the orchestra playing in front! The scenes were all set, and the little cardboard figures in their correct places. In the interior of the shop, ranged around the walls, were a number of boxes containing the sheets of scenes, characters, books of words, etc. of some 40 to 50 plays, each denoted by a scene-piece pasted on the front of the boxes. Around the upper part hung exceedingly choice and rare specimens of the art of “tinselling” favourite portraits and characters, some of which took months of patient labour on the part of the owner to produce, and which nowadays command big prices ranging from 5/- to £2 each (and which, short of the original picture, cost only “a penny plain or twopence coloured”), from keen collectors.
Hanging from the ceiling were stages in skeleton form, bundled of footlights, slides and other accessories. In a small room adjoining was the workshop, where the printing and colouring was being done. The courteous and genial proprietor took a great pleasure in showing the writer his productions which included, amongst many others, “Aladdin,” “Cinderella,” “The Corsican Brothers,” “The Miller and His Men,” (of affectionate memory!), “Paul Clifford,” “The Forty Thieves,” “Oliver Twist,” “The Waterman,” “Timour the Tartar,” “The Blind Boy,” etc., sufficient in fact to please the heart of any “Old Boy,” or even the present generation. The proprietor also recounted the several visits he received from Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous novelist, who was a great lover and collector of the juvenile drama, and who wrote a masterful essay on the subject which appeared in “The Magazine of Art” (and with which the writer will deal more fully later on); also of visits from other celebrities.
This establishment and its proprietor are the successors to the industry carried on formerly by Mr. Reddington, an industry that flourished for over a hundred years and which embraces the works of Green, Parker, Webb, Skelt and West. Skelt is perhaps the best known, probably because there are more of his products in existence than the others, but more than probably because he adopted a cheaper method of printing the sheets and pushed their sale.
None of these publications had any connection with the plays produced and sold by Edwin J. Brett, of “Boys of England” fame, although the writer ventures to say that Brett’s publications of this kind are more widely and popularly known and revered by those “Old Boys” who have followed the series of “Peeps into the Past,” and it is in reality for their benefit, as much as to place it on record, that the writer is attempting a brief history of this favourite old pastime.
The first play produced by Mr. Brett was given away with the first number of “Boys of England,” Tuesday, November 27, 1866, as per the following announcement on page 16:—
“GIVEN AWAY.—To the Boys of England, a complete new Play entitled, ‘Alone in the Pirates’ Lair,’ consisting of eight scenes, seven sheet of characters, six wings, and foot-pieces, and a large stage front
N.B.—The above entertaining gift is specially designed for our younger readers.”
(This was the title of the first serial in the “Boys of England”).
The play was given away in sections in Nos. 1, 3, 5, 8 and 9 as some encouragement to the sale of the “Boys of England.” Subsequently it was produced in colours and sold in complete sets of 16 sheets of characters and scenes at 6d. the set, and this was the commencement of Brett’s plays. Mr. Brett also sold as a side line the wooden stages for the plays, as thus announced in No. 12:—
“The Stage! The Stage! We have great pleasure in informing our readers that we are now making arrangements to supply them with large stages suitable for the new play of ‘Alone in the Pirates’ Lair,’ also with large stage fronts, designed and engraved expressly for our boys. We believe the usual price would be about 2/- each, but we have determined to supply our readers with the stage and stage fronts for only 15 stamps (1/3). In the course of a week from date we shall open agencies throughout the United Kingdom. Our boys are requested not to send their stamps until our arrangements are quite complete.”
In the next number it was announced:—
“Our theatres will be strongly constructed of wood by the largest stage manufacturer in London. Each theatre will consist of two modern sliding traps, place for lamp, roller for green curtain, grooves for back and side screen, etc. Sawing and planing machines are employed to prepare the wood, but as a short time must elapse before our immense order for 50,000 of the stages is completed, our readers will be wise if they send their orders at once to their bookseller, as they will be supplied as each order is received.”
In No. 17 appeared the notice:—
“Our stages are not yet completed. They will be ready in a few days. We must therefore request our boys not to send any more stamps to our office for them, but to order them of their newsagents, and they will receive the stages when ready with their books. The price of the stages will be post free 1/3.”
Whether the stages were made at this time or not the writer has not been able to discover, but one can imagine the great disappointment to the boys when they could not obtain them. Their very description used to “fire us up” with anticipated pleasure. I speak personally and strongly on this point, for the pleasure these miniature stages gave to us boys was immense and too great for words to express.
The writer is of opinion that the stages were not forthcoming, as the announcements went to show that there was a hitch somewhere, and he is strengthened in this opinion by reading a special article in No. 21, April 13, 1867, under the heading of “The Young Mechanic,” entitled “How to make a Stage,” illustrated with diagrams and description of wood and tools required; anyway, the announcements respecting the stages were dropped at this time, and they did not appear again for a great length of time.
The next play produced was “Jack Cade; or, The Rebel of London,” consisting of seven large sheets of scenes, eight large sheets of well drawn characters, a splendid new act drop, orchestra, a sheet of mechanical effects, and two stages of side wings especially prepared for “The Boys of England” theatre. These were published in five gigantic sheets (per announcement) and sold at one halfpenny per sheet. Non-subscribers were charged twopence per sheet, and the first sheet was sold with No. 48, Vol. 2, October 19, 1867 of “The Boys of England.” The machinery for producing the stages was probably inadequate in those days and could not keep pace with the enormous demand that must have resulted from the announcements in the widely-circulated Brett publications.
According to further announcements in the later numbers of Vol. 4 of “The Boys of England,” the immense success which attended the first issue of “Alone in the Pirates’ Lair” and “Jack Cade,” induced Brett to reprint them “at great expense” and these did duty for the winter months of 1869. With No. 3 of “The Boys of the World,” October 5, 1869, was given away the first sheet of characters of “the grand play” entitled “Tom Daring; or, Far from Home,” and the gifts were continued in this periodical to induce new subscribers. This play was followed by “the grand historical one” of “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,” which was likewise given gratis to the subscribers, the first two sheets out of the complete set of 16 sheets being included with No. 36, Vol. 2, May 21, 1870, in which appeared the opening chapter of a serial of the same title, by the author of “Chevy Chase,” “King of the School,” etc.
It will be seen that Brett made use of these plays to inaugurate his new periodicals.
The writer has, so far, not been able to trace the date when the play of “The Miller and His Men” was first published by Brett, but for the winter season of 1872 six plays, including “Jack Cade,” “Tom Daring,” “Alone in the Pirates’ Lair,” “King Arthur,” “The Skeleton Horseman; or, The Shadow of Death,” and “The Giant of the Black Mountains; or, Harlequin Jack and his Seven Brothers,” were on sale, each play consisting of sixteen sheets of characters and scenes, with stage fronts 1d. plain, 2d. coloured, lamps and slides 1/7, wood stages 1/3; and for the season of 1874 “The Miller and his Men,” and “Roland the Pirate,” an extra large play, 8d. plain, 1/6 coloured, stage fronts, plain 3d., coloured 9d. and large stages 2/6 were added to the list. Afterwards appeared “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Forty Thieves,” “Blue Beard,” “Mazeppa; or the Wild Horse of Tartary,” “Harkaway among the Brigands,” and “The Roadside Inn.” The prices of these later complete plays were 6d. plain, 1/- coloured, or mounted and cut ready for use 3/6, post free 3/9. Books of the play 1d. each, lamps 3d., post free 5d., slides 4d. per dozen, post free 7d., and new folding wood stage 1/6. This list and prices continued, I believe, whilst the firm existed or, at any rate, whilst the stock lasted.
February 5, 1921.
A recital of these old plays by Brett will doubtless bring many happy memories to the mind of a host of readers of this paper, and the writer shares his pleasure with them. The mere writing about them recalls many, many pleasant (and unpleasant) incidents, when busy colouring and cutting out the various characters, mounting the scenes, trying to induce the lamps to burn with colza oil, which was not always a success, and gave more unpleasant smoke than flame, and then after going through the performance, finishing off the last scene with blue or red fire. What glorious fun we all had and how we enjoyed it! often inviting our friends, mates and neighbours to “come and see the performance,” and then, when we got tired of the Plays, we used to swap or exchange them for a cricket bat, balls and stumps, books, or anything useful, in the Exchange and Mart column of the Boys’ periodicals of the time, as a glance at them will testify.
By the way, this was a feature that Brett would never permit in his boys’ periodicals, although there were more offers of his publication for sale or exchange in the advertisements in boys’ papers than of any other publisher’s. He had his reasons for his objection, I suppose; possibly because he had the new stuff for sale, and did not wish to assist his readers to obtain them more easily or cheaper than he sold them for!
These “Advts.” only cost a few pence each insertion, but some good business was done. The writer has a copy of one of his own advertisements for “A Stage and Four plays all complete and ready for use, 6/6, or exchange for books of equal value,” which appeared in an old boys’ periodical over 43 years ago. I wonder how many of these stages and plays all complete and ready for use are in existence at the present time; not many, I venture to say; they would be priceless if only as a monument to the Past.
It all brings our happy, irresponsible boyhood’s days back again most vividly to our minds, and makes us forget for a brief minute or two what we have gone through since then in the great race of life, and what we are undergoing, good or bad, at the present moment. Anyway, these reminders and memories make our “Peeps into the Past” more enjoyable.
The writer has dealt largely with Brett’s plays because, as before mentioned, they are the most remembered and more widely known. They were exceedingly popular at the time. I will now deal with the more superior class of Toy Theatres, which are not so generally known.
According to “Varia,” by John Ashton, 1894, William West, who was in business at 13, Exeter Street, Strand from 1811 to 1819, and afterwards at 57 Wych Street, Strand till 1832, when the business was taken over by S. Stokes, was the first to introduce, print and publish these old juvenile plays. They were literally works of art, engraved and printed from copper plates, and all his plates bear the date they were published and printed on the bottom edges. The writer possesses a few, given to him by one of the best living authorities who has one of the finest collections in England, the value of which amounts to several hundred pounds, which he keeps preserved in specially made drawers, all tabulated and in perfect order. The sheets vary in size, running from 6¾ in. x 8¼ in. for a small stage to nearly double these sizes. Those in the writer’s possession are dated from 1824 to 1826. West apparently was the only one to date his sheets. The address in given as:— “London: Published May 29, 1826 by W. West, at his Theatrical Print Warehouse, 57 Wych Street opposite the Olympic Theater, Strand,” and if any reader obtains any so printed he will know they are the genuine article. The characters and scenes of some are coloured (possibly by hand); others are simply plain, but for clearness and execution of detail they are really wonderful works of art. West produced and published 107 plays, and needless to say these are very eagerly sought for by collectors, and command very high prices. One collector some time ago paid £5 for the book of words of “Guy Fawkes,” which originally sold for 4d. The original price of West’s sheets was 1d., 2d. and 3d., but Skelt sold his for ½d. and in this way he cut the trade up, especially as he produced plates carelessly drawn on wood. Skelt was originally a shoemaker and commenced business in the Minories about 1840; he took three relatives of the same name into partnership. Some of the sheets bear the name of M. Skelt, the original; others M. & B. Skelt; and the latest B. only; the final one being E. Skelt, without any address. The latter died about 1890. These are most essential points for collectors of Skelt’s prints. Altogether the Skelts produced 53 plays, most of which bear the address of 11 Swan-street, Minories, London. A few were printed from copper plates, but the majority from wood and although they are more crude and not so clearly defined in their execution as those by West, they are infinitely superior to Brett’s productions, which are the commonest of all.
Another printer and publisher was of the name of H. G. Jamieson, 13 Duke-street, Bow-street, London, who published 34 plays between 1811 and 1820. These were from copper plates, and there are not many now in existence. Hodgson & Co., 10 Newgate-street and 43 Holywell-street, Strand, also published some 25 plays from 1822 to 1824. The other publishers with no record as far as the writer can ascertain were:—
Mrs. M. Hibberd, 2 Upper Carlton-st., Marylebone, 1811-14.
H. Burtenshaw, 130 St. Martin’s-lane, 1812.
J. K. Green, 1812.
G. Greed, Exeter-street, Strand, 1819.
Thos. Cristoe, 34 Drury-lane, 1819.
C. Hook, 33 Windmill-street, Tottenham Court-road, 1820.
W. J. Layton, 10 Petty’s Court, Hanway-street, Oxford-street, 1820.
J. L. Marks, 17 Artillery-street, Bishopsgate, 1814-1822. He engraved his own plates if “Marks-fecit” on his sheets means anything.
W. Clarke, 265 High Holborn, 1821.
H. Masters, Leigh-street, Red Lion-sq., 1822.
J. Smart, 35 Rathbone-place, Oxford-st., 1822.
W. Cole, successor to Hodgson & Co. at 10 Newgate-street, City, 1819.
C. Lloyd, 1825.
J. Dyer, Dorset-crescent, Hoxton New Town, 1828.
J. Bailey, 2 Slade’s-place, Sutton-st. and 65 Grays Inn Lane, 1830.
W. Stokes, 57 Wych-street, Strand, 1832.
A. Park, 47 Leonard-street, City-road.
J. Fairburn, 160 Minories, 1837.
F. Edwards, 49 Leman-st., Goodman’s Fields.
J. Godwin, Pentonville.
B. Perkins, 40 Marshall-st., Carnaby Market.
J. Quick, 4 Duke’s Court, Paviour’s Alley, Union-street, Blackfriar’s-road.
Of all the latter it is impossible to fix any date of their engraving; possibly some of them merely acted as agents and distributors for other printers and publishers.
In “Notes and Queries,” Oct. 18, 1873, appeared a query concerning one of West’s special pantomime tricks, to which Mr. Ralph Thomas replied as follows: “I can testify to the correctness of part of Mr. Husk’s note in reference to Bedford House and the columns in Covent Garden. I have the Christmas pantomime trick to which he refers. I recollected from his description that I had amongst my collection of West’s scenes and characters something similar, and upon searching I find what Mr. Husk describes including the inscription, except that it is a greengrocer’s shop that is transformed into a representation of the Column. The plate is entitled West’s New Pantomime Trick No. 42. London: published June 13, 1825, by Mr. W. West at the Theatrical Print Warehouse, 57, Wych-st., Strand. On the same sheet is a large plum pudding which changed into a hobgoblin.
“For years I have collected West’s Prints published for the toy theatre. They were once largely popular, and among other men, now celebrated, who would not be ashamed to own they amused many evenings of their boyhood, may be mentioned Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Everitt, Millais, the great painter, whose father also took great interest in painting or helping his son to paint the scenes and characters.
“Another name long familiar in higher walks of histrionic art than West’s Prints aspired to, is that of Mr. John Oxenford, who was a fond devotee and expressed thorough appreciation of ‘Poor Willy West.’ From some of the original drawings I have it is evident that the artists went to the theatre and there made the sketches of the scenes and costumes, so that West’s are copied from the plays as they were got up at that time, and I suppose West published scenes and characters of every play and pantomime of the time that obtained any degree of popularity.
“The scenes in ‘Ali Baba,’ ‘Blue Beard,’ ‘The Elephant of Siam,’ are extraordinarily pretty and effective. ‘The Miller and His Men’—I have almost every size. In ‘Cusco Bay,’ the characters and scenes are very good. On one or two scenes there was such a run that these are, or were, very scarce; now I suppose they are not to be had at all. All the nautical dramas are well got up, such as ‘Black-Eyed Susan,’ ‘The Red Rovers,’ ‘The Pilot,’ and others. West’s Prints, for execution and accuracy of drawing and general get-up carried the palm over all the others, such as Layton, Marks, Spencer, Quick, Hebbert, Green, Jamison and Hodgson, though some of the latter’s largest scenes sold at 2d. each were well done. Some of them signed ‘G.C.’ which I believe stands for George Childs (about whom I know nothing) and not George Cruikshank, though some of West’s are executed by him (see Mr. Geo. W. Reid’s catalogue of that extraordinary artist’s works).
“However, with popularity came the imitators and plagiarists, and that destructive pest CHEAPNESS. Sheets as large as those sold for a penny and twopence could be had for ½d. or even less; at least, to boys they appeared the same. Amongst those who destroyed the business and did a good trade was Skelt of the Minories. I should say he was the foremost, though there were others too numerous to mention, whose plates, instead of being well executed on copper, were roughly drawn on wood.
My collection includes specimens from the beginning of the 19th century to the present time. But the great time for Toy Theatricals was when West flourished; I should say from about 1815 to 1835, though he kept his shop in Wych-street, where he moved from 13 Exeter-street, open for upwards of twenty years, until, in fact, he died.
“Mr. John Oxenford, in an article in the ‘Era Almanack’ for 1870, page 67, gives an interesting description of the Toy Theatre, mentioning West’s Prints. He remarks ‘Poor Willy West’ has long been gathered to his fathers, and his plates have long been broken up—a complete collection would be invaluable.”
February 12, 1921.
Mr. Ralph Thomas continues: “Now I have collected with great trouble, if not a complete, a nearly complete set of West’s Theatrical Prints, small, large and medium characters, scenes and pantomimes and tricks, and they are indeed of the greatest interest.
I have always been puzzled to know whether West drew and engraved himself. From his putting ‘West fecit’ on some, I imagine he did. Grimaldi figures constantly in all the pantomimes, so do all the celebrated actors of the time, such as Edmund Keane, Yates, O’Smith, ‘The Keelys,’ Blanchard, T. P. Cooke, Young, Kemble, Miss Ellen Tree, Wallack, Miss Kelly and Liston. One of the tricks is a box with Mr. Quiz, Haymarket, written upon it, which changes into Liston as Paul Pry. Oxberry, Emery, Widdicombe, Astley and numerous others whose names I am quoting from memory I do not remember. I should like to know who West was? I have heard that he married a well-known actress, and that by his will he directed that his plates be broken up. When and where did he die? Who were the artists who worked for him? I have heard that he presented a toy theatre most perfectly finished, with a stock of accessories complete, to the Royal children, which event was duly chronicled in the newspapers. Where is this at the present time? It would be most valuable.”
Further on, in “Notes and Queries,” Nov. 1, 1890, Mr. Walter Hamilton writes, under “Skelt’s and Webb’s Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured,” “It is only elderly or middle-aged men who remember these names, and the phrase to which these works gave rise. Skelt has long been dead and I have just heard that Mr. W. Webb died on January 13 of this year (1890). Many years ago Skelt started the idea of a mimic theatre, with small scenes, side scenes and characters, sold as penny or halfpenny sheets, of which twenty or thirty went to a play. These were coloured by the juvenile purchasers, mounted on cardboard, and cut out and placed on the stage; a book of words being provided for each distinct play. Skelt’s place was in Swan Street, Minories, and another person in the same business was Mr. Park, of Finsbury. Skelt and Park were succeeded by W. Webb, who gradually got the whole business in his own hands, and his plays were sold in nearly all parts of London. He was a clever though not a well-educated man. He designed all the scenes and characters, and drew them on the stone, and having in view a ‘clientele’ he had to satisfy, the costumes and architecture were singularly accurate and tasty. Of course the attitudes were stagey, but seldom ungraceful. He also wrote the book of words, but these were not only devoid of all vulgarity, but remarkable for the condensation and dialogue. I particularly remember ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Miller and His Men,’ and ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’ As a measure of affording innocent amusement to youngsters these plays were admirable. They gave occupation for many a quiet hour in colouring the pictures, and I remember that I used up many of the excellent shilling boxes of the Society of Arts colours in so doing. Then comes the grand ‘Field Day’ or night, when, surrounded by our youthful friends, the play was produced and performed in the Theater Royal Back Parlour.
“When the climax was reached it was usual to burn red and blue fire, which generally stifled everyone in the room. Many mothers of to-day would be glad to find such quiet, harmless and really instructive pastimes for their boys. When I last saw Mr. Webb in his shop in Old Street, St. Luke’s, about a year ago, he lamented the decay of this branch of his business. He attributed it partly to the increase of cheap (and often nasty) literature for boys, but chiefly to the home lessons children now have to study, which leave them little time, or inclination, for quiet indoor pastimes.
“The Penny Plain or Twopence Coloured Plates were rather different from what I have been describing. Each sheet had but one large figure on it, such as ‘Wallace,’ ‘Richard Cœur de Lion,’ ‘Saladin,’ or ‘Ivanhoe.’ These were gorgeously attired and the purchaser, having selected one—either plain or coloured—had to set to work to cover it with tinsel bosses and armour, and to inlay the costumes with silk and gold laces. These having been done they were of no further use, and except as show pieces, were consequently never so popular as the plays. (The writer wonders how many of these are in existence to-day.) I fear the whole art will now die out, and although the topic seems trivial, there must be many like myself who will look back with pleasure to a favourite recreation of their boyish days, and will regret to hear of the death of Mr. Webb, who was withal a most respectable, worthy and amiable man.”
Mr. Ralph Thomas follows in “Notes and Queries,” August 27, 1898, under “The Skelts,” “I wish to point out that Mr. Walter Hamilton is in error in stating that Skelt started the idea of the Juvenile Theatre. As there is no collection of his prints accessible to the public this is a mistake that anyone is likely to make. In my notes on ‘West’s Prints’ I say, among those who destroyed the business and did a good trade, Skelt of the Minories, I should say, was foremost. Instead of being satisfied with simply correcting Mr. Hamilton’s statement, I wanted to write an article dealing with all the Skelts, but years have gone by and now that it is too late I do what I ought to have done before. I say too late, because I find the statement that Skelt started the idea has got into a biographical dictionary. There were four Skelts—M., I believe, started the business. He took another into partnership and their prints are published by M. & M. Skelt. Then one of those ‘M’s’ left and the prints again appear as published by M. Skelt. This ‘M.’ took a ‘B.’ (Benjamin, I believe) into partnership. Their prints are published by M. & B. Skelt. Then ‘M.’ goes out and the prints are published by ‘B.’ alone, who, I presume, ‘burst up’ like the explosion in ‘The Miller and His Men,’ but then we have salvage from the general wreck published by E. Skelt, without any address. As neither books nor prints are dated it took me several years before I was able to evolve these facts. E. Skelt is said to have died about 1890 in a good situation. It is clear that he never had sufficient capital to carry on the print business as very few prints bear his name.
“When the Skelts were sold up I do not know, but W. Webb had Skelt’s ‘Aladdin,’ and sold them with Skelt’s name taken out and his own inserted but whereas Skelt printed from copper plates, Webb had them published on and printed from the stone—a very inferior thing. These remarks refer to Skelt’s halfpenny series, the penny plates that bore the Skelts’ name were either Lloyd’s or Straker’s, or other publishers. Bad as Skelt’s were, Webb’s own were far worse. The Skelts were reputed to be of the Jewish faith. One was originally a shoemaker and died in Stepney workhouse.
“It is needless to say that to get all these details requires a pretty extensive collection, which I have in fact. I have collected since a boy, and have probably over 5,000 distinct prints from copper plates printed between 1811 and 1850, and as many duplicates. Of the Skelts alone I have 1,000 different prints. The collection is almost complete; much of it was originally collected by Captain Frederick Hodges. The earliest I have is by W. West, dated February 26, 1811. I don’t think Skelt came on the scene until about 1840. There are many collectors of Skelts and other publishers but I am told that nobody collects W. West’s prints, simply because there are none to be bought. A. Park, printer and publisher of theatrical prints, lived at 47 Leonard Street, Tabernacle Walk, Finsbury. W. Webb, already mentioned, succeeded J. Webb, whose place of business was qt 75 Brick Lane, St. Luke’s. J. Beddington, formerly of 208 Hoxton Old Town, afterwards known as 73 Hoxton Street, was the successor to W. Webb and A. Park, and he in turn was succeeded by his son-in-law, the present printer and publisher of their old plays. The writer has thus shown the History of the Toy Theatres and prints for more than the last 100 years, and which, as you and he knows, is still flourishing and going strong. The proprietor remembers Robert Louis Stevenson very well—a tall man with dark hair, whose hat brushed against a toy stage, pendant from the ceiling to often, that the proprietor suggested taking the stage down.
“ ‘Never mind,’ said R. L. S., ‘it won’t happen again.’ But it did happen again, many times, and much to the damage of the famous author’s headgear.
“Many other famous authors have mentioned the juvenile drama in their writings. Charles Dickens in his sketch entitled ‘A Christmas Tree,’ says: ‘The Toy Theatre—there it is with its familiar proscenium, and ladies in feathers, in the boxes—and all its attendant occupation with paste and gum and glue, and water colours, in the getting up of ‘The Miller and His Men,’ and ‘Elizabeth; or the Exile of Siberia.’”
February 19, 1921.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s matchless essay, or article, “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured,” on page 227 of “The Magazine of Art,” for April, 1884, commences: “These words will be familiar to all students of the Juvenile Drama. That national monument, after changing its name to Skelt’s, to Park’s, to Webb’s, to Reddington and last of all to Pollock’s, has now for the most part become a memory. Some of its pillars, like Stonehenge, are still afoot, the rest clean vanished. It may be that the Museum numbers a full set, and Mr. Ionides perhaps, or else his gracious Majesty may boast their great collection; but to the plain private person they are become, like Raphaels, unattainable. I have at different times possessed ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Red Rover,’ ‘The Blind Boy,’ ‘The Old Oak Chest,’ ‘The Wood Demon,’ ‘Jack Sheppard,’ ‘The Miller and His Men,’ ‘Der Freischuetz,’ ‘The Smuggler,’ ‘The Forest of Bendy,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘The Waterman,’ ‘Richard the First,’ ‘My Poll and My Partner Joe,’ ‘The Inchcape Bell,’ (imperfect) and ‘Three Fingered Jack, the Terror of Jamaica,’ and I have assisted others in the illumination of ‘The Maid of the Inn,’ and ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’
“In this roll-call of stirring names you read the evidences of a happy childhood; and though not half of them are still to be procured of any living stationer, in the mind of their once happy owner they survive—kaleidoscopes of changing pictures—echoes of the Past.”
He speaks of a certain shop in Edinburgh, in which he saw a Toy 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. Long and often,” he continued, “have I lingered with empty pockets. That shop, which was dark and smelt of Bibles, was a loadstone rock for all that bore the name of boy. They could not pass, nor, having entered, leave it—it was a place besieged.
“I cannot deny that joy attended the illumination; nor can I forgive that child who, willfully foregoing pleasure, stoops to ‘Twopence Coloured.’ With crimson lake (hark to the sound of it—crimson lake—the horns of elfland are not richer on the ear)—with crimson lake and Prussian blue a certain purple is to be compounded, which for cloaks especially, Titian could not equal. The latter colour with gamboge, a hated name, although an exquisite pigment, supplied a green of such a savoury greenness that to-day my heart regrets it. Nor can I recall without a certain tender weakness the very aspect of the water where I dipped my brush. Yes, there was pleasure in the painting. But when all was painted, it is needless to deny it, all was spoiled. You might indeed, set up a scene or two to look at; but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance. Two days after the purchase the honey had been sucked. Parents used to complain; they thought I wearied of my play. It was not so, no more than a person can be said to have wearied of his dinner, when he leaves the bones and dishes. I had got the marrow of it and said grace.
“Then was the time to turn to the back of the Play-book and to study that enticing double file of names, where poetry for the true child of Skelt reigned ‘happy and glorious,’ like her Majesty Queen Victoria. Much as I have travelled in these realms of gold I have yet seen, upon that map or abstract, names of El Dorados that still haunt the ear of memory and are still but names. ‘The Floating Beacon,’—why was that denied me? of ‘The Wreck Ashore’? ‘Sixteen-String Jack,’ whom I did not even guess to be a highwayman, troubled me awake, and in a mask still visited my slumbers; and there is one sequence of three from that enchanted calendar that I still at times recall like a loved verse of poetry: ‘Lodoisak,’ ‘Silver Palace,’ ‘Echo of Westminster Bridge,’ names—bare names, are surely more to children than we poor, grown-up obliterated fools remember.”
He continues further on, “The scenery of Skeltdom—or shall we say the Kingdom of Transportonus?—had a prevailing character, whether it set forth Poland as in ‘The Blind Boy,’ or Bohemia with ‘The Miller and His Men,’ or Italy with ‘The Old Oak Chest,’ still it was transpontus. A botanist could tell it by the plants; the hollylock was all pervasive, running wild in deserts; the dock was common, and the bending reed; and overshadowing these were poplar, palm, potato tree and ‘Quercus Skeltica’—brave growths. The caves were all embowelled in the Surreyside formation; the soil was all betrodden by the light pump of T. P. Cooke. Skelt, to be sure, had yet another, an oriental string; he held the gorgeous East in fee; and in the new quarter of Hyeres, say in the garden of the Hotel de Isles d’Or, you may behold these blessed visions realised.”
In conclusion, R. L. S. says: “In Pollock’s list of publications 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 at all a dream. I seem to wander in a ghostly street—E.W., I think the postal district—close below the fools-cap of St. Paul’s, and yet within easy hearing of the echo of the Abbey bridge. There is 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 but dust.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.”
The writer possesses a copy of this extremely interesting and valuable article from the pen of so celebrated a novelist and poet. Is it not possible that Stevenson was inspired not a little, by his early association with the Toy Theatre when he wrote his masterpiece, “The Treasure Island”? It is so full of romantic colour and incidents that his boyhood fancies and dreams may have been brought into play. Stevenson evidently did not know much if anything about West’s Plays. Possibly because, as Mr. Ralph Thomas remarks, they are so exceedingly scarce, or it may be that he made use of Skelt’s Plays when he wrote his article because he purchased some of them from Skelt himself, and so this fact would be uppermost in his mind. The article, which is illustrated with reproductions of scenes and characters of the Toy Theatre, ranks amongst the most cherished treasures of the writer.
Another well written article (similarly illustrated and by Brander Matthews) appeared in No. 4, vol. 58, of “Scribner’s Magazine,” October, 1915, under the title of “A Moral from a Toy Theatre.” Another appeared in the “Evening News” of December 16, 1908, which formed part No. 6 of the series of articles then being published under the heading of “The Dying Trades of London.” It was entitled “Toy Theatre Makers.” Another entitled “The Tinsel Tragedians,” by S. R. Littlewood, appeared in “The Daily Chronicle” for Jan. 7, 1914. A previous one (fully illustrated) by the same author appeared in the same newspaper of September 12, 1912. This was entitled “Twopence Coloured: the Juvenile Drama;” whilst the “Ladies’ Pictorial” for November 21, 1914, published a special illustrated article upon the same subject, all of which were evidently written with a view to encourage the industry, and to let it be known that Toy Theatres, Juvenile Drama, Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured could still be obtained. The great war would no doubt interfere with the sales somewhat, and possibly put an end to it, and this cannot be ascertained without making a voyage of discovery to 73 Hoxton Street, not far from Old Street Police Court.
A great change has however, come over the aspirations and pleasures of the modern boy. Boy Scouts, Boys’ Brigades and other excellent man-framing associations and institutions, as well as the alluring Cinema Theatres, none of which existed in our old boyhood days, have instilled a new form of life into the rising generation. What was real pleasure and fun to us (“Old Boys”) does not appeal to them, only as curiosities, and relics of “Peeps into the Past.”
21, Fircroft Road,
Transcript by Justin Gilbert
See his website at "Penny Dreadfuls"