1780-1808 Theatrical Prints
Imagine a time without computers or television, a time where there was little to keep the middle class adolescent youth entertained. In the late 18th century sport was of the brutal variety, with bare fist fighting and cruel animal baiting. Not the sort of thing children should be exposed to even in those harsh days. What toys were available were hand made and the choice was extremely limited by today’s standards.
Entertainment was limited to the theatre and “Theatrical Prints” were souvenirs for the young theatregoer. They could collect images of their favourite actors depicting their heroes from the stage. They were the trading cards of the day.
Robert Dighton's 1799 portrait of John Kemble playing the title role in Pizarro
Robert Dighton (1751-1814)
These were not cheap however, as for a plain version the price was one penny and a coloured version was double the price. These were only for the middle class and above with disposable income and spare time.
But things were about to change!
1808-1810 Juvenile Theatrical Prints
In 1808 a young printer’s apprentice by the name of John Kilby Green was commissioned by William West (a haberdasher of Exeter Street) to produce the first set of “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”. These were similar to the comic lottery prints of the time, but were the first to have a theatrical theme.
(The Original “Juvenile Theatrical Print” engraved by JK Green for William West)
West said “The lottery things was so bad, and sold so well, that the idea struck me that something theatrical would sell.”
It wasn’t a huge leap of the imagination for these to develop into something of a collector’s item for the youth of the day, with more and more being produced daily.
Very soon these “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” would evolve into one of the most successful and long-lived toys England has ever seen.
26th February 1811 The Peasant Boy
William West’s “The Peasant Boy” represented the first set of prints dedicated to a single play. During 1811 West went on to produce a further 26 sets of character prints with virtually no competition.
(The Title Sheet for William West’s 1813 production of “Harlequin and the Red Dwarf”)
1st January 1812 The First Stage Front
The first know theatre stage front, or proscenium to give them their correct name, was created by JK Green on the 1st January 1812.
(IK Green’s Original Proscenium from 1812)
The original resides in the British Museum.
There are arguments as to who created the first proscenium. It is believed that Green copied West on the plays Green produced, but there is nothing definitive to show that this happened with Green’s proscenium. There is no West proscenium of the same age to compare, so perhaps we will give Green the credit for designing this, the first stage front.
There is no doubt however as to who was responsible for the first complete play with characters accompanied by back scenes and side wings. This was William West with his April 1812 version of “Timour the Tartar”
JK Green can be shown to have copied a few of West’s plays during this time, but he mysteriously disappeared from the Toy Theatre scene in 1814.
1812-1832 The One Penny Era
For the next 20 years the competition grew. William West remained the main exponent of the art, along with new publishers like Hodgson and Jameson. The market for the Toy Theatre remained relatively select, with the price of a single sheet still beyond the means of all but the wealthier sections of society. The average price of a complete theatre at this time was about £4, more than a months wage for most of the population.
At his peak West was taking over £30 a week, far in excess of any of his rivals and probably close to half a years pay for the average worker.
1832-1860 The ½ Penny Era
In 1832 JK Green reappeared after his mysterious absence of 18 years. It is suspected he joined the army. On his return he proclaimed himself to be the “Original Inventor of Juvenile Theatrical Prints”. A claim that wasn’t disputed.
Along with other new publishers, the Skelts, the Parks and the Webbs, JK Green introduced the new ½d scale prints. These were half the size and more importantly half the price of all previous prints. The combined effect brought a whole new section of the population into the market for the Toy Theatre. The result was the heyday of the Toy Theatre, with sales at their most prolific and an ever-growing clientele.
(JK Green’s Title Sheet in “Douglas”)
The Toy Theatre had become the most popular toy of the age. But after 40 years of unrivalled success, new toys were beginning to challenge the toy theatres supremacy.
1860 onwards - The Decline of the Toy Theatre
New mechanical imagery toys started to appear and new mass production techniques put the toy theatre into the shade.
(New mechanical toys like the Praxinoscope invented in 1877 by the Frenchman Charles Reynaud, helped to start the decline in the Toy Theatre.)
(The Magic Lantern was another invention to hit Toy Theatre sales hard.)
(Here we see an example by Augustin Lapierre of Paris in the 1860s)
William West had died, as had many other publishers. JK Green died on 29th February 1860, ending a career that spanned over 50 years. His son George James Green continued the business for a short while but found the going too tough and he and the Green family sold the stock of prints and plates to JK Green’s agent of many years, John Redington.
1860-1876 John Redington
John Redington was a publisher in his own right and was best known for his portraits, mostly depicting actors at the “Old Brit” as the Britannia Theatre was commonly known.
(Redington’s Mr Collins as Paul Clifford)
Redington did however reproduce nineteen of JK Green’s plays, which were unchanged except for imprint being changed to J Redington of 208 Hoxton Old Town. Redington added seven new plays of his own, including the well-known “Paul Clifford” and “Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”.
Harlequin & Oliver Cromwell – Scene No. 11 – Redington’s Theatrical Print Warehouse at 208 Hoxton Old Town as engraved by JK Green (27th December 1852).
1877-1937 Benjamin Pollock
A young furrier by the name of Benjamin Pollock frequented Redington’s print warehouse in Hoxton Old Town. Pollock had a keen eye for objects of beauty and it is not entirely known whether it was Redington’s prints or his daughter, which made him a frequent visitor.
What we do know is that shortly after Redington’s death in 1876, Benjamin Pollock married Eliza Redington and took over the business, which he ran for the next 60 years from the same premises.
Pollock was even less imaginative than his father-in-law, with no new productions to his name, although he did acquire three old “Park” plays to add to his repertoire. But where he lacked in one direction he more than compensated for in the direction of productivity. He almost single-handedly kept the Toy Theatre industry alive into the 20th century.
He was helped in his endeavours by an article written by Robert Louis Stevenson entitled “A Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured”. Included in Stevenson’s essay was the most significant line for Pollock. “If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's!”. And they did including GK Chesterton, Gordon Craig and Charlie Chaplin.
(Benjamin Pollock in his shop at 73 Hoxton St)
1944-1952 Benjamin Pollock Ltd
The death of Benjamin Pollock in 1937 and the intervention of the Second World War meant that his daughters Louisa and Selina found it difficult to keep the business going. The sale of a few sheets each week was barely enough to cover the rent, so in 1944 they sold the business to an antiquarian bookseller by the name of Alan Keen.
Pollock was quiet and reserved in his outlook, Keen, however, was entrepreneurial, and flamboyant. He set up “Benjamin Pollock Limited” and moved to the far more impressive location of 1 John Adam Street, Adelphi.
He produced lavish publications including JB Priestley’s “The High Toby” with drawings by Doris Zinkeisen. He introduced the first Toy Theatre kit in the form of “The Regency”, seen below.
(The Regency & Adelphi Theatres fresh from the production line)
The trickle of sales however was not enough to cover the high production costs and by 1952 Benjamin Pollock Ltd had gone into receivership, with all the stock packed up and warehoused.
Was this the end for the Toy Theatre?
1955-Present - Pollock’s Toy Museum
The demise of Benjamin Pollock Ltd would have been the end of the Toy Theatre industry, had it not been for a young mother searching for some wire slides for her children’s Regency Theatre. Marguerite Fawdry called the receivers and was told they could not get the wire slides for her, but that if she so wished she could buy the lot. This is what Marguerite Fawdry did and with the stock she acquired she set up “Pollock’s Toy Museum” at 44 Monmouth Street, near Covent Garden.
Reproductions were done but on a much smaller scale compared to the Keen era, with the result of a successful business and a new home for the Toy Theatre industry.
1971 Pollock’s “Regency” Theatre with “Sleeping Beauty” Play
In 1969 the museum was moved to new premises at 1 Scala Street were it still resides today. Eddy Fawdry, Marguerite’s grandson now runs the museum and shop, keeping up the family traditions of one of the most successful toys in English history. Most of the Toy Theatre products on sale in the museum shop can be traced back through Benjamin Pollock and John Redington to the “Original Inventor of Juvenile Theatrical Prints”, John Kilby Green.