Benjamin Pollock, a penny plain, tuppence coloured
Yesterday as the first snowflakes of the winter spiraled out of a pale sky, I walked up through Spitalfields towards Hoxton following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson who came here to 73 Hoxton St in 1884 to visit Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop. “If you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children speed to Pollock’s” he wrote in his essay “A penny plain, tuppence coloured” – referring to the prices of the printed sheets in their hand-coloured and plain versions.
Stevenson was an only child who played with toy theatres to amuse himself in the frequent absences from school due to sickness, when he was growing up in Edinburgh. I too was an only child who was enchanted by the magic of toy theatres, especially at Christmas and it was the creation of these dramas that led to my first career, as a playwright. So you will understand why it was of interest to me to find 73 Hoxton St. Although Pollock’s Toy Theatres survived at this address into the twentieth century, I knew the shop was gone but I wanted to find the site.
Hoxton St has even numbers on the east side and odd numbers on the west. Walking past the Job Centre and Hackney College, I quickly found numbers 74 and 76, but to my disappointment I saw a recent housing development on the other side of the street without any numbers. I crossed the road to read a metal plate there which, contrary to my expectation, explained this was the site where the letter was read discovering the Gunpowder Plot. By now, the snow was falling fast, so I decided that I should be satisfied with this discovery and turned back towards Spitalfields. But then, as I passed Hoxton Post Office, I saw another round metal plate on the corner of Fanshaw St marking the site of Benjamin Pollock’s shop.
Even when Stevenson came here, he knew that Benjamin Pollock’s shop was the portal to an earlier world, because 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.
Coincidentally, it was Mr W.Webb’s great granddaughter, the legendary publisher Kaye Webb (who edited, Lilliput in the forties, Picture Post in the fifties and Puffin Books in the sixties and seventies), who first took me seriously as a writer and was the first to publish my works. She lived in a flat overlooking the canal at Maida Vale and when I came to London to stay with her there, she showed me one of Webb’s theatres that had been coloured and made up by Ronald Searle to whom she had been married. She regretted the name Pollock had erased that of her grandfather but I was fascinated that the knack for creating popular culture had been passed on down the generations.
John Reddington opened his shop in 1851 and ran it until his daughter Eliza married Benjamin Pollock in 1873 and they took over the shop, continuing until Benjamin Pollock died in 1937, by which time 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. His daughters Selina and Louise sold out in 1944 and shortly after the building was destroyed by an enemy bomb. It was Marguerite Fawdry who salvaged the remnants, including the printing plates, and opened Pollock’s Toy Museum in 1956 as a trust. The plates you see here today were kindly provided by Alan Powers, the modern-day saviour of Pollock’s Toy Theatres.
I cannot quite put my finger on what still draws me to the romance of these old theatres, 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.
As I walked back down Shoreditch High St in the whirling blizzard, I began to envy Stevenson’s escape to the South Sea Islands, but until the wanderlust seizes me, I am happy to be here in Spitalfields writing to you every day. In the meantime, we share our passion for toy theatres. I love the evocation of the heroic nineteenth century theatre that they provide and I am still entranced by the beautiful vista they offer to an imaginative world rich in the poetry of infinite dramatic potential.
There is still time for you to order one for Christmas from www.pollocksmuseum.co.uk where you can also book to attend a performance of JACK & THE BEANSTALK on 10th January at the Art Workers Guild in Queens Sq.