The Toy Theatres Of Old St & Hoxton
William Webb, 49 Old St, 1857
These days the vicinity of Old St is renowned for its digital industries but, for over a hundred years, this area was celebrated as the centre of toy theatre manufacture in London. For centuries, these narrow streets within walking distance of the City of London were home to highly skilled artisans who could turn their talents to the engraving, printing, jewellery, clock, gun and instrument-making trades which operated here – and it was in this environment that the culture of toy theatres flourished.
Between 1830 and 1945, at a handful of addresses within a half mile of the junction of Old St and City Rd, the modest art of publishing engraved plates of characters and scenery for Juvenile Dramas achieved its metier. The names of the major protagonists were William Webb and Benjamin Pollock. The overture was the opening of Archibald Park’s shop at 6 Old St Rd in 1830, and the drama was brought to the public eye by Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured in 1884, before meeting an ignominious end with the bombing of Benjamin Pollock’s shop in Hoxton St in 1945.
Responsibility for the origin of this genre of publishing belongs both to John Kilby Green of Lambeth and William West of Wych St in the Strand, with the earliest surviving sheets dated at 1811. Green was just an apprentice when he had the notion to produce sheets of theatrical characters but it was West who took the idea further, publishing plates of popular contemporary dramas. From the beginning, the engraved plates became currency in their own right and many of Green’s vast output were later acquired by Redington of Hoxton and eventually published there as Pollock’s. West is chiefly remembered for commissioning artists of acknowledged eminence to design plates, including the Cruickshank brothers, Henry Flaxman, Robert Dighton and – most notably – William Blake.
Green had briefly collaborated to open Green & Slee’s Theatrical Print Warehouse at 5 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, in 1805 to produce ‘The Tiger’s Horde’ but the first major publishers of toy theatres in the East End were Archibald Park and his family, rising to prosperity with premises in Old St and then 47 Leonard St between 1830 until 1870.
Park’s apprentice from 1835-42, William Webb, set up on his own with shops in Cloth Fair and Bermondsey before eventually opening a quarter a mile from his master at 49 (renumbered as 146) Old St in 1857. Webb traded here until his death in 1898 when his son moved to 124 Old St where he was in business until 1931. Contrary to popular belief, it was William Webb who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous essay upon the subject of toy theatres. Yet a disagreement between the two men led to Stevenson approaching Webb’s rival Benjamin Pollock in Hoxton St, who became the subject of the story instead and whose name became the byword for toy theatres.
In 1876, at twenty-one years old, Benjamin Pollock had the good fortune to acquire by marriage the shop opened by his late father-in-law, John Redington in Hoxton in 1851. Redington had all the theatrical plates engraved JK Green and, in time, Benjamin Pollock altered these plates, erasing the name of ‘Redington’ and replacing it with his own just as Redington had once erased the name ‘Green’ before him. Although it was an unpromising business at the end of the nineteenth century, Pollock harnessed himself to the work, demonstrating flair and aptitude by producing high quality reproductions from the old plates, removing ‘modern’ lettering applied by Redington and commissioning new designs from the naive artist James Tofts.
In 1931, the writer AE Wilson had the forethought to visit Webb’s shop in Old St and Pollock’s in Hoxton St, talking to William Webb’s son Harry and to Benjamin Pollock, the last representatives of the two surviving dynasties in the arcane world of Juvenile Dramas. “In his heyday, his business was very flourishing,” admitted Harry Webb speaking of his father,” Why, I remember we employed four families to do the colouring. There must have been at least fifteen people engaged in the work. I could tell their work apart, no two of them coloured alike. Some of the work was beautifully done.”
Harry recalled visits by Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens to his father’s premises. “Up to the time of the quarrel, Stevenson was a frequent visitor to the shop, he was very fond of my father’s plays. Indeed it was my father who supplied the shop in Edinburgh from which he bought his prints as a boy,” he told Wilson.
Benjamin Pollock was seventy-five years old when Wilson met him and ‘spoke in strains not unmingled with melancholy.’ “Toy theatres are too slow for the modern boy and girl,” he confessed to Wilson, “even my own grandchildren aren’t interested. One Christmas, I didn’t sell a single stage.” Yet Pollock spoke passionately recalling visits by Ellen Terry and Charlie Chaplin to purchase theatres. “I still get a few elderly customers,” Pollock revealed, “Only the other day, a City gentleman drove up here in a car and bought a selection of plays. He said he had collected them as a boy. Practically all the stock has been here fifty years or so. There’s enough to last out my time, I reckon.”
Shortly after AE Wilson’s visit to Old St & Hoxton, Webb’s shop was demolished while Benjamin Pollock struggled to earn even the rent for his tiny premises until his death in 1937. Harry Webb lived on in Caslon St – named after the famous letter founder who set up there two centuries earlier – opposite the site of his father’s Old St shop until his death in 1962.
Robert Louis Stevenson visited 73 Hoxton St in 1884. “If you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children speed to Pollock’s” he wrote fondly afterwards. 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 enchanted by the magic of toy theatres, especially at Christmas, but I cannot quite put my finger on what still draws me to the romance of them.
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 concluded wryly. I cannot imagine what he would have made of Old St’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ today.
Drawings for toy theatre characters by William Blake for William West
The sheet as published by William West, November 4th 1816 – note Blake’s iniitals, bottom right
Another sheet engraved after drawings by William Blake, 1814
124 Old St, 1931
73 Hoxton St (formerly 208 Hoxton Old Town) 1931
Benjamin Pollock at his shop on Hoxton St in 1931
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