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The Toy Theatres Of Old St & Hoxton

December 30, 2016
by the gentle author

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

You may also like to read about

William Caslon, Letter Founder

Along Old St

Christopher Smart & His Cat Jeoffrey

18 Responses leave one →
  1. December 30, 2016

    I am in heaven. What a delight to have this post delivered to my inbox. I’m an enthusiastic fan of Toy Theatres, and this is a divine history you’ve presented with spectacular visuals. I always learn something new from you. (I’m in agreement that building them is more than half the fun!) Thank you Gentle Author.

  2. December 30, 2016

    We had a Pollock’s tuppence coloured when we were little – the 60′s – though my Dad was more excited about it than we were I’m afraid.

  3. December 30, 2016

    My father, now almost 94, was absolutely delighted to see this. He has several of these toy theatres and, until he was almost 90, used to give a talk about them – and late Victorian/early Edwardian toys. Thank you.

  4. December 30, 2016

    fascinating, thank you. I own a Pollock’s theatre and I am glad to learn of its origins especially as I write Regency romances with children in, now I have a point of reference to research more about West’s sheets for a passing mention in my novels.

  5. December 30, 2016

    Fascinating and seasonal joys. Many years ago, I read Jane Shaw’s Susan Pulls the Strings, one of a series of books about Susan and her intrepid cousins, set in London in the 50s, at Christmas time. Part of the action hinges on these self-same toy theatres. Now I understand. Many thanks!

  6. December 30, 2016

    Perfection! One of my all-time favorite topics, delivered by my favorite Blogger. We visited Pollock’s, back in the 70s, and came home with many sheets of various productions, but my mind wandered in other directions and I ended up making my own theaters, inspired by traditional ones. There used to be a very notable grouping of toy theaters on display at the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe New Mexico. Although the selection has been pared down, the remaining examples are a reminder of this arcane and kindred art form. ( A question: Does anyone recall a small shop just outside the V&A Museum that sold paper models of all descriptions? )
    Thanks so much for this wonderful nostalgic post, as the Old Year winds down.
    Happy New Year, all.

  7. Shawdian permalink
    December 30, 2016

    Thank you. There is just something magical about toy theatres and I can imagine the absolute thrill of being able to go into a shop dedicated to nothing but theatrical toys. What a delight this must have been. What a shame it all came to an end by one of Hitlers bombs, what a shame and utter waste. I adore toy theatres and would like to know if anyone happens to know ‘where one can buy these toy theatres today?’ I am also thrilled to have found reviewer Sarah Waldocks website for regency books. A real treat for me today.

  8. December 30, 2016

    I remember my absolute delight discovering Pollocks theatershop (and that other shop of wondersL: The Mechanical Theatre) in Covent garden when visiting my brother who had an internship in London in 1991. Thanks for your article; now I know much more about the history :)

  9. Juliet shipman permalink
    December 30, 2016

    Yes I had a Pollocks toy theatre and I remember giving performances on it to a small select audience. I remember you pushed the characters on with metal slides and moved them backwards and forwards in this way. We always added a few stage effects, lighting, music and so on. It was such fun.

  10. Annie Martin permalink
    December 30, 2016

    Pollock’s survives in a premises just off Tottenham Court Road. They still sell their beautiful toy theaters and have a toy museum above their delightful shop. Google should furnish you with the address.

  11. Ros permalink
    December 30, 2016

    I learned a lot today. Thank you!

  12. pauline taylor permalink
    December 30, 2016

    Thank you GA. I remember that we had a toy theatre at home with a ship which seemed to sail on a very stormy sea, and pirates and a crocodile, all of which were operated by my father. Where it came from I have no idea but perhaps my grand father had something to do with it as he was born in Hoxton and lived in Whitecross Street, just off Old Street. Sadly I think that it was one of many things stolen when my parents were burgled in the 1970s, how I wish that I still had it !

  13. Lorraine permalink
    December 31, 2016

    Fantastic to read the history of these toy theatres, they still fascinate me. Thank you.

  14. Suzy permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Ooh I loved this! Funny, because I spent a pleasant hour or so meandering around the creaky Pollock’s Toy museum just the other week. I faffed about for ages in the shop all indecisive about whether to purchase a toy theatre. There is something special about them, isn’t there? The same with doll’s houses and everything miniature.
    I’ve felt a wee pang of regret on several occasions that I didn’t get a toy theatre though. Next time!

  15. Kristan Tetens permalink
    January 2, 2017

    There’s a wonderful Gaumont film of Pollock at work in the Hoxton shop: https://youtu.be/senXvAJWxgw

  16. January 2, 2017

    lovely post, I collect these.

  17. emlyn permalink
    March 8, 2017

    I loved reading this article as I am a great fan of the toy theatre and am working on one at the moment.I used to give performances but not any more

  18. Hetty Startup permalink
    August 1, 2017

    I had a Saturday job working at Pollocks toy museum and shop on Scala St. We held performances of the plays in the basement, served tea at little round tables in the shop and toured people through the floors and floors of exhibits. It was a formative part of my adolescence and magical too. I was sad when they moved to Covent Garden but realize a lot more people discovered bits of this story there subsequently.

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