John Kilby Green & the History of the Toy Theatre
Chapter 1 - The Origins of the Toy Theatre
Imagine life as young middle-class “juvenile” about 200 years ago. What was available to entertain you? Electricity hadn’t been invented, so there were no computers or televisions to absorb your playtime. There were no toy cars nor toy trains to play with, as they hadn’t been invented either. There was virtually no sport to follow, and what sport there was, would hardly have been suitable for children, with the likes of dog fighting and bare-knuckle fistfights. The evening time illumination would have come from a one-candle powered … candle. The wealthier parts of the population may have had lamps just powerful enough to read by. But even if you did read there was no Harry Potter, no comics, no super heroes and not even Dickens had contributed any of his works. The reading matter would have been Shakespeare and similar dramatic examples interspersed with the odd more light-hearted melodrama. However even books looked like just a pile of bound paper to the millions that couldn’t read.
The youth of 200 years ago didn’t have much to absorb their idle time by today’s comparison, but at the same time their expectations would have been significantly lower. If you have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, then could there be a better example of today’s affluent youth than “Dudley Dursley” on his birthday. He was not interested in what was inside his presents, but in the quantity. Thirty-six presents wasn’t enough for Dudley Dursley, as he had thirty-seven the year before. A child of Georgian times would have been lucky to get just one present and then it would most likely be a simple toy such as a wooden spinning top. Yet I am sure a child of 200 years ago would have valued their wooden spinning top more highly than Dudley Dursley valued all of his toys put together.
The major entertainment available to our middle class “juvenile” would have been the theatre, tickets were relative cheap, no reading ability was required and the young viewer could be transported away to lands and times that most could not imagine existed. The theatre was a place to be thrilled. A place where their heroes performed wondrous and spectacular events from history and from the wizardry of the playwright. At the end of the play they would have undoubtedly wanted a souvenir from their evenings entertainment. They would have found it in “Theatrical Prints”. These were the pin-up pictures of the time. They depicted the various stars posed as the heroic figures of drama or pantomime. ……….
A Theatrical Print - Mr Yates as The Red Rover (By JK Green 16th August 1842)
Life for our “juvenile “ of 200 years ago, however, was about to change. Sometime between 1808 and 1811 a young printers apprentice by the name of John Kilby Green, claims to have invented what was such a simple concept but went on to form the beginnings of one of the most successful toys in English history. JK Green, as I will refer to him from now on, took the standard theatrical print and reduced it in size such that eight characters would fit on to a single sheet. Under each would be written a short rhyme. These were “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”. William West took up this idea and progressed it to the next level, when he added scenes from the then current popular plays and thus the “Juvenile Drama” or more commonly called the “Toy Theatre” had been invented. By 1812 the “Toy Theatre” industry was well and truly established, with more than 5 printers contributing their works. With William West, Jameson and Mrs Hebberd being the most notable. Even JK Green had contributed with three plays of his own, although it is dubious whether these were purely his own work.
The Juvenile Drama was aimed at children, but not all children by any means. Firstly there was the cost. One penny for a single sheet, and tuppence for a coloured sheet. Some plays were many sheets in length, with examples of 20 sheets not uncommon. Not many children in the early part of the nineteenth century could afford such expense. So the Juvenile Drama was very much a pastime for the middle class and above. Secondly most of the plays on offer were full blown adult dramas. The scripts would have taxed most children, except for the very well educated. However I suspect that children were quite capable of using their imagination to create a play of their own based around the characters and scenes in their possession.
JK Green’s Frontispiece for “The Red Rover” 4th April 1836
The first performance for any young impresario was a daunting task. Firstly, unless he was one of the privileged few who could afford the “Tuppence coloured” sheets, he would have had to colour all the characters and all the scenes by hand. It would have been quite normal for there to be 10 sheets of each, so this was a lengthy affair taking several days if not weeks if done well. Once coloured the pieces had to be cut and mounted onto card. As card was relatively expensive, it was more economically to mount the cut pieces onto the card and then cut again, rather than glue the entire sheet onto card and cut in one manoeuvre. This would have been an especially difficult exercise as knives were very difficult to keep sharp to level required to carry out the intricate cutting of the minute detail of the characters and smaller pieces. Once the pieces and backdrops were ready, the construction of the stage was required. Some of the print sellers produced their own stage floor and rigging, to which the purchaser could add their own proscenium. The basic structure was a stage floor and four up rights joined by two beams to take the cross struts. The latter formed the slots for the scenery to be moved in and out.
Once everything was ready, the young impresario would begin the rehearsals for the first performance. The invitations would be issued and the programme written. The first audience would almost certainly be members of the family and the household and they were in for an evening of much amusement. They would assemble in the living room and sit close together in front of a small stage. The main lamps would be turned down and the candles around the small stage would be lit.
The curtain would rise and then the performance would begin. For most children the co-ordination required to manipulate the characters and the scene changes whilst reciting a play was beyond their years. Lines would be forgotten, characters would fall over and invariably the wrong scene would be present for all to see. If the performer reached the end of the play, “Red and Blue Fire” would be ignited for the finale and the curtain would drop. I suspect in many cases this would be last such performance. If the stage hadn’t caught fire from the candles lighting it or the grand finale, then the many snores and grunts of derision from the audience may have been enough to put the performer off more performances for fear of further embarrassment. However a few managed to perform the play with success and kept the audience wanting more. For these few the toy theatre was a production line of colouring, cutting and performance, with an ever-growing repertoire. Despite being the minority, the good performers must have numbered many hundreds, as the play sheets sold in their thousands and there was always a queue outside the print sellers every time a new production reached the shops.
The final scene from Redington’s Oliver Twist, performed by Barry Clarke
There have been many arguments over time as to who invented the Toy Theatre. I don’t believe the Toy Theatre was actually invented in one single step, but as a result of a three-stage process between the years of 1808 and 1812. Firstly the creation of “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” followed separately by the complete “Juvenile Drama” and finally with the introduction of the “Proscenium” or stage front.
“Theatrical Prints” had been in existence for many years before this time, but JK Green claims to be the person who invented “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” in 1808. He probably got the idea from what were called “Lottery Prints”. These were a series of small images on a single sheet of paper aimed directly at children and mostly of a comic nature. William West in an interview with Henry Mayhew in 1850 said “The lottery things was so bad, and sold so well, that the idea struck me that something theatrical would sell.” From that same article it would appear that West commissioned Green to produce the first “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”, but it is equally possible that Green came to him with the idea and that West capitalised upon it. This latter point seems to be more likely as West didn’t challenge Green’s claim to be the original inventor of “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”. (Click here to see the first know “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”)
To combine “Lottery Prints” and “Theatrical Prints”, was not a huge leap of the imagination, but somebody had to be first and it is most likely that it was JK Green.
It is perhaps clearer to see how “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” developed into the “Juvenile Drama”. In the interview between Mayhew and West, Mayhew leads into the article thus “One among those whom I visited was a celebrated publisher of penny theatrical characters and maker of toy theatres. He is the person to whom the children of the present generation are indebted for the invention. I found him confined to his room with asthma. He sat in a huge armchair, embedded in blankets, with a white night-cap on his head. He evidently was very proud of having been the original inventor of the toy theatres, and he would insist upon presenting me with the earliest prints in connection with the mimic stage. He was a little spare man whose clothes hung loose about him”. Before 1811 there is no record of any “Juvenile Drama” being available for sale, and certainly none exist in any museum. There also appears to be no gradual transition from “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” to the “Juvenile Drama”, so I believe that the step up from “Juvenile Theatrical Prints” to the “Juvenile Drama” happened rapidly around the beginning of 1811, with William West being the most likely publisher to have originated the idea. William West’s first known play was the “Peasant Boy” published with an imprint date of 26th February 1811. By the end of 1811 he had published character sets for more than 25 different plays. However most, if not all of these did not include any scenes. The first known play to have scenes was William West’s “Timour the Tartar” in April 1812. Although as we will see stage fronts were already available prior to this date, so the idea of a full stage performance with back scenes may have been possible prior to this date.
The earliest proscenium in existence was printed by IK Green with an imprint date of 1st January 1812. Green is believed to be the same person as the later JK Green, who claimed to be the original inventor of “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”, for reasons that will be explained later. According to William West, IK Green was an expert copyist. To be an engraver required this skill, but it seems very likely that Green used his skill to copy the works of others, so whether Green’s proscenium is the first ever produced is debateable. Peter Baldwin in his book “Toy Theatres of the World” recorded; that it is believed William West produced an almost identical proscenium at roughly the same time, although, no copies exist with which a comparison could be made. Who copied who has been debated many times, and the most likely outcome shows that West copied the commissioned artists’ work and that Green copied West. Green was cunning however and pre-dated his works, so making it look like he was the originator and that West was the copyist. Whether he actually made his products available for sale prior to West is highly questionable.
West continued to achieve success from his print shop in Exeter Street, whereas IK Green with no premises of his own and possibly with little money behind him disappeared from the scene in 1814. His place in the market was quickly taken up by one of the many emerging publishers. A. Park and Jameson being two of the better known.
The general quality of the engraving of this early period was elaborate and decorative and of the highest quality, with West and Hodgson standing out amongst the crowd. The emphasis was on quality productions and most of which were printed using what were called “penny size” plates. This continued for nearly two decades virtually unchanged.
JK Green reappeared on the scene in the early 1830s. His reappearance was heralded with the claim that he was the “Original Inventor of Juvenile Theatrical Prints, established in 1808”. This was a bold claim, but one which maybe justified by what we have seen earlier. JK Green did not stop with his proclamation, but soon commenced with the production of the “Half-Penny” size plays. It was with the introduction of the “Half-Penny” plays in the early 1830s, that the toy theatre really became more popular. Not only had it become cheaper and therefore more accessible to the masses, but also more popular plays and pantomimes were produced. It really did become the most popular toy of the era.
For another 25 years the toy theatre was the unrivalled leader of the toy market, but the real theatre was changing. Less dramatic plays were being produced and the pantomimes were now following a cycle with very few new examples hitting the stage. The new rage was for realism rather than melodrama. There were few scene changes and lengthy dialogue exchanges became more popular. These did not translate well to the toy theatre. The young adolescent performing a play wanted bright scenes with short dialogue, not the drab interiors of Dickens and the like. There was also more competition from different toys and the industrial age had allowed manufacturers to mass produce toys and quickly saturate the market. New imagery toys made the toy theatre look pedestrian compared to the new clockwork gadgetry of Praxinoscope, Zoetrope, Kinetescope, Chromatrope, Magic Lantern and other similar projection devices.
By the early 1860s the toy theatre was in decline. The number of publishers had greatly diminished to just a handful of dedicated men. The Skelts, the Webbs and John Redington were to be the only major publishers to continue in the industry.
John Redington had been Green’s agent for many years and after the latter’s death in 1860 Redington acquired the bulk of Green’s plates. Redington produced a few new plays of his own, but he also re-produced many of Green’s plays just with the name changed to Redington and the date removed so as not to show the age of the piece.
In 1876 Redington died, leaving his entire business to his daughter and son-in-law, Benjamin Pollock. Luckily for the toy theatre world Benjamin Pollock was keen to keep the business going. Pollock added even less in the way of new plays, but he did reproduce most of Redingtons and Greens plays again with the imprint changed to B Pollock. He didn’t trust anyone else to do his work not even his own children, they were used as cutters and colourists.
Pollock almost single-handedly kept the toy theatre business going from the late Victorian era into the twentieth century, and new generations of toy theatre fans were adequately supplied with numerous old plays. This revival was limited, but significant in that it was during this period that many well-known people reported to have been influenced by the toy theatre. Not least were Winston Churchill, GK Chesterton and Robert Louis Stevenson. The latter wrote an essay about his affection for the toy theatre and set in print the phrase “A Penny Plain & Tuppence Coloured”, a phrase that will be forever linked to the toy theatre.
Benjamin Pollock died in 1937 and passed the business on to his daughters Selina and Louise. They kept the business going, but neither had any knowledge of printing and stocks started to dwindle. The onset of World War II saw the business close and nearly destroyed by bombing. At the end of the war Alan Keen, an antiquarian bookseller, bought the business and set up Benjamin Pollock Limited. Alan Keen had grand ideas for the business and started the re-printing of plays and theatres with a lavish verve. He produced the first mass produced toy theatre with “Pollock’s Regency Theatre”. This was based around Green’s proscenium of the 1850s, which was cut & glued by the purchaser on to a Bakelite frame, with wooden stage floor. This was the first true kit form toy theatre. This was all boxed up and distributed with a play, “Aladdin” or later with “The Silver Palace”. Such great technological advances came at a considerable cost and demand wasn’t sufficient to cover these and by the early 1950s Benjamin Pollock Limited was put into receivership and the stock and printing plates were warehoused.
The toy theatre wasn’t to end here though. In the mid 1950s a young mother, “Marguerite Fawdry” needed some wire slides for her children’s toy theatre productions. She wrote to the receiver asking if she could purchase some from the liquidated stock. She was told “no” as all the stock etc, was in storage, but she could buy the lot if she so wished. This is what she did, not realising quite what she would find. There was enough to set up a small shop, but Marguerite decided to go one step further and set up “Pollock’s Toy Museum”, using the theatres and scene sheets as the starting point of the collection. In a very short period “Pollock’s Toy Museum” soon became a significant attraction in the back streets of London, quietly standing between the tower-blocks and general rush of the twentieth century London, whilst displaying much quieter times inside.
“Pollock’s Toy Museum” still exists today at 1 Scala Street, just behind Goodge Street underground station, with the Post Office Tower looming behind. Inside you will find many toy theatres and some go back to the days of West and Green, all beautifully set up ready for the performance.
Robert Louis Stevenson.