Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Benjamin Pollock

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of 1 John Adam Street, Adelphi, London, WC2. Telephone: Temple Bar 2589

  • 1856 Benjamin Pollock was born in Hoxton, a poor quarter of London.
  • In his youth, Pollock worked in the fur trade. Nearby was the shop of John Redington: Printer, Bookbinder and Stationer; Tobacconist; and Dealer in miscellaneous articles. Shop signs advertised a 'Theatrical Print Warehouse', and another read 'The Trade supplied with Plays and Characters'.
  • Pollock, a regular visitor to the shop, fell in love with Redington's daughter, Eliza, and married her when still in his teens. Eliza Pollock bore her husband 8 children, but died in 1895.
  • When Redington died, the Pollocks inherited the business, and Benjamin abandoned the fur trade.
  • He therefore became involved both in conserving theatrical history and in catering for a home entertainment with over 60 years of tradition. The 'theatrical prints' in his 'warehouse' were the copperplate engravings and lithographs which sold as souvenir 'pin-ups' of stage stars of the last half century in their most popular roles. The 'plays and characters supplied to the trade' were prints of the scenery and cast, in miniature, of successful plays from the London theatres.
  • Redington had printed his sheets from hand-engraved copper plates: Pollock adopted the lithographic press - much more economical, but the correct preparation of the stones required skill and patience, and throughout the 60 years he kept shop in Hoxton Street he never entrusted the job to anyone else.
  • The trade which Pollock inherited was, however, failing. In its heyday, around the 1830s, there had been dozens of little jobbing printers plying the toy theatre trade (or Juvenile Drama, as it was then called). Many had shops in the Covent Garden area bordering on the West End, where the customers were quite affluent. In the 1840s, an enterprising East End family, the Skelts, brought the toy theatre into shops all over the country. But by the next decade the 'quality' trade had been taken over by German firms. To possess a German toy theatre gave a middle-class family cachet as they were more artistic in design than their English counterpart.
  • The man who brought 'Pollock's name into the limelight, and has kept it there, was Robert Louis Stevenson. As a boy he had discovered Skelt's sheets in an Edinburgh shop and in the 1880s, when in London, went in search for more.
  • 1918 William Pollock the son expected to succeed Benjamin in the business, was killed on the Western Front.
  • By the 1920s a pilgrimage to Mr. Pollock's had become a natural for luminaries of the London stage.
  • In 1925, the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild was founded, and helped to keep the toy theatre alive among enthusiasts.
  • In 1932, there appeared the first complete history of the Juvenile Drama, by A. E. Wilson, drama critic of The Star'; while in the same decade J. and E. Bumpus, the Oxford Street booksellers, ran successful five-week Christmas seasons of toy theatre performances for several years.
  • Pollock's eldest daughter, Louisa, came back to the shop to help him in his old age, particularly in the skilled job of hand-colouring the toy theatre sheets.
  • In 1936, an exhibition of the Juvenile Drama, with performances of scenes from the plays, was held at the George Inn, Southwark, to celebrate Mr. Pollock's 80th birthday. He was unable to attend due to failing health.
  • 1937 Benjamin Pollock died, having become a legend in his own lifetime: 'the last of the toy theatre makers'.
  • On Pollock's death, Louisa's sister Selina, also unmarried, joined her there. Between them they kept the place going, but they could not manage printing from the heavy litho stones, so sheet after sheet went out of print.
  • By 1940, they had decided to call it a day, and Louisa Pollock was in correspondence with George Speaight about stocks and a possible purchase price. George Speaight was then claimed by naval duties abroad.
  • 1944 It was not until 1944 that a deal was struck with Alan Keen, an Irish antiquarian bookseller who had visions of a grand toy theatre revival. In August, the stock was removed to a place of safety: a month later a flying bomb blew in all the windows and made the Hoxton Street shop uninhabitable.
  • The stock which Keen took over consisted of approximately 1,200 copper and zinc engraved plates; 60 lithograph stone blocks and a lithographic printing press; over 170,000 'penny plain' sheets of scenery and characters and 13,000 of theatrical portraits; and 15,000 playbooks. The plates, when Keen took them over, were in perfect condition but, owing to improper packing for storage a high percentage of them, while in his keeping, were irretrievably ruined.
  • 1947 British Industries Fair Advert as Manufacturers of "Regency" Toy Theatres, and Toy Theatre Plays in Wood and Plastic. "The Victorian Theatre" in Cardboard. Miniature Stage Lighting Sets, Construction Sets. All Accessories for Model Theatres. (Toys and Games Section - Olympia, 2nd Floor, Stand No. J.2264) [1]
  • By 1951, the receiver had been called in. Unanswered correspondence and unpaid bills had accumulated; the stock remained locked in store.
  • In 1954, Marguerite Fawdry wanted some wire slides for her son's toy theatre, and found the business closed down. Following enquiries, an accountant told her that the stock might be for sale, if she wanted it.
  • 1955 Marguerite Fawdry became the sole debenture holder and took over the stock. The company remained in the receiver's hands; any subsequent profits had to go to pay off its debts; and an annual return, required by the Board of Trade, enabled the Purchase Tax to be paid off bit by bit instead of all at once.
  • An attic was rented as office-cum-shop at 44 Monmouth Street, west of Covent Garden and trade was gradually built up.
  • 1960s Towards the end of the sixties, the rent demanded for 44 Monmouth Street started rising steeply. The Receiver also decided to bring the Receivership to a close. Also, Marguerite Fawdry's father-in-law bequeathed a sum which enabled the purchase of a freehold 18th century house at 1 Scala Street and the setting up Pollock's Toy Theatres Ltd as a publishing company in succession to the ill-fated Benjamin Pollock Ltd.
  • 1969 The Museum and its retail shop opened at 1 Scala Street on 1 January.
  • In 1970, the handsomely-boxed Regency theatre of wood and plastic, with lighting sets as an optional extra, had to come to an end as the cottage industries that made the many parts needed for the theatre had disappeared. In its place - a home-construction version of the Victoria Theatre in book form, which was cheaper, escaped tax, and was very easy to pack.
  • 1980s During the eighties, Pollock's thrived, Marguerite produced more books and toy theatre sales continued steadily. Then came recession.
  • 1995 Marguerite Fawdry died in September after a long illness, but the toy theatres she loved so much and the museum she created live on.
  • Pollock's Toy Theatres Limited has survived and is hoping in the future to publish new plays and theatres and so carry on the long tradition begun by Benjamin Pollock and his contemporaries.

See Also

  • [1] Pollock's Toy Museum

Sources of Information

  1. 1947 British Industries Fair Advert 508; and p221