Pollock’s Toy Museum has graced Fitzrovia in London since the 1960s. However, it’s history dates back to the Victorian era, when the original Mr Benjamin Pollock sold ornate toy theatres for families to recreate their favourite plays and pantomimes at home. The stage was brought to life with vibrant scenes and figures, which the owner could colour by hand – or buy ready-illustrated for twice the price.
In his excellent lecture for the WEA, the current owner of the museum Jack Fawdry-Tatham explained how toys provide a unique window into the social and even political landscape of the time.
Around Dury Lane and Covent Garden in Victorian London’s West End, a thriving trade of toy theatre producers took hold on the back of the booming theatre industry, as the wealthy middle class sought out merchandise and mementos of their favourite shows. The toy theatres demonstrated the magnificence of the sets and costumes in what was the highest form of entertainment at the time – and impressive even by today’s standards. They now provide a wonderfully visual archive of what the theatre was like in the pre-photographic world.
Children spent hours playing with these toys, laying on shows for friends and family in the parlour, re-enacting the full scripts of hit plays or musicals. Of course, the theatres are now replaced with Coronation Street or Love Island on the telly. The Victorian actors and characters were faithfully recreated – similar to today’s celebrity culture that sets footballers or film stars in a video game.
The museum itself also provides a magical looking glass into the past. For example, board games and parlour games provide a vivid reminder of how families entertained themselves before computers and television. Some of the Jack’s favourite toys are the simplest. There are exquisite Peruvian figurines made from baked bread and Polish artworks fashioned from sugar paper. With enough time and dedication, even everyday materials can be turned into works of art.
Toys shine a reflection on what society is doing at the time. Space toys were all the rage in the 1960s and 70s, when children – and their parents – were fascinated by the lure of reaching the moon and beyond. The museum also holds a fascinating collection of puppets, which were used to express satire on political figures and current affairs, before the general population could read and write. As Jack noted, the puppeteer had a greater licence to share their anti-establishment views, as the public would blame the puppet not the hand that controlled it.
Visitors to the museum are drawn to the room of teddy bears, including the 116-year-old Eric, who held the crown of world’s oldest, before he was pipped into second place. As part of his charming narration, Jack explained how the stuffed bears were invented at the turn of the 20th Century to fill a niche in the toy market for young boys, who were discouraged from having dolls, but still yearned for an object of affection and nurture. Bears allowed them to develop empathy without feeling emasculated – and they still do to this day.
The collection of dolls in the museum brings to life the clothes and hairstyles of the Victorian period, and also speak to the social norms of the period, with some of the most ornate versions made from wax with fine silk costumes. These delicate creations were so fragile that girls were only allowed to play with them for a limited period, such as an hour after church on Sundays if they were well-behaved. They are light years away from the mass-produced Barbie dolls of today.
Pollock’s shop itself reflected the changing habits of society, rising to prominence at the peak of theatre going in London, before declining with the emergence of magic lantern shows, cinema, radio, mass literature and eventually television. Its popularity today lies in its curiosity and nostalgia – a precious time machine to an age when fun and imagination didn’t have an on-off-switch.