Wednesday 28 September 2022

Child’s play – The wonderful world of the Victorian Toy Theatre by Ally Sherrick

I have long harboured an ambition to visit the wonderfully eccentric Gothic Revival villa of Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, the creation of writer, art-historian and politician, Horace Walpole (1717-1797).

I read Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, generally regarded as the first gothic novel, in the sixth form at school and I was keen to see what else his imagination had conjured into life in bricks and mortar.

My visit, in late August, coincided with the final weeks of a fascinating exhibition of late Regency and Victorian toy theatres, many of which took as inspiration the gothic melodramas that were so popular on the English stage in those days.

A toy theatre of the play, ‘Blue Beard’ by George Colman, dating from around 1862/3

The exhibition was staged by Strawberry Hill in association with Pollock’s Toy Museum in London who own an extensive collection of toy theatres dating back to the days of Benjamin Pollock, a publisher and seller of everything needed to put on performances of plays in miniature in your own home.

As I peered beyond the proscenium arch into the tiny worlds depicted on stages built from wood, cardboard and paper, I was transported back to a time when plays were the main form of dramatic entertainment, long before the world of film and television came to dominate visual storytelling.

Though people made their own toy stages and enjoyed putting on puppet plays, it wasn’t until 1811 that the first commercially-produced toy theatres, also known as paper theatres, began to be made.

With origins in the theatrical souvenir prints first produced by print publishers in Covent Garden, London’s main theatre district, they sought to replicate the popular theatre productions of the day. These were melodramas, pantomimes, folkloric tales and ballad opera, all of which involved plenty of action, scenery changes and more than a little blood and gore.

Scene from the popular melodrama, The Miller and His Men, or The Bohemian Banditti by Isaac Pocock dating from circa 1862

At first the toy theatre kits were quite limited in scope, made up wooden stages with a few sheets of characters and a selection of scenes. But as their popularity and that of theatre-going itself grew, they became more complex offering complete scenes, a wider range of characters – with costume changes –  and scripts based on the plays being presented on stage, cut down to make them easy to present at home. There was even the chance to buy tiny candles and oil-lamps to light the stage too – a risky business when everything was made of wood, card and paper!

Characters for a toy theatre published by Pollock

The characters and sets were drawn by professional artists including George Cruikshank who went on to illustrate the early editions of many of Charles Dickens’ novels. The artists modelled their work closely on the stage play and were usually given a free seat to make their sketches from life. They even gave the paper version of the actors they drew the same facial expression as the real-life ones. Copies of the original drawings were then printed on to paperboard for sale.

Drawing of Punch and Judy by George Cruikshank

During the first half of the 19th century 300 of London’s most popular plays were issued as toy theatres and many of them were sold in theatre foyers to members of the audience attending the show as mementoes of their visit as well as playthings for their children. Theatre-owners loved them too because they acted as great free advertising for their shows.

Popular play-kits included Blue Beard, based on the original, grisly French fairy-tale about a man who kills his wives and locks them away in a secret chamber, The Mistletoe Bough, a chilling story about a girl who gets locked in a chest while playing a game of hide-and-seek at Christmas and The Miller and His Men. This, the most popular toy-theatre melodrama of its day, a tale of kidnap and robber-bandits hiding out in the forest, came complete with a small wad of gunpowder for lighting in the final fight scene  (see image above). Shakespeare’s history plays were also a popular subject as were the pantomime stories of The Forty Thieves, Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty.

A scene from The Mistletoe Bough; or, The Fatal Chest, a melodrama by Charles A. Somerset shown at the Garrick Theatre in 1834. Toy theatre version circa 1859

The typical price for a sheet of characters or scenery was “a penny plain and twopence coloured”. The word ‘plain’ referred to sheets printed in black and white. The ‘coloured’ sheets sold were pre-coloured, sometimes by hand.

Aside from the fact they were cheaper, there was great fun to be had from buying the ‘plain’ sheets as you could colour the stages and characters yourself. For either type, you could add extra decorative touches using bits of cloth and ‘tinsel’ (pieces of metal foil). You then cut the characters out and mount them on small sticks, wires or strings for moving around the stage as you spoke the lines.

Copy of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood toy theatre script

The actual theatre ‘boxes’ the plays were staged in could be made at home or else bought in shops. The latter were quite large and elaborate and the more costly ones even had roll-up curtains. And no toy theatre was without its own orchestra pit!  

Behind the scenes of a toy theatre

Not surprisingly, adult toy-theatre enthusiasts of the day included several authors of children’s stories including, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson loved them so much he even wrote about them.

The author of many children’s books, Robert Louis Stevenson was a great fan

The heyday for toy theatres was from the early 1830s to the mid 1860s. After this time, few new titles were added and the move towards more ‘realistic’ plays in the theatre proved less-suited to the medium. The number of toy theatre publishers began to dwindle and, after 1890, there were only two main publishers of toy theatre kits – H.J. Webb and Benjamin Pollock. Pollock kept trading until he died in 1930. His stock was eventually bought up by an enthusiast and went on to form the basis of the collection now owned by Pollock’s Toy Museum.

Some Shakespeare plays were also adapted for toy theatre.
 This picture shows a close up of a scene in Richard III

If you want to marvel at these small miracles yourself and are planning a visit to London in the near future, then, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s ...’ Or alternatively, check  out their toy theatre page online including a great short video on how to put on a toy theatre play.

Let the play begin!

Watch Ally's You Tube video on toy theatres by clicking here

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick



Wednesday 21 September 2022

In Memory of Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022 by Catherine Randall

As you will all know, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II sadly died earlier this month at the age of 96. As a nation, we said goodbye to her at her magnificent state funeral on Monday, and we want to remember her here on the Time Tunnellers blog this week too.

When we’re thinking about the Queen, it can be hard for us to imagine that our lives ever had anything in common with her life. It’s especially hard for those of us who are still children. Most of us don’t live in palaces, or regularly meet Presidents and Prime Ministers. We don’t usually get the chance to thank people who are making a difference to our world by their charity work, or their work for the emergency services - something that the Queen often did. But if we take a look at the Queen’s childhood, we can see that there were important experiences that she shared with other children at the time, as well as things that she continued to share with children throughout her life.

One of the things that she shared with many people during her long life was of course her love of animals, especially dogs and horses.

Not many people will have been given their first pony by their grandfather the King, but lots of children will have had the joy of their parents bringing home a new family dog. This is what happened to Princess Elizabeth when she was seven.

One of her friends had a Pembroke Welsh corgi dog, and Princess Elizabeth wanted one too. Her father, the Duke of York, obviously thought this was a good idea, because one day in 1933 he brought home a corgi as a family pet. The dog was called Dookie, and apparently was very badly behaved, biting both courtiers and visitors, but Princess Elizabeth loved him.

Princess Elizabeth with her first corgi, Dookie

Soon another corgi, Jane, joined the family. You can see how much Princess Elizabeth loved her dogs in this picture from 1936 showing her with Dookie and Jane, and her mother, the Duchess of York.

Princess Elizabeth with her mother, the Duchess of York,
and their corgis, Dookie and Jane in 1936

By this time, in 1936, her beloved Grandpa had died and her uncle, the Prince of Wales, had become King Edward VIII. It was at this point that Princess Elizabeth’s life changed for ever.

Edward VIII wanted to marry an American lady called Mrs Simpson but, even though he was King, the government wouldn’t let him marry her because she had been divorced twice and in those days it was considered completely unacceptable for a King to marry a divorced person. King Edward VIII decided to step down from the throne rather than give up the woman he wanted to marry, and his brother -Princess Elizabeth’s father - became King George VI instead. This was called the Abdication and it happened in December 1936. From this time on, Princess Elizabeth became heir to the throne.

A souvenir of King Edward VIII’s coronation – 
the coronation that never happened because the King abdicated before he was crowned

From now on Princess Elizabeth’s life might have become even less like that of other children, if it hadn’t been for the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Like many children, Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, were evacuated from London to protect them from enemy bombing. Although they were sent to stay at Windsor Castle, the royal residence to the west of London, rather than having to live with total strangers, they were still separated from their parents who remained at Buckingham Palace throughout the war. In 1940, Princess Elizabeth gave her very first radio broadcast during the BBC Children’s Hour, addressing other child evacuees: ‘My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all…’

Princess Elizabeth giving her first radio broadcast from Windsor Castle, aged 14

The royal sisters were not even entirely safe at Windsor – many bombs fell in the area, and they often had to take refuge in the castle’s bomb shelters during an air raid.

Before the end of the war, at the age of 18, Princess Elizabeth signed up for the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and trained and worked as a driver and mechanic. Like other girls her age, she was determined to do her bit for the war effort.

At the victory celebrations in 1945, Princess Elizabeth stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her parents and sister, acknowledging the cheers of a delighted and relieved crowd. However, afterwards, she shared the jubilation of the people, as she and her sister were allowed out of the palace to go and mingle anonymously with the crowd. Later, Queen Elizabeth described this as ‘one of the most memorable nights of my life.’  She said, ‘I remember we were terrified of being recognised…I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.’

Princess Elizabeth’s corgis remained very important to her. On her birthday in 1944 she was given a corgi called Susan. Remarkably, all the Queen’s dogs after this were descended from Susan, who lived to the ripe old age of 14.

Princess Elizabeth with her dog, Susan, given to her on her eighteenth birthday

Queen Elizabeth remained devoted to her corgis throughout the rest of her life. You may have seen her two current dogs, Muick and Sandy, on television on Monday, watching the funeral procession at Windsor Castle.

It was a fitting and touching personal tribute to Queen Elizabeth, the longest serving monarch in British history.

Watch Catherine's YouTube video on Queen Elizabeth II by clicking here

The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.

Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Visiting history by guest author Tom Palmer

As well as looking at pictures and photographs, interviewing people, going to museums, watching films, YouTube, historical documentaries, reading book after book to do my research, I also like to go to the place where the book is set.

In the case of Resist that place is Velp.

Velp is small village that has become part of the city of Arnhem in the west of the Netherlands. It is calm and friendly, picturesque and lovely. There are a lot of people on bicycles and gardens with flowers and nice little shops and cafes. You wouldn’t think that one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War took place on its streets, with ordinary people hiding in the cellars to avoid tanks and bombs and aeroplanes, smoke and fire and blasts and worse.

And, to be honest, it is very hard to imagine war when you visit Velp nearly eighty years later. For research purposes there might not seem much point. But – if you can – it really is worth visiting a place where you are setting a story.

I realised that when I arrived to find myself in Velp railway station.

I was here. In the village where the whole of my historical novel, Resist, is set. Metres from where the book starts at the level crossing where my main character is forced to stop and be searched by a German soldier.

How did I feel?

Thrilled. Excited. Giddy. But I’d learned absolutely nothing new. Not yet.

Not until I found the building that stands where my hero character used to live. Here was my first lesson.

There’s a statue of a girl in the middle of a garden of rosebushes half way up on the main road running north out of Velp.

The girl is in a ballet pose. She looks about fourteen. There is no sense that she was to become one of the most famous film stars who ever lived. But she did. This is a statue of Audrey Hepburn, star of Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady.

Standing in front of her statue when I visited Velp was big for me. It reminded me that my book was about Audrey Hepburn, the girl. Resist ends when she is fifteen, looking as she looked in this statue. The statue is in front of the building that has been built where she lived with her mother and grandfather.

That was what the story should be about. A girl who lived in a warzone, who did astonishingly brave things to help frustrate the Nazi occupiers of her home village. A very scared girl who has lost family members in the war and fears she will lose more.

Not about one of the most famous women the world has ever known.

Next, I walked up the road to the edge of the village. I wanted to explore the woods. Probably the most dangerous thing Audrey Hepburn did during the war was to go into the woods, search for a shot down Allied airman and take him food and water and clothes so that he could escape to safety and not be caught by the Nazis.

The woods will look very different today. Perhaps all of the original trees have gone. The Dutch needed to cut down trees in the winter of 1944 to 1945 to burn because the Germans had taken all their coal and other fuels.

That struck me when I was sat in the woods. Imagine if you ran out of fuel this winter. I am sorry to say that many will. How cold would you have to be to go into the woods and chop branches off the trees to keep your family warm, to keep your family alive?

This revelation, for me, is what made me understand that it was good I visited Velp.

I spent hours walking the streets of Velp. From Audrey’s house to the woods. From the hospital where she volunteered to the village centre. From the station to other places she had been to. I imagined in my head that I was Audrey going here and there. How she’d feel. What she’d do. So that when it came to writing the book I had her village mapped out in my head. I had some new ideas from seeing her statue and the station and the woods.

And it taught me that, although the events that Resist is based on were eighty years ago and, although the buildings and trees could all be new and different, history and its echoes is still there if you take the trouble to walk the streets.

Watch Tom's Time Tunnellers YouTube video here

Tom Palmer


Tom Palmer is the author of 57 children’s books, mostly historical or sports based. He has won the FCBG Children’s Book Award and the Ruth Rendell Award for Services to Literacy and has been nominate for the Carnegie three times. He lives in Yorkshire with his wife and daughter.


TWITTER       @tompalmerauthor


Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Ice House at Kew - by Jeannie Waudby

Since 1840, Kew Gardens has been a public Botanical Garden. It's now also famous for its Millenium Seed Bank which conserves over 2.4 billion seeds from all around the world, and when the Princess of Wales Conservatory was built a time capsule of seeds was buried under it by Sir David Attenborough - all plants facing extinction. In the 18th Century, these gardens encircled Kew Palace and the White House (now demolished) which were home to Queen Charlotte and George III and their large family. Echoes of the life they led can be seen in Kew Palace, Queen Charlotte's cottage, and in the kitchens.
I've visited Kew over many years and in recent years the kitchens and Ice House have been opened to visitors. I always find the spaces where servants worked and lived more interesting than ballrooms and galleries. The kitchens served the White House so that cooking smells would be separate. Lavish meals were prepared, including cold desserts: ices, syllabubs and jellies. But how did they keep them cold before electricity? This is where the Ice House came in. It's a brick-lined structure covered with earth and grass so that it looks like a mound with a tunnel entrance from outside.
It was built in the 1760s with beautiful arched brickwork above a pit where blocks of ice were packed between layers of straw and sacking. This was the Palace's giant 'fridge'. It was actually very efficient and the ice could stay frozen for months. It's not a new technology. Ancient Romans and Persians used the same system from 1800 BC.
But it was very labour-intensive, so in Georgian times only the very wealthy could afford the luxury of ice-cold drinks and food. In those days the ice was hacked out of the lake in blocks and carted to the Ice House to be packed into the pit. This was an extremely unpopular job and it must have been very hard for workers to keep their fingers from freezing as they laboured in the depths of winter in a place designed to keep in the cold. Then, fetching ice for the kitchen must have also involved cold hard work hacking out blocks and perhaps making them smaller before carting them the 400 metres to the kitchen. This is an image from the information notice outside the Ice House.
By the 19th Century ice from Siberia was brought by canal. It's strange to think of a time when ice had to be harvested and stored now that we can easily freeze it ourselves. Back in Georgian times, it was a natural resource from the winter lake and the colder weather, and the energy used came only from human beings.
Standing in the cold silence under the Ice House dome, I thought what a great setting for a story scene it is, and I used it in the 19th Century book I have been working on. This made me think of this week's writing challenge.
WRITING CHALLENGE Set your story in this brick Ice House. There are two characters inside. They have a wooden cart, an ice pick and a lantern, as well as lots of ice, sacking and straw. But the door is locked - from the outside! This seems like a scary scenario, but it doesn't have to be. You could make it funny, moving or even romantic. What happens?
Jeannie Waudby is the author of YA love story/thriller ONE OF US and has been working on a YA novel set in Victorian times. @JeanWaudby

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