"This way for fun", points an imperious black-and-white Victorian hand. This means that I have finally reached my destination -- the Pollock's Toy Museum hidden in a quaint little Scala street, off the busy Tottenham Court Road. The place is instantly recognisable, with its colourful painted facade, harlequins, toy shelves and an odd vintage robot or two.
Inside the Museum, a curious traveller will find more surprises: a toy theatre Dracula or the Kelmscott Chaucer colouring book. Or some eccentric book titles, such as Elegant Enigmas, the Betrayed Confidence Revisited and a World of Things -- welcome to a secret Victorian time machine and a well-hidden gem of London!
Being inside is like finding oneself in an old grandma's home: a little bit cramped but full of engaging stories. Do you know what electrolier is? It is an electric chandelier still in its place, and probably dating to the early 1920s - 1930s. Still working! The museum now occupies what used to be a pub and a mechanical electric shop with many old tin plates still in place. This rather unremarkable fact led to further discovery: the former owner of the electric shop had chummed up with the stage technician of the now-gone theatre which used to stand back- to- back to the shop, so this place had a long-time connection with the theatre world. Obviously, the theatre's name was Scala -- hence Scala street. As I managed to find out from Debbie (the manager) who had worked there since she was nine years old, the museum was started in 1956 in a single attic room at 44 Monmouth Street, near Covent Garden, above Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop selling toy theatres (also known as Juvenile Drama). In just a decade it managed to outgrow its premises and in 1969 moved to its present address at 1 Scala Street.
Now, who was Benjamin Pollock whose photographs and toy theatres are displayed at the museum?
As it turns out, a legend and the last toy theatre printer in London. He was part of the famous toy-making dynasty. As it transpired, his father-in-law was famous printer John Redington who, in his turn, worked for toy theatre publisher John Kilby Green and looked after his theatrical print warehouse. So, after Green died, Redington bought out his collection of engraved copper plates. On Redington’s death in 1876, his daughter Eliza carried on with the family printing business. The following year she married Benjamin Pollock, and then the couple ran the shop located at 73 Hoxton Street together. They also had eight children. Pollock used Green’s and Redington’s copper plates but with the imprint “B. Pollock”. These engraved copper plates (more than 300 in total) are now kept in the collection of the Pollock’s Toy Museum. And the toy theatre kits sold at the Museum shop are printed from the old Victorian Pollock’s plates.
In any case, despite his strong position, the printing business was not exactly lucrative. So, in the 1880s, Pollock began making toy theatres which he designed, printed and coloured himself. Hoxton was then a poor quarter of London but Pollock had been in business since 1856, and he developed it quickly. Toy theatres were usually sold as kits comprising a paperboard stage and accompanying set designs with cut out characters listed in the play being sold. And occasionally the protagonists bore likeness to popular actors of the time. Generally, Pollock republished older plays by using the plates he inherited: his version of Cinderella was made from the plates of 1844. This did not last long, though, as the public took more interest in Magic Lanterns rather than toy theatres. And it was at this point, that fortune smiled upon Pollock: one day in 1884, the famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson, entered his shop. “If you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's”, -- concluded Stevenson in his essay A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured inspired by the Pollock’s Toy shop. One could not wish for a better PR campaign.
In our times, when we are used to readymade products, toy theatres feel somewhat time-consuming: they need to be assembled and put together, and figures of the protagonists --carefully cut out. For children of the 19th century, such as R. L. Stevenson, “the purchase and the first half hour at home, that was the summit… I cannot deny that joy attended the illumination.”
Children would usually stage a miniature production for family and friends using an abridged script. Toy theatres were a very popular type of home entertainment prior to the TV era that robbed us of such sophisticated pleasures. However, there has recently been a revival of interest in toy theatres, and international toy theatre festivals are regularly held throughout Europe. So, Pollock’s Toy Museum represents an unbroken tradition of the Victorian home entertainment that suddenly became popular today.
After Benjamin’s death in 1937, the shop was run by his two daughters, Louise and Selina. They collaborated with actors and artists to create miniature toy theatres to sell. The shop’s clientele varied from children to actors, such as Charlie Chaplin. In 1944, they eventually sold the business. Shortly afterward the original shop building was destroyed by a German bomb. Today, a plaque marks the place where the old Pollock’s Toy Shop stood in Hoxton Street.
After WWII, the business went in sharp decline. In 1955, a BBC journalist, Marguerite Fawdry, was looking for wire character slides for her son’s toy theatre. She fell in love with the shop and eventually purchased the whole business. She rented a shop at 44 Monmouth Street -- in Seven Dials near Holborn -- and in 1956, opened Pollock’s Toy Museum. Despite the fact, that in 1988, Fawdry sold the business to brothers Christopher and Peter Baldwin, it is her grandson who runs the Museum today. Unfortunately, Museum and Shop eventually parted ways. Today, the Museum operates as a separate body and charity. Pollock’s Toy Shop owner Peter Baldwin had a collection of toy theatres and was best known for his role as Derek Walton in the evening soap opera, Coronation Street. He managed the shop between his acting jobs. In 2008, Peter’s brother retired and Louise Heard, the Shop’s manager, became the co-owner with Baldwin. In 2010, the two opened a second Pollock’s Toy Shop at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. Thus, Pollock’s Toy Shop still continues as business.
As for the Museum, it is a small place where one may lose all sense of time! One of the main rooms features only old toy theatres, most of them from the old Pollock’s Toy Shop, accompanied by the photos of the former owner himself.
While climbing up the narrow stairs, overpopulated with dolls and toy soldiers, one is greeted by an Edwardian hobby horse and toy weapons. Be brave, be not afraid and venture into the hidden recesses of the house. And your curiosity will be generously rewarded. If you have never seen a forebear of a camera or animated cartoons, you will have a chance: Praxinoscope, 1878! This parlour entertainment invented by Emile Reynaud paved the way for a more advanced Theatre Optique with celluloid bands wound on spools and producing its own musical effects that used to attract big crowds to Musée Grévin in Paris.
Progressing further inside, one arrives into the room with plenty of exquisite miniature doll's houses, displayed alongside the first models of toy soldiers made in Nuremberg in 1775. A perfect trip to the Drosselmeiers world! By the way, the information about the toys can be read off the wooden paddles, quietly placed on chairs and mantelpieces around the Museum. The dolls’ houses are meticulously furnished with tiny French-style armchairs and kitchen utensils – like in real life. One can follow fads and fashions in interior house decoration of the late 19th century just by moving from house to house. The visitor will also stumble upon rare Javanese and Indian dolls, cuddly teddy bears, exotic masks, a Pierette doll given to a young actress after the performance in 1897, and all sorts of toys you could have read about in children’s books. Look out for the ancient Egyptian clay mouse with moving mouth and tail: it appears crude but it is 4 000 years old.
Towards the end of my visit I yielded to the temptation and went to the early 20th century cash register to buy the Magic Lantern theatre for ten pounds -- it is impossible to resist leaving this out-of-time place without taking at least a little memento of the fairy-tale I have been to.