Curtain up ... some of the toy theaters that can be seen at the museum
Text & photos: Lydia Aisenberg
I have a ‘thing’ for teddy bears. Always have since as long back as I can remember.
When I made aliyah in the mid-1960s, I was joined by a large yellow, bright eyed bear, a 21st birthday present from my fiancée at that time who had heard me lament about my older brother dissecting the only teddy bear I had been given as a child.
The engagement didn’t last but the bear is still with me! Both Teddy and I seem to have weathered pretty well over the almost five decades we have spent together in Israel. We have both survived the cuddles – and sometimes too feisty play of five children and almost twice as many grandchildren. Teddy has also had a twirl or two in the kibbutz laundry over the years and come out smiling … well sort of. Slightly less puffy - that’s true.
The good old days ... a theater poster of yesteryear Right: Screen puppits at the museum
During a recent visit to Britain, I paid a visit to Pollock’s Toy Museum in Fitzrovia, London, having heard from a friend about the bears, Victorian dolls, Dinky cars, board and card games, toy theaters, rocking horses and so many other stalwarts of yesteryear Toydom on display there, like Meccano and Bayko for starters.
Pollock’s Toy Museum is a maze of relatively small rooms that are part of two Georgian town houses that, although knocked together, do not seem to have undergone any serious repair work in yonks – the stairs creak, mustiness lingers everywhere and I would imagine that a night-time visit to this more than quirky building and its contents would be downright spooky.
The rooms are packed to the ceilings – literally – with playful goodies from long-gone times (many from the Victorian era). In the main, thousands of items are arranged in a slapdash way in glass cases or in mini-theater stages, with flimsy stick/string puppets, theater posters all framed and covering the walls with little space between each item. Artifacts that tug at one’s heartstrings and burrow deep into memory boxes sit on shelves or are piled high into niches on stair landings and elsewhere. Everything is here, from marbles to moneyboxes, puppets to cardboard play theaters, toy soldiers in all sizes and uniforms, dolls houses, toys from tin, wood, cardboard and various other materials, spinning tops and clockwork, this, that and almost everything except an orange – seemingly never ending, room after room, stairwell after stairwell.
I found it all rather overwhelming after a time … albeit totally fascinating!
Quaint . . . exterior of Pollock’s Toy Museum in Scala Street, London
An enormous collection of dolls and teddys are set up in a room brimming over from top to bottom and side to side. One gets to view them all through a doorway, a sort of peephole into an historical kiddies’ Aladdin’s Cave. Many of the dolls and teddy bears I found quite frightening, the expressions on their faces not exactly the friendliest, and among the dolls some of the faces did not exactly match their pretty dresses, bonnets and other clothing that in present times would definitely pull a hefty wow factor gasp from those who are into retro clothing.
According to some printed information, Pollock’s dates back to the 1850s when the original shop and printers were based in the then poor quarter of Hoxton in the London Borough of Hackney. It was at these premises that Benjamin Pollock manufactured hand-printed toy theaters and puppetry material, many fine examples of which are now on show at the museum, bearing – excuse the pun – his name.
The museum and attached toy shop situated in Fitzrovia today was founded by a colorful character by the name of Marguerite Fawdry, nee Desnieres. Born in 1912 to a Breton father and English mother, Marguerite was educated at the Lycee in South Kensington, London, and continued her education at the University of Lille. Prior to the Second World War, she worked at the London Theater Studio of Michel Saint Denis and also in journalism. World War II found her working in the BBC’s French Section and the Press Office of General de Gaulle.
In the early 1940s Marguerite married a British schoolmaster and fellow passenger whom she had met on a Florence to Rome train. It was some years later when settled in London and, seeking a certain part for a toy theater they had bought for their son, she came across and became absorbed in the Benjamin Pollock toy theaters and what today would be called vintage toys.
As the couple developed a deep interest in the olde-worlde theaters and toys of days long gone, not only from Britain but also from elsewhere in the world, and with family and friends donating toys to their ever expanding collection, Marguerite founded Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust in honor of Benjamin Pollock in the 1960s.
The toy museum curator, writer and entrepreneur kept a daily eye on her beloved memorabilia until her death in 1995 and today the museum is still in the family with her grandson, Eddie Pollock,at the helm of the museum and attached toyshop.
“Hopefully Pollock’s is these days continuing in a way that my grandmother would approve of,” says Eddie Fawdry, whose father was Marguerite’s only child.
Note: There is an entrance fee to the museum as Pollock’s does not receive any governmental or other monetary assistance, and although many of the recently made toys of yesteryear are available to purchase in the shop are really tempting, they are a bit expensive.