History of Puppetry in Britain

Red Devil Glove Puppet, Walter Wilkinson. Museum no. S.261-1998

Red Devil Glove Puppet, Walter Wilkinson. Museum no. S.261-1998

There are four main types of puppet used around the world: glove or hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes (operated from above by strings or rods), and shadow puppets. There are also other special types of puppet, including jigging puppets and water puppets. In Britain we have evidence of puppet performance dating back over 600 years.

Puppetry before 1500

Nobody knows when the first puppet shows were performed in Britain although the Romans probably had puppets, since they were known in Italy. Minstrels in France performed puppet shows as early as the 13th century and would have entertained with them when they came to England. The word 'puppet' was common in 14th-century England and Chaucer used the word twice. The 'Romance of Alexander' is a 14th-century manuscript illustrated with pictures of glove puppet shows in booths like those used for Punch and Judy today. Although written in Flemish, the manuscript may have been made by English scribes and artists and represents English puppet shows.

Glove puppets are very portable which is why they were popular in medieval times and were used by travelling minstrels and other entertainers. These shows were probably based on Bible stories and Greek and Roman legends. Monks and priests also used puppets and automated figures to tell Bible stories in church and to spread Christianity.

From 1500 to 1700

Travelling puppeteers in Elizabethan England performed in wealthy households. In 1561 the Duchess of Suffolk recorded paying 'two men who played upon the puppets'. Shakespeare referred to puppets and troupes of Italian puppeteers travelled around Britain in the 17th century, playing at fairs and markets, probably using marionettes.

The earliest recorded puppet plays in London took place in about 1600 at Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield, Holborn Bridge, Fleet Bridge and Bankside, but puppeteers made their living by performing all over the country. Bible stories such as Jonah and the Whale still featured in puppet shows and records show that one in Coventry in 1599 featured the devil. Medieval clergy used animated figures and puppets to help preach Christianity, and a devil puppet would have been a leading player in these, his evil-doings creating vivid and imaginative lessons.

According to a 17th-century poem by Samuel Butler, fireworks were used with puppet plays involving the devil - a theatrical (if not downright dangerous) way to show the perils of hellfire: 'Nor devil in the puppet-play be allowed
To roar and spit fire, but to fright the crowd'.

Puppeteers also performed versions of popular stage plays, historical stories and contemporary events and figures such as Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Glove puppets were probably the most common type of puppet in Elizabethan England but shadow puppets were also known.

Theatres were closed during the mid 17th century, when stage plays were forbidden. Puppet plays, however, were still tolerated, so from 1642 until 1660 puppet theatre flourished - mostly with glove puppets. When Charles II returned to England, entertainers from the continent came too, including puppeteers. They brought a string puppet character based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte figure Pulchinello. In England he was called Punchinello and eventually Punch.

Mr Punch was first recorded in England in 1662 by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys when he saw him as a marionette, operated in Covent Garden by the Italian puppet showman Signor Bologna. Pulchinella, as he was then called, was presented within a tent rather than in the type of booth we know today with the audience standing outside. Pepys brought his wife to see the show two weeks later and that October the same show was performed at Whitehall for the King. Pepys recorded seeing other Italian puppet showmen in England and in 1672 the King ordered that a puppet showman should be allowed to perform at Charing Cross.

Meanwhile, strolling puppeteers continued to play in portable booths around the country, with shows based on Bible stories and legends. Puppeteers were particularly active in 17th-century Norwich, a tradition that continues today.

The Devil has a long history in puppet shows. Records show that the Devil featured in a show at Coventry in 1599, and has also appeared with Mr Punch for a long time. An account of the 1699 May Fair records 'a Puppet Show, where a senseless dialogue between Pulchinello and the Devil was conveyed to the ears of the listening rabble through a tin squeaker'.

This puppet was made by the puppeteer Walter Wilkinson who did much to restore the reputation of glove puppets in the first half of the 20th century.

From 1700 to 1800

Puppet theatre in 18th-century London became fashionable adult entertainment. After 1710, when Martin Powell's puppets from Dublin opened at a theatre in St Martin's Lane, other marionette theatres were soon established.

Powell's theatre had footlights, backcloths and scenery. He performed in a tavern in Covent Garden and in towns outside London including Bath, Bristol and Oxford. His marionettes lampooned famous people and satirised current theatrical fashions, such as Italian opera. Other 18th-century London puppet theatres included Punch’s Theatre in James Street and the Patagonian Theatre in Exeter Change.

In 1770 a company of fantoccini, or Italian marionettes, introduced a new wave of continental puppet theatre to London. Italian companies performed comic opera, plays in the style of the commedia dell’arte featuring Harlequin and Columbine, and 'magical'  transformations of scenery.

By 1777 there were four puppet companies in the West End as well as an oriental-style shadow theatre show called 'Ombres Chinoises' (or 'Chinese Shadows'). The famous impresario Philip Astley managed one of these for a while and included shadow theatre in an entertainment he put on in Piccadilly.

By the end of the century puppet shows at large fairs (many of which featured the marionette version of Mr Punch) almost died out because they were too expensive to operate. Instead, the glove puppet version of Punch and Judy began to be a familiar sight in portable booths on the streets of London.

Punch's head, Richard Codman Snr, early 19th century. Museum no. S.420-2001

Punch's head, Richard Codman Snr, early 19th century. Museum no. S.420-2001

This carved wooden head of Mr. Punch was made in the early 19th century for a member of the Codman family, Punch and Judy men for four generations. In 1946 it was presented by Richard Codman Senior to another well-respected Punch Professor, Percy Press I.

Mr Punch has had his cone-shaped hat for a long time.  A 17th-century ballad referred to Mr Punch's conical hat, his amorous character, and to a character who: 'kissed like Punchinello or a sucking pig.'

Punch has also had his characteristically squeaky voice for hundreds of years, directions for a 17th-century play note that a character should 'speak in Punchinello's voice'.  An account of a performance by Punch and the Devil in 1699 noted that their dialogue was: 'conveyed to the ears of the listening rabble through a tin squeaker, which was thought by some of 'em as a great piece of conjuration as was ever performed by Dr. Faustus'. This is a reference to the Italian 'pivetta' which Punchmen today call a 'swazzle'.

Mother Shipton's head, Clowes Excelsior Troupe, 19th century, Museum No. S.421-2001

Mother Shipton's head, Clowes Excelsior Troupe, 19th century, Museum No. S.421-2001

This is the carved wooden head of a marionette of Mother Shipton, owned in the 20th century by the puppeteer Clunn Lewis and in the 19th century by the Clowes Excelsior troupe.

Mother Shipton featured as a character in 18th-century plays, and in 1712 the puppeteer Martin Powell advertised the play 'Mother Shipton and the Downfall of Cardinal Wolsey'. The same play was mentioned by an American journalist in 1728, writing about the English puppet theatre.

From early Tudor times, Mother Shipton was considered a prophetess, both in her local Yorkshire and around the country. Her many prophesies are said to have included the death of Wolsey, the Civil Wars and the Great Fire of London. She appears in illustrations as an ugly old lady with a hooked nose and an upturned chin. Pepys referred to Mother Shipton, and she appeared as a character in 17th-century plays and pantomime as well as in the puppet theatre where she was usually a trick puppet who smoked a pipe.

From 1800 to 1900

During the first half of the 19th century, when Mr. Punch disappeared from the fairs, Punch and Judy shows flourished on the streets, some featuring Toby played by a real dog. One-man booth shows were much cheaper to operate than large fairground shows and, after dark, the Punch men turned their hands to shadow or ‘galanty’ shows.

Marionette theatres opened in London from time to time, and although there was nothing like the influx of foreign companies of the late 18th century, a French marionette troupe was very well received at the Argyll Rooms in Regent Street in 1828. One reviewer noted with astonishment that, in their play 'Arlequin par Magie', the wooden Harlequin lit two candles and drank a bottle of wine.

By the 1850s, Punch and Judy shows were less popular, but their fortunes revived towards the end of the century because of the increasing leisure that people were enjoying once Bank Holidays were introduced. Punch and Judy found audiences at parties and social events as well as on the streets and at the seaside, either on the beach or the newly fashionable seaside piers.

Painting detail showing Punch and Judy, England, about 1810. Museum no. S.823-1991

Painting detail showing Punch and Judy, England, about 1810. Museum no. S.823-1991

In 1852 Signor Brigaldi's Italian marionettes were a great success when they appeared at an exhibition hall in London - which was renamed The Royal Marionette Theatre. They played in Manchester and Liverpool before returning to London and establishing themselves in a specially-built marionette theatre in Cremorne Gardens.

By the 1860s, however, the days of the permanent marionette show were past and travelling marionette shows became popular instead, performed by family troupes including the Tiller-Clowes and Barnard family troupes.

This oil painting shows a Punch and Judy show taking place on the street in the early 19th century. Although a child is being encouraged to look at the show, Punch and Judy was not intended as children's entertainment then. There is a jester figure performing outside the booth, and he would have played some instrument to alert people that the show was about to take place.

At this date Punch's wife may still have been called Joan. Her name seems to have changed at about the time that Punch himself changed from marionette (or string puppet) to glove puppet.

The last recorded use of the name Joan and the first of Judy appears in 1818, and although she was still the same person, her character changed. In the 18th century she was a shrewish woman who struck the first blow when Mr Punch asked her for a kiss, but she later became the victim of Mr Punch's aggression without provocation.

Poster for De Randall's Marionettes, late 19th century. Museum no. S.4077-1995

Poster for De Randall's Marionettes, late 19th century. Museum no. S.4077-1995

This poster depicts many of the marionettes which featured in De-Randel's show including a drunken stilt-walking clown, a policeman, Pantaloon, a skeleton and a minstrel. These were popular figures in all the Victorian and Edwardian marionette troupes, such as those owned by Richard Barnard and the Tiller family.

De-Randel bought his marionettes from James Holden, part of a family of well-known marionettists. James Holden's grandfather, John Holden senior, began a show in the mid 19th century.

The marionettes must have been sold to De-Randel with lots of copies of this expensive poster, and because he didn't want to waste it he blocked out the references to the original show in gold and overprinted in black. Under the words 'Refined' and 'Clever' are photographs of Thomas Holden and his brother James Holden who went into partnership together in 1877. The name Thomas Holden can be seen under the word 'Marionettes' and on the pole on which the white-faced clown is balancing.

Punch & Judy on the beach at Llandudno, R. Barnes, 1887. Museum no. S.29-2008

Punch & Judy on the beach at Llandudno, R. Barnes, 1887. Museum no. S.29-2008

Punch and Judy found a ready audience in Victorian seaside resorts which became immensely popular after the introduction of the railways and later excursion trains. Llandudno, in North Wales, the largest resort in Wales, boasted splendid hotels in the 19th century, newly-built to cater for prosperous visitors.

This image from 1886 may depict Professor Herbert Codman's Punch and Judy booth, with the sweep of North Parade and Llandudno Bay behind. The Codman family continued as Punch and Judy showmen, in Liverpool in the winter, and Llandudno and Colwyn Bay in the summer, for over a century.

This drawing, reproduced in The Graphic, is as good as a photograph in its attention to detail. We see the bathing machines on the beach and the mixed audience reaction to the show. Some people are fascinated by it whilst others, who have seen it all before, are finding more amusement in their own conversation, or are even dozing.

Punch and Judy shows continued to be a feature of 20th-century seaside entertainment, except during wartime when many coastal towns were prohibited areas.

Read more about the history of Punch and Judy

From 1900 to 1950

Puppetry in Britain declined in the early 20th century with audiences drawn to other forms of entertainment, including music hall, variety and cinema.

Punch and Judy were still at the seaside, and marionettes on the music hall and variety stages, but the outbreak of World War I meant that large travelling marionette shows disbanded. They could not operate without the men who went to fight.

Flyer advertising 'The Peep Show', Walter Wilkinson, early 20th century

Flyer advertising 'The Peep Show', Walter Wilkinson, early 20th century

During this time glove puppeteer Walter Wilkinson was reviving the art of glove puppet theatre which had flourished in medieval times to show the dramatic possibilities of glove puppetry beyond Punch and Judy.

He toured his 'Peep Show' throughout Britain and America in the 1920s and 1930s, setting up show wherever he could find an audience.

He carved his puppets' heads and hands, dressed them, and wrote several books about his trips telling how he packed his booth, puppets and equipment onto a cart which he pushed around the country during the summer.

Walter Wilkinson was still performing in the 1950s when his repertoire included 'Thersytes', a 16th-century morality play, 'Cassius and Brutus', and the quarrel scene from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' which he described as 'Shakespeare specially disarranged'.

The wider fortunes of puppetry, however, did not begin to revive until 1923 with the publication of a book called 'Everybody's Theatre' by H.W. Whanslaw, which led two years later to the foundation of The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild.

At first a society of keen amateurs, it soon generated expert professional puppeteers including William Simmonds, Walter Wilkinson and his brother Gair Wilkinson, Waldo and Muriel Lanchester, and John Bickerdike.

The Lanchesters opened the 50-seat Lanchester Marionette Theatre in Malvern in 1936 and toured for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) in England during World War II.

The London Marionette Theatre, Keystone View, mid 20th century

The London Marionette Theatre, Keystone View, mid 20th century

Waldo Lanchester (left) and Harry Whanslaw (right), seen here at the London Marionette Theatre, played a large part in the regeneration of puppetry in Britain after the war. When The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild was founded in 1925, Lanchester and Whanslaw were amateur puppeteers experimenting with puppets and controls. After a demonstration of their work at a Guild meeting in 1926 and their first performance as the Whanslaw-Lanchester Marionettes a year later, they founded the London Marionette Theatre in Stamford Brook, in a studio above Waldo Lanchester's workshop. Jan Bussell joined the troupe, and together they evolved aspects of marionettes such as the vertical control and new types of joints and methods of balancing.

The London Marionette Theatre was the first to broadcast puppets on television, making nine broadcasts from the Baird Studios in 1933, when all the scenery had to be black and white.

By the late 1940s there were several professional puppet companies in Britain and after the war marionette cabaret became popular, with performers operating for the first time in full view of the audience, providing entertainment for Working Men’s Clubs and night clubs.

As television sets became more affordable, this increasingly popular form of home entertainment began to bring puppets to a very wide audience indeed.

From 1950 to 2000

British children’s television in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s made stars of some puppets, from the marionettes 'Muffin the Mule', 'Andy Pandy', 'Bill and Ben', 'Lady Penelope', 'Parker', 'Troy Tempest' and 'Captain Scarlet' to the glove puppets 'Sooty and Sweep' and 'Basil Brush' as well as the American sock puppet 'Lamb Chop' (who was still operated by hand). The Pipkins’ 'Hartley Hare' was a rod puppet and Jim Henson created many different types of puppets for 'Sesame Street' and 'The Muppets' which British audiences loved.

Britain’s first purpose-built puppet theatre, The Harlequin Theatre, was opened by Eric Bramall at Rhos-on-Sea, North Wales in 1958, followed by John Wright’s Little Angel Theatre in Islington in 1961, Ray and Joan DaSilva’s Norwich Puppet Theatre in 1980, Gren and Juliet Middleton’s Puppet Theatre Barge on the Regent's Canal in 1982, and The Biggar Puppet Theatre, opened near Edinburgh by The Purves Puppets in 1986. Artist and Illustrator Mary Shillabeer created various full-scale marionette shows in the 1970s and 1980s, some of which appeared during the Edinburgh Festival, including 'Peter and the Wolf', 'Boite a Jou-Jou' (The Toy Box) and 'Babar the Elephant'.

Annette Mills with Muffin the Mule, Gerald Morice Collection, 1950s

Annette Mills with Muffin the Mule, Gerald Morice Collection, 1950s

'Spitting Image' puppets, created for television in the 1980s by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, renewed the 18th-century tradition of satirical puppetry at a time when many innovative British touring puppet companies were established, and theatre companies such as Forkbeard Fantasy began using large scale puppetry in their work.

Muffin the Mule, the first marionette to become a television star, is seen here with his presenter Annette Mills.

Muffin was carved in 1934 by Fred Tickner, a famous maker of Punch and Judy puppets, for Ann Hogarth and her husband Jan Bussell, who formed The Hogarth Puppets in 1932. For their show they wanted a comic-looking mule with a big head who could kick his back legs at a marionette clown.

When television started again after the war in 1946, Annette Mills - sister of the actor John Mills - asked the Hogarths if they would make some puppets to go with her songs for the programme 'For the Children'. The Hogarths suggested she used some of their puppets instead, so she wrote new songs to go with the puppets she chose - the mule and clown - which she called Muffin and Crumpet.

Muffin was later joined by other marionettes including Mr Peregrine Esquire, Louise the Lamb and Oswald the Ostrich. The act consisted of Annette Mills talking to Muffin and singing songs at the grand piano while he and his friends clattered around on its lid. His operator, Ann Hogarth, also stood there, hidden by a partition.

Into the 21st century

Anthony, Forkbeard Theatre Company, 1999

Anthony, Forkbeard Theatre Company, 1999

A few dedicated puppet theatres survive in Britain, often in the face of financial indifference from local authorities, but puppetry in 21st-century Britain is also finding new audiences with companies and productions incorporating puppetry into their work.

'The Lion King' continues to delight audiences on the London stage, with shadow puppetry and large body puppets developed by Julie Taymor, exploring techniques thousands of years old.

Puppetry is increasingly appreciated as a tool in education and in work with the disabled, and PuppeteersUK, the recent amalgamation under one banner of all the organisations in Britain working in puppetry, should assure the future of the art in the country as an exciting form of theatre.

Mr Punch is still celebrated annually in Covent Garden and can be found all over the country flouting political correctness and entertaining audiences just as he has done for over 300 years.

This is an image of Anthony, a life-size marionette with flailing limbs, a manic expression and rolling eyes. He was one of the star patients in Dr. Smallman's Nursing Home in 'Hypochondria', the 1987 production by the touring experimental theatre company Forkbeard Fantasy.

Made by Penny Saunders, he was the doctor's model patient in every sense of the word, consisting of so much spare-part surgery it was unclear how alive he really was.

From the 1960s onwards, British theatre experienced an explosion of new kinds of performance - street theatre, carnival, visual theatre and live art, which challenged traditional ideas about theatre. Besides traditional actors, these performances sometimes used large-scale animated constructions - part puppet, part human.

Forkbeard Fantasy have been touring experimental performances since the 1970s, combining film and theatre, and featuring strange and wonderful inventions, several using traditional techniques of puppetry to create bizarre mechanical characters like Anthony.

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