"That's the way to do it!" A history of Punch & Judy

Punch and Judy is the traditional puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy. An archetypical and controversial British figure with his origins in the charismatic 16th century Italian puppet Pulcinella, Mr Punch has been performing in the UK for over 350 years.

Punch in the 17th century: Punch arrives in England

A puppet play that would have featured a version of Punch was first recorded in England in May 1662 by the diarist Samuel Pepys. He noted seeing it in Covent Garden, London, performed by the Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, otherwise known as Signor Bologna. Unlike today's Punch and Judy, Bologna used marionettes – stringed puppets – rather than glove puppets. In October 1662 Bologna was granted a royal command performance by Charles II at Whitehall. The delighted king rewarded 'Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella' with a gold chain and medal worth £25, or £3,000 in today's prices.

Print depicting the Commedia dell'Arte character Pulliciniello (Pulcinella), by Cornelis Danckerts ll after Jacques Callot, about 1622, Europe. Museum no. S.5290-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bologna was one of many entertainers who came to England from Europe following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. On 10 November 1662 Pepys took his wife to see another show, this time at Charing Cross. This may have been performed by Anthony Devoto, who we know had a puppet show at Bartholomew Fair (London's pre-eminent summer fair held in the Smithfield area) and at Charing Cross in 1667, 1668, 1669 and 1672. A warrant of 11 November 1672 permits him to 'Exercise & Play all Drolls and Interludes' and refers to him as 'Antonio Di Voto puncinello'.

Pepys usually referred to the shows as 'Polichinello', a name relating to Punch's roots in the Italian 'commedia dell’arte', where masked actors improvised comic plays around a number of characters. Polichinello was the subversive, thuggish character whose Italian name Pulcinella or Pulliciniello (eventually anglicised to Punch) may have developed from the word pulcino, or chick, referring to the character's beak-like mask and squeaky voice.

Famiglia di Pulcinella, unknown maker, 18th century, Europe. Museum no. S.1128-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Punch and his ancestors always had a ridiculous voice. His characteristic voice originally came from the use of a reed placed at the back of the Punchman's or 'professor's' mouth. In Britain the reed is called a swazzle, and in France a sifflet-pratique. Its most common Italian name was pivetta, but also sometimes strega (meaning witch) or franceschina, after Franchescina, one of Punch's wives in the commedia dell’arte who had a voice like a witch. Originally swazzles were made from bone or ivory; today they are made from tin. But whatever the material, each was equally tricky to master and easy to swallow.

Itinerant Commedia dell'Arte performers, unknown maker, 1700 – 99. Museum no. S.726-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Punch in the 18th century: Punch settles in

Punch made himself at home in Britain during the 18th century, where he became a celebrity, disrupting the action in puppet plays in theatres and fairground booths throughout the country.

Punch was a leading character in the marionette shows of Martin Powell (d. 1725), the puppeteer who tapped into the growing interest for puppet shows in the 18th century, making himself wealthy and Punch famous. Powell had a marionette theatre in Bath in 1709 which featured performances by Punch and Joan (as today's Judy was then known). By 1710 Powell was performing in London, in St. Martin's Lane, in a room adapted as a puppet theatre, and in 1711 he moved to the Seven Stars, a tavern in Covent Garden where his plays were performed with elaborate scenery and candle footlights. Punch did not yet star in his own play but featured in a variety of Powell's performances. Whatever the story, it was customary for Punch to fight the Devil. Sometimes the Devil won but usually it was Punch that was victorious.

Punch became such a popular character that when Samuel Foote staged a puppet show at the Haymarket Theatre on 15 February 1773, featuring real actors with strings attached and a notable absence of Punch, the audience in the upper gallery revolted, tearing up the benches on the opening night.

Print depicting Samuel Foote's The Primitive Puppet Show, Haymarket Theatre, 15 February 1773, published in The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine, February 1773. Museum no. S.1004-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Punch had a marionette theatre named after him in 1738 when the actress and puppeteer Charlotte Charke (1713 – 60) was granted a license to open Punch's Theatre in James Street, off the Haymarket in London. Her cast of costumed wooden puppets would perform satirical marionette plays with Punch as the novelty character performing roles such as Falstaff, or dancing with his wife Joan. The enterprise though was short-lived with Charke forced to sell the marionettes. As Charke had discovered, marionette shows were expensive to produce and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead.

French ancestor of Mr Punch, 'Deschars en habit de Polichinel au Divertissement de Villeneuue Saint-Georges', by Jean Berain, early 18th century, Paris. Museum no. S.3837-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While Punch integrated himself in Britain a similar process took place in other parts of Europe, resulting in Punch's European cousins including Kasperle in Southern Germany and Austria, Polichinelle in France, and further afield, Karakoz in Turkey and Petrushka in Russia.

Punch in the 19th century: Punch the glove puppet

Punch and Judy shows were familiar sights on the streets throughout the 19th century. Their performances were often heralded by drums or panpipes played by the Punchman's accomplice or 'bottler', whose job was to collect the money from the audience.

'Parnell's Puppets’, printed for the St. Stephen's Review Presentation Cartoon, November 1st, 1884, London. Museum no. S.1291-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"In the present day the puppet-show man travels about the streets when the weather will permit, and carries his motions with the theatre itself, upon his back. The exhibition takes place in the open air; and the precarious income of the miserable itinerant depends entirely on contributions of the spectators, which as far as one may judge from the square appearance he makes, is very trifling".

Joseph Strutt, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801

By the middle of the 18th century Punch in England had discarded his plain white Italian costume and had started to wear the red and yellow outfit of the English jester or fool. With Punch's move from marionette stage to portable booth came new clothes and new companions. By 1825 Punch's wife was being called Judy instead of Joan and he had a dog called Toby, usually played by a real dog.

A dancing Punch was a star of the stage at the Covent Garden Theatre in November 1825, when the comic French acrobatic dancer Charles-Francois Mazurier (1798 – 1828) performed his comic Punch dance in The Shipwreck of Policinello, a play by Jean-Baptiste Blache. Mazurier had made a success with the role in Paris in 1823 at the Porte Saint Martin Theatre, under its original title Pulcinelle Vampire.

Print depicting Monsieur Mazurier in the character of Punchinello, 19th century, London. Museum no. S.3224-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest script of a Punch and Judy show dates from 1827 when the journalist John Payne Collier recorded the script of a performance by Piccini, the 82-year old Italian Punchman who had worked in London since he arrived in 1779. At the same time, the British caricaturist George Cruikshank produced sketches of the various scenes, noting that the script was: "a faithful copy and description of the various scenes represented by this Italian, whose performance of Punch was far superior in every respect to anything of the sort to be seen in the present day". Punch historians have doubted the accuracy of the script, but the illustrations vividly recreate the action and characters, many of which we know today. Some, like Pretty Polly, the Scaramouch (clown character) with his extending neck, and the Blind Man, are more unfamiliar but relate to characters that existed in Italian versions of the story.

Illustration proofs for the 4th edition of ‘The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy of Punch & Judy’, by George Cruikshank, about 1859, London. Museum no. S.929-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Punch and Judy shows were not just for children in the early 19th century. Aspects of the comedy such as the marital strife between Punch and Judy, and in Piccini's show the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, obviously struck a chord with many adult members of the audience.

In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering.

Charles Dickens, letter to Mary Tyler, 6 November 1849

Where Dickens saw the violent comedy of Punch and Judy as essentially harmless, many throughout its existence have criticised the performance for glorifying domestic violence. Opinions continue to be split today between those see the puppet show as making light of or even promoting domestic violence, and those that regard it as a fictional scenario and calls for its banning as political correctness.

Punch and Judy crossed the Atlantic in the late 19th century. A 'merry dialogue between Joan and his wife' featured in what was probably a marionette show in Philadelphia in 1742, and in 1850 a Punch and Judy show was performed at Sandy Bar in San Francisco. When William Judd (b. 1841) emigrated to the States in 1867 he developed a business selling 'everything needed for a travelling Punch and Judy show including Superior Punch and Judy Theatres', as well as carved wooden figures, most costing $1.75, except the crocodile at $2, Hector the Horse $1.50, a baby 50 cents and a cudgel 10 cents.

Photograph of a Punch and Judy show at Ilfracombe, by Paul Martin, about 1895, England. Museum no. PH.1900-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another place that Punch found audiences as the century progressed was at the seaside, on the beach or the newly fashionable seaside piers. Victorian seaside resorts became the fastest growing towns in Britain in the latter part of the century. The introduction of railways and later of excursion trains catering for crowds meant that more people could visit the seaside and take advantage of the increased leisure time resulting from reduced working hours, including the new August Bank Holiday introduced in 1871. Splendid new hotels catered for prosperous visitors to stay, while day-trippers joined the throng and had time to enjoy the Punch and Judy shows that began to be a standard part of the entertainment on offer. By the end of the century a Punch and Judy show could attract huge audiences.

'Sunny Rhyl', designed by Douglas Lionel Mays and issued by the London Midland Region, British Railways, 1952, Britain. Museum no. E.274-1952. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Punch in the 20th century

There was a general decline in the popularity of puppetry in Britain in the early 20th century with audiences drawn to other forms of entertainment, including music hall, variety theatre and cinema, and from the 1950s, television. Some Punch and Judy showmen, or 'professors' as they became known as, continued to work street pitches in towns and cities but traffic conditions made it increasingly difficult. At the seaside however Punch and Judy continued to be a popular feature of entertainment, especially for children, except in wartime when many Punchmen were serving in the forces, and British coastal towns were prohibited areas.

Fred Tickner (1898 – 1992) was a Punch and Judy professor and one of the great makers of Punch and Judy figures whose style influenced many later makers. Although his style could always be recognised, each Punch he made was entirely individual. Tickner gave the first performance of Punch and Judy on television in the 1930s, and also made the original Muffin the Mule for BBC television.

Punch and Judy glove puppets, clockwise from top left: Mr Punch, Judy, Baby, Hangman, Courtier, Clown, Beadle and the Crocodile, Fred Tickner, about 1975, Britain. Museum nos. S.554–S.558-2001, S.560-S.562–2001. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the Punch and Judy showmen performing during the first half of the 20th century were carrying on an oral tradition, performing shows that their fathers or grandfathers had developed, often with figures they had made themselves. Known as the 'swatchel omis' they included the Staddons of Weston super Mare, the Maggs of Redruth and Bournemouth, the Smiths of Poplar and the Codman family.

Audience standing to watch Professor Richard Codman lll's Punch and Judy booth outside Lime Street Station, Liverpool, about 1940, photograph by Waldo S. Lanchester. Museum no. S.3480-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Codmans were a veritable Punch dynasty. Richard Codman I started his summer show on Llandudno Promenade in 1864 and a winter show in Liverpool's Lime Street in 1868. His son Richard Codman II took over the Liverpool show in 1888 and his younger brother Herbert worked the show at Llandudno until he died in 1961. Richard Codman III's brother Bert worked in Colwyn Bay and Rhos-on-Sea and Herbert Codman's son Jack took over the Llandudno pitch in 1961. As Jack Codman once said, "The Codmans never retire from the show. They transfer from one box to another".

(Left to right:) Photograph of John Codman in his Punch & Judy booth, November 1967, Llandudno, Wales. Museum no. S.3487-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Photograph of Punch & Judy performance by Professor Bert Codman, 12 September 1968, Colwyn Bay, Wales. Museum no. S.2333-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another group of Punchmen working in the mid- to late 20th century have been called 'the beach uncles' – performers who have assimilated the traditions of the 'swatchel omis' but who were not part of established Punchmen families. A third group has been dubbed 'the counter culturalists – performers who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and who were drawn to the tradition for its lifestyle.

Despite academic classifications of the types of Punchmen, every Punch and Judy show had at its heart the same anarchic star Mr Punch with his relentless baton, his annoying baby and wife, and the same knockabout comedy. Many featured the same characters, but within each show there were considerable variations, especially amongst the 'swatchel omis' who were fiercely proud of their own traditions. Some included 'turns' such as the Chinese jugglers who tossed spinning plates, a boxing match and a neck-stretching puppet. Some retained a Beadle character (an authority figure), while others had replaced it with a policeman, but most featured the Crocodile as Punch's meanest adversary instead of the Devil.

Professor Henry Bailey's Punch & Judy show, Buxton, Derbyshire, 1901
Silent film made by Mitchell and Kenyon. With permission from the BFI.

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Punch in the 21st century

Today, there is a Punch & Judy College of Professors dedicated to his performance, and a Punch & Judy Fellowship to bring 'professors' together. Punch can still be seen around the country delighting audiences at festivals, fetes, shopping centres, holiday parks, schools, parties, corporate events, Christmas Fairs and naturally, the seaside. In a 2006 UK poll, the public voted Punch and Judy onto the list of icons of England.

The George Speaight Punch & Judy Collection

The V&A holds the George Speaight Archive – one of the world's greatest resources on the history and development of Punch and Judy.

Header image:

(Detail) Punch and Judy booth and figures, unknown maker, after 1937. Museum no. S.551:1 to 15 - 2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London