The Vampire by  Philip Burne Jones

There are always rumours spread about that the Vampire genre has been done to death. But now and then a new writer emerges to inspire the readers yet again. Stephanie Myers created a frenzy with her series of teenage vampire tales, before which Anne Rice's 'Vampire Chronicles' provided far more adult tales. And we all know Stoker's 'Dracula' and - well ... what had preceded that?

Vlad the Impaler

The medieval myth of the vampire or 'upir' originated in eastern Europe,  having been personified in actual living characters such as Vlad the Impaler, or Countess Elizabeth Bathory - the infamous mass murderer who was said to have bathed in her victims' blood.

By 1484 the 'Malleus Maleficarium', or witch hunter's bible, described how to kill the vampire scourge. After that, as the centuries drew on there were frequent waves of hysteria, with corpses being exhumed from graves to be staked through the heart, with their heads cut off.

The cover of the Penny Dreadful, Varney the Vampire

The myths then took root in Western Europe and became an increasingly popular theme in poetry, plays and opera. By 1847 - the year in which Bram Stoker was born - Varney the Vampire emerged, when the fictional exploits of Sir Francis Varney were serialised in Penny Dreadfuls, otherwise known as Penny Bloods - what we would describe as comics now.

The 'Feast of Blood', in which Varney starred proved to be such a great success that its stories continued for over 2 years, with 220 episodes. They only finally came to an end when Sir Francis concluded the torment himself, by travelling to Mount Vesuvius and hurling himself down into its flames.

If that has fired your appetite, you can read the Varney stories here.

Sir Francis Varney terrorises a victim

Most Victorian authors would have been well aware of Varney. The VV was recently amused when reading a Philip Pullman novel entitled  'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a young character called Jim devours all the Penny Dreadfuls that he can get his hands on, after which he confides his own idea for a sensational vampire plot to a gentleman called Bram Stocker.

The real Bram Stoker had already had a long and successful career managing The Lyceum theatre in London. But, in 1897 he became a published novelist when his lurid story, Dracula (originally titled The Undead) was told by the means of journals and letters.

Bram Stoker claimed to have been inspired after visiting St Michan's church in Dublin where the vaults have a peculiar atmosphere that encourages mummification. There, to this very day, the 650 year-old body of a Crusader remains almost entirely intact.

In addition to such vivid imagery, at the time of writing Dracula, Stoker must have been all too aware of his own irreversible state of health. Although the cause of his demise was cited as being 'exhaustion', this term was one of the euphemisms employed when one died of syphilis: a disease now treated effectively by the use of antibiotics but which, in the Victorian age, often led to a cruel and lingering death.

Perhaps that is why his classic work is so oppressively moving in its unique descriptions of sex and death; with its central obsession being that of a vile corruption of the blood.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912)



Come Unto These Yellow Sands

In honour of the 400th anniversary or Shakespeare's death, the VV offers this painting by Richard Dadd

Come Unto These Yellow Sands, inspired by Shakespeare's poem Fairy Land iii, was produced during the artist's confinement in Broadway, the hospital for criminally insane.

COME unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Court'sied when you have, and kiss'd,-
The wild waves whist,-
Foot it featly here and there:
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Bow, wow,
The watch-dogs bark:
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!

Come Unto These Yellow Sands is also the name of a BBC radio play written by Angela Carter and based on the life of Richard Dadd. The VV has only been able to source this very short extract from the play - but there is always the future hope that it might be aired again one day. 



Maharajah Duleep (or Dalip) Singh. Born 6 September 1838 - Died 22 October 1893)

Duleep Singh - who is a character in the VV's novel The Goddess and The Thief - had the most dramatic life. And yet, so few of us today know anything at all about the last Maharajah of Lahore.

Duleep was only eleven years old when, in 1849, at the end of the Second Anglo Sikh war, he was deposed from his Golden Throne - a throne that can be seen today in the Victoria and Albert Museum: The  Golden Throne of Ranjit Singh, who had been the father of Duleep.

The years that followed Ranjit's death were full of strife and turbulence with many royal claimants being openly slaughtered or meeting their ends in the most suspicious  of circumstances.

Duleep Singh

Duleep's mother's brother, Jawahar Singh, who acted as Prime Minister, was to aid the widow's regency during her son's minority. But he was also murdered in front of the little child's eyes when the two had been riding an elephant, when they were ambushed by some troops and Jawahar was bayonetted to death. Duleep was snatched to safety but a time of chaos had begun.

Jind Kaur  - the mother of Duleep Singh

There was much corruption and fighting going on within the Sikh army's ranks. The treasury was being drained, not to mention plans then being made to remove Duleep from his Golden Throne and to place one of Ranjit's grandsons there.

For that very reason, his mother, Jind - along with her lover, the general, Lal Singh - contacted the British in India and secretly plotted to instigate the first of the Anglo-Sikh wars. By doing that they prevented a coup being forced from within, with her enemies were forced to unite and fight against the British threat.

Raja Lal Singh

Jind's political scheming met success. The Resident appointed to act for the British in Lahore was a man called Henry Lawrence. He allowed the Sikh generals and aristocrats to work alongside him and his staff while running the court and territories. 

Henry Lawrence

But when Jind began to meddle again, wanting more power for herself, she only ensured her downfall. She was separated from her son while he was diverted with a toy and then taken to play in the Shalimar Gardens.

His mother was left to wail in distress, 'You have been very cruel...for ten months I kept him in my womb...in the name of God, your worship...restore my son to me. I cannot bear the pain of this separation. Instead you should put me to death.'

The Maharajah, Ranjit Singh

However, it may well have been that such intervention saved Duleep's life. There were many powerful men in Lahore who claimed that he had no right to the throne, never being a legitimate son of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh. 

In old age Ranjit was a diminutive man with a pock marked face and drooping eye. But the Lion of Punjab still dominated the kingdom he had ruled for years through his iron will and military strength. (That strength was partly based on the employment of European mercenaries, who - after Ranjit's death -  knew exactly how to fight the sikhs when another master paid them). He could be charming, but ruthless. It was a popular saying that Ranjit would cut off the ears and nose of any who looked at his harem of wives. It was also said that Duleep was born after a liaison between one of Ranjit's male lovers and his low-born, lovely wife, Jindan. It was also said that the elderly king preferred to watch than to 'do the deed'. But this could be a malicious lie. The sort of propaganda spread about during the time of war.

The Maharani, Jind Kaur at the height of her power and beauty - with her son, Duleep

However, before he died, Ranjit recognised Duleep as one of his legitimate heirs. A powerful faction supported that claim. And so, in 1843, Duleep was crowned Maharajah with his mother acting as regent. Such minority rule was perilous. Even before it had begun, Duleep's half brother Maharajah Sher Singh had died in an 'accident' with a shot gun. That end came after Sher himself had succeeded to the Golden Throne when another brother, Nau Nihal, had died on the day of his father's cremation, when some masonry 'fell' from the gate beneath which he happened to be passing.

The British found Jind to be corrupt, and when she fomented for yet more war things did not go so well for her. In 1849, at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war, the boy maharajah was forced to submit. Dalhousie, India's Governor General, refused to hear Henry Lawrence's plea that another Sikh government rule alongside the British one. Dalhousie's extreme solution was one of annexation, taking exclusive British control of the 80,000 square miles of the Punjab. Having deposed its ruler he claimed everything the state then owned as a debt incurred in the cost of war. He took as ransom the Koh-i-nor diamond, the kingdom's sovereign symbol. He auctioned off all the court's possessions. But he did allow the boy, Duleep, to retain his royal title, also receiving a pension from the British East India Company as a means of showing some recompense for the enormous wealth that he had lost.

At first Duleep remained in the Punjab, in the care of Doctor John Login, a British Army officer who had served with the Bengal Army. Login took the boy from Lahore to live at the Futteghar hill fort - well away from those who might yet seek to use him as political pawn. There, he was reported as being a most engaging young fellow who won the hearts of all he met. He enjoyed the past times of painting and hawking, and whenever becoming downhearted he could generally be diverted by trips to horse races, or firework displays; even magic lantern shows. When becoming great friends with an English boy, who went by the name of Tommy Scott, Duleep professed a keen desire to convert to Christianity. He also often requested to visit Queen Victoria.

Duleep sketched by Queen Victoria

Once such a visit was arranged Duleep then remained in England. Victoria and Albert became very fond of the pleasantly engaging youth. They even took the prince along on family trips to Osborne House where Duleep was said to be great friends with the other royal children - and was often painted by the Queen who doted upon her 'beautiful boy'.

Duleep Singh, as painted by Winterhalter

She also commissioned his portrait to be made by the artist, Winterhalter. It was while Duleep was posing for that in the White Room at Buckingham Palace that Victoria approached one day with her hands hidden behind her back, telling the young Maharajah to close his eyes and hold out his hands - the hands into which the Queen then placed the Koh-i-nor diamond. The Punjab's sovereign symbol.

Duleep was said to have been confused by such a demonstration. The diamond had also been reduced; its facets recut in the Western style, rather than the original Moghul design. As if this was not insult enough, the young prince felt obliged to show his loyalty to the Queen, or else be suspected of treachery. And so, he offered the diamond back, placing it in Victoria's hands, saying, 'It is to me, Ma'am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject of myself tendering to my sovereign, the Koh-i-nor.'

Illustration of the Koh-i-noor, before and after it was recut.

Thus, Victoria's guilt had been assuaged and Duleep retained his liberty, and the privileged English lifestyle that he had become so used to. However, as the time went on he called the Queen Mrs Fagin - the handler of stolen goods.

Duleep in western dress

Despite living in fine country houses and indulging his love for hunting, Duleep was disappointed when his wish to study at Cambridge was deemed to be unacceptable - even though Prince Edward went there and often regaled his Indian friend with tales of his freedoms in that place. But still, it was considered best to keep the Indian prince away from the influence of other men who might seek to corrupt his Christian faith, or to lure him into rebellion.

It was also  frowned upon when the young Duleep then fell in love and expressed an earnest desire to marry his guardian's daughter. The maharajah might well be the toast of society parties, but a mingling of races, that really was going a step too far!

Little wonder that the prince began to resent his loss of autonomy. Even in his twenties, at the time when his mother died (Jind by then having been allowed to come to London to live with her son), it was only after a long campaign of letters printed in The Times that he was finally allowed to return her remains to India, to scatter her ashes in the tradition of her Hindu faith.

Bamba Muller

It was while on this journey with Jind's remains that Duleep travelled to Egypt and visited a Christian mission school where he met the girl he was to wed. Bamba (the name means pink) was the bastard daughter of a German banker and an Ethiopian woman, rumoured to be a whore. But her origins meant nothing to Duleep (who perhaps was aware of the tales of his birth, and who - so all the gossips said - was also at that time engaged in a bet with Doctor Login's wife that he could not find a wife to wed within a six month period. Perhaps the doctor's wife presumed that this might be the safest way to divert Duleep's mind from her daughter).

When he returned to England, he brought a new wife upon his arm with the marriage reported in The Times. The popular young couple lived in great splendour in Elveden Hall, where the sumptuous interior was designed to echo Indian places. Also, the extensive Suffolk estate allowed the prince to thoroughly indulge his love of hunting.

Sepia photograph which was sold at Christies in 2004, which shows Duleep Singh in a shooting party along with his friend Edward, the Prince of Wales.

The couple's first child was to die, but Queen Victoria became god mother to the next - a boy who was named as Victor, who was christened at Windsor Castle, of whom the Queen wrote in her diaries, 'I never beheld a lovelier child, a plump little darling with the most splendid dark eyes, but not very dark skin.'

But Victor's father's skin was dark and beneath it his soul remained Indian. It was often remarked by those who were somewhat less than enamoured of the Prince that at the time of the Indian Mutiny, when many of those who had been his friends while he lived in the hill fort of Futteghar had been most horribly slain, the Prince did not utter one word of remorse. Even so, the Queen  defended him, asking how he could ever be seen to take sides.

But he was more biased than she thought. He no longer believed himself to be well-compensated for what he'd lost. He even began to write to the Queen requesting the return of the Koh-i-nor - not only for what the stone represented, but also because of its value, having been judged, even in those times, to be worth more than £3,000,000. Of course, that would be a much vaster sum by today's financial calculations.

Eventually he went so far as to renounce the Christian faith and re-embrace his Sikh beliefs. In these decisions he was influenced by Russian and Irish dissidents who also hoped to use the prince against Victoria's Empire. They planned a Russian invasion of the British who ruled in India, marching by way of Afghanistan which bordered the Punjab territories.

Duleep in middle years

All such plots were doomed to fail. Duleep's intentions were soon exposed when followed by British Government spies. The Maharajah was exiled from both England and from India - though Bamba and her children were allowed to remain in their English home while he took his English mistress to live out the disgraced last days of his life on the European continent.

He and Victoria did speak again when, before he suffered a fatal stroke at the age of fifty-six, she invited him to meet her when she visited the French town of Grasse. There, against the wishes of her political advisers she privately pardoned the middle-aged man with his bloated belly and balding head  - the man who she had once adored as being her most 'beautiful boy'. And no doubt she still felt some sense of guilt for the tragic fate of Prince Duleep - even being known to say, 'I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian Princes!'

The sad and somewhat humble grave of the deposed Maharajah, Duleep Singh

When she heard of the prince's death, Victoria, the mother of Empire, reclaimed her prodigal Indian son. She insisted on having his mortal remains returned to Elveden again. There, she gave him a Christian burial, and that grave has now become a place of pilgrimage for all those Sikhs who wish to honour the memory of the last Maharajah of Lahore.

These days, those pilgrims have more to see than a stone in an English cemetery. There is, in the town of Thetford, a statue to honour Duleep Singh, shown in his full Sikh ceremonial dress, sitting astride a life-sized horse. And upon the plaque beneath it says -







Today, the Indian government is still hoping to reclaim the stone as shown in this BBC article.



King Pelles' Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sangreal. 
By Frederick Sandys ~1861

For all who love the splendour and sumptuous decor of the Victorian age the VV recommends a visit to Leighton's House in Kensington.

Leighton House entrance hall

The house (which inspired a fictional one belonging to an artist in the VV's novel, Elijah's Mermaid) is full of many glories, from the stunning exotic entrance hall to the formally structured dining room, and then the enormous studio that Leighton used to create his work ~ and also to show the work of other artists he admired.

And now there is a new exhibition of Victorian sketches and drawings from the private Lanigan Collection. It includes portraits and landscapes, and religious and literary scenes, with work from Burne-Jones and Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Poynter, William Morris, Lizzie Siddall, and Leighton too.

For anyone wishing to see the show, you might also be interested in a lecture to be given by the art historian Christopher Newall on the evening of Thursday April 21. The talk will start at 7pm but doors open up at 6.15 so that any visitors can also take a chance to look around the house.

Should you decide to go along, tickets are normally £15, but the VV is happy to promote a special price of just £10, which includes a complimentary drink. Simply enter the promotional code of SPECIAL10 when logging onto Eventbrite.co.uk - and then go to this ticket page.

Study of Iphigenia, by Frederick Leighton ~ 1883

Pre-Raphaelites on Paper is on show at Leighton House Museum from 12 February ~ 29 May 2016.




In 1835, while attempting to dig a duck pond, a man named James Newlove and his son Joshua discovered a peculiar hole in the ground. When Joshua crept down inside he entered over 70 feet of winding underground passages at the end of which was a much larger chamber and, within that, something that resembled an altar.

All of the walls were covered in an exquisite tapestry of shells, since found to have been stuck there with an adhesive that is based on gypsum and volcanic elements. Over four million cockle, whelk, mussel and oyster shells formed various patterns of mosaics, with images of the Tree of Life, phalluses, gods and goddesses, the horns or a ram, a three-pointed star, as well as the sun and the moon.
Mr Newlove soon decided to tap into the commercial potential of such a dramatic find, and by 1837 the first paying visitors arrived – and with them the debate commenced as to origin of the caves. 

Some people thought they must have been an ancient pagan temple, some the home of a secret sect, while others were entirely convinced that they must be some Regency folly.  But such follies were built on wealthy estates and Mr Newlove’s grotto was discovered beneath common farmland. And then, there is also the fact that had the grotto been constructed during the 1700’s then surely some record or map would remain – not least with regard to the enormous industry involved in excavating the long passages and creating all the shell mosaics. And yet, there was no local knowledge regarding the grotto’s existence.

In 1999 English Heritage commissioned an investigation, its only conclusion being that the grotto was unlikely to have been built during the Victorian period. Carbon dating was attempted, but failed owing to the build up of soot on the shells from the use of many oil lamps during Mr Newlove's tours. 

Later, in 2001, Mick Twyman of the Margate Historical Society tried to unravel the enigma. He observed that just before the arrival of each spring equinox, the sun enters the underground realm through a dome with a circular opening that acts like a pinhole camera. As the season goes on the ball of light reflected on the temple walls grows larger and continues to move over certain ‘lines’ or bars in the shells, as if a solar calendar. At midday on the summer solstice, the light resembles an egg that glows in the belly of a mosaic snake. At that point it is reflected up into square apertures built above the grotto’s three distinct passages – and that light is then bounced down to shine on the altar that is built within the 'temple' chamber. 

By the use of these phenomena and complex mathematical calculations Twyman was able to show that, allowing for a ‘creep’ of 1% in the Equinox angle that occurs every 72 years, the construction date for the grotto would have been around 1141 AD.

The VV also discovered an article that Twyman wrote in which he has linked the temple to the medieval Knights Templar, claiming that it would have been used for Masonic rituals –

with a keystone over the entrance arch and its altar having everything required for Royal Arch Masonry...while mosaic design centres cleverly supply the basis for Masonic symbols, such as the Compass and Square, Star of David, Pentagram and Hardoian Tetrahedron, a symbol of great significance to the Templars and Cabbalists. ..There are also four panels which have above them the ancient God symbol of the three rays of heavenly light. Beneath one of these sits the Pleiades constellation, while the second has a Tree of Jesse surmounted by a tiny rose – another symbol of the virgin – and the third an ‘x’, which I believe to be the cross isolated from the banner of the Paschal Lamb, symbol of the Baptist.'

Well, whatever you think about the above, the fascinating research goes on and, meanwhile, the Grotto has given Grade 1 listed status. And although it remains in private hands it can still be visited today.
More information can be found on the Grotto's official website.

For more posts on the Margate Shell Grotto, please see ...



MOST PECULIAR: Secrets of Victorian London

For all who love Victorian London, Lee Jackson has written an alternative guidebook revealing many secrets from the capital's nineteenth century. Think street signs, stink pipes, turrets and toilets - and many other pointers to a world that many think is lost.  But it isn't - and Lee Jackson has made the film below to introduce you to this world - and hopefully to persuade you to join Unbound and found the publication of this splendid book.



In the VV's novel, Elijah's Mermaid, two children in landlocked Herefordshire create a small grotto beside a stream in the hope of luring a mermaid to come along and live there.

Such an idea is not original, for there are some locals who still say that the sight of a mermaid in Herefordshire is very far from fantasy.

Back in 1848, when the river Lugg near Marden Church was being dredged of mud and sludge, the workmen discovered an ancient bell ~ the sort of bell that was often used when a church was connected with a saint when, according to Celtic tradition, such bells were considered sacred too.

The Marden bell can now be seen in the Hereford museum. It is thought to be Welsh in origin and to date from between AD 600 - AD 1100.

As you will see from the image posted above, it is not of a circular construction, but made of two separate sections of metal which are then attached together. It looks like a cow or sheep bell.

These bells were often 'enshrined' in ornately made iron casings, though if there was one for the Marden bell, to this day it has never yet been found.

The Marden bell is thought to have been created in honour of Saint Ethelbert ~ the king who became a martyr when beheaded by King Offa. His remains were then buried at Marden.

At the time there were many rumours that Ethelbert's spirit haunted the place and, as a sign of repentance, King Offa ordered that a church should be built on the site of the dead king's grave. He also ordered the construction of the nearby Hereford Cathedral, to which Ethelbert's body was eventually removed, becoming a place of pilgrimage.

Many miracles are said to have taken place during the body's journey there. And, in Marden, from where it was exhumed, a well sprang up within the Church where it still remains in the western nave.

It is not known how the Marden bell came to be submerged in the River Lugg. But the myth of the mermaid who lived there predates its Victorian finding. Old timers say that she seized the bell when it was accidentally dropped, immediately dragging it down to the bottom of the river bed. At the time a local wise man said that the bell could be retrieved again if a team of twelve white heifers wearing yokes made of yew wood were somehow attached the treasure ~ which could then be pulled out of the water. But, the deed must be done in silence. If not, then it would always fail. And so it did when one of the men present at the ceremony forgot himself and cried aloud: 'In spite of the all the devils in hell, now we'll land Marden's bell.' 

This outburst woke the mermaid who hung onto the bell with all her might before dragging straight it back down again, keeping it hidden from human eyes until the nineteenth century.

But, even to this very day, it is said that ghostly chimes are sometimes heard from the depths of the river bed ~ as if the mermaid rings it still.



We may think that our concern for bees is something relatively new but over a century ago, back in 1882, The Herefordshire Beekeepers Association was formed.

Image from many thousands held in Hereford Library's Outrider/ Alfred Watkins project

The aim of the organisation, partly funded by the Herefordshire County Council, was to travel around the countryside giving demonstrations of bee keeping and also magic lantern shows to illustrate and popularise the skills related to the art.

Alfred Watkins 1855~1935

One of the founding members, by the name of Alfred Watkins, was particularly keen to educate those locals who so often used to kill bees in great numbers whenever they were extracting the honeycombs from hives. 

For many more images and a great deal of related written material concerning Watkins and bee keeping, please see Hereford Council's History website.

Watkins was born into a wealthy business family who ran a flour mill, a brewery and a hotel in the city of Hereford. As he grew up he often travelled around the county and soon became a self-taught expert in local archeology. He was also very interested in the theory of ley lines after standing on a hillside on 30 June 1921 and experiencing a 'revelation' that most of the ancient Neolithic monuments set across the English countryside were connected by grids of straight lines. The term 'ley' was used because those lines tended to pass through places which had the letters that formed the syllables of 'ley' or 'ly' in them. However, he did not believe that there was any supernatural reason for the connections ~ simply that over the years the trackways would have been worn by travellers heading from one landmark to another. To demonstrate his theory he published Early British Trackways in 1922, and then The Old Straight Track in 1925.

Photography of Watkins Bee Meter, taken by Tony French

Another great interest was photography for which he was widely respected, and he took many pictures of wildlife, including his beloved bees. To do so he invented an exposure meter that was known as the 'Watkins Bee Meter' (one of which was taken by Robert F Scott when he travelled to the South Pole). Today thousands of Watkins' plates are still held at the Hereford Library and can be viewed on request.

Hereford Butter Market in 1860 - which can still be visited today.

The HBKA still exists and welcomes new member to learn the skills required for the keeping of bees. Each year they hold a 'honey show' the first of which was held at the Hereford Butter Market in 1910. The website of the HBKA is here





A writer discovers the living remains of miniature theatrical productions, which served as the PR campaigns of the day in 19th Century England.

One day in late winter 1884, the author Robert Louis Stevenson entered a grimy print shop near London’s Finsbury Square. The shop’s owner, W.G. Webb, had stayed up late the past few nights making notes for his famous friend, a longtime customer, about the curious world of the English “toy theatre”—a popular art form (now all but vanished) that replicated the dramas of the day in miniature. 

Stevenson was at work on an essay about that world for The Magazine of Art. Webb was a prolific toy theatre producer at the time, and his name was almost synonymous with what was called “Juvenile Drama.” 

Years later, Webb’s grandson recalled the scene that followed. “Here, Mr. Stevenson,” Webb asked, “where do I come in in this?”

“You don’t come in at all,” Stevenson replied. “I come in.”

“This won’t do,” old Mr. Webb answered. “I’ve helped you in this history. Without my help it would not be written. I have given you the information and besides you are using my pictures for the illustrations.” 

“There was a fearful row in the shop,” the younger Webb wrote, and before the shouting was over, the elder man had torn his notes to bits under Stevenson’s nose.

On his way out the door, the nettled author shook a finger. “This is going to cost you something, Mr. Webb,” he said. “This is going to cost you a great deal.”

Later that spring, Stevenson published his essay on toy theatre (“A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”), making no mention of Webb but instead praising his chief rival, Benjamin Pollock. In his essay Stevenson included the address of Pollock’s shop in nearby Hoxton, and concluded, “If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s...”

Webb’s print shop is long gone; but, more than a century after Stevenson’s essay, the name of Pollock lives. Pollock’s today, in fact, is split like Gaul into three parts connected only by the name and the history. Pollock’s Toy Museum, on Scala Street in London’s Bloomsbury, welcomes 10-12,000 visitors a year to an exhibit of rare old toys and a shop that sells toy theatres and plays; a mile to the south, in the bustling Covent Garden Market, Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop does a brisk business in nostalgic toys and reissued toy theatre paraphernalia; finally, there is Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which has no physical location but labors to keep the lore and tradition of toy theatre alive.

To contemporary eyes, the English toy theatre might seem to offer only a kind of surreal nostalgia. The tiny actors, arms spread in comically theatrical attitudes on elaborate sets, seem to squint at us from a timeless dream world, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. But those little figures once felt very much alive—they are drawings of real actors familiar to every theatre- goer in Victorian England. What’s left of them offers small glimpses of history—ones not available anywhere else—of the stagecraft and personalities of the 19th Century British stage. “The toy theatre is much more than just a toy,” the famed British actor Peter Baldwin wrote in 1992. “The spirit of early nineteenth century theatre can only be recaptured by the scene and character sheets of the English Juvenile drama.”

A toy theatre was, as we will see, a tiny but complex structure—as intricate and lovingly assembled, in its way, as model railroads can be for today’s hobbyists. In its prime, it was not a nostalgic hobby but a breathless bulletin from the newly emerging world of mass communications and global celebrities—a chance for ordinary people to touch their heroes in person.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed in the early 19th Century, masses of former country folk emigrated from the countryside into English cities. They often sought escape, even if only temporarily, from the harsh conditions of factory labor and tenement life. The popularity of gin was one result, but the theatre offered a healthier respite. Plays became mass spectacles akin to contemporary Broadway shows like The Lion King or Spider-Man. The demand for “cheap seats” was rapacious; when the Covert Garden in 1809 raised ticket prices, playgoers rioted inside the theatre, night after night, for three months—until the disorder compelled the owners to apologize and reduce them. Meanwhile, theatres grew. By mid-century, for example, Drury Lane seated 3,000; the Sadler’s Wells featured a tank in front of the stage where the producers staged mock naval battles.

Theatrical publishers—shops with names like West, Jameson, and Hodgson— dispatched multiple artists to the opening each new production. One artist would hastily sketch the actors, mimicking their theatrical poses; another would draw the scenery, producing backdrops and wings. A writer hastily annotated the script to show where and how action occurred. The team turned over their drawings to the printer, who prepared sheets depicting the actors and scenery and a tiny booklet of script.

The rendering of the scenery and actors is antique but far from crude; among the art workers who grubbed out a living in the trade were the youthful poet and artist William Blake and George Cruikshank, later a famed caricaturist and illustrator of Dickens. Once drawn, the sheets were printed through a combination of etching, engraving, and lithograph. These were sold by the sheet (as Stevenson noted) either in black and white (to be hand-painted by the buyer) or (for double the price) already colored. Children bought them to use as toys, but adults also treasured them as souvenirs of their favorite actors and beloved performances.

A toy theatre was quite small—the stages were about 6 1⁄2 inches wide, roughly the width of a 1950s-era black-and-white TV screen. The tiny actors were sold on individual papers sheets somewhere around 9 1⁄2” x” 7 1/2”—each sheet containing as many as four “actors,” who might be different characters or simply the same actor in a different theatrical pose: defiance, devotion, or despair, as different moments in the script demanded. Each “actor” was cut out, pasted onto a card, and fastened to special wire slides that would allow the “performer” to slide them on and offstage through grooves in the wooden base. Convention called for the performer to wiggle the “actor” back and forth as he (or a friend) uttered the lines, varying his or her voice as different characters required. Tiny oil lamps provided authentic theatrical lighting.

A typical theatre—such as “Pollock’s Regency,” which is sold now in a large booklet along with scenes, script, and “actors” for “Sleeping Beauty”—included a colorful proscenium, complete with a painted orchestra beneath the stage; a paper curtain; a stage floor, wings, and a back wall. An individual play will offer one or two scene backdrops, to be slipped in against the back wall.
Over the years the scripts became somewhat abbreviated versions of the actual play. In “Blackbeard the Pirate,” for example, the dialogue occupies about three pages. Prince Abdallah and the British Navy rescue the fair princess Ismene from the vile lusts of the pirate chief; “Foolish woman!” the pirate boasts. “You are the Princess of a puny kingdom, but I, I am the uncrowned Emperor of the Seven Seas!” Replies the haughty beauty, “I care nothing for your threats and do not boast too soon, proud pirate.” The manly British tars , dressed in flat hats and striped jerseys, put Blackbeard to flight singing “Huzza for the Red, White and Blue!”

Some plays are more elaborate—one, called “Jack Sheppard,” contains 64 pages of script. Another favorite was “The Miller and His Men,” based on an 1813 production at the Covent Garden; the young Winston Churchill treasured this classic because it ended with the explosion of a tiny wad of gunpowder (which sometimes set fire to the entire theatre, though usually with no loss of full-sized human life).

Presenting the plays to an actual audience, however, was not really the aim for many of Webb’s and Pollock’s customers. “Yes, there was pleasure in the painting.” Stevenson wrote in his essay on toy theatre. But when all was painted, it is needless to deny it, all was spoiled. You might, indeed, set up a scene or two to look at; but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance...”
Instead, the charm of toy theatre for many was simply the chance to be connected to a real play, and a real cast, and to the glamorous rococo world that was the Victorian stage.

Like that theatre itself, toy theatre’s great days were winding down by 1870. By 1884, only Webb and Pollock, friendly rivals, remained in the business, and Stevenson’s essay warned of the art form’s imminent disappearance. Benjamin Pollock, however, kept his shop afloat until his death at 80 in 1936. A few years later, the family sold their shop and stock to an Irish bookseller named Alan Keen. (Among his other schemes, Keen convinced film producer J. Arthur Rank to commission a toy theatre of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 famous film of “Hamlet,” complete with five changes of scene and two plates of characters printed in color.)

The film of Olivier’s Hamlet is a classic, but the toy Olivier theatre was a flop. Hamstrung by debt, Keen ceased operations after the war. Then, in the mid 1950s, a flamboyant BBC journalist named Marguerite Fawdry contacted Pollock’s receiver. Her son played with toy theatre, and she wanted to buy a few of the special wire slides needed to bring the tiny characters alive. According to her 1995 obituary in The Independent, the accountant responded, “I believe there are hundreds of thousands in the warehouse, madam, but there’s no one who could look them out for you. Of course, you could, I suppose, buy the whole lot if you wanted them.”

Fawdry was, by all accounts, a magnetic personality. She attracted children still fascinated by the tiny actors and scenes and recruited them as helpers. Among these protégées was Louise Heard, who now manages the Toyshop in Covent Garden. The store sells copies of original Victorian theatres and plays, and also produces and sells entire new theatre sets, including a moody 2014 evocation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” by noted illustrator Kate Baylay.

Fawdry’s grandson Eddie, a photographer, still owns and operates the Toy Museum, which maintains a stock of dozens of toy theatres, including some not available elsewhere that can be printed only on demand. Not long before her death in 1945, Fawdry also established the Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which keeps alive the lore of the toy theatre through web sales, library and museum exhibitions, and publications.

Alan Powers, chair of the Trust, was another child protégée of Fawdry’s. A distinguished architectural historian, he is an impresario as well. On a recent August Sunday, he gathered fifty enthusiasts for a production of “The Waterman,” a romantic drama depicting an annual boat race on the Thames. Powers deployed his own personal theatre for the production, complete with electric footlights, and gave voice to the cutout of Tom Tug, the dashing boatman. The performance took place at the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury, which traces its origins to 1884; one past Master was the noted artisan and radical thinker William Morris.

The 50 adults were rapt as the cast stamped their feet to simulate the sound of movement; all stood when the performance ended with a chorus of “Rule Britannia.”

The lone small boy present drifted away from the performance, however; he found more excitement in leading his faithful dog back and forth across the front of the hall with the false promise of a lick at the ice cream in his hand.

Garrett Epps is professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic’s online magazine. He is the author of two novels and five books of non- fiction, including “American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.”