Pollock's Toy Museum is a deceptive gem of a building, with it's winding narrow staircases that lead into poky room after room crammed with the history of childhood paraphernalia. There is a rich display of the familiar and the less so, from blow football to blow your nose; I couldn't work out how to play the latter. Then there are the modern variations including the dubious morality of making a board game about the Falklands war. Unsurprisingly, that was recalled as soon as it hit the market. But it is the golden age of Victoriana that prevails.
The museum also has a special connection with our arts project about the history of the Coronet and the actress, Marie Henderson. It is directly descended from Benjamin Pollock's shop that opened in the 1850's directly opposite the Britannia theatre on Hoxton Road in East London. As previous readers of our blog will be aware, Marie Henderson was a rising star of the Britannia theatre in the late 1860s before she took over the creative management of the Elephant and Castle theatre (which is now the Coronet music and live event venue, that is sadly closing down at the end of 2017).
I can imagine Marie alighting from a carriage with her two daughters, Lizzie and Amanda. They are about to step foot into the Britannia theatre where the two young un's already perform on the stage. If we listen hard enough, we might hear the following exchange as the horse hoofs off into the distance:
"Mama, mama! Can we go and look at the toys in Pollock's!"
"We don't have time now."
"Maybe later on. Look! We have a real big toy theatre to play with, don't we."
"But you promised!"
"Hurry along now, my pretty little flowers. Maybe later. Maybe later."
Photos kindly reproduced from Pollock's Toy Museum
I wasn't entirely sure what I would find as I roamed through the gallery rooms of Pollock's Toy Museum. For our community engagement at the Walworth street festivals, I made a theatrical model and invited children to make drawings as part of a scenic design that would tell a playful story. I knew the museum would have a collection of models and I was hoping to find some direct connection to the Britannia theatre, and, of course, Marie Henderson.
First, I came across this jigsaw portrait of a child with jolting ruby red lips. Where was that one missing elusive piece from the jigsaw? Lizzie and Amanda might have joined up the fragments of their childhood, its highs and lows, with some such toy. I would like to ask them what it felt like to act with their mother on the stage and how they experienced her "madness."
I seek her here, I seek her there.
We turn a corner in the museum and come across these dolls staring out at us. It is quite spooky. I was reassured to see my image reflected in the glass panel separating me from the display.
Children reach an age where they can no longer play with their toys and they gather dust; in an attic if your lucky. Or they get discarded, recycled, charity shopped. Or end up in a museum.
I had almost given up the ghost of finding Marie Henderson. But in the final room, there are displays directly connected to the Britannia. This includes theatre models from the period showing some of the designs used at the Britannia. An artistic impression of the splendid Britannia theatre, which in its day would have housed nearly 3000 spectators.
Finally, a handbill for the play, The Wolf of The Pyrenees, which was a new drama performed in 1868. Scrutinising more closely, we see Marie Henderson, in the lead female role, as Inez, daughter of Don Alphonso in love with Ferdinand, a poor lieutenant. We have all the trappings of melodrama which the hand bill describes as follows:
In the Britannia Diaries of Frederick Wilton, which was written by the stage manager of the theatre, there is the following poignant reference to the staging of The Wolf of the Pyrenees on April 13th: "Capital house. Performance was not over till 12 midnight. Miss Marie Henderson played - but very ill indeed - not expected to get through - Miss Courtenay detained in the theatre to finish Miss MH’s part in case she should break down."
Marie Geoghegan (Henderson was her stage name) came to London with her family in 1867. Her husband, Frederick Geoghegan, violinist in the orchestra of the Britannia, died in 1868. I have applied for his death certificate so we will shortly discover the cause of his premature death at the age of 28. This would have had a profound impact on Marie and her two children. Death as a statistic in the archive that we can now relate to the play bill on our visit to Pollock's Toy Museum.
As I was leaving Pollock's, I discovered another connection with our arts project. Juno is one of the managers of the museum and funnily enough, she was raised in the Elephant and Castle and visited the Coronet when it was both a cinema and club. She still goes ten pin bowling with her friends in the shopping centre.
I started thinking about these connections between different times and places. There is that expression, history waits for no woman or child. But within our teeming and ever evolving world, there can be these small and wonderfully reassuring connections of art and history, performance and memory.
At our next People's Company workshop on 5th September at Southwark Playhouse we are delighted that Dr Janice Norwood will be attending. She did her PHD on the Britannia and is an expert on the world of Victorian actresses, putting Marie Henderson's tragic life story (acting acclaim, boom of business, theatre burning down, premature death from syphilis) into a wider historical context.
This is all raw material for the play that we will stage at the Coronet on 8 November and the follow-up art exhibition at Artworks Gallery from 11-23 November 2017.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital