On a sunny day last August, while strolling through Fitzrovia, I happened across a crooked Georgian building whose façade had been brightly painted and decorated. The whole ground floor exterior was painted a vivid forest green, with a red sign emblazoned with the words “Pollock’s Toy Museum”. Whenever I stumble upon a small, unassuming building advertising itself as a museum, my curiosity is piqued and I seem to have no choice but to walk in and pay the admission fee. I tentatively passed the threshold into Pollock’s, and found myself in a room stuffed from base to brim with nineteenth-century toy theatres. I paid my £9 entry and entered into a dizzying world of antique toys.
The history of Pollock’s dates back to 1851, when John Redington (1819-1876), a printer and bookbinder, opened a theatrical print warehouse at 73 Hoxton Street. After Redington’s death, the business fell into the hands of his daughter, Eliza Redington, who married Benjamin Pollock in 1877. In the 1880s, Benjamin and Eliza Pollock produced and sold toy theatres: wonderful reproductions of popular plays and operas, printed on paperboard and sold to be assembled at home. In 1884, author Robert Louis Stevenson visited the shop and wrote, “if you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s”. The shop moved locations several times throughout the twentieth century, before finding its current home at 44 The Market in Covent Garden.
Separate from the shop itself is Pollock’s Museum, located on 1 Scala Street. The museum has been in this location since the late 1950s, where it has quietly run since. I have a personal and particular fondness for toys that I have never outgrown, especially dolls’ houses, and I felt a thrill entering into Pollock’s Museum that day in August, wondering what artefacts of childhood I would encounter. After paying admission, I walked up a creaking and somewhat crooked staircase, passing a glass case that held an antique porcelain doll sitting on a bed. The bed had a handsewn, minute quilt on it, as well as a pair of doll’s stockings laid out: the charm of the scene, however, was ruined by the fact that the doll’s head was twisted backwards, facing the wall while her body faced forward. This was my first sign that Pollock’s Toy Museum would not be a sterile, clean, and neatly curated ode to childhood, but rather, an eclectic and haunting collection of childhood remains from a bygone era.
The rooms at Pollock’s Toy Museum are organized by type of toy- dollhouses, teddy bears, puzzles, miniature china sets, and yes, toy theatres: a whole room of them. There is a distinctive folksy element to the displays: many of the toys seem handmade, as do the displays, with their chipping paint, handwritten labels, and strange lighting. The rooms are small, with low ceilings and old wooden floors, and when exploring this maze, I felt as though I was walking through a private house. The displays can be overwhelming at times, like an entire nursery that is filled with antique dolls. None of these dolls suffer from the same condition as the first doll I encountered: all their heads are firmly facing the visitor, blank eyes staring out, porcelain arms reaching.
There is a strange poetry at work at Pollock’s. Two dolls, with cracks around their eyes and hair askew, sit behind a glass case with a hand embroidered pillow on their shared laps. The pillow reads, ‘Welcome Little Strainger’. Another doll sits in a case with a matted Teddy Bear. A handwritten label placed on the doll’s lap reads, ‘FREDA and WILLIAM (never parted)’. I wondered while reading this label in the somewhat stifling atmosphere of Pollocks; ‘what would happen if they were parted?’ The eerie sound of a child’s laughter floated through the winding rooms and made its way back to me, and I found myself, alone in a room surrounded by dolls with cracked faces, wondering for a split second if the laughter was coming from some supernatural spectre that had lodged itself amongst these trappings of childhood. I let out a sigh of relief when I encountered, several rooms later, a small boy and his mother- the very real and fortunately corporeal source of the laughter.
Although I am primarily an art historian who studies 18th-19th century painting, visual culture, and fashion, I have always found toys to be fascinating. I make and collect dolls’ house miniatures and seeing the array of antique and vintage miniatures on display at Pollock’s was greatly enjoyable for me. More than the objects themselves, my visit to Pollock’s Toy Museum transported me back to childhood. Not necessarily my own childhood- but the childhoods of all the children who had played with and enjoyed and loved all these toys through the years, toys which now sit behind glass, waiting once again to be picked up and played with. If you find, after walking through the creaky old rooms of Pollock’s, that you wish to take up childhood pursuits once again, there is an excellent gift shop which features many toys produced by Pollock’s Toy Shop as well as other companies.
Pollock’s Toy Museum is located at 1 Scala Street, Bloomsbury, London, W1T 2HL. The nearest tube stop is Goodge Street (Northern Line).
Admission is £9 for adults, £6 for children, and £20 for a family. Although a toy museum, some of the toys themselves have an air of eeriness that I would not necessarily recommend for small children.
The museum is currently open only on select days, and booking is essential, as are face masks.
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Julia Westerman is a New York born and raised art and fashion historian, living and working in London. She received her BA in Art History from the University of St Andrews, and her MA from University College London. She specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women’s fashion and portraiture. On the weekends, you can either find her reading historical fiction or visiting a museum. She is on social media at @JuliaWesterman9 on Twitter and @Julia.Westerman on Instagram.