Miniature theatre

Explosion at the mill

Explosion at the mill from The miller and his men

This magnificent explosion helps explain why The Miller and his Men was one of the most popular of the toy theatre plays. With twenty illustrated sheets, some paints, and a pair of scissors, a child could amass all the ingredients of a successful night at the theatre: an evil miller who doubles as the leader of a nefarious gang of thieves, a pair of lovers kept apart by said miller, and the gallant Count Friberg, who orchestrates the reunion of the lovers and the dramatic destruction of the mill. A picturesque windmill, late night smuggling scenes, and plenty of sword fighting keep the action building to the final crescendo that is the explosion.


This toy theatre set was published by Benjamin Pollack sometime around the end of the 19th century, but its beginnings may be traced to Covent Garden Theatre, October 21st, 1813 when Isaac Pocock and Henry R. Bishop’s stage version of The Miller was first performed to great acclaim.  Capitalising on the popularity of plays like this, theatrical print sellers first sold images of the actors and actresses in costume, but were soon selling smaller vignettes of entire scenes and then entire plays.  Accompanied by a condensed script, these miniature plays indoctrinated generations of British children into the wonders of the theatre during the 19th century. Miniature theatre enthusiasts included Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Claude Lovat Fraser.


Characters from The miller and his men
Characters from Pollock’s The miller and his men

Early toy theatre prints were made from engraved copper plates, the engravings often from sketches made at the theatre on the night. Sets, costumes, and even the actors’ likenesses were copied, and could often be recognised. Inexpensive lithography made the reproduction of these images even easier, and thousands of cheap litho sheets were sold “penny plain, tuppence coloured” during the Victorian era, along with paints, tinsel, card board, and an array of sundries to make as realistic a replication of the original drama as possible.   J. K. Green,  Arthur and Alexander Park, William G. Webb, Matthew Skelt and Benjamin Pollock’s father-in-law J. Reddington were only the most prolific of a host of publishers who made a living out of selling “plays and characters”.  The popularity of miniature theatres was waning by the end of the nineteenth century, although Benjamin Pollock and his daughters kept the art alive until his death 1937.  Today, when toy theatre has almost been forgotten, these vibrant theatrical documents provide us with insights into the world of early 19th-century theatre, and a glimpse into Victorian childhood. – Kathy Whalen Moss

 Images: Scene 11. Pollock’s scenes in the Miller and his men.  No. 9. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (61a) (ProQuest durable URL)

Pollock’s characters in the Miller and his men. Pl. 4. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (54a) (ProQuest durable URL)

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

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