1 Scala Street
London W1T 2HL
Wednesday July 29 2015
Still needing an escape from packing boxes I headed back into town solo, Jo and Mary both being still away. However this museum, a compact but far-ranging selection of historical toys, was possibly rather too reminiscent of my recent loft clearance with more than a few of the exhibits seeming very familiar.
Goodge Street is of course on the ‘wrong’ bit of the Northern Line for a London Bridge user but it is very handy for the museum. Also I was excited to see new carriages on the Northern Line – or were they just refurbished?
Rather like both Sutton House (where the original house extended next door) and the Dickens Museum (where the Museum had bought next door) – both recent expeditions – the Toy Museum spreads over three floors of two adjacent properties both of which are crammed full of exhibits. The first house you enter is in fact the 1880 one though feels more wonky and older, the second one you descend through is 100 years older! In keeping with the building, this is a very old-fashioned museum – no interactive screens, virtually hand written captions or hand held information ‘bats‘ – think ping pong or Jokari but there is a system and plan to the Museum which ranges the International toys and games largely on the walls up and down the stairs and the thematically arranged toys or games in display cabinets on each floor. There are little niches and corners too, and the house is a lovely refuge after the hustle and rebuilding that is Tottenham Court Road today.
The first wall displays you come to are toys from the USA and the Americas – those from the Latin American countries are very simple – a toy boat, a tin parrot, which you can still buy as souvenirs. Interestingly while many of the children’s savings boxes (‘piggy banks’) in the UK are in the style of post boxes or novelty shapes, in America they look like old fashioned metal safes complete with the honest or corruptible banker!
Up to the first floor are the transport and geography games: mainly races – think Top Gear with dice instead of petrol heads – then the real family favourites, ‘Old Maid’ and Monopoly, introduced in 1932 and now played world-wide in individualised versions. LUDO is also international and apparently originated in India. Known as ‘Pachisi'.
Though this website rather downplays the links between the modern ‘simplified’ version and the noble old game which the Mughal Emperor Akhbar would have played in the open air, not something you would attempt in England where between the wind and the rain it would be a ‘wash-out’. Apparently also originating in India is ‘Snakes & Ladders’ which was originally a Hindu game to teach folk about the vicissitudes of life – sometimes you go up, sometimes down. Technically known as ‘Parlour Games’ nowadays we call them board games though some can be played on a computer.
Some more precious exhibits are displayed in ‘room sets’ behind locked windows. and here on the first floor you can see a range of ‘boys’ toys ‘ including zoetropes and magic lanterns (powered by a bicycle lamp) and one-offs like marbles and solitaire (already packed away in our house) . There are two cabinets with construction toys including (obviously) Meccano, which has never appealed to me as being too metallic but the very desirable, more colourful 'Bayko' and Minibrix with the potential to build a Tudor something or even a mock Tudor mini something! Tucked away was one sample Airfix kit and a few ‘space’ toys endorsed by that intrepid hero 'Dan Dare' before space was a reality. Isn’t it wonderful, but somehow predictable that there are folk out there collecting and celebrating these venerable toys.
Tin toys from the UK, France and Germany abound and many of these are in good condition. The early toy trains were tin and large and then came Mr Hornby who made his trains in 00 gauge and suddenly it became an affordable, storable and above all collectible item. Toy cars are less tied to a permanent lay out and thus even more affordable.
The fact that I have to add links to explain what all these products were/are indicates that this is not really a Museum for children but rather a nostalgic outing for older generations. Having said that, there were several mothers with young children carefully explaining all the exhibits to their offspring with the occasional ‘Nana has one like that!’ to make it feel even more historical. We may criticize these toys, and the way the museum has grouped them, for their blatant sexism but I am not sure modern toy manufacture is any better or different: yes you can say Lego is broadly not gender specific but even within the Lego range you might say some items are targeted and it is only recently their little figures working or taking part were equally split between male and female ‘workers’ , and as for fuller diversity of race and disability representation we are only at the beginning.
Up the stairs will take you past some Indian folk toys and figures including a whole village, missionaries and all, and some European board games reminding me of the time we were sent a not very good game called ‘Rovers in het bos’ (Thieves in the Wood)
Floor 2 displays a large number of toy theatres, which were hugely popular through Victorian and Edwardian times and again were produced at two levels of cost: ‘Penny Plain (ie Blackand White) /Tuppence Coloured’. Because this Museum was named in honour of Mr Pollock of Hoxton who printed many of these complex theatre sets and range of characters there is an impressive range of the different sizes and productions that were once available. Toy theatres had always seemed to me an ideal toy – yes you can play alone but also collaboratively, and it allows both the technical and artistic skills to be developed across a range of ages. I suppose nowadays most secondary schools include drama on the curriculum so a toy theatre is less exciting but there is something about entering a magical world that still appeals. I was pleased to see you can still buy them down in the shop for a modest £10. Or even free if you have lots of paper and patience. Think of a well known story and it may well be here.
At this point you step through (not the looking glass, though that would not be surprising) into the second house and back a hundred years and start your exploration and descent. Health warning – here be dolls, of all sorts and some very venerable. There is something rather disconcerting about having hundreds of eyes staring but not seeing and I was clearly not the only one who found some of the examples rather spooky. There is also clear hierarchy of cost within the doll fraternity depending on materials used in manufacture – some are printed stuffed cloth, the older ones are wax, solid in the case of the UK merely ‘papier mache’ covered in wax from Germany. Many are so dressed up in high fashion or costume that they were clearly never made to be played with so on the whole the ‘baby dolls’ are more appealing and the ones with Bisque faces more realistic
Some dolls I guess were made of celluloid, a highly inflammable material which is used as a plot device in Rumer Godden’s ‘The Doll’s House’ and there are of course numerous and very excellent examples of dolls houses. It seems to me the attraction was in the miniature items that went into the rooms rather than the people/dolls and there are examples of both here.
In amongst the dolls are some very venerable Teddies and also quite a few golliwogs, with a caption putting them into their historical context. Authoress Florence Upton popularised them in her stories of an assorted company of dolls and her creations were brave and noble, only later did the term become degraded and a term of abuse with Enid Blyton contributing negatively to this outcome.
The Dolls houses offer a nice respite between the two floors of dolls with those on the lower floors being different imported examples from round the world, The staircase has crafted items from Eastern Europe which were still readily available until the fall of Communism – think Matroschka stacking dolls, beautiful hand painted Easter Eggs, other hand carved figures or animals – which again have become collectors’ pieces. Puppets offer a blend of dolls and theatre and can be animated by a variety of means – strings/hands or shadow puppets on sticks and I was interested to see that the shop sold some animal hand puppets not that dissimilar from our family’s original Fluppets, which have been carefully rescued from our loft and re-homed in the country, well Salisbury at least.
The stairs down have some random items – war games including something as recent as the Falklands – soon withdrawn from sale I believe. Toy soldiers feature and we learnt about them on our trip to the Vestry Museum, where Britains were a local manufacturer.
The exit is, of course, via the Gift Shop and a well stocked one it is. The setting and building for this museum are totally in keeping with the collection which is ordered but not regimented, and contextualised where appropriate. It is a treasure trove and I know omitted to note many exhibits and mention even more so go for yourself on a dark winter’s day…