“PELPOP” – The Story of Pelham Puppets
by David Leech – Official Historian for Pelham Puppets
Scroll down the page for the Pelham Puppets Factory Tour.
NEW book due out later in 2018!!
It’s almost ten years since my last book about Pelham Puppets was published which featured “PELPOP” – The Story Of Pelham Puppets.
However, many interesting details and insights into life working at the factory as well as about Bob Pelham himself were not included due to the limited number of pages of the publication to be published.
Since then other information has also come to light, especially following the Marlborough World Of Puppets Festival in July 2017 when, after meeting with members of Bob Pelham’s family and with former colleagues from the factory and sharing recollections and memories as well as obtaining never before published photographs, this new book promises to provide a fascinating insight into what it was really like to work in the very unique world of the Pelham Puppets factory.
The new, forthcoming publication, “Four Balls for Sixpence” – the Authorised Biography of Bob Pelham, fills in many of the missing, previously unpublished accounts and insights into the life of the man who during the post-war years of the late 1940s, brought the world of puppetry to people the world over and provided a vibrancy and colour that had long been lacking in the lives of children – and indeed adults.
How did it happen? How could one man be responsible for producing millions of puppets that came “to be loved by children all over the world?” That is the question. The answer can’t be found in his background. His exasperated father, a local vicar, hoped Bob would get back to architectural college after he returned from active service in the 2nd World War, claimed that pigs would fly before his son’s enterprise would become successful. Young Bobby, (as he was known to his family,) was not an A-grade student, he daydreamed through his classes. Carpentry proved his major interest and he showed signs of being something of a genius with modelling wire and wood. But Bob Pelham was a man who believed absolutely in his own instincts and abilities. Even though he readily admitted he was no businessman and never did like the business side of things, he became the director of what was to become Marlborough’s largest employer, producing thousands of puppets every week that were to reach right across the globe.
I began my research with the full backing and approval of Bob Pelham himself back in 1978. It is based on numerous interviews and daily, informal conversations I had while working alongside Bob himself and with family members, friends as well as long-standing former employees of the Company. As a full-time employee of Pelham Puppets, I had – and still have – access to many of the Company production records and having worked in the puppet factory, I have first-hand experience and many happy memories of what it was like to work there – David Leech.
Bob Pelham began making puppets in 1947 after he obtained some help from Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth (who used to operate Muffin the Mule on TV) with designing puppets that would be simple enough for young children to use.
All the early puppets were made from recycled materials and Bob told how he used to rummage through his father’s home and how he persuaded his friends and employees to do the same, searching out all sorts of bits and pieces would be useful for making puppets. The local scrap-yards received many visits from this tall, blonde rather loose limbed figure, who, at times seemed to look like one of his own creations.
Photo: Laura Ray making puppet costumes in 1947
At first it was a struggle trying to convince toy retailers that puppets were a viable proposition, he was frequently met with indifference and resistance. Eventually, Hamleys of Regent Street, London, let him demonstrate them himself behind his own counter. He recalled, “By explaining how simple string puppets really were to work and showing a somewhat surprised audience their comical antics, the first puppets began to sell!”
Within a few years, Pelham Puppets had really caught on and retailers around the country began stocking them. For the next twenty years the Company enjoyed steady progress and expansion and Pelham Puppets were exported to over forty countries.
The years following Pelham Puppet’s quarter-centenary in 1972, were exciting ones, but they also brought mounting problems of a commercial nature and Bob discovered that more of his time was beginning to be eaten away and his enthusiasm sapped by the increasing pressures.
By trying to meet the demand for ever increasing quantities he apparently became a victim of his own success. Rapid expansion and increasing trade in the late 1970s, reached a peak in 1979 when every puppet produced in the first six months of the financial year was exported to the United States.
However, like many other manufacturing companies in the early 80s, Pelham Puppets was obliged to make cut-backs. Many loyal, long-standing employees, nearly one-third of the workforce were made redundant from June 20th 1980. Then the greatest tragedy struck, when on the evening of June 19th, 1980, Bob Pelham died suddenly at his home. He was 61 years old. His widow, Anne, tried to keep Pelham Puppets going for six years, but in 1986 she decided it was time to sell up and retire.
Between 1986 and 1993 Pelham Puppets changed hands several times with other hopeful toy manufacturers trying to re-introduce Pelham Puppets to the market. Since the early 90s, the puppets have not been available in toy shops, although many of the earlier models are now very collectable and of course, the new range of puppets can be obtained directly from this site by visiting the Puppetry Shop page.
A photographic article from The British Puppet Theatre magazine. December 1949
The Story of Pelham Puppets
Perhaps you arrived at this website trying to find out about an individual puppet you have discovered hiding in the attic somewhere and have been unable to get the information you want.
Help is at hand! “PELHAM PUPPETS – A Collector’s Guide” by David Leech not only features a large section about collecting Pelham Puppets with hundreds of colour photographs that identify puppets from every time period and range, along with a unique ‘rarity guide’ – the book also documents the complete History and Development of the Pelham Puppets Company from 1946 to 1994.
It is a hardback book with 224 pages with hundreds of full colour photographs and is the result of over 30 years dedicated research by David Leech, authorised historian for Pelham Puppets and former employee of the original Pelham Puppets Company.
More information about the book can be found on the ABOUT US page of this website.
I do not provide valuations, buy or sell vintage Pelham Puppets however you may find the following website helpful : http://pelhampuppets.weebly.com
Pelham Puppets were situated in Marlborough Wiltshire and it was from here that over nine million puppets were produced over a period of nearly 40 years.
It was in a small first floor two-room workshop in Silverless Street, that Bob Pelham began his toy-making venture. The puppet making began in 1947 after Bob Pelham relocated his workshop to Victoria House, in Kingsbury Street.
When production increased, it became necessary to find larger premises in Elcot Lane in 1952 and Victoria House became the home for the offices and the retail unit. The following year, Pelham was able to purchase a site in London Road and this became the long term base for Pelham Puppets until 1987.
The original London Road factory was a three story building situated on the south bank of the River Kennet. On October 18th 1961, this building was completely destroyed by fire and huge stocks were lost to the flames. It wasn’t long before a new factory was built on the site. Additions were made to the existing buildings as production continued to increase and extra land was purchased on the north bank of the River Kennet.
This area was connected to the main factory site by a foot-bridge built by Bob Pelham, and some of his employees! It was here, amid the quacking of ducks on the river and the tapping of hammers, humming of machines and the smell of coffee, paint and sawdust, that all the beautiful, puppet creations were produced! After the Company changed hands in 1986, the factory was moved to Collinbourne Ducis ten miles south of Marlborough and the London Road factory was demolished in 1989. The site is now called Pelham’s Court.
The bottom photograph shows Duck’s Toy shop that used to be in Marlborough High Street. Often Bob would try out new Pelham Puppets to assess public reaction in Duck’s toy shop before putting them into regular production.