The following information was obtained as a result of my almost daily conversations with Mr Pelham, some of which I recorded onto cassette tapes, (remember them?) and other comments from hand written notes made immediately after talking with him. Other quotes come from personal letters and articles he wrote in PELPUP NEWS on different occasions. This is Bob Pelham’s Story – in his own words:
How It All began.
Creating toys wasn’t something Bob Pelham even thought of before the war years, he had intended to return to college as his father would have wished. “I’m not sure when I had the idea for making puppets but while I was in Germany at the end of the war I became known as the ‘Wonkey Donkey Officer’ because I used to make little donkeys using wooden beads that could be made to wriggle and dance by strings attached to a small spring base. When I returned home I simply couldn’t go back to drawing dull old buildings. I wanted to create something that’s as near to being alive as makes no difference.”
It wasn’t long before he had rented a workshop behind a solicitor’s office in Silverless Street, Marlborough and began to design and create the amusing little figures that had proved so popular with the troops. “I designed them around the materials available at the time, using whatever materials and parts I could obtain locally. ”Once I had made a few dozen, I’d set up a small sales stall at nearby horse racing courses. As demand increased, I took on a small number of people – I think it was four – to help, [Frank Clements, Sid Hiscock, Rosemarie Gibaud and Laura Ray] who were soon producing a regular and increasing number of Donkeys, giraffes, pink elephants and ostriches.
Rosemarie came to work for me after I met her in a tea shop where she worked in Marlborough. She was a good artist and she had intended to study dress design in France but the war put a stop to her plans. Laura had been housekeeper for my parents for a few years and after my father retired, he suggested I invite her to come and work for me.”
Bob’s father, Walter, (‘Watty’) was Rector of Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire and a JP from 1925 to 1945. When he retired, the family moved to Marlborough and helped his son during those first few and very difficult years and his support became very evident when Bob encountered a serious problem soon after starting up the Wonky Toys business.
The photograph, above right, is from the Pelham Family album, taken in 1926 in Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire. From left to right: Bob’s brother, Tom, age 11; his mother, Ruth; his sister, Patricia, aged 9; his father, Walter and young Bob Pelham aged 7. (I extend my sincere thanks to Bob Pelham’s nephew, David, for giving me permission to include and publish this photograph.)
Another toy manufacturing company claimed that they held the manufacturing rights to these figures and Bob received notice from this Company telling him he must stop production or face legal action if he did not clear his stock by a particular date. At the time, he felt there was no alternative but to abandon the idea. Unfortunately, Bob had put all his money into the Wonky Donkey venture and so had little in the way of capital to begin the new enterprise with. Seeing how determined and enthusiastic his son was, in setting up the puppet business, and unfazed by the setback with the Wonky Toys, Walter sold one of his two motor cars for £130. He gave the money to Bob saying, “If you make this business work, pigs will fly!” Reflecting Bob’s confidence and sense of humour, he created a company logo of a flying pig and it appeared on the puppet boxes for the first ten years!
With no previous experience with puppets he enlisted the help of Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth who lived across the street from where he had his workshop, seeking some help and advice in the design and construction of string puppets. Jan was only too happy to assist and recalled how Bob approached him with the idea of manufacturing puppets and he worked out details of the simplest form of control and stringing with him.
“Jan gave encouragement and advice at a time when it was most needed,” Bob said, and he found it gratifying to feel, “that so much fun was being given to so many by something which, at one time was considered unsaleable.”
“When I first started making puppets I used to spend hours rummaging through Bert New’s Scrap yard, looking for anything that might prove useful, door knobs, loose banister rails, bits of carpet, nothing was safe! No wonder my poor father wished I would get back to architectural college and learn a useful profession! I also had a friend, a former Army comrade in Bristol who managed a Government Surplus Depot and he used to send me tenders for such things as ammunition partitions, pieces of plywood, toggles, rubber respirator tubes even parachutes. If the shape looked hopeful I would buy them up. I never paid very much because there were few others interested! I’d then try and decide what to use them for.
For example, the unique looking wooden feet used on the standard puppets started life as tarpaulin toggles, as Bob once related: “One day I made an offer for 186,742 toggles. At first, I hadn’t any idea what to use them for, but they looked like the sort of shape that should be useful. I paid £15 for them and was horrified when about twenty sacks were dumped in the doorway of my then, small premises. Being a stickler for getting my money’s worth, I counted out 100 and weighed them. I then set this against the total weight and arrived at a figure of 185,327. I wrote back saying I was 1,415 short and if they couldn’t find them would they please send me the appropriate refund. Would it surprise you if I said, I didn’t get a reply?”
Immediately, Bob and his employees were sorting, sawing, drilling, gluing and painting an extraordinary assortment of apparently waste materials into fully jointed puppets of remarkable individuality. This was in fact, one of the most interesting features about the infancy of the business. The puppets were made entirely from recycled materials.
Below Left: Laura Ray sewing puppet costumes. Below Right: (L to R) Rosemarie Gibaud assembling puppets; behind her, Sid Long stringing and Charles Warren painting limbs. (1948)
Recalling her time with Pelham Puppets during that first year of production, Rosemarie Gibaud relates: “Eventually, we needed to move somewhere a bit bigger because the solicitor got rather fed up with the noise of wood being sawn on a circular saw and the paint smell, it didn’t quite go with a lawyers offices so he said ‘Could we find somewhere else?’
We found some rooms over the labour exchange at the top end of Marlborough High Street on the corner with Kingsbury Street. So Bob rented first and second floors of the premises and later we also opened a small shop next door on the ground floor in number 3 Kingsbury Street.”
Right: Rosemarie in 2008 with a Wonky Donkey she had made 60 years earlier.
In a very short time, the number of employees rose to 14 and people like Sid Long and Doris Birley remained with the Company for over 30 years. Puppet production was very experimental since non-one else had ever tried producing puppets for the Toy Trade and for children to play with. A wide variety of characters were created and naturally, some would go on to become very popular, such as MacBoozle and Wags the dog and the standard “pairs” depicting different nationalities, such as the Dutch Boy & Girl remained in production for the next 40 years! He even designed some aerial, gas filled puppets he called “Puppoons.” This new, exciting venture certainly captured the imagination of the public and Pelham Puppets were often featured in the local and national press and on the new medium of television. [Below right: Bob’s sketch of a “Puppoon.”]
“I sold a good number of puppets to my friends and to their friends because they were immediately convinced that they were simple to work and ideal for children,” he said, “I knew I would have to persuade the large stores to take them if the business was to expand. At first, not a shop in the land would take them! It seemed people had never heard of puppets before. “Puppets?” they would say, “What are puppets?” “But I just knew that children would like them it just wasn’t easy getting that across to adults.”
Despite such discouraging experiences, Bob’s perseverance, enthusiasm and confidence were eventually rewarded. “Eventually, I persuaded Hamleys in Regent Street to let me demonstrate them myself behind a counter. So there I was, for three weeks, demonstrating how to use the puppets. That did it. The ice had been broken. By explaining how simple they really were to work and showing a somewhat surprised audience their comical antics, the first puppets began to sell.
I returned home with enough money to pay all my debts and wages. But I had to remain in Marlborough and get on with production with renewed vigour. Our stocks were depleted and everyone was very happy – the battle had been won. But sales had to continue, so for a while, Mary Rose Thesiger was employed as the puppet demonstrator. After I came back to Marlborough, Dorothy Mercer volunteered to go up to London to continue with the demonstrations for a few weeks. “She liked it so much however,” recalled Bob, “she stayed there for seven years!”
Below left: The original MacBoozle puppet with a “Town Lady” and Wags the Dog. Below Right: The Bookworm Family. On the left of the photo are the actual puppets used in the TV programme and on the right are the Pelham Puppet versions from 1947.
“After my success in Hamley’s, puppet sales mounted and of course, I had to expand but it wasn’t just as easy as that. Other shops had to be persuaded to accept and demonstrate them. In this respect a great deal of hard work was put into their promotion by William Seelig in London.” It was while Dot Mercer was demonstrating the puppets to an audience of children in Hamley’s that William Seelig arrived on the scene. He was not only fascinated by the puppets himself, he also saw how quickly the children were able to pick up the basic principles of operating the puppets. Being a man of considerable insight he realised there would be a great future for them. It was only a matter of days afterwards that a friend introduced him to Bob. It did not take long for them to agree to co-operate and William took on the task of marketing the puppets throughout the British Isles, with the exception of Lancashire where Bob had given the agency to Eric Broom. [Right: The first sales leaftet 1947.]
As business continued to improve, Bob recruited extra staff and Ken Hurll, a local fencing contractor, who had a lot of contacts throughout the country through his business, also assisted Bob with the business side of things. Ken only stayed with the company for a short time, resigning in January 1950. “I had met Arthur Harrison who had retired to Marlborough from a successful business career in Ceylon. We became business partners after Ken left and Arthur assumed much of the responsibility for the commercial aspects of the firm, leaving me more time to concentrate on the design and creation of new characters.”
By 1952, the popularity of Pelham Puppets had grown to such an extent that it became clear that more space was going to be needed to manufacture them. The existing premises became too small for all the people who were now employed, so a larger site was found in Elcot Lane on the outskirts of town. Bob recalled the need for larger premises with me in 1978: “There were some old Nissen Huts in Elcot Lane left over from the war. So, we moved the main production line into these but I kept the company offices and shop in Kingsbury Street. About a year later, I think it was, everything was brought together into the factory here and we’ve been here now for over 25 years.”
In August 1954, Bob, writing to a former war-time friend, said: “I really couldn’t relate chronological happenings since I was demobbed, but I am now a puppet – or rather, I make them. It amounts to the same thing! I have about 70 workers and perhaps 100 outworkers and we produce about 2,000 puppets a week and they go out to all parts of the world….. My wife and I run a club, the Pelpup Club. She deals with all the correspondence and I produce a magazine on a duplicator, about 1,500 copies each month. It gets a bit tedious after 42 months without a break. I never know what to put in next month’s but it always comes – so far! – I have a partner who runs the business side of the firm which, as you can imagine with that volume of sales amounts to quite a bit. It is great fun really always producing new things and ideas. There are many sides to it, such as advertising and animated things and puppet shows, in which my greatest interest lies but the bread & butter has to be kept going first. It was more a question of bread in the early days, the butter has only recently been showing and there will be no question of having it both sides for a very long time, though the firm, I think, has good prospects – contrary to many peoples’ beliefs at the outset.”
When Arthur resigned in 1956, Anne and Bob had been married for four years and she became Company co-Director. She also fulfilled another vital role over the years by calming many of Bob’s worries. He was an artist rather than a businessman and as such, the harsh realities of the world of commerce tended, on occasions to overcome him. In this, Anne proved her strength by smoothing away the problems, often showing him that his fears were groundless, or at worst, the normal expectations of commercial reality. As the years passed, so Anne contributed more and more to the running of the business. It became in every sense, a joint venture and when their children, Michael and Sarah, were born, a family affair. Could anything be more appropriate in a company making puppets for children?
Following the 70th Anniversary “Bob Pelham World of Puppets” festival in 2017, preparations were made by Marlborough Town Council for a Blue Plaque to be placed on the building where Bob started the business in 1947. More information here.
The photo shows the premises where he started at the lower end of Kingsbury Street, Marlborough. The puppet making workshops were located on the first and second floors of the curved building and in December 1947 he opened a shop next door at No 3, since the ground floor of the main building was already occupied.
The Story of Sandy MacBoozle. Part 1.
The following information is based on conversations I had with Bob Pelham in the late 1970s.
Bob Pelham spent nearly 3 days making the very first puppet of Macboozle, completing him on 22nd June 1947.
The idea for Sandy MacBoozle developed over time after Bob saw a Scottish actor and entertainer, Will Fyffe on stage, entertaining the troops in North Africa during the War.
Will Fyffe was a well known, talented actor during the 1930s and 40s. He was also a successful music hall artist (singer-songwriter and comedian), creating a succession of comic characters, including “Uncle Mac” and ‘Daft Sandy,’ the village idiot and he had the ability to create a character and then seem to actually be that character.
Will Fyffe wrote and recorded the song “I Belong to Glasgow” and he became a worldwide star. Fyffe found the inspiration for the song from a drunk he met at Glasgow Central Station. The drunk was “genial and demonstrative” and Fyffe asked him: “Do you belong to Glasgow?” and the man replied: “At the moment, at the moment, Glasgow belongs to me.”
Above: The original Sandy MacBoozle puppet and (inset) Will Fyffe – the actor/comedian that inspired Bob to produce the puppet that became one of his most popular and enduring creations. Bob would often include Macboozle singing ‘I Belong to Glasgow’ in the factory Christmas party shows.
When Sandy MacBoozle first appeared in 1947 he certainly managed to capture the imagination of the public.
He appeared on television with his creator and he was filmed at the British Industries Fair and was featured in a number of national newspapers, including the Daily Mirror on 30th December 1947, the London Recorder on 10th January 1948 and Everybody’s Weekly on December 17th 1949.
Part 2: “Four Balls for 6d!”
It was in October 1947 that MacBoozle also played an important part in the development of the manufacture of the puppets. It was an event that proved to be a turning point in the history of Pelham Puppets.
During the first year or two Bob had difficulty in keeping supplies going since making puppet heads was slowing down production. He explained, “At first, we turned them on a lathe but they all came out in different shapes from ovals to squarish rounds. Well, I suppose it did mean their heads were all different shapes but as we wanted them in large quantities an alternative supply had to be found.
So imagine my delight when one day during the Mop Fair in Marlborough High Street I came across a large box of the roundest wooden balls I had ever seen. “Four balls for sixpence!” the man said, thrusting them into my hands. “Just what I want!” I said, “Where did you get them from?” But he wouldn’t tell me – I suppose he thought I was going to set up another coconut-shy stall.
So I went off and fetched MacBoozle and got him to leap up onto the box of balls by the stall, made him tap his head and say, “This is what he wants these balls for!” At that, Mr. Bunce became very friendly and he readily gave the name of some woodturners, Hoopers of Stroud.”
Right: Bob’s sketch depicting MacBoozle explaining what he wanted the balls for.
Part 3 to follow soon.
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