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.
Introduction – The adventure begins!
The first puppet that was brought to life was called Chloe. She seems rather crude by today’s standards but she had a charm and appeal people can still appreciate.
This is how Bob described her creation: “She wriggled and kicked as excited hands tried to dress her and attach the strings. A moment later she was flinging her arms about and leaping in the air! She was alive and how happy she was! Then she stopped and for a moment, she thought… then in a loud clear voice she commanded, “Make thousands, nay, tens of thousands!” She said that children in all lands of this world wanted puppets like her to play with!”
It all started in a small first floor two-room workshop in Silverless Street, when Bob Pelham began his Wonky Donkeys. The puppet making began in 1947 after he relocated his workshop to Victoria House, in Kingsbury Street.
In the spring of 1947, Bob rented Victoria House in Kingsbury Street, Marlborough. During the first year the only outlet for sales consisted of a window display and shop in number 3 Kingsbury Street. It had been a grocer’s shop before but when the puppets took over, the brightly painted building in cream and turquoise seemed to create a special kind of magic. Victoria House was certainly an extraordinary place to work. The unusual product they were manufacturing and the happy family atmosphere, created a feeling of group endeavour that formed the basis of the company for years to come.
Following the 70th Anniversary “Bob Pelham World of Puppets” festival in 2017, preparations are being made by Marlborough Town Council for a Blue Plaque to be placed on the wall of Victoria House. (Although, strictly speaking, Bob started his post-war enterprise in Silverless Street, it was from here in Kingsbury Street that the company was re-named Pelham Puppets and where the business really took off and even after production was relocated to Elcot Lane a few years later, the shop and offices remained in Victoria House. So this is the most appropriate place to erect the plaque.)
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 plus a former laundry building, situated on the south bank of the River Kennet. On October 18th 1961, the large 3-story 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 Collingbourne Ducis south of Marlborough and the London Road factory was demolished in 1989. The site is now called Pelham’s Court.
Photo right: Top image shows entrance to Pelhams Court today. Bottom image shows where the Pelham Puppets factory was located.
The following tour of the factory is based on the main London Road premises as it existed in the 1960s and 1970s. We will explore each room or department and explain the puppet making process from beginning to end.
Part One: The Moulding Room
The material used for the moulding process consisted of pumice powder, finely ground volcanic lava from the regions of Mount Vesuvius in northern Italy mixed with bone glue, (gelatine) and water.
There were two different types of mouldings, the solid, such as used for hands, feet and skeleton parts and the hollow moulds used for heads, animal bodies, hands and feet such as the boots for Bimbo and the Disney range of characters.
They were all produced in the Moulding Room, where the unique mixture of pumice powder and gelatine was first heated to forty degrees centigrade and stirred for about two hours in a large metal tank and then poured into the alloy moulds using a sugar tap. This was a special tap used in the refining of sugar and meant that sticky material running through it would not clog up the system.
Once the mixture was poured into the mould it was immediately up-ended above the tank in order for any surplus mixture to empty out. This left a thin layer of mixture on the inside of the mould. After about ten minutes the cast had become hard enough to handle, at this stage it was like table jelly and had shrunk in size enabling its removal from the alloy mould. At this point wooden dowels were inserted into the necks and as the head dried, it would shrink further and the dowel would be permanently ‘glued’ to the mould.
The casts had to be subjected to contrasting temperatures, so they were placed in trays filled with ice cubes to enable them to become solidified. Once they had solidified, the heads were then placed in a wind tunnel where they remained for up to twenty-four hours drying in a current of air provided by two large fans.
The mixture for solid parts was made into dough from similar material as for hollow moulds. Ordinary pellet glue and not gelatine was used since white mineral powder rather than the more expensive pumice powder was used and this dough was pressed into a flat-sided alloy or brass moulds.
When these were filled they were placed under a hydraulic press which would exert a pressure of 1,000lbs per square inch. After these components had cooled and become jellified they were put into the wind tunnel to dry which could take anything up to ten days!
When all the parts were completely dry, they were sorted into boxes and sent through to the next department, the Scraping Room.
Part Two: Scraping Room and Dipping Room
When all the parts were completely dry, they were sorted into boxes and sent through to the next department, the Scraping Room. Very often air bubbles would have produced small craters on the surface of the head or face and these were filled with wood-filler and sanded until smooth. Every head, body part, hand and foot had to be checked and sanded by hand to ensure every component was as smooth as possible for the application of paint later on.
Once this very dusty, labour intensive and laborious work had been completed, the finished heads and hands etc, were placed into boxes and taken over the footbridge, passing by the animated hall, (we will return to this later,) on to the Dipping Room. As the name implies, this was where every moulded component received one coat of semi-gloss paint which provided a good surface for hand painting the features later.
Wooden heads, moulded heads, animal bodies were all simply dipped into large pots of paint and hung up to dry on purpose built racks. The surplus paint dripped into trays and was poured back into the pots. The important drip was always the last one. This had to be removed by a paint brush, not too soon or another would form and not too late or it will have become too dry to be removed without leaving a mark.
An experienced ‘dipper’ could fill up to twelve racks a day, each rack would hold up to one hundred heads and if the job seemed monotonous, one could usually add some variety by dipping components that needed a different colour! Although it was fast drying paint, it was touch-dry in a couple of hours, the heads were usually left to dry out overnight and were collected the following morning and taken to the head painter’s room.
Parts that were too small for dipping individually such as hands and feet were tumbled in a metal barrel, a tricky process, with just the right amount of paint – that was the tricky part – which was sealed and tumbled on rollers for several minutes so all the components were covered in paint. The contents were thrown out onto wire-mesh trays, separated using paint sticks, stacked and left to dry out overnight.
Above: Win Taylor dipping Muffin the Mule parts 1961. Right: Paul Upton dipping Type SS heads 1977.
Part Three: The Machine Room
The Machine Room housed a number of woodworking machines including three high speed bench drills, three circular saws and ingeniously designed jigs and purpose built drilling machines. All the machines were connected to an extraction system which collected the saw-dust which a local butcher would call in for, each week and take away to use in his shop!
The first stage in manufacture was to drill a 3/8” hole for the neck to be inserted. After the neck had been glued in the guide holes for the ears and nose were drilled. This was accomplished using a specially designed twin-drilling machine. The wooden ball was placed onto a raised jig, as seen in the photograph. The operator is lowering a fixed weight which was used to bang the back of the ‘head.’ A nail inserted in the centre of the raised jig marked the position for the guide hole for the nose.
Have you ever wondered how all the holes were drilled for the thousands of controls were produced? Each control bar required at least seven holes and in the first year or two, these were drilled individually. Since up to five holes in a row were required in a single strip of timber, a purpose built five-chuck drill was designed and used to speed up this process. In the photograph you can see how several control bars could be clamped together and all five holes drilled simultaneously.
Other machines, such as sanding discs and wire brush ‘finishing’ discs were found in the machine room, so at times it could become a very noisy and dusty place to work in.
Part Four: The Assembly Room
You would find a group of ladies sitting at large tables and work benches each designated for a particular aspect of the work with hundreds of puppet bodies, legs, and feet piled high and stacked into boxes. Top bodies had their arms attached and bottom bodies had their legs and feet attached. The photograph shows Peggy Stroud, (standing,) and Edna Locke, (centre,) and they would work out from the weekly production sheets how many of each puppet are required. At this stage in the production, the only difference was the colour of the puppet’s feet, with the exception of what were referred to as ‘boots,’ actually lower legs, which were used for such puppets as the Pirate, Hansel and Geppetto.
The ‘SM type’ heads were had their jaws attached here too. The black and white photograph, taken around 1962, shows the pivot being inserted through the cheek and jaw then secured with a tap of the hammer and the nail head covered with wood filler and sanded smooth before going to the head painter’s room. The photo on the left shows arms being attached to the ‘SM type’ top body. Note the ‘twiddlers’ (above the pliers on the bench top,) these were made from puppet horse legs and bicycle spokes and were used to twist the hooks and eyes into the arms and bodies. The metal plate below the worker’s hands is a set-jig that was used to ensure all the metal leg joints were set to the correct depth when inserted into the dowelling.
The Assembly Room overlooked the River Kennett and during summer months, when the windows were open, you could hear the ducks on the river quacking to the beat of hammers tapping as hundreds of legs were being assembled and attached to the bottom bodies.
Puppets with ‘double barrel’ plastic legs were assembled here too, although much of the assembly work was done by people working from their homes. Puppet heads and hands were not attached to the bodies until after the costumes had been added.
Part Five: The Head Painter’s Room & Hair & Hat Table
Up to twenty girls could be found hand painting all the heads and animal bodies. The training that Gil Leeper had initiated in the early fifties was carried through from one employee to another and a standard programme of progressive painting was developed and followed by each newcomer. It would take up to six months to train a person for face painting and they must already have had a flair for painting. By the mid-seventies over 120 different characters were in production at any one time and up to 2,000 puppets a day were being produced, so head painting had to be done quickly and accurately.
Training usually started with animal bodies, such as the cat and Bengo or large areas like the black area on Mickey and Minnie Mouse heads. They then progressed to painting features on moulded heads, usually starting with skeletons and puppet heads with larger features like the SL Frog and Giant. Finally, when competent, they progressed to the wooden ball heads or SS Type puppets. To help speed up the process of painting these, metal masks were produced with the position of the eyes and mouth cut out, so these could be lightly pencilled in to guide the painting of these features. Each head painter could usually recognise their own work, as Yvonne Rautenbach related, “No-one else may have noticed the difference but we all knew our own work. Even now, forty five years later, I would recognise a head I had painted all those years ago.”
Americans particularly appreciated the quality of hand made, hand painted products that Pelham achieved world wide recognition for. In fact, the puppets stood out a mile from the rows of plastic and mass produced toys and dolls. Whereas dolls tended to be turned out from the same moulds and appear in toy shops, sitting in rows, each one identical to its neighbour, with an identical, lifeless grin, no two puppets ever turned out looking exactly alike.
Bob recalled one occasion when he was showing an American buyer around the factory, when one head painter, (perhaps because of nervousness due to being watched,) made a slight slip up with her paint brush. Bob apologised for the error explaining that during training especially, some heads were either rejected or returned to the dipping room. However, the buyer responded by insisting that every puppet should have a “misplaced stroke of the brush” to highlight the fact that each and every puppet was genuinely hand painted!
Once the faces had been painted, the heads were taken to the hair & hat table. Almost all the puppets needed a wig or a hat or both and these were glued and nailed on. Beads of bone glue were mixed with water in an electrically heated container. The glue would harden as soon as it began to cool, so the job had to be done quickly and the hair pressed down onto the glued head before it became cold.
The photograph shows MacBoozle having his hair and hat glued on. Puppets with wooden heads generally had their hats nailed into place. The pot on the left of the photograph contains the heated (and very smelly) fast-setting glue. Once the hair and hats had been attached, they were handed over to an adjecent table where the heads and hands were the added to the dressed bodies. The bodies had been brought over in boxes from the Assembly Room and the costumes had been brought in from the Sewing Room, which is where we will visit after we back-track into the Cutting Room.
Part Six: The Cutting and Sewing Room
Next door to the Hair and Hat table was the Cutting Room. This is where the fabric for puppet clothes was cut to shape and size ready for sewing.
To ensure uniformity to the cut of each outfit purpose made cutting knives shaped into the required patterns were used. On the wall at the back of the photograph, you can see some of cutting knives. The photograph shows Megan Long operating the cutting press which made it possible for up to sixteen patterns to be instantly and accurately cut, at a time.
Folded fabric was placed on to the base plate of the cutting press, with the cutting knife placed into position. The white top-plate was swung into position and with the push of a button the pattern was stamped out with 1,000lbs per square inch of pressure. Various types of fabric were selected. Often, Bob would buy pattern books from fabric suppliers or ‘end of rolls’ which of course, was a cost effective way to purchase good quality materials suitable for the puppets.
For example, the small ruffles on Mr Turnip’s shirt and those from the 50’s were made from silk tule, like the netting also used for women’s underskirts. Later it was nylon, like net curtain, which you see on Prince Charming and the SL Queen. Most of the plain coloured fabrics that were used like the white, green, yellow, black, red and blue was called silk meracain, it was very similar to the parachute silk they used in the early days. The velvet used was called cotton velveteen. The velvet pile was shorter than normal velvet and far easier to work with. On the Fairy and Ballerina they used organza and acetate lining fabric, which was also used on Cinderella and Prince Charming. Which ever type of fabric was used, the important thing was that the fabric had to be fluid enough to allow the puppet to move freely and, whilst the fabrics changed time and time again, the cut of each outfit very rarely did.
Doris Birley started working at the puppet factory from 1948, “We didn’t have dozens of sewing machines in those days,” she said, “Everything was cut by hand and we only had one sewing machine, so a lot of the sewing was done by hand too!” The photographs (right) show Laura Ray in 1947 and Doris in the mid 1950s – each using the same sewing machine about eight years apart! “I remember Mr Pelham wanted me to make a puppet of a soldier with a khaki uniform but we didn’t have any suitable material in stock,” recalled Doris Birley, “that is, until I took my husband’s old army shirts in to him! They were cut up and used too!”
By 1978 there were fourteen industrial sewing machines in the sewing room, in constant use as well as eight ‘in-house’ finishers and dressers who completed the sewing by hand. Attention to detail was of great importance to Doris and her co-workers, but in time, some of the finishing and ‘finicky bits’ were omitted due to the pressure involved in producing ever-increasing quantities. Once the costumes had been cut and sewn, they were turned, pressed and dressed and taken to the finishing table. At this point, heads met bodies under the supervision of the factory forewoman, Joan Brown and finally became recognisable characters and piled up on large trays and taken through to the stringing room.
Part Seven: The Stringing Room
One of the most distinctive and unique features that identifies a marionette as a Pelham Puppet is the control and method of stringing which was originally designed with the expert help of Jan Bussell in 1947 and influenced by Harry Whanslaw’s publication, ‘Everyone’s Marionette Book.’ published in the 1940s.
There were up to ten people continually stringing puppets as well as the many home-workers who would be called upon when extra help was needed. Generally, two people would do the head stringing, that is attached the head strings only so that the rest of the team could concentrate on attaching the strings to the back, shoulders and limbs. The head strings were cut on a special board so that they were all exactly the same length. Once the puppet was hanging from its head strings, the control was clamped to a stand leaving both hands free for the person to complete the stringing.
An experienced stringer could complete up to twenty standard puppets every hour, although characters like MacBoozle, the skeleton, Clever Willie and Mother Dragons would take longer due to their extra strings.
In the centre of the room, there was a long table where two people made up the boxes and packed the puppets and stacked them in the nearby production room where, the following morning, they were all counted by staff from the packing and despatch room, so that the previous day’s production could be recorded.
To continue the Factory Tour, ‘turn’ to Page Two here.
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