Marlborough Puppetry Festival
Marlborough Celebrates 70 Years of Pelham Puppets
The Marlborough Puppet Festival to be held on July 8 and 9 will mark the seventieth anniversary of the start of Pelham Puppets. (put in link to Tony’s article on March 17 2017 and to https://www.britishpuppetguild.org.uk/index.php/2017/01/20/marlborough-puppetry-festival/)
Marlborough.news has been finding out more from the people who knew Bob Pelham, founder of Pelham Puppets, and from those who worked in the Pelham Puppet factory.
Bob Pelham and Pelham Puppets are fondly remembered by Tony Gray. Tony was owner of Ducks Toy Shop, Marlborough from 1965 to 2008, a former Marlborough mayor and town councillor. He has recently been presented with a life-time achievement award by Marlborough town council.
Tony told marlborough.news: “ Initially Bob Pelham had his own shop in Kingsbury Street and in the post war period used a lot of ex-army materials, convoluted tubes from gas masks, as well as wooden coconut balls. As the business expanded to the factory down by the Kennet, off London Road, Pelham Puppets became a huge employer in the town with wonderful esprit de corps among the workers.”
Tony shared his memories of Bob Pelham who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1980.
“Bob Pelham was a very shy man. He seemed to communicate through his puppets. He would come to the shop on a Saturday morning with new puppet designs and walk up to kids with the puppets. The kids would talk to the puppet and not to him.”
Ducks Toy shop became one of the main retailers for the puppets, along with Hamleys in London and Schwarz in New York.
‘We used to go down to the factory to pick up the puppets and this gave us the pick of the bunch. At Christmas we would have a special animated (motorised) Pelham Puppet display in the window of Ducks.”
When Tony became Mayor of Marlborough in 1971 he invited local businesses to a trade fair and asked them to mount a display. Bob Pelham created an eight foot Bimbo the Clown puppet especially for this event. ( See photograph of Tony and his wife with Bimbo the Clown.)
The puppets were always successful, especially with American tourists visiting Marlborough. Some of the best-selling puppets in Ducks included Muffin the Mule, Mcboozle, and in 1966, World Cup Willy. In the 60’s and 70’s The Magic Roundabout characters were very popular, particularly Dougal the dog.
Bob Pelham was meticulous in sourcing exactly the right materials for his puppets. He went to Iceland to buy Icelandic sheepskin for his Dougal puppets because he believed that Icelandic sheepskin had just the right texture for Dougal’s coat.
Wessex Archaeologist Phil Harding, well known for Channel 4’s Time Team and BBC’s Digging for Britain, has many happy memories of his first full time job – at Pelham Puppets.
Phil went to work there from 1970-71 after leaving Marlborough Grammar School where a fellow student, Bob Pelham’s niece, recommended him for the job.
He told marlborough.news:“It was my first real job. I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist but I hadn’t got the A-levels, I was resitting them. The job at Pelham Puppets was ideal as the hours were flexible and the atmosphere relaxed.”
Phil remembers his first day there vividly. He printed faces on to wooden heads that were destined to become puppets. Very soon he was promoted and spent most of his time building ventriloquist puppets. “I had to fit the jaws, make the handles, spray the heads. The whole process probably broke today’s Health and Safety standards. I was given a face mask and a daily pint of milk to line my stomach to protect against paint fumes.”
“Bob Pelham,” says Phil, “was obsessive about puppets – they were his whole life. He was always very friendly and relaxed. He once decided to introduce a clocking in machine at the factory which didn’t go down very well as most of the workers were women who were working flexible hours because of home commitments. In the end the machine wasn’t used because Bob said it didn’t matter.”
Many of the workers in the Pelham Puppet factory had worked there since the factory was founded in 1947. Phil remembers Old Siddy who had lost a leg in the Battle of Anzio, in the Italian campaign of World War 2. Old Siddy was responsible for building Number 1 puppets which were the 8 foot Bimbo the Clown puppets, suspended on big springs. These were sold to Hamleys toy shop every Christmas.
Another ‘old hand’ Phil remembers was Handel Collins, named after George Frederick Handel. “He had been a publican and a pattern maker for Great Western Railway and was very skilled. He had a work box with his own tools and pictures of locomotives. You never went near his box !”
Handel Collins was retired but was employed by Bob Pelham part time and Phil worked alongside him.
It was while he was at Pelham Puppets that Phil’s chance to become an archaeologist was given to him. He had taken a two week holiday to participate in a dig at Ludgershall Castle. While he was there, the trench supervisor, Mike Adey, asked him to go and dig with him at Southampton. “He told me, you’ll give up your job and come and dig with me.”
Despite some parental misgivings, Phil took him up on the offer and the first step towards a career in archaeology was taken.
“I have very fond memories of Pelham Puppets,” says Phil, “it was a crucial time in my life.”