Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured – RLS, The Toy Theatre of War and early wargaming

Peter Dennis’ 54mm civilian figures from his Little Wars Paper Soldiers book (Helion)

As a follow up to my recent post about The Toy Theatre and my 54mm figures inspired by this Emily Dutton advent calendar toy theatre, I wanted to photograph on stage my own paper Soldiers. These were quickly produced for my roughed out Suffra Graffiti game, inspired by those Wellsian Little Wars figures of Peter Dennis.

Fans of the Toy Theatre read like a Who’s Who of early Wargamers. I am curious about this overlap and what it offers us in gaming today.

I have been rereading “Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured“, a well known essay by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) about the influence of the toy theatre on him as a child. It is available free online via here at:

” [RLS] Louis and cousin Bob had mastered the art of toy theater as boys. As a married man, age 30, in 1881, RLS was doing it again in Switzerland, after his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, age 11, had come into possession of a toy theater — “a superb affair costing upwards of 20 pounds that had been given me on the death of the poor lad who had whiled away his dying hours with it at the Belvedere,” a hotel in the health resort town of Davos. Lloyd continues: “He painted scenery for my toy theatre and helped me to give performances and slide the actors in and out of their tin stands, as well as imitating galloping horses, or screaming screams for the heroine in distress.”

“Stevenson wasn’t Pollock’s only interesting customer. G.K. Chesterton’s passion for the hobby rivalled Stevenson’s. Chesterton saw the toy theater as a microcosm of the cosmos, where everything can be examined under the spotlight of a miniature stage, where good and evil are starkly contrasted in bright colors and dramatic scripts. Winston Churchill was a big fan of the little stage, too. He bought his stuff at H.J. Webb, an offshoot of Pollock’s …”


Churchill’s favourite, Pollock’s The Miller and his Men – Image from the Old Pen Shop (EBay)

Churchill’s favourite toy theatre play The Miller and His Men apparently had a stirring “No Surrender” speech that may have influenced his later speeches and attitude. I have recently bought a repro copy of this Pollock play, characters and scenery from the Old Pen Shop online and look forward to reading it.

Haha! Paper Soldiers Pollock style, suitable for wargaming? (From: The Old Pen Shop, EBay)

“The Miller and His Men” was mentioned by RLS along with another title which I also purchased, the uncoloured Waterloo scenes for the Toy Theatre or Juvenile Drama from the same source.

* Update: Derek Cooper pointed out in the comments that the Wargames / Toy Theatre link continues with Warrior Miniatures in Glasgow also producing toy theatres and plays including Waterloo, Inkerman, Balaklava and Alma battles and Skelt pieces that RLS would recognise

Pollock’s shop, sited at Covent Garden for a hundred years, still remains and they do online sales / mail order.

My three Edwardian postcard inspired coppers quickly created for my Suffra-Graffiti game …

RLS was a fan of Pollock’s toy theatres and Benjamin Pollock was a fan of RLS. Another interesting overlap.

RLS had a sickly childhood which in time inspired the writer of ‘The Land of Counterpane’ and other such toy inspired poems (featured on this blog) in the Child’s Garden of Verses. RLS and his stepson Lloyd Osborne also collected and gamed theatrically with Toy Soldiers, some of which survive in America –

There is lots of interesting overlap between wargames and toy theatre. I also associate Toy Theatre with convalescence, probably due to E. Nesbit, author of The City in The Library with its toy soldiers, who was also the author of The Railway Children which has a great Toy Theatre scene in the 1970s film.

My paper Suffragists and American cousin on roller skates for SuffraGraffiti

Alan Gruber at the Duchy of Tradgardland blog has also been musing over this Toy Theatre idea of wargaming. I suggested in the comments that:

“There is an element of framing, set dressing, assembling the protagonists or characters, behaving in the beginning in preset ways to set plans (take the ridge, cover the bridge, advance and occupy the town) etc and then each of the scenes making up the acts (beginning, middle, end?)”

The link is very clear when you consider the changing backdrops and changing scenery between games (or acts).

One overlap or connection may be that The Toy Theatre, real live theatre, TV drama, fiction and gaming are all things which allow us to play out strategy and “what if”, changing the variables of a scenario to affect the outcomes, without anyone getting hurt.

Shifty looking opponents of Women’s Suffrage from my Suffrage-Graffiti game

As mentioned in my opening paragraph, the fans of the toy theatre read like a “Who’s Who” of early wargaming – RLS, Chesterton, Churchill. I wondered if H G Wells was involved? Certainly Floor Games and Little Wars have a charming theatrical invention of worlds and theatre sets.

Protogamers The Brontes’ juvenile dramas and fictional worlds were inspired by the gift of ‘The Twelve’ wooden toy soldiers.

A little research on Board Game Geek reveals that Chesterton and Wells both appear to have devised together satirical toy theatre plays on current or recent events. Chesterton’ auto biography in 1936 reveals this larkish attitude by Wells:

“What I have always liked about [H.G.] Wells is his vigorous and unaffected readiness for a lark. He was one of the best men in the world with whom to start a standing joke; though perhaps he did not like it to stand too long after it was started. I remember we worked a toy-theatre together with a pantomime about Sidney Webb.”

Chesterton’s biographer Masie Ward notes that the pair: “They built too a toy theatre at Easton and among other things dramatized the minority report of the Poor Law Commission. The play began by the Commissioners taking to pieces Bumble the Beadle, putting him into a huge cauldron and stewing him. Then out from the cauldron leaped a renewed rejuvenated Bumble several sizes larger than when he went in.”

Thanks for the references to:

“Three Little Maids from the WSPU are we …” My roller skating Suffragettes

Peter Cushing the actor was a known collector and maker of toy soldiers, a dandy proponent of Little Wars, but he also collected and made toy theatres with elaborate set designs.

Alan Gruber pointed out the puppet theatre in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander – featured here

My first toy theatre? Probably Asterix cut out characters and playscenes c. 1975 from the back of cereal boxes

More thinking required in this interesting overlap of Toy Theatre and wargaming !

Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN and ” Tuppence Coloured or Penny Plain” 12 December 2020

11 thoughts on “Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured – RLS, The Toy Theatre of War and early wargaming”

  1. Great stuff Mark – I remember the Weetabix Disney Robin Hood paper figures and scenery very well! Played with alot on the kitchen table


    1. Thanks James. “All the World’s a Stage?” Hmm. I think my Armada era figure Will or Bill Shaxbeard might steal this quote, Oscar Wilde style (“I wish I’d said that.” “You will, Oscar, You will.”)


  2. A fascinating post Mark filled with good things new to me. I really enjoyed the Fanny and Alexander clip too. I can recall a childhood toy theatre made of cardboard boxes with a curtain rigged on curtain plastic coated wire with the curtain sewed by my mum. I used it as far as I can remember with my glove puppets possibly the one marionette I had. I recall nothing of the scenery except it was made from the views on old Scotsman calendars.
    Mark are you going on to research marionettes and shadow puppets as your next step forward? I think that they often depict battles with shadow puppets in the east.


    1. The childhood theatres of our youth were definitely the most magical. I think RLS in his essay would agree. Probably many film makers, illustrators and animators too …
      I recall plotting out and pegging through the paper with pencil tip some fantastic landscapes or gardens, drawn from above (like a wargames campaign map). I was obviously not trusted with scissors! You could then push out sections like ponds. Aged five or so, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t fill the pond that I had pegged out of my map ever very full of water (one soggy carpet and scolding later).

      Puppetry and Toy Theatres of War and Soldiers is something I may follow up as a separate page on the Man of TIN blog, having researched puppetry a bit in the past. As a Seventies kid I loved the anarchy of Sweep in the Sooty Show.

      There are indeed many martial traditions including one with Morions. It’s usually good versus evil, which many wargames are. Most gamers usually have a favourite side.
      I have a slight personal dislike of String puppets (and kites for that matter), based on too many tangled knots and Pelham Puppets of the Seventies.
      Thanks for the National Opera clip on Messenger, what a magnificently carved puppet theatre frontage.
      It would be good to have a dedicated spot or page on my blog for such wargames and toy theatre puppetry etc overlap musings. Somewhere I have a Puppeteers Guild random wartime bulletin from WWII.


  3. Mark, if the founding fathers of miniature wargaming are linked to theatre models, could it be that the 1960-70s wargamers may have been inspired by Children’s TV……. Larry the Lamb, Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley, and others. I mention this as concepts such as scaled buildings, terrain, and even toy soldiers are very visible and yet also clearly models. I definitely think my Georgian town was inspired by Gordon Murray, Bob Bura, John Hardwick and Pasquale Ferrari……. the Trumpton team!


    1. I think you have a point, if the recent Relief of Fort Pippin game by Mike Lewis at the Woking 54mm Games Day last March is anything to go by – pictured here:

      I did (and still do) love the landscapes, buildings and maps and real sounds of these classic programmes even if I saw many of them in black and white. The more modern children’s TV of today has lost that handmade, scale modelling feel to it in favour of CGI. Not always for the inspiring better.

      Maybe the frame or proscenium arch of the stage in the shape of the television frame took over in the Fifties and Sixties from what would have been live puppetry and going back further, back past cartoons and film, to long before when it was The Toy Theatre and the real thing.


  4. Just a wee note that the overlap between toy theatres and wargaming continues, here in Glasgow, John Holt who runs Warrior Miniatures also has a company called Toy Theatre Gallery, you can check their catalogue on Google.


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