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Lords of Misrule: The Museum of British Folklore’s Punch and Judy puppets 2

a photo of a Mr Punch character dressed in green

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore, on their collection of Punch and Judy Puppets

Mr Punch gets away with murder, literally. He has no redeeming qualities. He’s a grotesque anti-hero, which is why I love him.

I’ve been collecting Punch and Judy puppets for about 10 years. Initially I was not thinking they would form part of the museum’s collection but inevitably they have been woven into the collection and we’ve got around 50 of them now.

The oldest set is probably from the 1920s, but Punch and Judy puppets are quite hard to accurately date, unless you know the provenance. I found one set in a suitcase at a car boot sale but they had no idea where it had come from – usually the best you can do is look at the fabrics and the way they’ve been constructed and the painting style.

The classic line up would be Punch, Judy and the baby. Then you’ve got the policeman, the judge (who Punch usually ends up hanging) and the crocodile with the string of sausages; we’ve got quite a few of those. There’s also a ghost and, depending on the story, a cast of peripheral characters.

Photo of a judy puppet with cloth cap and apron

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a photo of a crocodile puppet with a string of sausages in his mouth

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a photo of a punch puppet character on a hobby horse

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

We’ve got some sets of puppets from the 1960s and 1970s, which contain representations of African and Indian people – they probably would have been pretty derogatory to be honest – the role is unclear because most of the Punch and Judy texts we’ve got don’t include those characters. That’s how folk practice works, things are created in the moment because they have some resonance with the time and period that they’re working in.

The puppets are usually created by the puppeteer, the Punch and Judy operators, who call themselves Professors, they are predominantly men. Then you’ve got things like the development of the swazzle, which is a piece of vibrating metal used on the roof of the mouth or under the tongue to create the voices.

Often it will have a small piece of thread attached to a chain round the neck so that, should you swallow it, you can yank it out again. But the voices are all down to the individual operator, which is why it fits within folk tradition because it’s totally vernacular in its origin and has evolved over the years as part of a street performance tradition.

The first recorded instance of a Punch and Judy show in England was in Samuel Pepys’ Diaries on May 9 1662. Pepys went along several times to see it again. At this time Punch was a puppet with strings, based on Pulcinella, a character from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian street performance.

photo of a puppet devil character

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a close up a wooden puppet character's head

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a photo of the wooden head of a punch puppet with red hooked nose and red cheeks

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

Punch and Judy first appeared in England, as far as we know, mostly in urban areas and then it leeched out across the country and at the seaside. It really became a big seaside entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s because at that time you had to start getting permits to perform in cities so it was much easier to just pitch up on the beach and disappear again with the booth, because it all packs down in suitcases.

If you look at most of the early etchings in things like the London Illustrated News, Punch was predominantly in the towns, and particularly popular in London.

“The violence came with Punch’s introduction to Britain where he became more and more deranged”

I think he’s just such an extraordinary invention, because Pulcinella was a much more charming character and had a way with the ladies. Punch is a serial killer basically and the violence came with the Brits. If you think about when Punch and Judy would have first appeared over here, we had things like bear baiting in the streets and life was far more evidently violent. People might say the same now, but the violence came with Punch’s introduction to Britain where he became more and more deranged.

You could see Punch as a kind of Lord of Misrule, who in the Tudor period would usually be a lowly peasant put in charge of festivities at the Lord’s house at Christmas time. This tradition had its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where the normal laws were overturned and the fool became a king for the day.

a photo of the wooden head of a Judy puppet with a large red nose

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a photo of a wooden puppet character with dress and grotesque make up

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

a photo of a devil puppet character

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

Yet Punch is hard to classify in terms of a social scale, because if you think about his costume, it is incredibly elaborate. Then you have this bizarre hump on the back and the chin that meets the nose. Again, this feature was derived from the Pulcinella character and his peculiar mask with its long, curved proboscis. The costume also has echoes of the Court Jester who are satirical figures, but very high ranking within court life.

Our aim is to establish a permanent museum for the entire collection and these puppets will certainly be displayed. What I’d really love to do is show them alongside something like the Susan Hiller installation, ‘An Entertainment’. Hiller is a fine artist who made an extraordinary video installation using giant wall projections around the Punch and Judy show, and it’s very disturbing in the way that the shows are. As a child I didn’t like them at all, I found them quite scary because they’re incredibly violent.

But I think people have always had a fascination with extreme forms of behaviour. Maybe there are even times when we want to hit people with a big stick? I think Punch and Judy acts as a kind of safety valve in many ways, allowing us to let off steam.

close up of a wooden puppet character

Courtesy Simon Costin / The Museum of British Folklore

Simon Costin was speaking to Richard Moss.

Watch a film about the Museum of British Folklore and its plans for a new permanent museum. 

To make a donation to the Museum of British Folklore or find out how to help and get involved, email mofbf@clara.co.uk

2 comments on “Lords of Misrule: The Museum of British Folklore’s Punch and Judy puppets

  1. Ted Clarke on

    Like the article and the pictures are great. Interesting about violence increasing when it arrives in Britain. As the industrial revolution gained pace , working class identity grew (EP Thomson) Punch is accused of stealing sausages when it was the crocodile. What follows could be interpreted as a criticism of society as unfair and biased against working class. I worked the show for 15 years in the Welsh valleys after the miners strike in the 80s, 90s, I had a black doctor with a Jamaican accent who was very popular but not until years later did I find out that it was his black face that looked like a miner fresh from the pit that made him popular!

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  2. Glyn Edwards on

    Punch & Judy is a living tradition that keeps in tune with contemporary society via the wit of the puppeteer in charge. The Victorians – for instance – liked ‘Orrible Murders but were sensitive about representations of the Devil (as they certainly still are in parts of contemporary America.) Today we are quite happy to see the Devil appear and get a thrashing but sensitive to issues concerning the treatment of women, children and minorities. (No one seems to give a damn about wallopping policemen either then, now, or in Punch’s kindred traditions!) Mr. Punch holds a carnival distorting mirror to the times he lives in and deals with timeless themes in ways that his public will understand. It’s a tradition that’s changed whilst remaining unchanged at heart during the 56 years I’ve been a ‘Professor’.

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