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George Speaight

George Victor Speaight was a theatre historian, author and performer and the leading authority on 19th-century toy theatre. One of his brothers was the Shakespearean actor Robert Speaight, who paid for some of George's education at Haileybury. Like his older brother, George Speaight was a gifted and natural performer from a young age. George Speaight was fascinated from his boyhood by toy theatres after his father bought him one from Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop in Hoxton, and in the 1930s he professionally took up puppetry. He became known for his puppet show performances at the Bumpus bookstore in Oxford Street.

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His shows here were appreciated by, among others, T. E. LawrenceGeorge Bernard Shaw and Peter Brook, the latter claiming that Speaight inspired him to pursue a theatrical career.  His book Punch and Judy: a History in 1970, was to be the first serious study on the subject. His first association with Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop came when he gave a toy theatre performance of The Corsican Brothers at The George Inn in Southwark for Benjamin Pollock's 80th birthday in 1936. He gained practical experience with puppetry in 1939 when working with Olive Blackham's Roel Puppets in the Cotswolds.

At the end of World War II Speaight and Gerald Morice were contacted by a family who had found a collection of marionettes in a barn. Speaight and Morice examined these and found them to be rare Victorian puppets thought to have been lost or destroyed years before. The two restored the puppets and Speaight, initially with Morice and later other partners, performed with them as the Old Time Marionettes and the Tiller Clowes Puppets at the Battersea Pleasure Gardens for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and later for the Museum of London and for the Theatre Museum.

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His book Juvenile Drama: The History of the English Toy Theatre appeared in December 1946. In the same year he became manager of Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop. However, the shop was a financial failure and it closed in 1951. His next book History of the English Puppet Theatre appeared in 1955. In 1962 he campaigned for an inscribed plaque commemorating Samuel Pepys to be placed was on the wall of St Paul's Church in Covent Garden. In his diary in 1662 Pepys made the first mention of a Punch and Judy show in England at Covent Garden.

In 1987 at the 325th anniversary of Pepys’ sighting Speaight dressed as Pepys and took part in the grand procession around Covent Garden complete with quill and diary in his hand. He held prominent roles at the Union Internationale de la Marionette, at the British Puppet Guild, and as a jury member at the International Festival of Puppet Theatre at Bucharest. In 1968 Speaight became a trustee of Pollock's Toy Museum after its then owner Marguerite Fawdry turned her private museum into an educational charitable trust. He retired as a trustee in 2003 and in his honour, Pollock's held the exhibition - 'George Speaight, a Life in Toy Theatre'.

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