- by Douglas Hayward -


Wallace Peat's Wessex Puppets are remembered as one of the most successful Glove Puppet Companies of the 1930s and can justifiably be regarded as pioneers of Educational Puppetry in the UK.

Founded in 1931, they performed, intensively and continuously, until the outbreak of War in 1939.  Most performances were given in schools, mainly in the South of England and such was their appeal that they were frequently booked on an annual basis.

Glove Puppets by Wallace Peat
Glove Puppets by Wallace Peat

Wallace Peat's particular dream was to introduce young people to the joy of drama by demonstrating it in a form they could understand and encouraging them to experiment themselves with both puppets and model theatres.  The repertoire of the Wessex Puppets included excerpts from a number of Shakespeare's Comedies, dramatised versions of traditional English Folk Songs and short sketches.  Each performance concluded with a demonstration of both the stage and the figures, together with suggestions on how his young audience could develop their own shows.

The Wessex Puppets Brochure
Wessex Puppets Publicity Brochure

During the War, Wallace Peat and his wife, Rhonda (Dodie), still found time to give occasional performances and I was lucky enough to see one of these in 1942.  So when, in 1980, a visitor to our own Theatre in Abbots Bromley, told me that the Peat's son, Robin, was a Headmaster in Lichfield and still had his father's puppets, I lost no time in contacting him.  The upshot was, through Robin Peat's generous co-operation, the Wessex Puppets were a major attraction in the display we mounted for the transition of our Theatre into a Puppet Museum and continued to be so for the next 10 years, until the collection moved to its present home in the Staffordshire County Museum at Shugborough, where the puppets (but sadly no longer the stage due to limited space), are now displayed.

The figures represent probably the best preserved complete set of glove puppets of their period.  The heads, which are immaculate, are well carved in wood and an unusual perhaps unique feature is that both hands of all the figures are made on a similar basis to a spring clothes peg which allows them to pick up small properties, or to hold hands.  Another unusual feature is that all the figures have an under-garment to which the head and hands are attached, but on 10 of the 12 main characters, the outer costumes are removable and a comprehensive wardrobe allows each figure to play a variety of roles.

Some of these additional costumes can be seen hanging up at the back in the photo (top right) of the present display.

The stage is an excellent example of the ingenuity with which puppeteers of the day met the problems of portability, weight and cost.


Wallace Peat's Wessex Puppets
Wallace Peat's Wessex Puppets

Most of the fit-up folds down to pack inside the box which forms the base, with room to spare for some 10 changeable plywood cut-out scenes as well.  Crossed adjustable guy-lines give the whole frame remarkable rigidity and the roller proscenium curtain is controlled by a foot pedal so that it can be operated while both hands are occupied with figures on stage.

A particularly fascinating item of historical interest in connection with the Wessex Puppets came to light in 1986 when a friend and one-time neighbour of the Peats died at a ripe old age and among the papers she had kept was a letter she had received from Wallace Peat dated 16th November 1937.

This turned out to be a 16 page hand written account of the Peats' appearance on the  fledgling BBC Television transmissions from Alexandra Palace.  The Producer was Jan Bussell, who was at that time exploiting the advantage of puppets being able to be shown full length, while human actors were virtually confined to head and shoulder close ups.

The document described in considerable detail their dressing room (much impressed by their name on the door), the studio itself, with its banks of powerful lights and scenery painted in grey and black, the booby-hutch high up, for the Producer and the Sound and Vision Engineers, the three cameras themselves (painted battleship grey and mounted on  motor-car chassis) and the telescopic mike boom hovering above, just out of camera shot.

Peat wrote:  "Our programme included Pistol and the French Soldier and Clementine plus a few words of introduction. ... of all the grim and ghastly jobs, to go and smile sweetly and talk naturally to that black hole of the lens, was like talking to the butt end of a beer bottle.  During rehearsal, with a searchlight shooting straight at us from behind the camera, the only way we could see anything at all, was by getting one eye into the shadow thrown by the puppet onto the backcloth. ...  However, the show went well and to my great joy, I saw that the Stage Manager was chuckling like anything.  This was a great encouragement, as I reckoned if we could amuse him we weren't doing too badly."

Wallace Peat Demonstrating Puppet Stage
Wallace Peat Demonstrating Staging

The discovery of this document happened to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of BBC TV (2nd November 1986) and there was some initial interest shown by the BBC Drama Department, in using some of Peat's highly detailed account of his experiences as a basis for an anniversary production.  Unfortunately, this idea never came to fruition, but the letter remains as a fascinating record of both the early days of TV Broadcasting and of the character of a man whose Puppet Company pioneered new standards in glove puppetry.

  An Article written for the Autumn 2003 Edition of 'The Puppet Master' Magazine
by Douglas Hayward