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  • Place of origin:

    Lincolnshire (made)

  • Date:

    1870s-1890s (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Tiller family marionette company (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved wood with painted decoration; sewn cotton stuffed body with silk, lace and sequin costume

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This is one of 35 marionettes from the Tiller-Clowes troupe, one of the last Victorian marionette troupes in England. Marionette shows were a popular form of entertainment for adults in the 19th century, many of them family concerns which travelled around the country long before the advent of film and television, presenting shortened versions of London's latest popular entertainment from melodramas and pantomimes to minstrel shows and music hall. In the 18th and early 19th centuries their theatres were relatively makeshift, but after about 1860 many became quite elaborate, with walls constructed from wooden shutters, seating made from tiered planks of wood, and canvas roofs.

The figures were carved, painted, dressed and performed by members of the company. This is a pole balancer, or 'polander'. His existence in marionette troupes owes its origin to the fame of 'The Great Polander', a performer who had great success with his pole-balancing act at Sadler's Wells Theatre, in London, in the late 18th century. He is wearing his original costume, and is complicated to operate since his pole can be transferred to his hands and his feet.

Physical description

Carved wooden marionette in the form of a Variety Act pole juggler, probably 'The Great Polander'. Ivory, black and red painted face and eyes with black dots for pupils, originally carved as a Chinese head but with the pigtail painted out and full black hair painted in. With a pole covered in multi-coloured metallic paper, with five holes through it; also eyelet holes. No stuffing in the centre body or upper arms. Legs attached by cloth tubes, and wooden ankle joints, reinforced by a staple, with a pin through.

Original three piece costume; light brown velvet breeches and bolero, the latter edged with black and trimmed with sequins. Sides of breeches also trimmed with black and sequins. Creamy white silk shirt front, yellow silk cummerbund; pink tulip sleeves. Lace at neck and trimming the breeches. Beige stockings; green velvet covering of feet and calves to suggest boots, with beige stitching for laces.

Two control bars.

Place of Origin

Lincolnshire (made)


1870s-1890s (made)


Tiller family marionette company (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Carved wood with painted decoration; sewn cotton stuffed body with silk, lace and sequin costume


Height: 712 mm, Width: 335 mm, Depth: 85 mm

Object history note

This marionette along with the rest of the troupe and three of their original backcloths had been stored in a blacksmith's shop in Lincolnshire for over thirty years, but after cleaning and re-stringing, most were restored by Gerald Morice and George Speaight who purchased them in 1945. They began working on recreating some of the puppets' original repertoire. Since the original cloths were too fragile for performance, new backdrops were painted, and in August 1951 as part of The Festival of Britain celebrations, the marionettes took to the stage again as The Old Time Marionettes, at the Riverside Theatre, Festival Gardens, Battersea Park. In the 1980s George Speaight lent the troupe to puppeteers in Germany but in the late 1990s he sold them to John Phillips, whose widow sold them to The Theatre Museum after his death in 1998.

This marionette was used as Carlos della Cucina di Cordoba, the Spanish Tranka!
in the Variety performance preceding the production of The Floating Beacon at the Theatre Museum in April 2004.

Historical context note

ca.1780-1805 'The Famous Polander' appeared at Sadler's Wells Theatre, designated 'The Famous Balance Master', and in 1803 a bill for The New Circus, Hull, reveals that 'the astonishing Polander' was on the bill, whether or not it was the same as the one who appeared at Sadler's Wells. In any case, this shows that pole balancing was a popular Circus and Variety act which was being represented by this marionette figure.

Descriptive line

Carved wooden marionette from the Tiller troupe. Speciality act figure representing a pole-balancer. Made by the Tiller family circa 1870 to 1890.

Production Note

It is impossible to identify the precise maker of this marionette since the company made, altered and used figures throughout its career. It is possible, however, to distinguish distinct types, and therefore groups, made by different makers, due to the type of carving. The carver of this object has been distinguished as Maker D.


Wood; Silk; Lace; Sequins; Velvet; String


Carved; Painted; Sewn; Stuffed


Entertainment & Leisure; Black History

Production Type



Theatre and Performance Collection

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