Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.



  • Place of origin:

    Lincolnshire (made)

  • Date:

    1870s-1890s (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Tiller family marionette company (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved and painted wood with fabric 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 one of two black minstrels in the collection. Minstrel shows were very popular in London from the 1840s onwards, notably in St. James's Hall in Piccadilly where they were considered family entertainment. Minstrels sang sentimental ballads and played instruments including the banjo, tambourine, one-stringed fiddle and the bones. The craze for them extended to marionette companies, all of which featured black minstrels in their troupes.

Physical description

Carved wooden marionette in the form of black minstrel, his head carved to imitate hair. He has a painted black face with large painted red lips, and brown glass eyes - black in the centre. His hands are painted black and his right hand is closed, but without any hole for holding props. He wears a red, white and olive green striped and floral chinz patterned tail-coat with red revers, hand-sewn and carefully lined. His trousers are in a pink, white and green check patterned fabric, and like the jacket, probably original. He wears a white pleated shirt front with a polo collar, but without arms - only cuffs. His boots are painted black and he wears pink stockings.

The body is a carved flat pelvis piece for the attachment of the legs, the legs attached by leather loops. The torso is stuffed, but with some flexibility, and the upper arms are also stuffed. There are strings to the hands and knees, and strings to the sides of the head and a bum string, for bowing.

Two control bars.

Place of Origin

Lincolnshire (made)


1870s-1890s (made)


Tiller family marionette company (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Carved and painted wood with fabric costume


Height: 65 cm top of head to feet, Circumference: 30 cm head, Length: 15 cm head

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 in the Variety performance preceding the production of The Floating Beacon at the Theatre Museum in April 2004, when he introduced the programme with his fellow Minstrel (S.293-1999) and they sang Buffalo Girls Won't You Come Out Tonight?

Historical context note

Black minstrel troupes were very popular in Britain in the second half of the 19th century following the appearance at St James's Hall, London, in 1859 of the American minstrel comedian George Washington Moore, with Raynor and Pierce's Christy Troupe. The Moore and Burgess Minstrels, a troupe Moore later founded with Frederick Burgess, became a popular feature St James's Hall, and the craze for minstrel troupes was parodied by W.S. Gilbert in Utopia, Limited (1893).

Descriptive line

Carved wooden marionette from the Tiller troupe. Figure representing a black minstrel wearing a red, white and olive green patterned tail coat and checked trousers. Made by the Tiller family circa 1870 to 1890.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

The Saturday Book - 25
Edited by John Bradfield, published Hutchinson, 1965.
Article entitled 'A Troupe of Puppets'.

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 to distinguish distinct types of carving in many of the human figures, and the maker of this is possibly Maker B.


Wood; String


Carved; Painted


Entertainment & Leisure; Black History

Production Type



Theatre and Performance Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.