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  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (probably, made)

  • Date:

    18th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved and painted wood. Suspected use of human hair.

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The strikingly ugly Mother Shipton appeared as a stage character in the late 17th century, and by 1712 the marionette performer Martin Powell made her the subject of his play Mother Shipton and the Downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. In 19th century puppet theatre she mainly appeared as a solo turn - a pipe-smoking fortune teller, but also became conflated with the French trick puppet figure La Mère Grigogne, who could produce multiple offspring from beneath her skirts. This wooden head of Mother Shipton has holes for the smoke tubing in the neck, an effect which was presumably worked from below or side stage. There is no remaining indication of how the figure was suspended.

The real Mother Shipton was the subject of British folklore stories from the mid 17th century. Born Ursula Sontheil in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, in 1488, the daughter of a reputed witch, strange events reportedly happened around her from an early age and she became a prophetess, apparently foretelling among other events the Civil War, the Fire of London, the dissolution of the monasteries, 'carriages without horses' and the Spanish Civil War. Despite her repellent appearance she nevertheless married the York carpenter Tony Shipton in 1512 when she was 24 and set up home in Knaresborough, to which people reportedly came for her prophesies. Samuel Pepys mentions Mother Shipton in his diary; when Prince Rupert was told of the Fire of London his first words were: 'Even now Mother Shipton's prophesy is out.' She died near Skipton in Yorkshire in 1561, an event she foretold.

Physical description

Carved and painted head of an old woman, Mother Shipton, with beetle eyebrows, a warty nose and a jutting chin. A wig of coarse dark brown hair is attached to the top of the head and a hollow is carved at the back, in which two small metal tubes can be seen which have apertures at either side of her mouth for the smoking trick. The complexion is painted pink, with a darker pink for the nose, but there are many areas of wear and chipped paint.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (probably, made)


18th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved and painted wood. Suspected use of human hair.

Marks and inscriptions

'(H.W.W. Collection). Head of Mother Shipton SMOKING MARIONETTE CLOWES EXCELSIOR MARIONETTE said to be 200 years old.'
Inscription; decoration; On label attached to carved out area at the back of the head.


Height: 17.5 cm, Circumference: 38 cm approximately - round back of head and nose

Descriptive line

Carved and painted head of a Mother Shipton marionette from the Clowes Excelsior Marionettes.

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

Lecture by W.H. Whanslaw to The Puppet Guild


Wood; Paint; Human hair




Entertainment & Leisure; Puppetry

Production Type



Theatre and Performance Collection

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