In the 35 years after the Second World War Pelham’s Puppets, a company which was based in Marlborough, achieved an international reputation and became the town’s largest employer. The company’s founder, Robert Henry Pelham, and his family lived in Ogbourne St Andrew at Tresco House.
Bob was born in Ripon on 28th February 1919, the youngest son of a Church of England clergyman. He was four when the family moved to Chilton Foliat where Bob spent his early childhood, eventually attending school in Dorset before moving on to college to study architecture. When war was declared in 1939 he answered the call to join the Army.
During the last year in the Army Bob oversaw a hobbies workshop and having witnessed the terrible suffering inflicted upon people, especially children, he knew he would have to do something other than resume his architectural studies. He developed the idea to design puppets that were simple to handle for children and by 1947, he had established a small business, in Marlborough, called Wonky Toys, later to become Pelham Puppets.
Bob believed absolutely in his own instincts and abilities and even though he admitted he was no businessman he became the director of what was to become Marlborough’s largest employer, producing thousands of puppets every week for over 30 years, that were to reach right across the globe. Sadly, his father died in 1948 and never saw the success his son made of the enterprise.
In 1952 he met a young lady by the name of Anne Mayer. A close friendship developed and Bob and Anne were married the following summer. They moved to Tresco House in Ogbourne St Andrew where they lived for nearly 30 years.
Anne immediately became involved in the puppet business and, having a sound business head, helped Bob to formulate ideas and sorting out what would be practical and what would not. As the years passed, she contributed more and more to the running of the business.
Bob and Anne were close friends with Frank and Pam Lawton who lived in Meadow View just around the corner from Tresco House and they too were very much involved with the puppet business. Pam, an excellent artist, along with Ann would work from a small studio in the Tresco House outbuildings, painting scenes for the Animated Display Units that were displayed in shop windows and department stores all over the UK and America and were produced to help promote puppet sales.
The company enjoyed continued growth and success for nearly three decades and despite a devastating fire in 1961 that destroyed much of the factory in Marlborough, Bob successfully and steadily expanded production over the years. However, he had never had a long-term strategy for the business and by the late 1970’s the company could not cope with the sudden worldwide demand for his puppets and in many ways he became a victim of his own success. In 1980, with the advent of a new wave of electronic and computerised toys sweeping through the toy trade, there was a sudden and unexpected drop in sales which put extreme pressure on the company and Bob, to such an extent that on the 19th June 1980, Bob Pelham died suddenly at his home from a heart attack. He was sixty one years old.
For the next six years, Anne assumed control and maintained continuity of production, directing matters from her home but in January 1986 she called in administrators to wind up the business and the Company was sold. Production ceased at the London Road factory and forty years of Pelham Puppets came to an abrupt end.
For over thirty-three years Bob Pelham, by his quiet, self-effacing manner and generosity, gained the respect and loyalty of those who worked for him. He brought the wonderful world of puppet theatre to thousands of people and his puppets came to be loved by people all over the world. Pelham Puppets are special and it required a special person whose aim was not to create a ‘big business’ but to produce something new, creative and imaginative for people to enjoy. They were of their time, they appeared at the ‘right time’ and shortly after launching his puppet making venture Bob Pelham was quoted as saying: ‘the time will come when Pelham Puppets will be a name that everyone knows!’
David Leech 2017
Official Historian for Pelham Puppets
For further information see: Pelham Puppets
David Leech COLLECTING PELHAM PUPPETS – an illustrated guide 1998
David Leech PELHAM PUPPETS – A COLLECTOR’S GUIDE 2008 CrowoodPress