The History of the Punch and Judy Show
The first Punch and Judy Shows
During the seventeenth century marionettes were very popular. Italian showmen came to England to perform their shows which were miniature versions of the full scale operas that were being performed in theatres and were all the rage in fashionable society. The puppet shows were enjoyed by the lower classes as they were cheap to watch and available to all. The first Punch and Judy Shows were performed in 1662 in Covent Garden, London. Samuel Pepys wrote about them in his famous diary. These early shows were probably quite different to the ones we are familiar with today. There were however some similarities. The casts of the shows consisted of a series of stock characters one of whom was a fool called Punchinello ( later to become known as Punch ). This comic character was well liked and would appear in most plays. He was dressed in all white and was a kind of trickster.
Punch becomes a glove puppet
By the eighteenth century marionettes had gone out of fashion and English showmen were using glove puppets. They retained Punchinello in the cast but changed his name to Punch probaly because it was easier to say. They also abandoned the original white costume if favour of the red tunic of the English Jester. Thus Punch as we know him today was born.
Material for the shows performed by the early showmen came from varying sources. Some were taken from well known myths and legends such as St George and the dragon. Some were based on historical stories going back to Greek and Roman times. Others were based on the works of Shakespeare or Comedia Del Arte. Punch could make an appearance in any of them !
Punch goes to the seaside
By the nineteenth century Punch had become so popular he was the main character of the show and the the storyline was resembling the kind of format we know today. Punch and Judy could be seen on street corners, village greens and fairs around the country. The showmen would travel from place to place carrying their equipment on a barrow which they would push by hand. They made their living by collecting money from the crowd and usually they had an assistant called a “bottler “ whose job it was to gather an audience and ask for money before, during and after each performance.
The shows were watched mainly by adults and could be quite bawdy and anarchic.
The industrial revolution changed the face of Britain. Factories were built and people flocked to the towns and cities to find work. The population expanded and England became the power house of the British Empire. With this new found prosperity and the arrival of the steam engine came seaside holidays. Wealthy victorian families and the working classes all wanted to go to the seaside to escape from the dirty, crowded cities in search of fresh air and fun. Of course Mr Punch was waiting to greet them ! The Punch and Judy Showbecame an essential ingredient of any seaside holiday together with donkey rides and ice cream. Every seaside resort would have at least one resident Punch “ professor “ and sometimes several performing shows on the beach throughout the summer season. Wealthy families returning home also started to hire Punch and Judy Shows for children’s parties which would be held in the drawing room of their large houses.
Punch remained at the seaside entertaining generations of children until the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain in the 1970’s took away his livelihood. With drastically falling numbers it was no longer viable to make a living at the seaside.
Punch and Judy today
Today most Punch professors perform at children’s parties working for a fee. Punch can also be seen at Council and Corporate Events, Fetes and Galas. Punch is seen as primarily children’s entertainment but it was not always so. Even in its present form the show is appreciated and enjoyed by adults. Some older people find the show nostalgic and it reminds them of their childhood and seaside holidays.
Keeping the tradition alive
The Punch and Judy Show is a wonderful tradition with a long and interesting history. A good show performed well to an appreciative audience is a delight to behold. Punch is part of English folklore and even today is still fantastic entertainment !
Hire a Punch and Judy Show
For information about hiring a Punch and Judy show for an event or party go to our Punch and Judy page.