A Brief History of Punch & Judy

Mr Punch has been a popular entertainment for young and old for over two hundred years. Originally he came from Italy where he was known as Pulcinella.


Carlo Lasinio. Florence, 1780

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The Italian travelling showmen who performed puppet shows moved around Europe, performing at different fairs and horse races during spring, summer and autumn. During the winter the showmen stayed in the cities and performed on street corners. A man, called a bottler, would play the drum or trumpet and collect money from those who stopped to watch.


Punch's Puppet Show, Isaac Cruikshank 1795
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Punch at the Glasgow Green Fair in 1825 by William Heath
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In the 19th century the cities were very crowded, sometimes whole families had to live together in one single room. So many people simply wandered around the streets until bedtime. This was a time before there was television or cinema so for many people a show performed on the street was their only entertainment. In a way Punch was like the cartoons on telly.

Punch or Mayday, Benjamin Haydon 1829
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When the steam train was invented it wasn’t long until they built a railway line going to the seaside towns near London, such as Brighton and Margate. The city of London was very dirty and smelly at that time and it was a real pleasure to spend the day by the seaside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine for a change. Punch set himself up as an entertainment on the beach and was very popular there for a long time .


Punch on the promendade at Rhyl
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Now let me introduce you to some of the characters in this show.

Mr Punch is someone who thinks he can get away with anything he wants. He even hits people with his big stick and shouts, “That’s the way to do it!”

His wife is called Judy and she puts up with Punch even though he treats her quite badly. But even worse is the way he treats their baby. He thinks that if a baby cries the way to make it stop is to bang it’s head on the stage. And then he wonders why it cries even louder. Two hundred years ago a man's wife and children were considered to belong to him and he could beat them if he chose to.

Puppets by Prof. Roselia, 1890
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At the time Punch came to London there were no Police; they hadn’t been invented. To make sure people behaved themselves there were men called Beadles who worked for the local church. And so the man who comes to arrest Mr Punch is called the Parish Beadle.

Bumble the beadle from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
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Then there is Joey the Clown, whose real name was Joseph Grimaldi. He is said to be the first and funniest clown there ever was. He was certainly very famous in Punch’s time. People loved to see him in the real theatre and laughed when they saw him as a puppet.

Joeseph Grimaldi, 1778-1837
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There is also a doctor who is very superior and pretends to know a lot more than Punch. In those days doctors didn’t know much about curing people but pretended to nevertheless, so people called them “quacks”.

Pietro Longhi: The Charlatan. 1757
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In the old days if you were really bad then you were hung up by the neck until you were dead. People would gather around to watch this happen and hear the prisoner speak his or her last words (Remember this was time before television). The person whose job this was, was called the Hangman. It wasn’t a very popular job and only very nasty men would do it. The nastiest of them all was called Jack Ketch, who himself ended his days at the end of a rope for murdering an old lady.


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And finally we have the Devil, the nastiest of all. You will all know that if you are as wicked as someone like Mr Punch you would expect to meet this fellow sooner or later. And so the Devil pays Punch a visit. In Punch's time people believed in the devil and that bad people would be taken down to hell to pay for their wicked ways.

George Cruikshank, 1828


Italian glove puppets c.1800