East Anglian Traditional Music Trust



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Jig dolls





Jig Doll Appeal


Big Jig event


Big Jig photographs


Makers' directory








Dancing dolls have been used for at least the past one hundred and fifty years in Great Britain, and are also known in Ireland and north America.


They are by no means exclusive to East Anglia, but, as with singing, stepdancing and music-making, the tradition seemed to survive in this area better than in many others: we have come across numerous examples, and they are still being made in the region.


The earliest known model is now in Cliffe Castle, Keighley, Yorkshire, and was apparently exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. It is a female figure dressed in skirt, petticoat, bodice and shawl. Apart from this, most existing dolls date from the first half of the twentieth century. Patents for the commercial production of dancing dolls of various models exist from the late 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic.


An older model, known as a “poupee a la planchette’ was operated by a string attached to musician’s leg, on a board placed on the ground. This is well documented in historical illustrations and appears to have been popular in Europe as well.


A typical jig doll is between 20cm and 30cm in height, although there are examples from Suffolk of both smaller and larger ones, and has jointed arms, hips and knees, and also in some cases, ankles, allowing a movement which mimics step-dancing.


They were not designed to be children’s toys, and in the past were owned by adults, and used for their own entertainment in pubs etc, and sometimes for grandchildren, nieces and nephews to watch. During a musical evening, they would be brought out if there was some live music, in much the same way that a live stepdancer would contribute to the proceedings. They were also popular with street musicians and buskers, as their great visual appeal invariably attracts a fascinated audience.


They are usually three dimensional and carved or painted as a particular character – sailors being the most popular, and several soldiers and clowns have also been found. In the Bethnal Green Toy Museum, there is one modelled as a First World War soldier – ‘Tommy Atkins’, said to have been made in the trenches.


One model was made commercially in the early 20th century, and is known as Mr. Jollyboy. There is a story that an employee of the Strangers Hall Museum in Norwich found a cardboard box containing one of these jig dolls on top of a dustbin and removed it to the Museum: this doll was displayed at the Big Jig exhibition in 2004 (see photograph below).


Jig doll appeal


If you have a dancing doll, please let us know, and send us a photograph. After the Big Jig exhibition at the Traditional Music Day in 2004, we are collating information on dancing dolls, and are collaborating with Pat Pickles on a new book in the future.

Jig dolls have been made for centuries, usually in garden sheds and on back-doorsteps, and used for entertainment at home, in pubs, on board ships and on the street. They are wooden dolls with jointed arms and legs, and a stick protruding from the back which is held and the doll 'jigged' up and down on a narrow board of flexible wood. Each doll is decorated differently, sometimes just painted, sometimes with fabric and additions such as 'segs' to the shoes, which create a dramatic clattering sound. They are a great visual attraction, and in skilled hands they also provide percussive rhythmic accompaniment.


If you've got one, or know of someone who has, please do get in touch.

Big Jig event

During the Traditional Music Day on 4th September 2004, a unique exhibition was on display. (See photographs below.) It featured nearly a hundred different examples of dancing dolls. A dancing doll, or jig doll, is a home-made puppet designed to step-dance on a narrow wooden board, and operated by holding a stick in the back and bouncing the board lightly. Pat Pickles, author of the only book on the subject, brought her collection of over 60 items, and many individuals brought along their own jig dolls for the day as well. Amongst the collection were historical dolls such as the Harry Lauder look-alike and the primitive sailor figures made in Stowmarket, as well as more contemporary designs including one of ex-Prime Minister John Major stepping all over an image of Maggie Thatcher on his board! There were also dolls which had belonged to Harry Cox and Fred Whiting, well-known traditional singers from the region, and photographs of some examples which were not able to be actually displayed.


The East Anglian Traditional Music Trust has also commissioned a collection of jig dolls, for use with community projects and schools work. These have proved very popular since we've been taking them out.


Pat visited us again at the 2011 Traditional Music Day - click here to read about her experiences there - and she will be back again in 2012 - click here for full details of Traditional Music Day 2012.


Photographs from the Big Jig exhibition, September 2004


Click on the thumbnail images below to see a bigger picture.


Left to right:


Top row:

Walter Pardon, from Knapton, Norfolk, with a doll he made himself. (Photo courtesy of Jim Carroll & Pat MacKenzie)

Two unusual dolls brought in on the day: the one on the left is made by Fred Whiting of Kenton, Suffolk.

Modern Jolly Jack, made by Goff Evans of Worcester.

George Monger, with a dancing John Major, made by John Crane and loaned by Pete Coe. In the background are drawings by some of the many children involved in the Big Jig project.

Lenny Whiting with Harry Lauder figure, from Suffolk.

Harry Cox's (Catfield, Norfolk) home-made doll.

Unusual style of doll, found in Beccles, Suffolk.


Second row:

John Barber (Southwold, Suffolk) with his distinctive profile design of dancing dolls, which he remembers from his childhood.

John Barber chats to Pat Pickles from Yorkshire, with part of Pat's wonderful collection of jig dolls in the cabinet behind her.

Part of the Big Jig collection of dolls, which are available for community events - send us an email if you'd be interested in having a Big Jig visit to your school, residential home, fete etc. They'll raise a smile from all who have a go, or who watch them!

An original, early twentieth-century Mr Jollyboy doll, loaned by the Norfolk Museums Service for the Big Jig exhibition.

Two sailor dolls, made by Ben Southgate, Stowmarket, Suffolk.

Bill Cunnold of Stowmarket, Suffolk with his home-made doll.

'Sailor Jan', made by Bob Cann, Dartmoor, Devon, and now owned by his grandson Mark Bazeley.

















Pat & Rennie Pickles' seminal book on jig dolls, 'The Brightest of Entertainers' is available from our online shop.


We are currently engaged in writing up the fruits of our research from 2004 onwards together with Pat Pickles. For the latest news on this and other matters, you can sign up to receive our email newsletters around four times a year: please click here. You can unsubscribe at any time.


Click here to read about Pat's experiences at Traditional Music Day 2011.



Makers' directory


We are always interested to add to this list and invite other makers to get in touch with us.


Two makers in the eastern region, who may have stock in hand or be prepared to take commissions:


Chris Harvey www.jigdolls.co.uk





Do you like what we do?
Now would be a really good time to show your support and join the Friends of EATMT.


We’d like to encourage everyone who appreciates the work we do - whether it be this website, the events, the research and publications, the schools and community projects, the exhibitions, the workshops and classes ... to join the Friends of EATMT and support our work into the future.

If you sing or listen to a local song, play or hear a local tune, dance or watch or stepdancing, at least part of that is probably down to the work of EATMT, which has been working to keep our local traditions alive and kicking into the twenty first century. If you receive a printed copy or an email version of this newsletter, it’s down to the hard work of our part-time staff and volunteers - and the same goes if you are reading this on the website now!

We are a small organisation but with a serious reputation for delivering professional projects and “punching above our weight”. We became a registered charity in 2000 and are governed by a board of trustees. The membership fee starts at £15 per year. Donations are always very welcome, a Gift Aid declaration helps it go even further, and we also welcome longer-term enquiries about legacies etc.

Please visit our membership page to download a form. Thank you.



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