Children in Pantomime

She was one of a group of fairies
‘She was one of a group of fairies’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son 1889)

Children are integral to pantomimes of course – not just as their primary target audience, but also in many ways as their star attraction. In the auditorium and on the stage, as well as in the magical landscape of the story, children and children’s sensibilities dominate the proceedings. Whose heart did not lift when the troupe of tiny tap-dancing pandas made their entrance in Aladdin at the Hackney Empire last year? They were ranged in height order as they danced in from the wings, so that the tiniest toddler tapped in last for maximum charm. And, of course, the littlest child is always the one featured most – the one who gives poor Daisy the cow the final kiss goodbye in Jack and the Beanstalk, or is the ‘scariest’ ghoul who succeeds in finally chasing the Dame away in Cinderella. Tiny tots will always raise a cry of ‘aaaaah’ from the audience, perhaps not simply because of their button-like cuteness, but also because unlike the slightly older children next to them, they have yet to acquire the self-consciousness of the performing child. They give the impression of living purely ‘in the moment’, with no notion of ‘technique’ or ‘accomplishment’. When they put their fairy frock on and walk out into the lights, they are the fairy they imagine themselves to be, just as much as they are when they play fairies at home. By contrast, children who are too old to play at being fairies out of hours know that their stage work is… work. They understand that they will be judged, not for their ‘fairy-ness’, but rather for the skill and precision with which they execute their dances, speak their lines, and perform their routines in imitation of the stage director’s conception of how fairies should be.

That distinction – between the innocent child who ‘lives’ the world of make-believe, and the one who is aware that it is a make believe – is a projection of course. I have no access to the minds of the children on stage, I have no clue what they are thinking. But it’s a projection which the pantomime itself plays on, and invites the adult audience to take pleasure in, for children in pantomimes (even adult ones) are always oscillating between being inside the world of the pantomime, and looking on at it from the sidelines, aware of its conventions even as they participate wholeheartedly in them. What child on their way to their first panto hasn’t heard a well-meaning uncle riffing on the ‘it’s behind you’ convention, or making a feeble excuse to bring the conversation round to a rehearsal of the ‘Oh no it isn’t… Oh yes it is!’ exchange? And yet in the auditorium itself when the monster appears behind the clown, they shout their warnings with complete and wholehearted conviction. Child performers have always been a key element of pantomime, as we shall see. But the children of the audience are perhaps even more important. It’s kids’ reactions, both solicited and unsolicited, that make the pantomime auditorium such a joyful place, and which furthermore give license to adults to throw their own self-consciousness aside and enter into the show with a similar conviction.

Often those reactions are charming in their indication of the child living the panto completely – taking it more seriously than the actors are expecting. At King’s Lynn Corn Exchange’s Jack and the Beanstalk when Dame Trott sent Jack to bed and threw the useless beans out of the window, one concerned little voice exclaimed ‘but they’re magic beans!’ Later in the same show the Giant looked out at the audience in complete disgust – ‘Who let all these kids in here?’ he demanded, wrinkling his nose and sniffing, ‘where are they all from?’ The entire audience shouted back ‘KING’S LYNN!!’ apart from one little child who filled the pause afterwards by announcing ‘I’m from Corton!’ At other times the reactions respond to revelations about the panto’s own conventions. I’ll never forget when during the interval of Dick Whittington at Bury St Edmund’s Theatre Royal my cousin told her 6 year old son that the ‘funny lady’ was in fact a man. His eyes swelled to the size of saucers at the revelation of this new possibility. Older children, of course have different reactions, feigning contempt for certain elements, but still entering into others. At a Wimbledon schools matinee of the year that Frozen was a hit, there was a hum of excitement from the audience as the opening chords of the inevitable ‘Let It Go’ struck up, except in the row behind us where a group of boys made ostentatious yawns and puking noises. Similarly a lovers duet of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’ in the ball scene of Cinderella elicited some audible groans from the older kids around us at the Greenwich theatre. They waved their arms around contemptuously, miming holding lighters aloft. But eventually even they were won over by the moment, and sang along with just as much conviction as the rest of us, as the dry ice poured from the stage and the clock edged towards midnight.

Sometimes the children in the audience actually lift a panto which is in itself a bit duff. Last year we went to a Sunday matinee of Rapunzel at a tiny venue which was almost entirely attended by parents and their under 10 year olds. The show was… charmingly chaotic. The stage was tiny and the set so flimsy that when the witch climbed through the window, it wobbled and threatened to come tumbling down onto the front row. Only the three principal cast members could stand comfortably alongside on it, and as a result in some scenes, the three child-dancers were forced to display their terpsichore skills squeezed behind the principals – almost completely unseen by the stalls audience. We were sat on the edge of the balcony though, and were entertained in particular by one of the dancing boys – gawky and distracted, he went through the motions of the dance only and the look on his face was a mixture of total boredom and complete concentration. It wasn’t clear whether he was counting furiously or simply wondering what was for tea. In the body of the auditorium there was pandemonium. While the younger kids remained rapt, their older siblings had taken on a life of their own – racing around the hall in trainers that lit up, constantly shifting and moving and whining for sweets – their attention to the action on stage was… patchy. But when the clown announced the song sheet would be ‘Baby Shark’… well, all minds were focussed in an instant and what a thunderous, rousing, enthusiastic, committed rendition we gave!

It’s in the song sheet scene, of course, that the children of the audience come into their own. Those ushers you noticed in the interval deep in conversation with various families in the audience, come rushing around as everyone is stamping their feet and flinging their arms out for the actions of ‘The Penguin Song’ or ‘Baby Shark’ []. Silently they spirit away the children of those smiling families, and soon enough those children are there – up on the stage, being interviewed by the Dame or the Clown while the ushers are back in the auditorium desperately trying to enforce the ‘no photography’ rule on their families. It’s a heart-stopping sequence of cuteness and cringe, depending on the extent to which each child is ‘innocent’. Pity the poor older child up there on the stage, for the whole scene is rigged against them – a trap set to reveal the shifting fault-lines between the simplicity of a child’s perception of the world and the complexity of an adult’s. Even a question as simple as ‘What’s your name?’ is fraught with pitfalls. Woe betide the child who answers ‘Tarquin’. ‘What do you want/did you get for Christmas?’ is another question fraught with the risk of social and cultural judgement. Smaller children get let off usually, but any child who gives any hint of the social meaning of their Christmas gifts is quickly slapped down by the Dame, or becomes the butt of the rest of the routine. Even at its gentlest, this scene is structured around pulling the rug from under the child’s feet in order to elicit a laugh from the audience. At Dick Whittington in Eastbourne last year, the kids were asked to name their favourite animal. One little girl chose a giraffe, only to find herself called upon to provide a giraffe noise in the reprise of ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ to the hilarity of the entire house. I adore these sequences, although I’m aware that in trying to describe them, I am making them seem much crueller than they feel in the theatre. The perennial joke of rewarding each of the children a ‘goodie bag’ as they leave the stage and then ‘forgetting’ the goodie bag for the child who has been the butt of the scene, perhaps doesn’t help that impression. What a genius commentary on the dynamics of that scene then, was the coup de theatre climax of it in Qdos’s pantos at Edinburgh and Newcastle last year, where the Dame, increasingly irritated by a precocious child who would not be cowed, muttered ‘I’ve had enough of this’, lifted the child bodily from the stage and threw them into the orchestra pit. Collective shock dissolved into laughter as audiences computed that the child must have been a ‘plant’ all along, although presumably for younger children this detail had to be explained later.

Victorian Children

The hint of cruelty here, along with the oscillating consciousness I’m suggesting child (and adult) audiences have of the pantomime as a real world of make believe, and at the same time as a set of theatrical conventions, effects, performances and labour, is thrown into relief if we remember the relationship between Victorian/Edwardian pantomime’s address to children and its employment of them. The Victorians of course ‘invented’ childhood. That is to say they fetishized the bourgeois child and the world of make believe that it could inhabit to a much greater extent than any previous age. The pantomime itself became refocused towards the child in the late Victorian period and takes its place as the centerpiece in that ultimate festival of childhood – the Victorian Christmas. No socially conscious person will fail to note that at the very same time that the bourgeois Victorian child was being cocooned in the nursery and surrounded by china dolls, praxinoscopes, magic lanterns, toy theatres, advent calendars, Christmas trees and pantomimes, other children were existing in the direst poverty and their labour as chimney sweeps, ice cream sellers, match sellers and crossing sweepers was both highly visible and widely lamented. The contrast between the fantasy of a safe and comfortable bourgeois Christmas and the harsh realities of Christmas for working children and those in poverty was a perennial topic in sentimental and campaigning fiction, and widely adapted for theatre, magic lantern and cinema in stories such as Hans Anderson’s The Little Match Seller (James Williamson, 1903)  [1] Pantomime stories, of course, also tend to focus on youthful heroes in rags such as Dick Whittington and Cinderella and the contrast between their initial poverty and the worlds of riches they eventually inherit or achieve. Crucially the business practices of the pantomime itself was a focus of many discussions which highlighted the contrast between the reality for child performers and the dream worlds on stage to which they contributed.

Pantomimes in this period employed children in great numbers. Tracy C. Davis quotes an 1887 estimate of 1000 children employed in pantomimes in London alone, and perhaps 5000 throughout the country.[2] Dury Lane was the biggest employer, making between 150 and 200 children the centrepiece of its annual spectacular scenes, particularly the ‘transformation scene’ and the processional finales in which their pantomimes specialised. Many children of course were trained dancers – they may have worked throughout the year in theatrical shows and perhaps belonged to children’s theatrical schools or academies such as Kitti Lanner’s National Training School of Dancing which was especially set up to act as both a school and an employment bureau for theatrical children.[3] Others were merely seasonal workers, perhaps with no training, who were employed only at Christmas time. As Davis suggests,

The majority of pantomime children were principally scenic adornments who wore costumes and moved in such a way as to enhance the pictorial spectacle.

… and thus children with relatively little training or experience might well fit the bill. Drury Lane held mass auditions every year, the queuing hopefuls along the side colonnade of the theatre an annual draw for the illustrated press. Indeed the relatively high rates of pay offered by the theatres meant that many such children acted as the principal breadwinners for their impoverished families during the Christmas period, and the fleeting nature of this employment – both seasonal and only lasting during the few years the child remained young and appealing – was highlighted in many sentimental fictions. The eponymous heroine of Hesba Stratton’s 1866 best-selling religious novel Jessica’s First Prayer is a starving street child who is befriended by a church warden. He is appalled to discover that she lives alone in a derelict hay loft, neglected and abandoned by her alcoholic actress mother. “I used to be a fairy in the pantomime,” she tells him, “…till I grew too tall and ugly. If I’m pretty when I grow up mother says I shall [be in the] play too; but I’ve a long time to wait”[4]

Growing older and being discarded was not the only risk such children ran. The Factory Acts of the mid century did not apply to theatre children, and they remained unprotected from long hours and dangerous working conditions until a series of legislative measures were introduced, starting with the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Bill in 1889. Such legislation was supported by campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett and The National Vigilance Association, but it was also resisted by theatre managers and by various workers’ trade organisations who regarded the income generated by child performers as essential to the survival of working class families.[5] Concerns about the moral and educational neglect of theatrical children were one thing, physical safety was another. Terence Rees describes the risk run by some backstage children not even in the employ of the theatres. He describes the technology used to produce limelight so essential for the spotlights highlighting the fairies and other principal enchantments of the pantomime. It required a highly volatile combination of oxygen and hydrogen to be mixed at the point of ignition in order to produce a flame hot enough to make the lime incandescent. In order to maintain continuous pressure, limelight men would get their small children to sit on the gas bags, ‘when any movement of the child would be bound to produce a variation in pressure’ and in all probability, an explosion.[6] Risk of fire was ever present in the age of gas lighting, of course, as demonstrated by the case of seventeen year old Sarah Smith, who burned to death on the stage of the Prince’s Theatre in 1862 when she attempted to assist a fellow dancer whose diaphanous dancing costume had caught fire in the gas jets of the footlights.[7] Smith’s case is only the most celebrated in what Davis describes as the ‘holocaust of ballet girls’ who regularly perished in similar circumstances before electric lighting was introduced.

Sarah Smith's plaque in Postman's Park, London.
Sarah Smith’s plaque in Postman’s Park, London.

The enchanting fairy children of the Victorian pantomime then, resonated with meanings more complex and more contradictory than may at first appear. Adult audiences were surely not unaware of the possibility of the careworn poverty of their home life, even as on stage they represented the acme of childish innocence and delight. This double understanding – of being in the make believe of the pantomime at the same time as being aware of the labour demanded of the childish bodies to create that illusion – is one that I’m arguing is still a central element of the pantomime child today. It’s also a paradox that was brilliantly exploited at the time by George R Sims in his massively popular sentimental ballad, The Magic Wand. As Joss Marsh and David Francis argue, Sims was a genius at combining social reformist propaganda with the kind of sensational sentimentalism that guaranteed wide popularity among Victorian and Edwardian audiences, especially at Christmas time. His In the Workhouse: Christmas Day [AKA Christmas Day in the Workhouse] is still familiar today, albeit more often than not in parodic form. The Magic Wand deals in a similar mix of righteous anger and pathetic sentiment. It was published as part of a collection of poems and ballads in 1883, and gained enough popularity to be made into sets of magic lantern slides by three separate companies around 1889, suggesting wide circulation and consumption. Clearly it remained familiar to audiences well into the twentieth century, for it was filmed in 1922 as one of a series of shorts adapted from Sims’ poems by the makers of the more familiar Wonderful London series (sadly the film does not survive). The poem is written in the voice of a Schools Board inspector who is giving a gentleman a tour of the most impoverished slums on his beat. They visit the home of Sally, the eight year old daughter of a drunken widower who beats Sally and her three younger siblings. The narrator points out a glittering but battered stage prop wand lying in the filth on the rotten floor of their hovel, and proceeds to tell the story of Sally’s mother’s death the previous year. As her mother lay dying at home, Sally worked in the pantomime at the ‘Lane’ as one of a ‘group of fairies’. There, her role seems to have been to wave her wand and banish the devils of the ‘dark’ scene, thus initiating the transformation scene and the shift of the panto to the vision of heavenly delight produced by the flooding of the stage with coloured lights, and the clever re-arrangement of the scenery to create a dazzling tableau. (The nearest modern equivalent might be the transformation scene in Cinderella just as she is leaving for the ball when the drab kitchen and the vegetables and mice are transformed into a gleaming carriage, or the cave scene in Aladdin where the genie appears and reveals gold and riches where before everything looked desolate):

At a wave of her hand he vanished
‘At a wave of her hand he vanished’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

… night after night went Sally,

Half starved, to the splendid scene

Where she waved a wand of magic

As a Liliput fairy queen.

She stood in the “Land of Shadows”

Where a demon worked his spell,

At a wave of her wand he vanished,

And the scene was changed as well.


She’d a couple of lines to utter,

Which bade the gloom give way

To the “Golden Home of Blisses

In the Land of the Shining Day.”

She gazed on the limelit splendours

That grew as she waved her wand,

And she thought of the cheerless cellar

Old Drury’s walls beyond.

As her mother’s health continues to deteriorate and her father steals her theatrical earnings to spend on drink for himself, Sally imagines that the magic her wand performs every evening on the stage might also be able to transform her wretched home life into a golden vision of loveliness, and perhaps relieve her mother’s pain. She steals the prop wand, and takes it home, followed by the vigilant prop man. He watches her as she waves it over her dying mother, and utters her stage lines. In the final stanza, of course, Sims draws a parallel between the pantomime transformation scene and the Christian conception of heaven, suggesting that Sally’s magic wand did indeed work to release her mother from earthly suffering and allow her to enter ‘the Land of the Eternal Day’:

Then raising her wand, she waved it
Then raising her wand, she waved it (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

She’s still at school, is Sally,

And she’s heard of the Realms of Light;

So she clings to the childish fancy

That entered her head that night.

She says that her poor sick mother

By her wand was charmed away

From the earth to the Home of Blisses

In the Land of Eternal Day.

The excessive sentiment of Sims’ poem perhaps offers rather a challenge to modern audiences, but I’d still argue that it uses the same mechanism of pathos that modern pantomimes employ with regard to children. Sally, like the littlest dancer today, both believes that she is a fairy and her wand has the power to transform the world around her, and knows that she is performing in a theatrical show and the glitter and enchantment are just so many tawdry theatrical effects. Doesn’t stop it from being magic though. And that’s true for us audiences too.


[The entirety of Sims’ poem is reproduced below, illustrated by the lantern slides from the York and Sons series (1889). I’ve taken the screenshots from the brilliant Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource at Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource,, item 3003867. Accessed 25 October 2019. []


THE MAGIC WAND: A School Board Officer’s Story

Horrible dens sir, aren't they?
‘Horrible dens sir, aren’t they? (The Magic Wand, York and Sons, 1889)

Horrible dens, sir, aren’t they?

This is one of my daily rounds

It’s here, in these awful places,

That child-life most abounds.

We ferret from roof to basement

In search of our tiny prey;

We’re down on their homes directly

If they happen to stop away.


Knock at the door! Pooh, nonsense!

They wouldn’t know what it meant

Come in and look about you;

They’ll think you’re a School Board gent.

Did you ever see such hovels?

Dirty, and damp, and small.

Look at the rotten flooring,

Look at the filthy wall.

Just give a glance about
‘Just give a glance about’ (The Magic Wand, York and Sons, 1889)

That’s lucky – the place is empty,

The whole of the family’s out.

This is one of my fav’rite cases:

Just give a glance about.

There’s a father and four young children,

And Sally the eldest’s eight;

They’re horribly poor – half starving –

And they live in a shocking state.

Her father was spending his weekly earnings
‘Her father was spending his weekly earnings’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

The father gets drunk and beats them,

The mother she died last year:

There’s a story about her dying

I fancy you’d like to hear.

She was one of our backward pupils,

Was Sally the eldest child –

A poor little London blossom

The alley had not defiled.


She was on at the Lane last winter –

She played in the pantomime;

A lot of our School Board children

Get on at the Christmas time.

She was one of a group of fairies,

And her want was the wand up there –

There, in the filthy corner

Behind the broken chair.

She was one of a group of fairies
‘She was one of a group of fairies’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son 1889

The gilt of the star has faded,

And the tinsel’s peeled away;

But once, in the glaring lime-light,

It gleamed like a jeweled spray.

A fairy’s want in a lodging

In a slum like this looks queer;

But you’ll guess why they let her keep it

When you know how the wand came here.


Her mother was ill that winter,

Her father, the drunken sot,

Was spending his weekly earnings

And all that the fairy got.

The woman lay sick and moaning,

Dying by slow degrees

Of a cruel and wasting fever

That rages in dens like these.


But night after night went Sally,

Half starved, to the splendid scene

Where she waved a wand of magic

As a Liliput fairy queen.

She stood in the “Land of Shadows”

Where a demon worked his spell,

At a wave of her wand he vanished,

And the scene was changed as well.

At a wave of her hand he vanished
‘At a wave of her hand he vanished’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

She’d a couple of lines to utter,

Which bade the gloom give way

To the “Golden Home of Blisses

In the Land of the Shining Day.”

She gazed on the limelit splendours

That grew as she waved her wand,

And she thought of the cheerless cellar

Old Drury’s walls beyond.


And when, in her ragged garments,

No longer a potent fay,

She knelt by the wretched pallet

Where her dying mother lay.

She thought, as she stooped and kissed her,

And looked in the ghastly face,

Of the wand that could change a dungeon

To a sweet and lovely place.


Se was only a wretched outcast,

A waif of the London slums;

It’s little of truth and knowledge

To the ears of such children comes.

She fancied her wand was truly

Possessed of a magic charm,

That it punished the wicked people,

And shielded the good from harm.

She knelt by the wretched pallet
‘She knelt by the wretched pallet’ (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

Her mother grew slowly weaker,

The depth of the winter came,

And the teeth of the biting weather

Seized on the wasted frame.

And Sally, who saw her sinking,

Came home from the Lane one night

With her shawl wrapped over something,

And her face a ghostly white.


She had hidden the wand and brought it,

The wand that could do so much;

She crept to the sleeping woman,

Who moved not at her touch.

She stooped to hear her breathing,

It was, O, so faint and low;

Then, raising her wand, she waved it,

Like a fairy, to and fro.

Then raising her wand, she waved it
Then raising her wand, she waved it (The Magic Wand, York and Son, 1889)

Her well-known lines she uttered,

That bade the gloom give way

To “The Golden Home of Blisses

In the Land of Shining Day.”

She murmured, “O mother, dearest,

You shall look on the splendid scene!”

While a man from the playhouse watched her

Who’d followed the fairy queen.


He thought she had stolen something,

And brought it away to sell,

He had followed her home and caught her

And then he’d a tale to tell.

He told how he watched her waving

The wand by her mother’s bed,

O’er a face where the faint grey shadows

Of the long last sleep had spread.


She’s still at school, is Sally,

And she’s heard of the Realms of Light;

So she clings to the childish fancy

That entered her head that night.

She says that her poor sick mother

By her wand was charmed away

From the earth to the Home of Blisses

In the Land of Eternal Day.


George R Sims, The Lifeboat and Other Poems (1883)


When she waved a wand of magic
‘When she waved a wand of magic’ (The Magic Wand, Bamforth and Co, 1889)



[1] See Caroline Henkes, ‘Early Christmas Films in the Tradition of the Magic Lantern’ in Ludwig Vogl-Bienek & Richard Crangle (eds), Screen Culture and the Social Question 1800-1914 (New Barnet: John Libbey, 2014), p. 97-110.

[2] Tracy C. Davis, ‘The Employment of Children in the Victorian Stage’ in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 6, May 1986, p. 118; Jeffrey Richards’ estimate is of twice this number in Richards, The Golden Age of Pantomime (London: IB Tauris, 2014).

[3] Dyan Colclough, Child Labour in the British Victorian Entertainment Industry, 1874-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), p. 33.

[4] Hesba Stratten, Jessica’s First Prayer (1866) (Chapter 5) – at Project Gutenberg . Several Magic Lantern series of this popular story were also produced, as well as two UK film adaptations (in 1908 directed by David Aylott for Walterdaw, and in 1921 directed by Bert Wynn for Seal).

[5] Davis cites delegates from the ‘East London Sugar Workers’ and Labourers’ Council, The Society of Watermen, Board of Lightermen, Amalgamated British Seaman’s Protection Society, Dock Labourers’ Society and Wheelrights’ Society’ meeting Augustus Harris of Drury Lane to offer their support in resisting the Bill. Davis op. cit. p. 123.

[6] Terence Rees, Theatre Lighting in the Age of Gas (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1978) p. 49.

[7] Rees, p. 158.

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