Wessex Archaeologist Phil Harding, well known for Channel 4’s Time Team and BBC’s Digging for Britain, has many happy memories of his first full time job – at Pelham Puppets.
Phil went to work there from 1970-71 after leaving Marlborough Grammar School where a fellow student, Bob Pelham’s niece, recommended him for the job.
He told marlborough.news:“It was my first real job. I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist but I hadn’t got the A-levels, I was resitting them. The job at Pelham Puppets was ideal as the hours were flexible and the atmosphere relaxed.”
Phil remembers his first day there vividly. He printed faces on to wooden heads that were destined to become puppets. Very soon he was promoted and spent most of his time building ventriloquist puppets. “I had to fit the jaws, make the handles, spray the heads. The whole process probably broke today’s Health and Safety standards. I was given a face mask and a daily pint of milk to line my stomach to protect against paint fumes.”
“Bob Pelham,” says Phil, “was obsessive about puppets – they were his whole life. He was always very friendly and relaxed. He once decided to introduce a clocking in machine at the factory which didn’t go down very well as most of the workers were women who were working flexible hours because of home commitments. In the end the machine wasn’t used because Bob said it didn’t matter.”
Many of the workers in the Pelham Puppet factory had worked there since the factory was founded in 1947. Phil remembers Old Siddy who had lost a leg in the Battle of Anzio, in the Italian campaign of World War 2. Old Siddy was responsible for building Number 1 puppets which were the 8 foot Bimbo the Clown puppets, suspended on big springs. These were sold to Hamleys toy shop every Christmas.
Another ‘old hand’ Phil remembers was Handel Collins, named after George Frederick Handel. “He had been a publican and a pattern maker for Great Western Railway and was very skilled. He had a work box with his own tools and pictures of locomotives. You never went near his box !”
Handel Collins was retired but was employed by Bob Pelham part time and Phil worked alongside him.
It was while he was at Pelham Puppets that Phil’s chance to become an archaeologist was given to him. He had taken a two week holiday to participate in a dig at Ludgershall Castle. While he was there, the trench supervisor, Mike Adey, asked him to go and dig with him at Southampton. “He told me, you’ll give up your job and come and dig with me.”
Despite some parental misgivings, Phil took him up on the offer and the first step towards a career in archaeology was taken.
“I have very fond memories of Pelham Puppets,” says Phil, “it was a crucial time in my life.”