Monday, 19 October 2015


A post recently turned up on my Facebook page about the Robertson's Golly. This is the famous mascot which was used to promote the company's products between 1910 and 2001.

The post suggests that the image was banned and wants a campaign to bring it back. So far over 25,000 people have shared it and it has attracted over 79,000 comments. I haven't read them all of course but having had a scroll through a few, I haven't found anyone who has challenged the claim that the Golly was actually banned.

The Thamesmead Grump never accepts comments and views expressed on Facebook without question and so I went looking for facts. I was surprised by what I found.

To start with, the Robertson's Golly was never banned. The image had been used as a mascot by the company, allegedly following a visit by the founder's Son John Robertson to the United States in 1910 where he discovered children playing with  dolls made from their Mother's discarded black skirts and white blouses. It was discontinued in 2001 because, according to the marketing director, "we are retiring Golly because we found families with kids no longer necessarily knew about him. We are not bowing to political correctness, but like with any great make we have to move with the times."

This is the position still held by the company and you can read about it in the Wikipedia entry about the Robertson's business.

The facts however are rather different. The original Gollywogg (as it was named) was the creation of British born writer Bertha Upton and her illustrator Daughter Florence. 

In 1870, the Upton family had moved from England to Manhattan in New York where her Father worked at the National Academy of Design. Florence was born in New York and, at the age of 15, enrolled there in a formal art training course.

Her Father died soon after this and, with the family in some financial difficulty, she started work as a professional illustrator for a number of publications. 

Eventually, the family finances improved and by 1893 they were able to return to England where Florence began working on the illustration of a book being written by her Mother Bertha. She started by using some penny 'wooden dolls' but found herself stuck for a central character. Her Aunt found her an old doll that had been left in the attic after an earlier visit. She called this toy "Gollywogg."

Two Dutch Dolls and a Gollywogg
The publishing house of Longmans, Green and Co. offered Florence a contract and the first book featuring "Two Dutch Dolls and a Gollywogg" appeared in 1896. They were an instant success and there followed another 12 books in the series, the last of which was published in 1909.

It was a full year later that John Robertson took his famous journey to the United States where, by this time, toy shops would have been full of Gollywog dolls. Unfortunately, neither Florence Upton or the publisher had taken out a patent on the design and it's popularity made it an obvious choice for toy manufacturers.

This means that by the time John Robertson discovered it in 1910 the Gollywog was already a popular children's book series and he would have been able to find the doll being sold in Hamley's, London.

Other authors also took up the character including Enid Blyton  who changed it for her own purposes in her series of stories about three Gollywogs called Golly, Woggie and Nigger and Helen Bannerman's "Little Black Sambo." This is a good place in the story to raise the issue of whether the Golly image is inherently racist. 

Some may argue that it isn't and that it is "political correctness gone mad." This isn't a view I share.

Enid Blyton claimed that the Gollywog was just a toy and not a representative of the "Negro" race. If that's the case, why did she call one of her characters "Nigger"?

When I was a child we didn't see many black people, even in South East London they were a rare sight in the early 1960's. If we were being polite, we would call them 'coloured'; if we were not being polite, we would call them 'wogs'. The reason we called them wogs was because we thought they looked like gollywogs.

I would like to think we have moved on since then and hope that the days when children would read the adventures of "Ten Little Niggers" with a gollywog on the cover were long gone. It may be that one day, we will be able to look at these images without there being any racist connotation but that day hasn't arrived yet. In the mean time, I believe this is something that should be consigned to the dustbin.

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