Bertha Waddell’s Children’s Theatre: combing the Scottish Theatre Archive for remnants of a theatre company especially for children

Published on: Author: andrewbradburn 14 Comments

Founded almost 100 years ago, remarkably forward-looking and still echoing in contemporary times, Siân MacGregor found their elusive history irresistible when researching children’s theatre as part of the MLitt Theatre Studies programme.

“Cuckoo! Item Number One!”

The call which signalled the start of every show was coined when its inventor was barely older than her young audience. Entertaining thousands of children every year, Bertha Waddell ran her Children’s Theatre for 4 decades – her bright introduction appearing at every performance, just as she did.

Yet only scraps and snippets remain of this determined and innovative lady and her company, in faded memories, press cuttings and well-thumbed copies of her four collections of pieces written for performance. Much of what remains can be accessed through the collection at the Scottish Theatre Archive; many details remain a mystery.

Anthony Newman and Bertha Waddell performing Little Bo Peep in around 1964.
© Siân MacGregor from the estate of Anthony Newman. ‘Little Bo Peep’ with Anthony Newman and Bertha Waddell, c. 1964.

Bertha Waddell, by rights Roberta Johanna, was born in Uddingston, in June 1907 and in 1919 her family moved to ‘Caldergrove’, a late Georgian country house near Blantyre. Her sister Janet Jane, universally known as Jenny and apparently the quieter, was two years older; both were educated by governesses. Neither of them ever marrying, the sisters stayed on in the family home together, which was one of several grand houses built in the area by the Coal Board in the 19th Century. They later called it their “workshop” as it was there that the sisters built their own props, set and costumes. The girls’ father, John Jeffrey Waddell, was an architect, with offices in Glasgow’s Bath Street; he specialised in sympathetic renovations and additions to churches all over Scotland. Little is known of his wife Jean, who was by various accounts a teacher or headmistress, but both parents took the young Bertha and Jenny to the theatre as well as to speech, drama and music classes in Glasgow city centre. Bertha eventually gained the LRAM for singing and elocution, and at age 15, a lead role with the respected Scottish National Players with whom she performed for several of her teenage years. For her own part, Jenny became a skilled pianist, and eventually the ‘cuckooing’ “quaint announcer” accompanying and calling out each section of their performances by number and title. Their early training was fervently put to good use – for example, a single sheet of paper in the Archive serves as a programme and running order for a performance the Waddell sisters organised in order to raise funds for Red Cross Day. On closer inspection, the date denotes that they were not yet even into their teens, and already directing a small company of young players (of ‘masters’ rather than ‘misters’) – presaging a lifetime’s work.

It was on the 19 November 1927 (when Bertha was aged just 20) that the pivotal performance took place in central Glasgow, featuring Bertha, Jenny and a few others now unknown. Although it is difficult to determine specific details, a hired room in the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street was the venue, and the event, by a “pioneer company” was “entertainment entirely for children”. Even Bertha herself called it “such a very new experiment”. To modern theatre-goers, it might not seem unusual for a show to be created and performed for the under-12’s, yet at the time (with a few notable exceptions), children were usually offered only short puppet shows in holiday towns in terms of age-specific live entertainment. When asked about performances for children for a newspaper article in 1952, Bertha commented rather dismissively that, “Twenty-five years ago, it was all cantatas. … ‘Princess Chrysanthemum’ or lots of little girls with parasols”. Even pantomimes were largely geared towards an adult audience. In typically bashful style, Bertha later called her 1927 performance a “little idea” – but it in fact seems to have formed the basis of the Glasgow Children’s Theatre Company. (Only later, possibly as they toured much further afield, or grew more confident, did she add her own name to the Company).

It is from the early 1930’s that we have the first concrete evidence in the STA of Bertha’s “very new experiment” gradually becoming established as a theatre company for children, which ran ceaselessly until 1968, each year with a different repertoire to tour. From the simple programmes produced for each season, we can gain an insight to the company’s fundamental formula for shows, but also something of its ethos and intentions, and even the company’s well-to-do supporters. For instance, the simply-styled thick paper programme lodged in the Archive lists the company’s full cast, each performance item in order of performance, the names of the ‘Committee’ (board members) and finally, “Miss Waddell wishes to thank..” recognising “all” who had made the show possible. With such limited space, any of this could have easily been omitted in favour of more advertisements to help fund the company, but the inclusion of names and credits displays something of the Waddells’ sincere appreciation of – and belief in – their work and company. For researchers, these sparse details provide valuable beginnings of trails to investigate.

Bertha Waddell, Anthony Newman and unknown others perform 'The Men from Krakow' in around 1964.
© Siân MacGregor from the estate of Anthony Newman. ‘The Men from Krakow’ featuring Bertha Waddell, Anthony Newman and others unknown, c. 1964.

Beyond these printed names, specific details are scant; Bertha’s original scripts were reportedly destroyed at her request, in the 1980’s, and the wealth of props and costumes donated to a local college, since disbanded. However, we do have a handful of black and white photographs of stage sets and actors, coloured by descriptions from various other sources. Newspaper cuttings and living memories give us enticing details which bring the company to life: one year, there was a particularly memorable bright green dress amongst the “immaculate” costumes, an apron “starched and stark white”, and always an overall impactful “good stage picture”. Detailed descriptions of how best to achieve certain props, costume, and even vocal phrasing noted by Bertha in her 4 volumes of rhymes for performance also give clues to her style and ethos, and what the audience would expect. That audience, suffice to say, was “rapt”, paid close attention, and in exchange were imbued with what was often their first, influential, experience of theatre. Noted for her clear diction, and for being somewhat “glamourous, very theatrical” and “genteel and ladylike”, small hints and minutiae like these tell us that Bertha knew her business well, and took it seriously. For instance, despite the simple card covers of her books of rhymes (adapted from the traditional versions), once inside, we read her confidence when addressing her intended audience – instructions and suggestions always shyly speckled with gentle humour, as were the shows themselves.

If we did not have material nestled in the archives, it would be difficult to believe that Bertha and her loyal company ever existed at all, much less performed for thousands of children, including two generations of royal audiences (even once in the Throne Room). Their tours all over Scotland (and sometimes beyond) were later supported and endorsed by several education committees and the Arts Council, and were undertaken for 10 months of every year, with 2 summer months for preparation. The company’s “little van” in convoy with the “little car” took them to halls and schools far and wide – that is, except when visiting outlying isles by plane, boat and chartered steamer, the packed props apparently looking “like a jumble sale”.

All in all, in these archives we find an inspiring and fondly-remembered precedent for today’s theatre for children, respected and respectable performers and a particularly tenacious leading lady. Above all, great adventures, on stage and off – indeed, worthy subjects themselves of a tale told for children.

Follow Siân on Twitter.

All references available upon request – primarily from the Scottish Theatre Archive, GU Archives & Special Collections.

With thanks to interviewees & advisors: Giles Havergal, director; Margaret Tomlinson, drama teacher & trainer and longstanding member of the Citizens Theatre board; Professor Ian Brown, playwright; and Claire McKendrick, Chief Library Assistant.

14 Responses to Bertha Waddell’s Children’s Theatre: combing the Scottish Theatre Archive for remnants of a theatre company especially for children Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. This brought back many memories. I was a member of the company 1966/67 and do have a small number of photographs and notes including the performance schedule for the Highland and Islands tour. It was of its time!. In fact probably a bit beyond it’s time. Jenny drove the van with the costumes, scenery and even a basic lighting rig as well as two of the cast. Bertha drove the car with the other three cast members. (The van was called “Andy” and if we came to a large bridge over a wide stretch of water Jenny would stop and I’d have to drive across the bridge then she would take over again!!) I have many stories which I’d be happy to share if you thought there was an interest.
    I’m particularly interested in what happened to the two sisters. I believe they both died in 1983. Their large Victorian mansion, Caldergrove House in Blantyre was burned to the ground. One sister it is rumoured was found dead at the top of a nearby cliff while the other was never found!!. I remember visiting the house for costume fittings.
    After a brief career in the theatre, starting with The Childrens’ Theatre, I then pursued a career in Education ending up as the County Inspector/Adviser for Drama and Media in Hampshire and OFSTED Inspector.

    • This is fascinating! During the course of my research, I’d only found audience members and the children of a couple of performers. I would love to hear more, as information is limited at the moment.
      Bertha died in 1983 – it would seem from letters of hers of the time that she was suffering from a possible brain tumour – certainly something which took her before her time, unfortunately. I’ve never found records of the sisters’ deaths, despite searching for their official names (Roberta & Janet), but when I have time, I’ll enquire at the national records office. Jenny lived for another couple of years, but I think she must have been in some sort of retirement home, and they don’t seem to have had many relatives. The props and costumes were apparently donated to the then-Hamilton College, and, although I have tried to trace staff from the time, and have investigated the Collections of Scotland St School & the Glasgow Museums resource centre plus South Lanarkshire’s equivalent, there is no sign/evidence of what happened to it all. I also hold an archive from one of the company members who worked with the Children’s Theatre during the 1950s and then for a short time at the very end. The Children’s Theatre was a hugely popular and influential – we’re now seeing echoes of them in modern work specifically for children. It would be wonderful to preserve what little is recorded of the company before it is lost.

  2. I was thrilled to find this page on line today. I am currently writing my Life Story – just for the family- and this includes an account of my lifelong interest in theatre and acting. I included in this my earliest memory of being absolutely transfixed by performances of the Bertha Waddell Touring Company as they visited Ardrossan Academy during WWII. I idly typed the title of the company into Google never expecting this fascinating page.

  3. Sorry, this is a PS a to my earlier comment:
    I think I saw 2 performances while I was at Ardrossan Academy. I would have been 5-7 years old in the years 1943-7. The fact that I can still picture them so vividly is testimony of the impression those performances made. One featured someone going on a long journey with various adventures on the way. Between scenes the character strode along but “on the spot” to show his progress. I thought that was so clever! It was also quite comical. I loved it all.

  4. As a young child in the 1940s I was taken to see the Bertha Waddell shows. I remember the disembodied head that would appear through the curtain (I was sure it had no body) and announce “Item Number One” and so on. One scene I recall vividly had an actress dressed as a boy skipping gaily in place in the centre of the stage, while a backdrop was wound behind her, giving the illusion that she was moving. Those were magical outings.

  5. I have a book – ‘Children’s Theatre Plays’ – published in1948 It is a book of plays wriitten for chilldren by David Scott Daniel for and performed by the Bertha Waddell’s Children’s Theatre There is a foreward by Bertha Waddell and an introduction by David Scott Daniel
    Would the U of G Culture be interested in receiving this copy? Or do you already have one?

    • Hello! Sorry for the delay in replying – I (Sian, author of the blog) also have this book, but I will ask at the Scottish Theatre Archive at Glasgow University if they have it – it would be a lovely addition. Thank you! Sian

  6. My P3 class from the Gorbals’ Primary school were bussed to nearby Blackfriars’ Primary school to see Bertha Waddell’s Children’s theatre in 1961: we were aged about 7 years old. ‘Rumplestiltskin’ was performed in magical costumes with a spinning wheel with which the poor trapped heroine spun flax into gold. I vividly remember the excitement of the show’s commencement and running towards the stage to catch the magic glitter, that I really believed was magic fairy gold dust. I was trying to catch some for my mum as I believed the characters were real and that the magical atmosphere was credible.
    I went on to sudy English Literature and Language with Drama at Glasgow University and taught Primary and Secondary school. Later I studied post-graduate Education and recently acquired an Art Degree. I firmly believe the access to the Arts in schools like the Gorbals ‘Primary which had puppet theatre creative workshops, themed and religious plays, depending on the school season, all contibuted to a lifetime enjoyment of the Citizens’ Theatre and the wonderful enlightenment made available by Giles Harvegal where I was seeing Gogol’s ‘Government Inspector’ with quality actors like Laurence Rudic, at the age of 16 years old, chosen by my teacher at Queen’s Park secondary to attend an actors’ workshop. Bertha Waddell’s efforts helped many children realise a way into the Arts for future livliehoods and lifetime leisure.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments so far – they’re so interesting and positive!
    I’m doing a research project at the moment about young audiences (and ways in which early experiences of the arts can affect later interactions with them). I’d love to hear more from anyone who’s had this kind of experience – via Bertha Waddell or other works/artists. Of course, Bertha and Jenny Waddell are close to my heart, but do feel free to get in touch or comment with any other experiences or notes too. Thanks!

  8. Came across this site by accident, having seen an old WW11 newspaper item about schoolchildren and evacuees from Gartmore “greatly enjoyed the excellent entertainment provided by the Berta Waddell’s Children’s Theatre Company”. It was held in The Pavilion (used to be a hotel with a large dance floor) in nearby Aberfoyle.
    I don’t have a good memory but as I soon as I saw the name Bertha Waddell, it came back to me that I too had been taken to performance by my mother in the 60s. I have no idea where, but they obviously had a great impact on me as I can hear “cuckoo, item number …” in my head with a beautifully Received Pronunciation accent.
    I am so glad to have had that jolt of a memory – must have been 60 odd years ago. lovely! It probably did have a lasting effect, despite me not remembering it as going to the theatre became the norm throughout my childhood and which has continued since.

    • This is lovely! I’m still researching young audiences – in fact just now focusing on the lasting impressions of theatre/the arts upon children (into later life). I’d really love to hear any other details, or information (e.g. the original WW2 article, other influences). It’s surprisingly hard to ‘prove’ or show what an effect live performance has on young people!

  9. Years ago, I remember our class being marched in to the assembly hall at the Perth Academy for a rare and real treat, a performance by Bertha Waddell’s Scottish Children’s Theatre which seemed to be the title I remember. I forget the play but the style of performance had great appeal and stuck with me over the years. That being of a ‘fairy tale’ type of drama with characters played and costumed somewhat in the style of a traditional theatrical pantomime but one you would expect to see performed by a Repertory theatre company with perfect enounciation and beautiful staging. It inspired me to such an extent that a few years later, I auditioned to join the Lilliput Marionette Theatre and for about 5 years, I was touring England doing voices, operations and stage management for full length marionette dramas in high school auditoriums. Only once did our performances almost ‘cross swords’ with Bertha Waddell’s Company, when both were giving schools performances in adjacent schools. Schools performances were popular at this time and amongst others that were on what I might call, ‘the touring circuit’ of those days, was The Arygle Theatre for schools Company from Birkenhead(which had several companies on the go at the same time) Brian Way’s Theatre Centre, and the all-female Osiris Theatre Company. Ironically, in later years when I moved to Canada, my first experience of theatre in Ottawa was as an actor, playing the rather pompous Grand Vizier in a play called Sinbad and the Mermaid. It took me back instantly to the UK because the role involved a lot of audience participation ‘bits’ which had been so much part of my marionette and on stage parts in England while in my early twenties.

    • Dear Mr Smith, I’m undertaking a piece of research into the Lilliput Marionette Theatre and would be interested in getting in contact with you regarding your memories if you would be happy to talk to me? Lucy Blair (

  10. This is really fascinating – yes, the company had a few slightly different names, and that was one of them – you’re right. How amazing that you remember so clearly, and that you were part of the famous Lilliput Marionette company! BW and co weren’t in England particularly often, I don’t think, so that’s interesting that your paths (almost?) crossed later. I’d love to hear more! It’s not long really until the centenary of the company’s original establishment, so I’m aiming to collect memories and more information in time for that.

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