By Golly it's the history of Golliwogs

3 Conversations

Then all look round, as well they may

To see a horrid sight!

The blackest gnome

Stands there alone,

They scatter in their fright.

– Bertha Upton

For many people the term 'golliwog' conjures up an image of a loving, affectionate doll, but not everyone is of this same opinion. There are those that believe the golliwog to be disempowering and a right racial insult. For this image was born out of slavery by the slave owner. The slave owner who more often than not had white skin described his slaves as having 'black skin, enormous eyes, giant lips, and unkempt hair often referred to as 'wool''. Both golliwogs and minstrels originated from this idea and would sometimes dress in red jackets like an old soldier too. Minstrels would put on shows for their slave owners to entertain them and this led to many minstrel shows occurring in America and across the sea in England notably The Black and White Minstrel Show, which appeared on BBC.

The word golliwog originated in the series of 19th Century Golliwogg books by author Bertha Upton and illustrator Florence Upton1 who were merely trying to raise money to finance Florence's education in the arts. The first of the series was The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg, which was released in 1895. Upton based the books on her childhood dolls, which included a black minstrel doll. The books were hugely popular and naturally the golliwog became popular too. Unfortunately for the Upton family they did not think about patenting the golliwog and therefore didn't benefit that much from the huge sales it caused. All the toys, manuscripts and original artwork for the 13 books were auctioned off in 1917 for the Red Cross, and with the proceeds they bought an ambulance. The toys were presented by the buyer to the Prime Minister and they resided at Chequers for 90 years until being moved to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.

Golly it's Good

In 1909 the Steiff company that creates teddy bears took up making golliwogs, which sold throughout the world and the UK preserve manufacturers, James Robertson and Sons, began using the Golly mascot from 1910 onwards. The firm began producing enamel badges in the shape of golliwogs from the 1920's. These could be obtained by collecting the printed labels featuring golliwogs on the side of their jars and sending them in to the company with a small amount of money. Some badges showed golliwogs with musical instruments and in various sporting poses and they could be swopped with other kids at school if aunty or grandmamma got you one you already had. A spokesperson for Robertson's once said: 'Each year we get more than 340,000 requests for Golly badges. Since 1910 we have sent out more than 20 million'.

The popular children's author Enid Blyton was keen to depict golliwogs in her books about Noddy too. However, her portrayal of them having flawed characteristics and stealing Noddy's yellow car, did not go down well with everyone.

Change in Attitude

Meanwhile the name golliwog was becoming increasingly known as a racial slur. Used by soldiers in World War II when referring to North Africans and other dark skinned foreigners, the name wog and golliwog were seen as derogatory and thus a move to ban it and the dolls was made. By the 1980s, the Blyton family, heirs to Enid Blyton's estate, fully endorsed the removal of golliogs from her books. So the garage proprietor, Mr Golly, became a teddy bear and the book The Three Golliwogs changed to The Three Bold Pixies2. The Golly was also dropped by Robertsons in 2001, in favour of Roald Dahl's illustrations which were seen as family friendly and appropriate at that time.

Over the Top

Not everyone agreed with the golliwog being seen as a racial slur including the Conservative councillor Richard Eddy who displayed one in his office sparking complaints from representatives of black and ethnic groups. Councillor Eddy said he was just offering the golly 'sanctuary' in his office and did not mean to offend anyone. He told BBC Bristol that in hindsight 'I think it was somewhat silly - I was flippantly trying to make a point about political correctness but the spin put on this story - and the offence it has caused - I deeply regret'. Lord Taylor of Warwick, a senior black Conservative said at the time the golliwog was seen as 'out-dated, insensitive and racist'. He furthered this by saying 'So it is quite extraordinary that politicians should be so out of touch with the feelings of decent people of all racial and cultural backgrounds'. Eddy bowed to political pressure and resigned as deputy leader in 2001. It's not known what happened to the golly.

Museum Mayhem

In 2007 a man called Nick Martin defended an exhibition held at the Westbury Manor Museum in Fareham, Hampshire. Many of the items on display belonged to Martin who began collecting gollies as a child and couldn't stop. 'They're always happy little chappies and make you smile. I caught the bug and once you start, you can't stop'. A lecturer at Portsmouth University, John Molyneux, argued that this display should not have gone ahead. 'They were originally a very crude racist stereotype repeated in many children's stories at the height of imperialism when unfortunately overt racism was common in adults and children. It is not just an innocent toy and often this issue is not understood by people - and obviously not by the curators and managers of the museum'. The Curator, Tom de Wit, however defended this display saying 'We hope that people are not offended. But if objects on display do stimulate debate, we see this as a positive thing'.

In Agreement

I was called a 'golliwog supermodel' - I don't think that's really fair, do you?
- Naomi Campbell

One person who agreed with the name golliwog being seen as a racial insult was Naomi Campbell. She was travelling to Los Angeles by plane in 2008 when a member of British Airways staff called her a 'golliwog supermodel'. Campbell was angry about this and lashed out. She was arrested by police and found herself as the subject of a court case. A spokesperson for the airline in question denied her comment announcing 'British Airways does not accept any allegations of racism, we are proud of our diversity'.

More Madness?

Another person who did not agree with the golliwog being seen as a racial slur was Amanda Schofield who was arrested after her daughter put one in a window of their house. 'I feel like a criminal for something my daughter did. I just can't believe that I got arrested for a petty thing like that', she said. The Greater Manchester Police thought differently and believed it to be just one of many racial slurs Schofield had made over time.

In a discussion behind the scenes of the BBC One Show Carol Thatcher, the daughter of Margaret Thatcher, described a tennis player as a golliwog and as a result was asked to deliver an apology. Thatcher refused and she was consequently dropped from the show. Although in the media aftermath, it was widely reported that Thatcher had been 'fired' for remarks made in private, the BBC made it clear that various people who overheard her remark were upset and complained. Thatcher repeatedly declined to apologise and producers felt they were unable to use her as a freelance within their ethnically diverse production team. A spokes person for Thatcher hinted that the real reason for her being sacked by them was more likely due to the corporation bearing a grudge towards her family rather than the slur she made - but this was disputed by the BBC.

Right Royal Racket

Despite the fact that golliwogs as toys are now frowned upon, it didn't stop the Queen's shop from trying to flog them - they were on sale at £9.99 each and even on display in her shop window at Sandringham. They were removed from the shelves in February 2009 after complaints. A spokesperson said, 'The management of the shop have said they did not intend to offend anyone by selling this product and have apologised if any offence has been caused. The shop will immediately review its purchasing policy'. This shop was not the last one in the world with any golliwog stock and you can still buy them on eBay if you really want one. Just don't take it to work, or by golly, you will probably get some funny looks.

Golly References

  • Debussy entitled the sixth movement of his 1906-8 'Children's Corner' suite 'Golliwogg's Cake-walk', after the popular toy.
  • The British navy used the term golliwog to refer to a Gauloises cigarette, because of it's colour.
  • Agnetha Fältskog from the famous music band ABBA created a single entitled 'Golliwog'.
  • One of the characters in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is depicted as a golliwogg.
  • It is believed that the Scouts Association created a cloth golliwog in a Scout uniform. There is also an enamel Scout gollie badge in existence.
  • 1Florence was Bertha's American-born daughter.2The names of the three characters, Golly, Woggy and a name beginning with 'N', were also changed.

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