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WAL KENT (1880 - 1961)
‘Remarkable’ is possibly the best word to describe Wal Kent. A one-time plumber's mate who launched himself into show business around 1900, but is best remembered by Punch Professors for his skill in making Punch & Judy figures.
Born William King in 1880 at Gravesend in Kent, he came from a large family of six boys and two girls. After schooling, he was apprenticed to the plumbing trade. It was whilst working in the dockyard at Sheerness, that Wal, who had some experience with an amateur dramatic society, obtained his first professional engagement. As there were many other performers named Will King, he chose the professional name Wal Kent.
He did odd jobs both off and on the stage and later tried his hand as
part of a musical act and took a period of engagements with portable theatres - where the performers carried the rough, prefabricated building around with them from place to place rather like circus folk. It was during his travels that he saw the great Charlie Chaplin playing a small part in a Music Hall sketch.
He graduated to performing summer seasons in concert parties and taking part in Pierrot shows. During a season at Ayr in 1907 Wal Kent went along to see a rival show. On stage he was a young woman from Edinburgh called Annie Morrison. Singing the ballads of her native Scotland, Annie had previously appeared on stage alongside the great Harry Lauder. Before that 1907 summer season had ended, Wal and Annie were married.
The only known photo
of Wal Kent
For a short while afterwards they returned to stage life before settling to raise a family in Gravesend. However, neither was destined to stay completely outside show business for very long. Wal felt the urge to entertain again in 1939 and started performing Punch & Judy shows at Sheerness in Kent. This, unfortunately, was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War and he spent the following five years firstly as a Warden and then as a postman.
After the war, with the help and encouragement of Fred Tickner, Wal started a new venture - making puppets, marionettes and most importantly of all his well known Punch & Judy figures. Wal made the heads and his wife Annie made the costumes. Soon they were regarded as being among the top makers in the country. At the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild exhibition of 1951, they won the Davidson trophy for a Punch glove puppet.
Over the years, Wal Kent made hundreds if not thousands of puppets. Not only are they widely collected today, but many are still in use - a true testament to their maker. Perhaps the most famous of his puppets are those used by Tony Hancock in the iconic 1963 film ‘The Punch & Judy man’ which now form part of the David Wilde Collection.
Eventually they worked as a double act and toured the country. They were given a booking that was to take them to South Africa in 1914; however, this was cancelled at the
outbreak of the First World War. Throughout the conflict Wal worked in a munitions factory in Crayford as he was unfit for military service.