The children who first embraced Florence Upton's Golliwog
inevitably grew up. Fashions and fads changed, and
Florence herself was yearning to pursue her career as a
serious, professionally trained artist. The last of the
Golliwogg books was published in 1909 and Bertha’s death
in 1912 truly brought the adventures to a close.
Florence continued to study and paint,
concentrating mainly on portraits. She exhibited
at the Royal Academy and other prominent venues
and rapidly established a reputation as an
accomplished society portraitist. Additionally,
she received hundreds of commissions from the
families of young soldiers. Deeply sympathetic,
she often chose to accept no fee, especially in
cases where posthumous portraits were carried out
using only photographs and personal belongings of
the unfortunate young men.
Florence Kate Upton
Frustrated by delicate health, Florence was found unfit
to serve in any physical capacity during the First World
War. However, she satisfied her determination to help out
by donating her original dolls and drawings to a
fund-raising auction for the Red Cross, conducted by
Christies in 1917. To her horror, the dolls and hundreds
of drawings were catalogued to be sold as one lot. Despite
her misgivings that it would never sell, the lot was
indeed purchased for a considerable amount. The money
realised from the sale of her drawings purchased an
ambulance, aptly christened ‘Golliwogg’, which went to the
front and served in France. It is sobering to consider
that some soldiers must have owed their lives to their
hero from a not-so-distant childhood.
At the age of only 49, Florence Upton died in her studio
on 16 October 1922, from complications following surgery.
She is buried in West Hampstead Cemetery. For many years
her vandalised grave was unidentifiable, with the
headstone toppled face-down in the grass. The stone has
now been set upright, courtesy of a Heritage Lottery
grant, and awaits restoration.
The original Golliwogg and Dutch Dolls resided for many
years at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country estate in
Berkshire. They now receive visitors at the Museum of
Childhood at Bethnal Green, London.
It is difficult nowadays to appreciate the enormous
impact that the Golliwogg had at the height of his career.
Florence Upton’s friend and biographer, Edith Lyttelton
recollected, "One of my children, long before we knew
who Bertha and Florence Upton were, had a passionate
attachment to the doll stories, and a new Golliwogg book
was a great excitement in my nursery as in countless
others." Children and parents alike were frantic to
learn of the Golliwogg’s latest escapade with the same
sort of feverish passion that a new Harry Potter book
inspires in modern readers.
Unfortunately, Florence neglected to patent the character
and consequently lost a considerable amount in royalties.
Recognising a large and profitable market, many toy
companies took advantage of the popularity of the books
and started to manufacture the doll, while other writers
and illustrators took equal advantage, but in doing so
changed the very soul of the Uptons’ creation.
The prolific Enid Blyton chose to depict her golliwogs as
rude, stupid and untrustworthy little gremlins and other
authors took a similar tack. Nasty-minded people seized
upon the name as a degrading term for anyone who wasn’t
white-skinned, blithely inventing convoluted explanations
of the origin of the word. Florence Upton despaired, ‘I am
frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep,
dark minds can see in his name.’ It was Florence herself
who came up with the innocent moniker, very probably
unconsciously based on what American children call
tadpoles – the pollywog.
Despite the negative connotations that have arisen over
the years, everyone who has owned a golliwog expresses
nothing but affection for the toy. For many, he eclipsed
even the teddy bear as a chosen companion.