"Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander"


Thus begins the tale of Mother Goose and her son Jack who buys a goose which lays a golden egg. Jacks sells the goose to a dishonest merchant, Mother Goose turns Jack into Harlequin and his ladyfriend into Columbine, The egg is thrown into the sea and a fish brings it back. The merchant threatens to kill the goose but Mother Goose catches it and climbing onto its back flies up to the moon!

And so we have a description of the familiar character connected with children's rhymes and known the world over.


Mother Goose is a title that can cause confusion on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as the very word “Pantomime” means something different in America (basically to mime without words) as it does in Great Britain (A popular family entertainment seen mostly at Christmas) so the Mother Goose title can mean two different things.


In America Mother Goose is synonymous with a book of Fairy Tales, narrated by the mythical figure of Mother Goose herself. In Great Britain it is the title of a Pantomime telling the story of Mother Goose and her pet goose, Priscilla- The Goose that lays golden eggs.


There is even a train of thought in America that one Elizabeth Goose from Boston, Massachusetts, living in the late 17th Century was the original. Legend (unsupported) tells that one of her daughters married a printer who collected all her stories, and published them as a book. To this day Nursery Rhymes are known as “Mother Goose Songs” in America.




The earliest mention of a “Mother Goose” dates back to 1650 in France, when Jean Loret mentioned her in his book “La Muse Historique”.


In 1697 Charles Perrault* used the phrase in a published collection of eight fairy tales “Histories and Tales of long ago, with morals”. The book illustrated an old lady spinning and telling stories with the words “Tales of my Mother the Goose”. It was published in England in 1729 as “Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales”.


Perrault’s stories were folk legends he had collected and rewritten in a more popular form. They were: “Sleeping Beauty (in the wood)”,” Little Red Riding Hood,” “ Blue Beard” “, Puss In Boots (or the Master Cat),” “ The Fairies, “Cinderella (or the little glass slipper),” “ Ricky with the Tuft” and “Little Thumb.”


In England later that century John Newbery published several collections of traditional rhymes. These included “Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the cradle”- published by his stepson in 1780 the edition contained 52 rhymes with illustrations.


The popularity of these books in England made Mother Goose’s name  more identified with Nursery Rhymes than with Fairy Stories. Since that time the name has become widely used for different collections of folk tales and especially nursery rhymes.


By 1786 the stories of Mother Goose were published in the first authorized American version by Isiah Thomas, also entitled “Mother Goose’s Melody”


Stephen Mulhern and Ian Good - Mother Goose (Bromley Theatre) 2006/7 - Photo courtesy FFE (First Family Entertainment)



The Origin of “Mother Goose” the British Pantomime:


This is the Nursery Rhyme in full: read down  the left side first, then the right side!

Old Mother Goose,

When she wanted to wander,

Would ride through the air

On a very fine gander.


Mother Goose had a house,

‘Twas built in a wood,

Where an owl at the door

For sentinel stood


She had a son Jack,

A plain-looking lad,

He was not very good,

Nor yet very bad.


She sent him to market,

A live goose he bought:

See, mother, says he,

I have not been for nought. 


Jack’s goose and her gander

Grew very fond;

They’d both eat together,

Or swim in the pond.


Jack found one fine morning,

  As I have been told,

His goose had laid him

An egg of pure gold.


Jack ran to his mother

The news for to tell,

She called him a good boy,

And said it was well.


Jack sold his gold egg

To a merchant untrue,

Who cheated him out of

A half of his due.

The Jack went a-courting

A lady so gay,

As fair as the lily,

And sweet as the May.


The merchant and squire

Soon came at his back,

And began to belabour

The sides of poor Jack.


Then Old Mother Goose

 That instant came in,

And turned her son Jack

Into famed Harlequin.


She then with her wand

Touched the lady so fine,

 And turned her at once

Into sweet Columbine.


 The gold egg in the sea

Was thrown away then,

When an odd fish brought her

The egg back again.


The merchant then vowed

The goose he would kill,

Resolving at once

His pockets to fill.


Jack’s mother came in,

And caught the goose soon,

And mounting its back,

Flew up to the moon.


Click on above for a gallery of Production Photos

WISH Theatre - Kilmarnock 2008/9




Mother Goose, devised as a tale by Perrault in 1687, featured in an early pantomime in 1806, showed a kindly old witch associated with a stupid boy called Jack.


Joseph Grimaldi:

The great pantomime clown performed a very early version of “Mother Goose”. This version would have very little in common with  pantomime as we think of it now however. The character of Mother Goose (the Dame Role) was that of a “Benevolent Agent”- a sort of good witch. The Harlequinade resembled the rhyme more than the story we have today in pantomime.


Grimaldi’s career began at the age of three at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. He was later to become the mainstay of the Drury Lane Theatre before settling in at Covent Garden in 1806. His three year contract paid him one pound a week, rising to two pounds the following year, and finally three pounds a week. His debut at Covent Garden was in 'Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg' in 1806. Grimaldi himself had little faith in the piece, and undoubtedly it was hastily put together on a sparsely decorated stage. However, the production ran for 92 nights, and took over £20,000.


The lack of great theatrical scenes allowed Grimaldi to project himself to the fore  'he shone with unimpeded brilliance' once critic wrote. Another marveled at his performance 'whether he robbed a pieman, opened an oyster, rode a giant carthorse, imitated a sweep, grasped a red hot poker ....... in all this he was extravagantly natural!' In 'Harlequin and Mother Goose' there were four opening scenes, involving Grimaldi as Squire Bugle (afterwards, the clown) Mother Goose, played by Mr. Simmons, Colin (afterwards Harlequin) in love with Colinette. This was then followed by fifteen scenes of Harlequinade, and a grand finale. Music ran throughout the piece, and there was no spoken dialogue.


Drury Lane: Mother Goose 1880

The Drury Lane pantomime for December 1880 was Mother Goose (and the Enchanted Beauty). The go-ahead proprietor, Augustus Harris, decided to use well-known variety stars for the first time, hoping to swell box-office receipts. Kate Santley was engaged from the Alhambra and Arthur Roberts, the popular music hall comedian, was also given a leading part.


According to The Stage review of January 1, 1881, "Mother Goose is a success and Mr A Harris can go to sleep at night with an easy head".


Again though, this pantomime version was actually the story of “The Sleeping Beauty”, with the character of Mother Goose again representing a “Good Witch”, pitted against the evil witch Malignia. The Golden eggs did feature, but were used as a magical device to awaken the sleeping court after their 100 years slumber.


Click on Image to EnlargeDrury Lane:  Mother Goose 1902

It was not until the turn of the century that “Mother Goose” in the pantomime form we know was created. It is unusual to be able to pinpoint an exact date when a pantomime story saw the light of day- most pantomime stories evolved over centuries. This story was created for one performer- the most popular performer of his time: Dan Leno.


Dan Leno:

The pantomime story we know today originates from the pen of one writer- J.Hickory Wood. He wrote the plot specifically to highlight the talents of Dan Leno, the star of the Drury Lane Pantomimes. Amongst his innovations, Hickory Wood (collaborating with the manager of Drury Lane, Arthur Collins)created the “Pool of Beauty” scene, where Mother Goose is transformed, and, in her eyes, becomes beautiful.


The plot of “Mother Goose” was a very moral one. It all hung on the challenge laid down by the Demon King to the Good Fairy:


“Search all the world, and you will fail to find, a man or woman with contented mind”


Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell - Drury Lane - Mother Goose 1902


Dan Leno was the performer to create the character and look of the pantomime dame as we know her. In 1887 he was hired by Augustus Harris (the "Father of Modern Pantomime") to play at Drury Lane .He remained there for the next 16 years as the star of the pantomime.


Entering the stage Leno could achieve much laughter by a single expression, as he launched into his opening patter:


“.then I went on the stage as Juliet- Oh! The bouquets they threw at me! Not silly useless hothouse flowers, but cauliflower’s and garden fruit like that. When they repaired the theatre I asked for a re-engagement, but the manager was out….”


What made this Dame role different to all others, was that it was the titular role. The Dame WAS the story. Once the challenge was laid down, the Dame is tested by the Demon to prove her worth as a good kind person. She has a gift bestowed upon her- a magical goose. The Goose is christened by the dame as “Ann Priscilla Mary May”, after her Grandmother, and becomes part of her family.


Illustrations from 1902 Drury Lane Pantomime - Mother Goose


Since 1902 the Goose has almost always been given the name created by J.Hickory Wood. “Priscilla”.


During the pantomime Mother Goose is given great wealth. Having all this wealth she now craves Beauty. The Demon tempts her to enter the “Pool of Beauty”, but in return she must give up the one thing she holds dear to her- Priscilla the Goose. To gain beauty, she sacrifices everything.



The rest of the pantomime revolves around the Dame’s discovery that Beauty is not important. It is what lies within that counts. That and the love of a true friend. She has to fight to reclaim the goose, and in doing so realizes that she is now truly content. Good triumphs over evil in this most moral of pantomimes!

John Inman with 'The Goose Lady' Barbara Newman


“Mother Goose” became a popular pantomime from then on. After Leno the  performers closely associated with the role included Wilkie Bard, George Lacy and much later Stanley Baxter and Peter Thorne. John Inman played “Mother Goose” for several years, making the part his own.


Sherry Adelaide as Priscilla, Peter Thorne as Mother Goose and Peter Beadle as Demon King - Kenneth More Theatre 1984


Recently the story has fallen out of favour. Perhaps the subject matter is not well known enough to attract managements and audiences? The fact that Disney have not cast their eye on the story might not help. It still survives, but it does not appear too often in the lists of pantomimes across the country since the 1980’s.


In recent years Mathew Kelly played the role in a lavish production at the Hippodrome Birmingham, and recently Eric Potts played “Mother Goose” at the Regent, Stoke.


It is, undeniably the finest of all the Dame roles. Playing “Mother Goose” has been described as the the pantomime equivalent of playing “Hamlet”. The role allows the performer to combine comedy and pathos in equal measure, and to be the lynchpin of the story. It also allows the performer to enjoy the traditional “little old lady” dame role with the often glamorous and hilarious transformation into what she perceives as great beauty, when she emerges from the magic pool.


This pantomime has survived for over 105 years so far- hopefully it will come back into favour and survive a further hundred years!


Ian Good and Jeff Hordley - Mother Goose (Bromley Theatre) 2006/7 - Photo Courtesy of FFE (First Family Entertainment)


Mother Goose - Bristol Hippodrome 1977

An Interview with Barbara Newman from the BBC Points West Archive (includes video footage)

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The Character Names in Pantomime:


THE GOOSE: a common mistake people sometimes make is to assume the Goose is called Mother Goose. This mistake often stems from the illustrations of the American tales of “Mother Goose”, showing her in a bonnet. The Goose is traditionally called “Priscilla.”

In some pantomimes she has had other names bestowed on her, such as “The Golden Goose”, “Belinda” (Bertram Montague’s pantomimes 1940’s)


Click on Image to Enlarge

THE DAME Traditionally the Dame is referred to as “Mother Goose”. In various pantomimes she has taken on a christian name- often an alliterative one. She might be “Gertie Goose” for example.

When Stanley Baxter played the role he was “Minnie McNiven –“later known as Mother Goose”. When Richard Hearne played the role at the Palladium, famous as TV’s “Mr.Pastry” he became “Mrs Pastry-later Mother Goose!”


THE PRINCIPAL BOY: The Principal boy in Mother Goose is traditionally named “Colin”. Often  he is Mother Goose’s son. However in some versions he is the son of the Squire-or his nephew-- in which case Jill will be Mother Goose’s daughter. On occasion, often in recent times, the Principal boy has been called  “Jack”. He has even been “A Gamekeeper”,“ The Millers Son”, The Gamekeeper’s son” and ”Foreman on the farm”.

In a 1920’s version he was “Robin”in 1932 he was” Robbie


THE COMIC: In recent pantomimes his usual name is “Billy”-(This name appears more often after the mid 1960’s) “Billy Goose”.He is the son of the Dame.,. In earlier pantomimes he was often called  Jack.- he has even been “Johnny”

On odd occasions he is “Simple Simon”, but generally today his name is Billy or “Silly Billy” today. He has also been called “Sammy”(Max Bygraves at the Palladium for example) “Jimmy”


THE PRINCIPAL GIRL: Traditionally she is \called “Jill”, and is often the Squire’s Daughter. Sometimes she may be cast as the daughter of Mother Goose, when Colin is the Son of the Squire. At The Palladium she became “Margery Daw” (played by Shirley Eaton)


THE SQUIRE: The Squire is often portrayed as the man demanding his money from Mother Goose. Often he is simply known as “The Squire”. Often his name is associated with his grasping ways. “Squire Squeezem” for example. He has been “Squire Squashem”, ”Squire Skinflint”, “Sir Jasper Moneybags”, “Squire Bugle” ”Squire Nettle”, “The Squire of Sweet Content” (named after the village). “Squire Broadacres” (For Francis Laidler)

In some versions he is THE MAYOR .”Mayor Oswald Twistle” for example.


THE FAIRY: She has been known as  “The Good Fairy”“The Fairy of Content”, “Fairy Goldenheart” “Fairy Happiness”, She has been called “Virtue”, “Fairy Fortuna” “Content”. Francis Laidler’s pantomimes called her “Heartsease” or “Silverleaf” in the 1940’s. She has also been “The Queen Of Light”. ”Fairy Snowdrop”, “Fairy Gossamer”


THE VILLAIN: In this pantomime, which is essentially a morality tale, traditionally the villain should be a Demon. His task is to tempt Mother Goose and generally to cause mayhem. His traditional names, apart from “The Demon King” have been “Demon Discord”, “Discordo”, He has also been called “The Demon Of Discontent”. He has been “Vanity” “Greed”- “Demon Malignum” In some versions the Demon is portrayed as a Witch. “The Witch of Discontent”, or “Witch Binding” for example or “The Queen of Darkness” In an early Drury Lane production the villain was a female sorceress- Maligna..Traditionally the role is played by a man.


THE GOOSE KING: The King Of Gooseland (He presides over the trial often) has been known as” King Gander”, or” King Goosequill” “King Goosiegog”,


THE BAILIFFS: (Sometimes the Broker’s men) These characters sometimes appear as the rent collectors for the Squire. They have had names such as “Bubble & Squeak”, “Snitch & Snatch” “Bill & Ben”- often the same names as you would find with The Broker’s Men in “Cinderella”.”Smash & Grab” “Pip, Squeak & Wilfrid”, “Spottem & Dottem” “Coppem & Grabbem”, “Cup & Saucer”.


THE MAID: Often in pantomimes up to the 1950’s (and beyond that) there was a Maid character to assist Mother Goose in the comedy. Traditionally she is Gretchen The Maid, although she has been “Polly”, “Tulip” and even “Marlene”, played by Beryl Reid in her Radio persona of “Marlene from Birmingham”

Queen of Gooseland. Goosequill an attendant.


* Farmer Giles- Dawson Chance. Victoria Palace “Mother Goose”. 1970’s. (also played by Ken Wood”).




In Mother Goose the “skin part” is the part of Priscilla the Goose. It is possibly one of the hardest skin parts to play, and certainly the most uncomfortable! The actor has a Goose costume that comprises of a body- often made from wire or  wicker, and a headdress that is fastened to the actor’s head to secure it.

The actors head is within the oval shaped body, and the goose’s neck and head protrudes a good two and a half to three foot out of the opening. Strings run down inside the head-piece. Two for the eyelids (for blinking and fluttering) one for the beak.

Inside the body the arms are often strapped to two levers. These operate the Goose’s wings. If not strapped they are manipulated, as is a lever for the “rudder” or tail piece.

John Inman and Cast - Victoria Palace 1981

The actor wears yellow tights, and often padded webbed feet. The upper part of the tights are usually padded with white fur, and often feathered. To get in to the goose the actor crouches, and the body is lowered onto them. The Headpiece is held while the actor fastens it securely. Around the neck there might be a “Duck Call” device, that you hold in your mouth making Honking noises, whilst operating the eyes and beak strings, walking bent double with all the weight on the knees, and looking through a very small gauze set into the lowest part of the neck of the goose, or more often through the chest. You can see very little once you are strapped inside.

Add to that the fact that you will probably have at least two golden eggs secured in canvas bags ready for laying- and it is DEFINITELY the most uncomfortable skin role in pantomime!

Two highly skilled professional “Geese” were Barbara Newman and Kay Lyell. Both ladies played the major theatres each year in the part of Priscilla. They had enormous pride in their role as Priscilla, and supplied and maintained their own “Goose Skins”. These were expensive hand feathered large props that had to be stored and transported to the theatres each year. They were, not surprisingly, both very protective about “Priscilla”, and meticulous in keeping the feathers clean. Neither Barbara nor Kay liked anyone stroking or touching the Goose off-stage. At no point did anyone EVER hear Barbara or Kay complain once about being uncomfortable or too hot. Both ladies \were total perfectionists.

Kay Lyell was a tiny lady- smaller than Barbara. She played Goose well into old age. It was her joy to be in a pantomime each year. Kay lived on the top floor of a tiny flat in Covent Garden. It had a bath in the kitchen. Kay had nowhere else to store Priscilla except IN the bath, which was covered with a board to act as a working surface.

Apparently everytime Kay had a bath the goose had to be removed, then the bath dried out thoroughly, and Priscilla and the work top replaced. Exhausting for a tiny elderly lady- but Kay would have none of it!

After a lot of persuasion I was able to get Kay to allow me to store the goose at the Theatre’s store in Ilford. She would often ring up and enquire how “Priscilla” was doing. Sadly, Kay died several years ago, and Priscilla is still there, in storage- hopefully one day the Theatre Museum (which hopefully will live again) will take up my offer of donating Kay’s goose to their archives.


Before the world of “Ugly Sister-dom” claimed Nigel Ellacott, he had already played a wide variety of “Skin Parts”, including Goose at the Haymarket Theatre Leicester, The Belgrade Coventry, and The Kenneth More in Ilford!

Nigel as Priscilla - Coventry 1977/8

Nigel recalls:

The first  “Priscilla” at Ilford was with Jonathan Kiley (now an executive producer of Qdos) as Colin, the Principal Boy. Terry Gardener played Mother Goose. This was 1976. The Skin was hired, and was in a very bad state of disrepair. It arrived at the theatre on the underground, and wasn’t helped when the tube doors closed on the body as it was being unloaded on to the platform! Priscilla 1 was always slightly listing to one side ever after!

When I played the part in Coventry the following year - 1977-78 the entire production was designed by Terry Parsons. This included the splendid Goose made for me by Peter Pullen from Terry Parsons design. This Priscilla was huge- a Giant of a Goose, but splendid. Reg Dixon played Mother Goose, and Buster Skeggs was Colin. The Fairy was Carole Cleveland and the Demon was Malcolm Reid.

The following year the production played the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester. Priscilla accompanied me. Roy Macready played Mother Goose in this production, and Suzanne Kaye was Principal Girl.

Nigel at rest! Nigel as Priscilla with Roy Macready

At the end of my third year as Goose, another part was in the offing- Puss in” Puss in Boots.” My CV said “He doesn’t need an agent- he needs a vet!”



This page was last updated 13th June 2010

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