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Punch & Judy: 350 years of hard-hitting entertainment

When Samuel Pepys came across a captivated crowd watching the street performance of an anarchic little puppet called Punchinello and his beleaguered wife Joan, the diarist chronicled the event in his diary, dated 9 May 1662.

Over the years, the marionette morphed into a hand-puppet, Punch, and his wife into Judy, and together the outrageous, squawking couple provided street entertainment for over three centuries. Now, a paper archive has emerged that reveals how the Punch and Judy phenomenon grew and waned in popularity, with remarkable Victorian photographs, rare books, scripts, drawings and newspaper cuttings, which have never before been seen by the public.

The archive of about 200 items has been acquired by the nation and will be kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was painstakingly collated by the eminent late historian George Speaight, and experts say it provides a significant record that traces the development of Punch and Judy's performances as marionettes in the Restoration era, to their 18th-century reinvention as glove puppets in fairground booths and on London streets and as children's seaside entertainment in the 20th century.

The material includes the earliest known Victorian bioscope photography of a Punch and Judy show and coloured prints from the 1790s. The collection was recently accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the V&A's Theatre and Performance collection.

Catherine Haill, the museum's curator of popular entertainment, said Punch and Judy were born out of the flamboyant Italian tradition of Comedia dell'arte of the mid-16th century, and provided dark entertainment that gripped the imagination of viewers of all ages.

Crowds of adults watching shows in Covent Garden and Bartholomew Fair in London would laugh and tut at Punch, a thoroughly reprehensible character who is known for hitting his wife and his baby over the head with a stick. The public slipped coins into a bottle at the end of each street show to show their appreciation.

"This was entertainment for adults and children. It was basically knock-about comedy and Punch certainly got his comeuppence, when he had the constable, the devil and the hangman come for him. He didn't get away scot-free; he was a real villain and he was hanged for it," she said.

The performances included a repertoire of stories, some of which had biblical themes; one 18th-century tale featured Joan caught up in Noah's floods.