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Len Insull - Information and Archive


Len and Gertie

John Leonard Insull was the greatest and most prolific maker of vent figures England has ever produced. He was born on the 5th August 1883. He spent his early days in Wolverhampton and began his career as an apprentice to a joiner. However he soon developed a taste for magic and decided to go on stage under the name of 'Hinsle' the comedy illusionist. He was often assisted by his wife Gertie Rees, who did a clog dance, and eventually they toured the world together.



Hinsle and Gertie 


During the 1930's the Talkies accelerated the decline of Variety so he set up a properties business - he had already been successful with 'Freda the Friesian' made for the Wembley exhibition in 1924. As a result of a challenge made by Coram the Ventriloquist, that if he could make a better dummy than the one he was using he would buy it, he embarked on a venture that would ensure a permanent and illustrious place in the history of ventriloquism.




Working on Freda the Friesian 


News of Insull's work reached Lewis Davenport and he asked him to supply his magic business. He made two basic heads for Davenports; a no.1 head with three movements: bottom lip, top lip and turning eyes and a no.2 head with the above plus two winks, moving eyebrows and ears. He also made a series of specials to order including Archie Andrews for Peter Brough and the first Lord Charles for Ray Alan.




Leonard Insull worked with his son (also called Leonard Insull) who specialised more in animated slot machines - although he also made a range of figures for Max Andrew's 'Vampire Magic'. The collaboration ended with the death of his son in 1957 aged 43. Towards the end of his life he had an apprentice called Bernard Maeder who worked with his partner Andrew Geive for a while but they eventually gave up the business and moved to Ramsgate where they opened a guesthouse.

Archie Andrews and Peter Brough

Leonard Insull died in 1974. He was still making heads until his final illness and had orders for more. Between 1952 and 1974 he produced no less than 2017 items of which: 317 were no. 1 heads and 528 were no.2 heads plus 338 usual bodies, 100 half sized heads, 39 half sized bodies, 80 specials, 32 special bodies, 316 skulls, 50 toby jugs, 16 vest pocket figures, 4 canes and 197 other items. Considering his advanced age this was a remarkable achievement.



In the 1990's Leonard Insull was honoured with a permanent exhibition at Bantock House in Wolverhampton. A fitting tribute to a great craftsman.

For further images of Len Insull (1883-1974) and his work click here.

Len had a son (also called Len) who worked in a similar field but specialised in animated displays and slot machines of which the laughing sailor was the most popular. He supplied ventriloquial figures for Max Andrews who traded under the name of Vampire Magic.  For images of the work of Len Insull II (1914-1957) click here.