By Christopher Proudlove It's all a bit chaotic chez nous just now: the electricians are due tomorrow, followed by the decorator, followed by the carpet layer and hopefully followed by the man who is going to build me a new office. Fingers and toes are crossed. The Business Manager (Mrs P) has seized the opportunity for a clear-out. It is also proving to be an opportunity to remind each of us of all the knickknacks, bric-a-brac and assorted junk that we have accumulated over the years since we moved here. Strangely, it appears to be my things alone that are earmarked for being jettisoned. Among her treasures rescued from oblivion are three tiny felt dolls dressed respectively in the uniforms of the army, navy and air force. Smaller than a peg doll and obviously home-made, they really are quite charming. I'm secretly pleased that she's decided to keep them.
Between you and me I thought I might try to buy her a full size felt doll like the sailor toy illustrated here. He dates from around 1935 and he was made by Norah Wellings who, I hadn't realised until now, had her own manufacturing business in Shropshire. Fabric dolls have been around for centuries. They probably started life as home-made playthings for poor parents to give their children when they could afford nothing better, unless of course you count the very small number of ancient examples that have been found alongside mummified remains in Egyptian tombs. Manufacture on a commercial basis started in the 19th century when people like Margarete Steiff (better known for her teddy bears); the other famous German maker Kathe (subs: a umlaut) Kruse and the Italian company Lenci. owned by Enrico Scavini, flooded the worldwide market. Britain was slower to adopt the felt doll, but in the 1920s the toy company Chad Valley emerged as a major producer. The business was founded in 1823 when Anthony Bunn Johnson opened a printing and binding business in Birmingham. It moved to Harbourne on the outskirts of the city in 1897 on a site adjacent to the River Chad and in 1919, the name Chad Valley was registered as a trademark for the toys, made by the business now run by Johnson's sons. Three years earlier, in 1916, the Johnson brothers had acquired the former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Wellington, Shropshire, and founded the Wrekin Toy Factory. In 1922, Chad Valley, by now a well known toy producer, moved into the premises in order to expand its range to include fabric dolls and teddy bears. The Chad Valley Wrekin Toy Works took their subjects from cartoons and films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bonzo and the dolls made by Mabel Lucie Attwell. Dolls of the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, dressed in the Queen Mother's favourite colours of pale pink, blue and yellow were a particularly favourite line in the 1930s. They were notable for their inset glass eyes, a process which Chad Valley had patented in 1925. Norah Wellings left school at 14 to care for her invalid father but took a correspondence course with the London School of Art studying drawing, painting and sculpture. Following her father’s death in 1919, she joined the staff of the Wrekin Toy Works, aged 26, rising through the ranks to become chief designer of their cloth doll range. Why she left is not clear, but in 1926 she decided to set up her own, founding the Victoria Toy Works, also in Wellington, in a building owned by her brother, Leonard, who was a plasterer. He looked after the administrative and commercial side of the business, while Norah designed all the soft toys and dolls herself, which were made by a workforce of six seamstresses. She attended her first British Industry Toy Fair the following year, whereafter the business blossomed. Needing larger premises, in 1929 the business was relocated to a redundant Baptist Chapel in King Street and at its peak, it employed around 250 workers. Norah was an innovative manufacturer. In 1926, she had obtained patents for a fabric or felt head back with buckram and lining on the inner surface with a coating of plastic. The head was finished with the waterproof coating, rendering the doll suitable for washing. The faces of her dolls have a charming, impish look, full of mischief, yet demure and angelic. They have either painted or inserted glass eyes and, oddly, somewhat pronounced years which were applied separately. Interestingly, the so-called "Jolly Boy Sailor" doll which caught my eye was a particularly popular line in the gift shops on the Atlantic ocean liners which stocked many of Norah's products. The sailors' caps carried the names of each particular ship on their cap bands, making them ideal mementos and holiday souvenirs. A large number of dolls depicting children from different lands included Maori Boy, South Sea Islander, Cowboy, Mountie, and Chinese Girl. Sizes vary from 8 to 30 inches (20-75 cm). Each bears printed fabric labels either on the wrist or, more usually, on the soles of the dolls' feet. A huge 70 per cent of her output was exported overseas. Leonard Wellings died in 1959 at the age of 67, prompting Norah to retire that same year. The workforce was given two weeks' notice and production at the factory ceased. She died in 1975 at the age of 82. For more, the definitive book on the subject is Norah Wellings: Cloth Dolls and Soft Toys by Gillian Trotter, which is available on Amazon. Check our auctions for Norah Wellings dolls www.ukauctioneers.com