The first Merrythought Teddy Bear did not leave the factory until 1930 but the history of Merrythought certainly goes back further. Somewhere back in 1919, W G Holmes (the present Managing Director’s grandfather), went into partnership with Mr G H Laxton opening a rather small mill in Yorkshire. Their idea was to manufacture mohair yarn from materials which they imported from the continent.
In 1920, they took over a weaving factory in Huddersfield, and took on a Mr A C Janisch, who previously was in charge of sales at J.K. Farnell (the company believed to have produced the very first British Teddy Bear in 1908) and also a Mr C J Rendle, who was previously in charge of production at the Chad Valley Company (another great soft toy company who produced some very popular and collectable teddy bears). Both of these men were to play a pivotal part in the early history of Merrythought. Mr. Rendle infact brought many of the original Merrythought staff with him from Chad Valley including a young designer called Florence Atwood.
Florenc, who was deaf had studied design alongside Rendle’s own daughter at the Deaf & Dumb School in Manchester. In those times, people with disabilities always found it more difficult to realise their dreams in business, as they were often shunned, however, Florence,was put into a very important position at Merrythought and she prospered. She had a very keen eye for design and created many toys.
The first Merrythought catalogue which was produced, actually incorporated 32 toys, all of which were single-handedly designed by Florence Atwood, including the first Merrythought Teddy Bear – the Magnet Teddy Bear.
On 3 September 1939, the factory was sadly taken over by the British Admiralty and was used for vital map-making work and Merrythought actually moved to premises in Wellington, Shropshire where they made gasmask bags and sleeve badges together with a variety of other essential items needed in war time.
Normal production returned to Coalbrookdale in 1946.
In 1946 a very special teddy bear called “Punkinhead” was produced by Merrythought for Eatons Department Store in Canada in 1949, being designed by Florence Atwood. Punkinhead was produced as a rival to Rudolph the Reindeer who was being promoted by a nearby store. Until 1956, this very unusual bear was used as the store’s mascot and participated in a number of Christmas Parades through the streets. The most distinctive feature of the Punkinhead Bear being his white topknot.
After the departure of Florence, a new designer was appointed to Merrythought, her name was Jean Barber. Jean’s designs included many for MGM and Disney, she was also famous for designing the now extremely famous and collectable Cheeky Bear. The Cheeky Bear was originally made of gold plush and shaggy gold mohair, or art silk. They were stuffed with kapok and they had bells in both ears.
However, since his birth, the Cheeky Bear has been produced in a vast array of fabrics and in some wonderful and truly amazing colours.
Cheeky Bear was originally made to be shown at a Trade Fair in 1956 and was originally shown in Jean Barber’s pattern book and called Tubby Bear, but Merrythought’s legend says that on arrival at the Merrythought Stand by Princess Elizabeth (who was soon to be Queen Elizabeth II), she picked up the little teddy bear and said “what a cheeky little bear” and the rest, as they say, is history. Cheeky it was! and Cheeky the little teddy bear has remained!
Cheeky Bears are loved as much today (perhaps even more) than when they were first launched onto the teddy bear market and they are collected the world over, there are even collectors who collect just Cheeky Bear. Cheeky Bears fetch very high prices when they are sold at auction or at specialist Teddy Bear Fairs. The Cheeky fetches more when he comes in a low limited edition and/or in an unusual colour or fabric.
Cheeky Bears are so full of charm and character and probably because of this, they certainly make excellent mascots. The late and great singer, Dusty Springfield owned a little Cheeky Teddy Bear who she called Mr Einstein.
The popularity of Merrythought continued to grow and grow and during the 1990’s they obtained the right to the Alpha Farnell name, Alpha Farnell being the makers who made the first British Teddy Bear way back in 1908. This label now appears on some of their teddy bears.
Merrythought Teddy Bears are famous all around the world and are extremely popular with collectors. Old Merrythought Teddy Bears age really well, probably because they were all handmade using only the best materials, they are excellent character teddy bears and when seated amongst a hug of assorted Teddy Bears will always stand out as extremely adorable.
I would end this article by saying that I have met many of the ladies both from the past and present who and made and who make Merrythought Teddy Bears and their love of the bears they make is amazing, which I always truly believe is taken on spiritually by the teddy bears they produce.
Gino loves fast cars, especially fast italian cars. Gino also loves anything Italian. Gino also heads an old teddy bear site which is full of adorable old teddy bears and their friends.
Please visit his website at www.ginosbears.co.uk
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