Walking With Ancestors

Wrekin Toy Works

Chad Valley Wrekin Toy Works

New-Street-Toy-Stories-

Wellington’s association with toys began in 1916 when a Birmingham business, Johnson Brothers, acquired the former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel at the top of New Street. The company was already a well-known toy producer and acquired the premises in order to expand its range to include fabric dolls and teddy bears. By the early 1920s, the soon-to-be world famous Chad Valley Wrekin Toy Works was born.

Norah-Wellings

Norah Wellings

Norah Wellings, who is considered by many experts to be the finest ever English designer of soft toys, began her career with the Chad Valley Company in 1919, aged 26. She had finished her formal education at the age of 14, leaving school to care for her invalid father, but embarked on a correspondence course with the London School of Art, studying drawing, painting and sculpture. After her father died, Norah put her skills to good use, rising through the ranks at the Wrekin Toy Works to become a chief designer of the company’s cloth doll range by the time of her departure in 1926. Some mystery surrounds Norah’s reasons for leaving, although she apparently confided to relatives that the final straw presented itself in the shape of a gift-wrapped dead rat left on her desk when she arrived for work one morning! Regardless of the actual facts behind her departure, it proved to be a momentous decision.

The Victoria Toy Works

The-Victoria-Toy-Works-King-Street

In partnership with her brother Leonard, Norah founded the Victoria Toy Works in 1926. She initially rented an office at the family plastering business in Victoria Avenue, where she began to manufacture dolls with just six members of staff. The venture proved so successful that the company was soon able to acquire new premises at the former King Street Baptist Chapel in 1929, eventually employing around 250 staff and establishing an enviable reputation based on Norah’s motto of ‘quality before quantity’. Her success did not go unnoticed by her former employer either and in 1931 Chad Valley made a formal offer to buy Norah’s thriving business. Needless to say, she refused their invitation.

King-Street-Baptist-Chapel

In partnership with her brother Leonard, Norah founded the Victoria Toy Works in 1926. She initially rented an office at the family plastering business in Victoria Avenue, where she began to manufacture dolls with just six members of staff. The venture proved so successful that the company was soon able to acquire new premises at the former King Street Baptist Chapel in 1929, eventually employing around 250 staff and establishing an enviable reputation based on Norah’s motto of ‘quality before quantity’. Her success did not go unnoticed by her former employer either and in 1931 Chad Valley made a formal offer to buy Norah’s thriving business. Needless to say, she refused their invitation.

Little-Pixie-People

The 'Jolly Boy' Sailor et al

Although the Victoria Toy Works produced a wide range of cloth dolls, the most recognisable product in the Wellings line was undoubtedly the ‘Jolly Boy Sailor’, which the company produced for shipping companies, such as Cunard, to sell on their ocean-going liners. Each doll featured the name of the individual ship upon which it was destined to sail on its hatband and the model also proved popular with the Royal Navy. During the 1930s, they commissioned at least 100,000 dolls annually for ‘Navy Week’, when the British fleet was in port at Plymouth, Chatham and Portsmouth.

Given the importance of the export trade to the company, the outbreak of the Second World War dealt a severe blow to the fortunes of Norah Wellings’ business from which it never truly recovered. Production was scaled down drastically during the conflict and much of the King Street works was given over to the production of essential supplies, such as uniforms and gas masks. Although toy making resumed in earnest after the conflict, the influx of cheap foreign imports and the introduction of new materials, such as plastic, all contributed to make trading conditions much tougher. However, Norah’s decision to retire in 1959 seems to have been heavily influenced by the death of her brother, business partner and mentor Leonard. It appears Norah viewed her creations and the immaculately maintained toy works as a personal extension of herself and, seemingly unable to sell the business as a going concern, she chose to close the plant, destroying many of the designs and tools which had crafted her dolls in the process. She retired to her family home at Arleston, where she died in 1975 at the age of 82