Toys for Toffs - the early history of Chad Valley
Chad Valley is now a brand of Argos, part of Home Retail Group, which is Britain's leading toy retailer. This bonus page in the Woolworths Museum relates to the history of Chad Valley from 1860 to 1940, prior to the twenty-one year association with Woolworths, which came to an abrupt halt in 2008. It is offered for historical interest. All trademarks are acknowledged.
Chad Valley Toys have given pleasure to eight generations of children, from the present Queen of England, to kids across Europe, North America, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. Some of the toys have been simple, many have been sophisticated; some have been "just for fun" while others have nurtured young minds and helped scholars to map the world we live in. One common feature has applied throughout the last 149 years - a build quality that's second to none. Why else would early Chad Valley be among the most sought after collectabless on the world-wide web? And why do their antique toys so often carry the description "well used but in surprisingly good condition for its age"? On this page we take a whistle stop tour of the Company's early days as purveyors of playthings to the nobility.
In 1860 his two sons, Joseph and Alfred, branched out on their own, setting up a similar business, "Johnson Brothers" that operated from George Street, Birmingham, England.
Little by little the brothers started to add value to their original card-based games, exploring different shapes of card and adding outer packaging, sheets of rules and an assortment of parlour games. A good title could run and run meaning that Edwardian hits like Winkles Wedding were refreshed and updated periodically over the next twenty-five years. The more ambitious products, and their popularity with the public soon started to put pressure on the George Street site and set the brothers looking for a larger site on which they could establish a purpose-built factory.
After a widespread search the brothers chose a spot in Rose Road, Harborne on the outer-edge of Birmingham, adjacent to a branch-line railway. The elegant building went on to serve as the firm's headquarters for almost seventy years.
The new building was named the 'Chad Valley Works', describing its location in the valley of the River Chad. Before long the factory name was included on some of the products, like Winkles Wedding (above, left) which was marked 'The Chad Valley Games'. Ultimately the brand became so well known to the public that the Johnson Brothers decided to adopt the Chad Valley name for the firm as a whole.
Raw materials were delivered to the factory by train, with most of the toys produced leaving by the same route. Indeed when Harborne's passenger train service was withdrawn sometime after the second world war, the branch line remained open just to serve the Chad Valley Company.
Progressively during the 1910s the Johnson family started to experiment with new types of toy, made from more ambitious materials. Their aim was to complement their successful range of paper- and card-based products which had been born out of the printing business. A strong emphasis on the printed word remained, with output targeted squarely towards affluent families and well-educated children.
By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Chad Valley was exporting across the British Empire and beyond. Perhaps there is little wonder that they manufactured mainly for 'toffs', given that at the time it was unusual for most ordinary children to be given toys at all, with most receiving more practical presents like socks and fruit at Christmas. Only the upper classes regularly bought toys - to keep their little Herberts firmly in the Nursery with Nanny, where they could be seen but not heard.
Soft toys were one of the first ranges to be diversified. The Johnsons were inspired by the ideas of the German toy maker Mary Steiff. She created a family of cuddly animals, starting with small toy elephants and then a bear. In 1903 she exported a batch of the toys to the USA, where the bear was an instant hit. Americans nicknamed them 'Teddies' after their President, Theodore Roosevelt, who had become famous for not shooting an old bear on a hunting expedition.
Before the Great War Chad Valley started to develop a range of dolls with china faces and experimented with soft toys. Then, as the conflict raged overseas, they retooled at Harborne to allow them to mass produce their own Teddy Bears.
By 1920 the toys had grown in popularity to the extent that more manufacturing capacity was required, prompting an acquisition. The Wrekin Toy Works in Wellington, Shropshire had the equipment that was necessary, as well as designs and an order book of its own. The factory had skilled people, who were encouraged to experiment and innovate. Wrekin championed a gradual shift away from 'composition' (cardboard-like) toys towards soft felt and celluloid, which was an early plastic. The factory created a steady stream of new dolls in the Twenties and Thirties. These sold for between five and thirty shillings at the time, which was the equivalent of 25p to £1.50 at the time, and the equivalent of £ 20 to 100 today. The products were a class apart from the sixpenny lines of F.W. Woolworth, with prices up to sixty times higher !
All of the soft toys produced at both Harborne and the Wrekin works carried a sew-in label, with most reading 'Hygienic Toys | Made in England | Chad Valley Co.' or Chad Valley Co. Limited and some abbreviated to simply 'Hygienic Toys England'.
What set the Chad Valley items apart was the exceptional attention to detail. Dresses were in authentic materials, finished with lace and neatly pleated. Faces were designed with great care, with the same attention to detail that came to characterise Royal Doulton's 'Lovely Ladies' series of porcelain dolls. Boy dolls proved very popular with the young ladies of the era, and - of course - were dressed in tweed sports jackets, trimmed with felt collars, gun bags and of course neck ties. This was the attire of the children of the country squire and the sons and daughters of the aristocracy.
The attention to detail won admiration among the highest in the land - but company executives were still surprised to find the Queen of England was a fan!
There was intense public interest in the new Royal Family, with people wanting to find out more about their new King and his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who had become Queen Elizabeth, and their two daughters, Their Royal Highnesses Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Chad Valley bosses had little hope when they asked Buckingham Palace if they could makes dolls of the Royal Princesses. But they tried anyway.
The dolls proved and jigsaw puzzle proved very popular. They sold in vast quantities not only in the United Kingdom but right across the British Empire. Exceptional sales were recorded in Canada and South Africa. Fears that the Queen Elizabeth might not like the lifelike dolls proved unfounded when Chad Valley received a Royal Warrant in 1938. For the next fourteen years all Chad Valley Toys carried the highly-prized accolade on their boxes or sew-in labels. It read 'Toymakers to H. M. The Queen'. It was later amended to read 'Toymakers to H. M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother' when Princess Elizabeth acceeded to the throne in 1952.
Besides drawing plaudits from Buckingham Palace, the dolls also attrracted attention from another kind of royalty - America's Walt Disney Company, which invited Chad Valley to create dolls of seven dwarfs, who were to appear in a new film they were making. The elegant boxed set of Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs is one of the most sought-after collectable toys in the world today.
Throughout the period between the World Wars Chad Valley offered a mix of traditional paper based toys and more innovative ranges. The company invested a proportion of its profits to grow by acquisition. In 1931 it bought the long-established manufacturer Peacock and Company, adding new capabilities and allowing them to offer tinplate products, including toy cars and clockwork train sets. In keeping with tradition employees at Peacocks were encouraged to continue their R & D. The boffins experimented with bakelite, putting together a remarkable toy train made from the new plastic like material (illustrated below, centre top):
Chad Valley's Marketing Department was famous for innovation. First the firm became 'Suppliers to H. M. Government', making toys for hospitals and schools, as well securing a contract to provide toys to children of officers in the Armed Services. It latersigned deals with each of the Steam Railway Companies and Shipping Lines to supply tinplate scale models of their flagship engines and liners. The Railway Companies offered trainsets at the main London terminii as gifts for country squires to take home for their sons. The Chad Valley models were remarkably detailed and a cut above those offered by rival Toy companies. The trains, for example, produced rail steam and came supplied with good quality 'O' gauge track. Many of the originals survive to this day. The toy cars and lorries give a snapshot of a different age and have spawned a number of replica ranges in more recent times.
Perhaps the most remarkable range from the Twenties and Thirties was the assortment of gambling-related products. Today these would be considered politically incorrect, but at the time it was important that the children of the aristocracy learnt about Roulette, Gaming Machines and betting on horse racing. Chad Valley's Escalado product was so popular that Waddingtons later paid a small fortune to acquire it for themselves. Meanwhile the Roulette Wheel was so well balanced, thanks to the innovative use of bakelite in the construction, that many were used by adults rather than children. Both the Wheel and the Fruit Machine remain in full working order seventy years after retiring from the Chad Valley range, in our Woolworths Museum Casino - so 'faites vos jeux' and 'rien ne va plus'.
By way of comparison most of the toys featured on this page were more than twenty times the upper price limit in an F. W. Woolworth Threepenny and Sixpenny Store of the day - and a child could have chosen more than forty top-of-the-range Woolies items or two hundred penny notions from Woolies for the price of a single roulette wheel. But would the toffs have learnt enough to run the country if they had stuck with Woolies marbles and magic tricks? No-one will ever know. But perhaps David Cameron would like to use the Woolies 'Magic Vanishing Trick' on the national debt - it seemed to work well enough for Gordon Brown on the High Street store chain during the credit crunch of 2008!
"Sell a toy, spread some joy"
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Bonus Items - The History of Chad Valley