04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Chad Valley
Chad Valley: Best of British
Chad Valley is a name synonymous with all kinds of toys and few companies in the history of toy making can lay claim to have produced such a wide and diverse range of products. At Christmas they called the Chad Valley factory ‘Santa’s Workshop’ with millions of children waking up on Christmas Day to find at least one Chad Valley product in their stocking whether that was a doll or teddy bear, cowboy outfit or jig-saw puzzle, tin toy or a board game of some description… Chad Valley made them all.
My memories of Chad Valley Toys include a lovely old Escalado horse racing game passed down to me by my uncle in the late 1950s and a super Chad Valley ‘Give a Show’ projector which I had one Christmas in the 1960s along with a range of Walt Disney films. Sadly the Chad Valley toy I always wanted eluded me – that being the super diecast Fordson Major tractor – although there’s still time yet – I haven’t given up hope!
The roots of the Chad Valley company can be traced back to the end of the Napoleonic wars when Anthony Bunn Johnson, the son of a soldier who served under Wellington in the peninsular war, opened a small stationery printing works in Litchfield Street, Birmingham. One solitary printed letterhead is all that remains of that factory today, the premises being demolished many moons ago to make way for a Maples furniture store.
Johnson was joined by his two sons Joseph and Alfred until 1860 when the two boys left the family business to start their own printing and bookbinding company at premises in George Street, Birmingham. Initially they found trade slow and struggled to keep the presses rolling simply through orders for general stationary. They desperately needed some new ideas to boost the business. The mid-19th century was a time of great change in British society. While child labour was slowly on the decline education was on the rise with more and more children learning to read and write. This was to prove of great significance to the young Johnson brothers who suddenly latched on to the fact that educational toys and games could have a great future. The games the brothers devised incorporated maps, pictures and counters, thus allowing children to improve both knowledge and numeracy via play. The company expanded greatly and by 1897 Joseph Johnson has assumed full control of the business assisted by his eldest son Alfred J. Johnson.
It was clear that Johnson Bros Ltd needed to move to larger premises and in 1897 a new purpose-built factory was erected in the country suburb of Harborne. Until Victorian times Harborne had remained a small village in a remote part of Staffordshire. It expanded rapidly, however, following the arrival of the Harborne Railway after which its population quickly rose from 1,637 to 10,113. The new factory stood in Rose Road close to a small brook called the Chad which is how it got the name ‘Chad Valley Works.’ In those days most of the work was done by hand so the factory had a large workforce. The printing operation was mainly an all-male domain, whereas the packing department was staffed largely by women. Great skill was required in the cutting room where wooden jig-saw puzzles were cut by hand on treadle operated band saws.
Alfred Johnson took over the helm in 1904 following the death of his father assisted by his brothers Arthur and Harry. Wooden jig-saw puzzles became a mainstay of the business with scores of different subjects portrayed including a very collectable series made for the Great Western Railway. Others included passenger liners operated by the Cunard White Star shipping line.
Surprisingly the outbreak of World War One, in 1914, had a very positive effect on the business. The government placed a ban on imported toys leaving a massive hole in the market for Chad Valley to exploit. In 1915, despite restrictions on materials and a greatly reduced workforce, Johnson Brothers produced its first teddy bears.
After the war further expansion saw the company take over Harborne Village Institute which it used for printing cartons and box labels. Further expansion saw soft toy production moved away from the Chad Valley Works to a new factory in the market town of Wellington, Shropshire, where a new range of fabric dolls were produced under the Wrekin Toy Works label. Eventually all operations were brought under one banner as The Chad Valley Co Ltd.
One man to leave the company was production manager C. J. Rendle who joined a weaving company in Huddersfield. It is here where the foundations of the famous Merrythought teddy bear company were later laid.
Business at Chad Valley’s soft toy company was booming in the early 1920s with designer Nora Wellings leading the expansion of the doll ranges. Chad Valley teddy bears were also being used commercially by the ‘Bear Brand’ Stocking Co. who ordered a range of huge promotional bears for exhibitions and window displays. Famous characters added to the soft toy range included A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Bonzo that lovable mongrel created by G.E. Studdy. On one memorable occasion it is recorded that Chad Valley hired a dwarf and dressed him as Bonzo to dance around on the companies stand at the British Industries Fair, much to the amusement of King George V and Queen Mary.
One of the most delightful inter-war Chad Valley dolls was Snow White who came complete with all seven dwarfs. A limited number of these dolls were sold in white dresses - presumably after her discovery of Prince Charming! The most sought after Chad Valley Snow White doll, however is a musical version which plays the tune ‘One Day My Prince Will Come’.
In 1930 Chad Valley modelled a doll of the young Princess Elizabeth based on a photograph of her as a four year old. At the request of the Royal family the price of the doll was restricted to One Guinea to make it more affordable to the masses. Eight years later another Princess Elizabeth doll was marketed, this time standing alongside her sister Princess Margaret. This are now highly sought after collectables.
As well as dolls and bears, games and jig saw puzzles Chad Valley also made many superb tinplate toys with some tinplate production being outsourced to Barringer, Wallis & Manners of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (later know as the Metal Box). These included beautiful limousines, commercials and buses all of which now sought after toys.
After acquiring the old established toy making firm of Peacock & Co Ltd Chad Valley was able to add a wider selection of wooden toys to its ever expanding range. Further expansion saw the original Harborne factory enlarged to a four-storey building – one of the first in Birmingham to use re-enforced concrete and all metal windows. Another splendid new Chad Valley Harborne factory rose to six storeys high and became a famous landmark of south-west Birmingham.
During World War Two the Chad Valley factories were turned over to supporting the war effort making instrument cases, hospital tables, tent poles, children’s clothes, toys for military hospitals and sets of draughts and dominoes for members of the Armed Forces.
Following hostilities Chad Valley was able to develop its successful export market and produce its first range of diecast toy vehicles fitted with clockwork motors made between 1949 and 1956. These were a mixture of non-prototypical models and six prototypical releases based on Rootes Group vehicles that were sold at Rootes Group dealerships as well as in toy shops. The most sought after of these models are three variations of a Guy box van in the liveries of ‘Chad Valley’, ‘Guy Motors’ and ‘Lyons Ice Cream’ respectively. The jewel in the crown of Chad Valley diecast models has to be the large scale Fordson Major Tractor, which was also sold by Fordson dealerships. These models now command handsome prices in mint-boxed condition.
Chad Valley became a PLC in 1950 and continued to look for new opportunities in the toy market including making pandas as soft toys following their arrival at London Zoo. In 1952 it gained the sole rights to market Sooty, Harry Corbett’s hugely popular glove puppet. Harry and Sooty entertained the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh when they visited the Chad Valley trade stand at the 1955 British Industries Fair. Toffee Bear, popularised on the radio, was also produced as a toy by Chad Valley.
Like so many great British toy makers Chad Valley’s sad demise came about as the result of the deep economic recession of the early 1970s. After closure in 1971 much of the site had been cleared by 1975. The brand name was taken over by Palitoy in 1978 and absorbed into the Woolworth’s chain a decade later. Although little remains of the company today, other than use of the brand name by Argos, memories of Chad Valley Toys will live forever in the history of British toy making.