The Ironbridge Teddy Legacy
PUBLISHED: 14:28 18 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:52 20 February 2013
For your average child, the idea of running a teddy bear factory would be high on the list of dream jobs. Two inspirational women have seen that ambition realised, but much sooner than they could ever have wished. Sophie Everett reports
The shock of losing a father to a sudden illness is a lot to handle. Throw in the need to keep his lifelong dream going by taking over his iconic teddy bear factory, just as it lands a highly contested Olympics contract; and its no surprise that the word challenge is bandied about freely in the company of Sarah and Hannah Holmes.
Merrythought in Coalbrookdale is the last surviving teddy bear factory in the UK and a byword for quality and tradition, producing mohair teddy bears since the 1930s. At the helm was Oliver Holmes until, in early March, he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. He died about a month later, aged just 60.
His elder daughters, Sarah, 30, and Hannah, 27, are now in charge. They are the fourth generation to run the business.
Sarah had moved back to Shropshire from London last year to take on the role of marketing manager; younger sister Hannah, though, was working as a chartered surveyor in London when the family found out about Olivers illness.
I just downed tools and came back, there was no question that we wouldnt carry Merrythought on, says Hannah. On a practical level, a handover was necessary - Dad was concerned about the future of the company and the staff. He was working in the office until two weeks before he died; hed invested so much of his life into it.
Sarah adds: He was very proud that we were willing to pick up the reins and take over.
Because the cancer was detected late, there were only a few weeks for the girls to get to grips with what running Merrythought entailed.
We have had to learn on our feet, said Sarah. The biggest challenge has been realising how many plates there are to keep up in the air theres a huge amount of administration as well as dealing with suppliers, manufacturing and sales. It takes a lot of problem solving.
The year is proving to be a critical one for Merrythought. Earlier this year the company was charged with producing limited edition Royal Wedding teddies to mark the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; now the company has also been selected as an official 2012 Olympic licensee to produce the official London 2012 Commemorative Teddy Bear. As one of only 51 licensees for the entire games and one of just a handful of UK merchandise manufacturers, the pressure is on to meet demand.
The quality of not only the Merrythought bear but the service the company delivers has been recognised by no lesser retailer than Fortnum and Mason, who recently awarded Merrythought the accolade of Supplier of the Year. Says Sarah: Its an iconic brand with an incredible number of suppliers and it was a really nice surprise after a tough few months. It gave us the boost we needed.
These two incredibly pleasant, hard-working young women are holding it all together brilliantly in the face of their bereavement. Says Sarah: Its an odd process theres not much chance to stop and reflect as the business requires attention everyday. The natural feeling is to rather not be very sociable and just be with the family. But when Dad died the workforce came in as normal so we both went in on Monday morning to address everyone. Its the hardest thing weve ever done so far, but after decades of service the staff also had that emotional connection.
Hannah agrees: We wanted to reassure everyone that we would do our best to keep Merrythought going and that it would remain in the family.
The Holmes sisters seem to be doing a lot better than just keeping things going. In spite of being the youngest people working at the company and the first female managers, they are ready to expand the business. They are also living back in the family home, just over Wenlock Edge, supporting their mother and making sure their fathers legacy survives intact.
Sarah confesses: Our social life and hobbies are minimal at the moment but well find the balance at some point. Its so difficult to break away the list of things to do gets longer and longer.
There are big plans for the future, says Sarah: Its a business with great potential. Given that were unique in producing wholly in the UK, thats a foundation from which we can grow. People will always want to buy teddy bears; they appeal to all social groups, ages and occasions. The teddy bear wont disappear anytime soon!
Two decades ago a lot of British toy manufacturing went to the Far East and companies that didnt often couldnt compete. We carried on doing what we had always done, and now the economy is changing in China, so as wages are increasing the margins are going down.
Observes Hannah: The trend with British products generally now is a swing towards quality and locally produced goods. With shrinking disposable incomes, people want quality not quantity.
Sarah agrees: Its a different ethic; our quality lasts a lifetime. Reassuringly, this means that the cost per cuddle is good and a fully jointed Merrythought teddy bear is ready to become a family heirloom.
Employee Wendy Edwards has been with Merrythought since leaving school and, with a gap to raise her four children, shes never worked anywhere else. Now 61, shes seen a lot of change, and perfectly sums up the clearly apparent level of cooperation amongst staff and management: Were a good team, everyone is local and its like a big family. We all multi-task we dont wait to be asked, we just do it.
She is full of praise for Sarah and Hannah: The girls are doing fantastic - theyve been thrown in at it and they are doing ace.
The Merrythought legacy is clearly in two safe pairs of hands.
HISTORY The origin of the name Merrythought derives from an archaic name for wishbone, a symbol of good luck this symbol forms the companys emblem.
Its history provides a fascinating insight into early 20th century England. Officially founded in 1930, Merrythoughts story really began back in 1919 when Mr. W Gordon Holmes, great grandfather to the Holmes sisters, went into partnership with Mr. G. H. Laxton to open a spinning mill in Yorkshire to manufacture mohair yarn. The introduction of synthetic fibres during the 1920s led to a decline in the demand for mohair fabric - this ultimately led to the owners realising they had to find a new use for mohair yarn.
Through a combination of lucky chance, shared connections and hard work, that search led W. Gordon Holmes to Coalbrookdale, where Merrythought was created, based in one of the foundry buildings.
Among the early employees was a remarkable lady called Florence Atwood. A deaf mute, Florence had studied design at the Deaf and Dumb School in Manchester. She created her own toys, translated drawings by well-known artists, including MGM studios Jerry Mouse, and singlehandedly designed the entire range of 32 toy patterns for the first Merrythought line in 1930.
The first company catalogue was produced in 1931 and featured the much-loved Greyfriars Bobby and Merrythoughts now famous line of Teddy Bears beginning with the Magnet Bear.
Florences second catalogue in 1932 expanded the range to include other domestic animals, wild animals, animals on wheels and even dressed animals like Toby a Movie Toy that could be placed in different positions and hold them.
Until her death in 1949, Florence Atwood was the chief designer for Merrythought. Some of her characters remain as popular today as ever and are still produced using the original patterns.
During the Second World War Merrythoughts original home was taken over by the Army, so rented space was taken in nearby Wellington and, at the Governments request, the company began to produce items for the war Chevrons (sleeve badges), linings for helmets, tiny igniter bags, gasbag masks, covers for hot water bottles and a variety of practical products made from gaberdine and velour.
At wars end the original buildings were improved and a new office block and a design and showroom building were built in the grounds.
The high quality of Merrythought soft toys has been maintained throughout the companys history but over time many new designs and product lines have been created. One of Merrythoughts most well known designers was Jacqueline Revitt, whose realistic animal designs are highly sought by collectors.
ENTERPRISING, intriguing and occasionally eccentric - thats how Oliver Holmes is described by his own family as they reflect on the gift he has bequeathed them.
He was a pioneer in many fields, not least hot air ballooning, his favourite hobby - he was the first person to fly the North and Irish Seas and even flew over the North Pole in his trusted Merrythought balloon.
Oliver, grandson of the original founder, became Managing Director in the 1980s. His time at the helm, up til his death earlier this year, proved a rollercoaster ride, from worldwide success in the 1990s to closure in 2005, to rebirth a year later, to its current position at the forefront of luxury teddy creation.
In 1995, buoyed by burgeoning international sales, Oliver founded the Merrythought International Collectors Club. A year later he opened the factory for the first time for a huge Collectors Club Open day an annual event still enjoyed today.
Unfortunately after the highs of the 1990s the increasing popularity of cheaper foreign imports, combined with increasing production costs in the UK, in the early part of the new millennium took its toll on Merrythought. Unable to compete, the company shut its doors in 2006.
It seemed the Merrythought name was destined to go the way of many quality toymakers of the past - but an outcry by collectors, combined with a willingness from loyal staff to help, saw Merrythought reopen, albeit on a smaller scale. This time the focus would be purely on traditional and collectable teddy bears - and it is once again thriving.
Merrythought continues to create a range of beautifully made traditional and limited edition teddy bears which are sought after across the globe. This unique company also produces exclusive bears for a number of quality retailers, each of whom appreciates the quality, flexibility and excellent all-round service offered by Merrythought.
Next on the list of collectables will be the commemmorative teddy to mark the Queens Diamond Jubilee next year, already in production.