By Sharon Verbeten
British teddy bear manufacturer Merrythought is a fourth-generation company still clinging, successfully, to its roots. The company was started in 1907 by William Gordon Holmes, who partnered with George Laxton to open Holmes, Laxton & Co., a mohair-spinning mill in Yorkshire where, to this day, raw materials are spun into high-quality yarn. The company diversified in 1930 to found Merrythought Toys in Ironbridge, Shropshire.
Merrythought’s first catalog was released a year later. It showcased a range of 32 toys, including the first Merrythought teddy bear, Magnet. This year, the company’s newest additions include bears to commemorate the newest little royal, Prince Louis, and the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Current Merrythought Director Sarah Holmes, the great-granddaughter of company founder William Gordon Holmes, recently took time from her busy schedule for an interview with Teddy Bear & Friends.
Teddy Bear & Friends: Tell us about your experiences at a fourth-generation family company. Did you grow up in the business? What’s it like to carry on that legacy?
Sarah Holmes: I always loved visiting the factory as a child, watching the variety of teddy bears and animals being carefully handmade by the team. My father would often bring home prototypes of new designs to see how we — my two sisters and I — responded to them. If a new teddy bear appealed to us, we would play with it for hours, and so my father could be fairly sure that other children would enjoy the new character too.
I remember him once handing us a beautifully made hobby horse — the first Merrythought had designed — and asking us to “try to break this.” He wanted to see how robust and good quality it was. Needless to say, try as we might, the new Merrythought toy was virtually indestructible. Our soft toys have been long renowned for their quality and longevity, and we like to think of them as companions for life.
I became involved with Merrythought from a commercial perspective, rather than personal, during my father’s last year. At that point, my sister Hannah also joined the company. After he sadly passed away, we felt we had to give it a go for the sake of our loyal team of staff and collectors, and wanting to keep the wonderful Merrythought brand alive.
Nothing had prepared us for the pressure and hard work when we took up the reins, and we very much had to learn as we went along, since neither of us had a background in manufacturing. We improved our designs and looked for new opportunities, the first major project being a collection of teddy bears we made to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic Games.
TB&F: Teddy bears and the collecting world have changed considerably since the company started, even over the past two decades. How have those changes affected Merrythought?
Holmes: The pure teddy bear collecting market has changed in that it has become more niche and probably more discerning. To appeal to both teddy bear collectors and a wider audience, we aim to design limited edition teddy bears that have a nice story to them, which people feel they’d like to own a part of. Teddy bears that commemorate major events or anniversaries continue to do well.
TB&F: Can you provide any numbers on how many collector bears you produce and sell each year?
Holmes: There is nothing mass-produced about a Merrythought bear. We tend to make small limited editions of 100 to 200 pieces only, many of which celebrate an occasion or anniversary. Some of our collectible bears are also only available exclusively from The Merrythought Shop, Ironbridge, or as brand collaborations with high-profile retailers such as Harrods or the Buckingham Palace shop.
TB&F: What have been some of the most popular sellers in your history?
Holmes: London Gold, in our Traditional Collection, is probably our most iconic design and has historically been our best-selling teddy bear. However, in recent years he has been knocked off top position by our classic Shrewsbury teddy bear and, surprisingly, Freddy Fox, an adorable little vintage-style character who was our best selling product for Christmas 2017.
In terms of limited editions, some of our most successful designs are:
Mr. Woppit. In 1956, Merrythought introduced a soft toy version of Woppit, a character from the children’s weekly comic “The Robin.” Pint-sized and dressed in a little red felt jacket, he was a quirky little bear. Today he might have almost been forgotten, were it not for the fact that one special Woppit was given to Donald Campbell as a mascot in 1957.
Campbell was on the point of attempting a new water-speed record in his hydroplane Bluebird. With Mr. Whoppit, as he called him, in the cockpit, he reached more than 239 mph, and from then on, the two were inseparable. In January 1967, Campbell attempted to become the first person to exceed 300 mph on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Unfortunately, Bluebird crashed. Campbell’s body was not found (and in fact was only recovered in 2001), but Mr. Whoppit was discovered by rescuers, floating on the water. He became a teddy bear legend, and Merrythought produced a replica as a limited edition in 1996, which collectors fell in love with. Two decades later, we hope to bring Woppit back to life again, so watch this space …
Edward, Christopher Robin’s Teddy Bear. Merrythought was approached by Fox Productions to create the star of the 2017 feature film “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which told the story of Christopher Robin’s childhood and the special relationship he had with his teddy bear, the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh stories. Christopher’s bear, originally named Edward, was actually a British-made Farnell teddy bear. With Farnell being a brand owned by Merrythought, we were well-equipped to make a stunning replica of his famous bear. All the team at Merrythought were so proud to see their Edward bear on the big screen, and not wanting our collectors to miss out, we launched him in mid-2017 to coincide with the film’s release in the U.K. and U.S.
Royal Teddy Bears. Merrythought is well-known for its links with royalty and for creating special teddy bears to celebrate royal occasions such as Her Majesty the Queen’s anniversaries and the arrival of new princes and princesses. We work with the official Buckingham Palace Shop, and this year have created a beautiful teddy bear to celebrate the birth of Prince Louis, in addition to our special Royal Wedding Commemorative Teddy Bears.
TB&F: Is it hard to decide on a new subject for a collectible bear or how many to make in a limited edition?
Holmes: A lot of our new collectible bears are designed to celebrate a particular occasion or event, such as a royal wedding or Merrythought anniversary, so this helps us focus our design. We carefully make each design in small batches, so tend to go for small limited editions, which makes each bear even more special.
TB&F: Where did the name Merrythought come from?
Holmes: Merrythought is the old English word for a wishbone, which when broken between two people is said to bring good luck to the person who wins the larger piece. For a long time, our company motto was “Making Wishes Come True,” which linked back to this unique brand story.
TB&F: What do you think has allowed your company to survive and thrive for so long?
Holmes: I think Merrythought’s longevity has a lot to do with staying true to our values and continuing to hand make each teddy bear here in Britain. While many soft-toy brands lost their production to the Far East from the 1970s onwards, we have worked hard to keep our little factory flourishing in Ironbridge and have continued to make to a very high standard using traditional materials such as mohair and wool felt.
We are now very much the last of our kind and the name people go to if they want to buy a truly British teddy bear. We have a unique heritage and still make each teddy bear in the same original factory, using the same skills, as we did in 1930.
TB&F: With younger people collecting fewer things, do you see a strong future for collectible bears?
Holmes: I am optimistic about the future, but feel we need to continue to adapt to the changes in the collectors’ market and ensure that the themes of our designs are appealing to our customers. I see the future being well-designed teddy bears that either have a great story behind them or commemorate an occasion that people want to have a lasting memento of.