The history of Merrythought provides us with a fascinating insight into early 20th century England – a period of considerable industrial change and development. Our story actually begins in 1919 when Mr. W .G. Holmes (the present Managing Director’s grandfather) went into partnership with a Mr. G. H. Laxton to open a small spinning mill in Yorkshire to quite simply manufacture mohair yarn from imported raw materials. The introduction of synthetic fibres during the 1920’s led to a decline in the demand for mohair fabric causing one of their yarn customers, Dyson Hall & Co. Limited of Huddersfield to lose a considerable amount of business. Holmes & Laxton decided to buy Dyson Hall’s plush weaving company and realised that they had to find something to do with the mohair yarns.
The Sales Director of the combined companies knew two men who were to play a vital role in the development of Merrythought. Mr. C. J. Rendle was in charge of the production at Chad Valley and Mr. A. C. Janisch in charge of sales at J.K. Farnell (another soft toy manufacturer). Both were keen to join Holmes and Laxton to produce Merrythought Toys and together arranged to rent space in one of the Coalbrookdale’s foundry buildings. In September 1930 Mr Rendle together with some of the workers from Chad Valley moved into the former social room of the Coalbrookdale Company. Over the years the original Merrythought factory site at Coalbrookdale (now Ironbridge), which was purchased from the Coalbrookdale Company in 1956, has seen considerable improvement. New buildings have been added but the large brick building built by the iron foundry in 1898 is still used today to lovingly create each and every Merrythought Toy.
One of the former Chad Valley employees who came to work at Merrythought was a remarkable lady called Florence Atwood. A deaf mute, Florence had studied design at the “Deaf and Dumb School” in Manchester which she attended with Mr Rendle’s daughter. She created her own toys, translated drawings by well-known artists including MGM studio’s Jerry Mouse and single-handedly 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 Merrythought’s now famous line of Teddy Bears beginning with The Magnet Bear. Florence’s 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.
By 1939 over 200 people worked at Merrythought but on the 3rd September 1939 when the War began, the British Admiralty took over the Coalbrookdale factory buildings and used them for vital map-making work. Merrythought rented space in nearby Wellington and at the government’s request began to produce items for the war – Chevrons (sleeve badges), linings for helmets, tiny ignitor bags, gasbag masks, covers for hot water bottles and a variety of practical products made from gaberdine and velour.