While researching and writing the story of my ‘lost’ London ancestors in my blog A London Family, I published a post entitled Of Lost Toys and Mothers which compared the childhood of my London-born father with that of my Scottish mother. My father’s experience of being a wartime evacuee in Surrey then Somerset (see East Coker) was very different from that of my Edinburgh-born mother, ten years his junior. Even though my mother went to live in the countryside outside Edinburgh with my grandmother for a few months early on in the war, she was an infant at the time and thus has no memories of that period. Not only that, but my grandmother had simply to take her baby daughter several miles out of the city to the village of Roslin, where her older sister Bessie lived with her miner husband and two young sons. It was certainly much less of an upheaval than the four years my father and his siblings spent with their mother in East Coker, living with strangers, with my English grandmother trying to eke out a living by undertaking odd jobs in the locality.
As I pointed out in Of Lost Toys and Mothers, my father and his siblings ‘lost’ their childhood toys when their London home was partially damaged in a bombing raid and the contents stored with relatives who lived nearby. When my paternal grandfather later went to retrieve the items, he quarrelled with that branch of the family and never spoke to them again. Later my aunt told me she suspected they had been using the furniture in their own home, a fact which had angered my grandfather, who was prone to irascibility.
When writing Of Lost Toys and Mothers, I also mentioned my Scottish family, stating that: I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a bisque doll given to a soldier uncle by a French family in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.
The French bisque doll called ‘Margaret’ from WW1
While I have kept my promise to myself and held on to some of my toys for over half a century, my mother was quite content to let her two favourite stuffed animals, Panda and George, be discarded when she became a teenager, something I find hard to fathom. She of course finds my special attachment to my very ancient stuffed cat rather strange. Yet I am comforted by the knowledge that the poet John Betjeman had a lifelong bond with his much-loved ‘companions’, Archie and Jumbo, and even went to so far as to have them close beside him on his deathbed. He was in fact holding them in his arms when he died in 1984.
Pussy Willow and Me (when both of us were young)
Searching through the collection of Scottish family photographs I find very few where toys play a major role. But perhaps this is mainly because it is the adults who deemed what was worthy of being photographed. I do remember having to ask my father to include my dolls and stuffed animals in photographs (such as in the image above) and he was often reluctant to do so, unless it was some kind of prop that I’d been given as a distraction. That seems to be the case with the older studio portraits, where either the photographer had a wooden toy that the child could pose with, or a personal play object was brought along by the family.
Great Uncle Adam with wooden toy (c1900)
It’s hard to make out the exact details of Great Uncle Adam’s wooden toy but it appears to be a replica of a steam locomotive, replete with a chimney and boiler, which can be pulled along on wheels. The poor wee lad was probably torn between playing with the object or looking at the photographer, as he would have possibly been aware that both tasks were expected of him. I often think that being taken to a formal photographer’s studio must have been quite an overwhelming experience for a young child at that time.
Perhaps that is why I love the very natural looking photograph of my mother’s younger cousin, Alan, laughing while propped up on a rug in my grandparent’s back garden in Carrick Knowe flanked by Mum’s favourite toys. Alan and his mother Anne – a younger sister of my grandmother who’d moved to London after her marriage – had come to stay with my grandparents in Edinburgh to escape the dangers of the Blitz. (By then it was clear that the neighbourhood in West Edinburgh was relatively safe and the stay in Roslin had been abandoned). Although baby Alan seems rather disinterested in the toys, the photograph almost seems to have been taken with Panda and George in mind, possibly due to the pleasing composition of the image
Panda and George with a younger cousin of my mother c1941
A later photograph sent out as a family Christmas card shows an older Alan with his younger brother looking decidedly underwhelmed at their meeting with a beatific-looking Santa Claus in Selfridges Toy Department in London. We can only guess at what the old man is saying to them, but they are perhaps wondering whether his stuffed panda is just a prop or whether they’ll get to take it home with them. Whatever or whoever they are fixated on out of the frame, they don’t look as if they are particularly enjoying the experience (which was no doubt a money-spinner for the department store and the photographer). As rationing was still very much in place at this time, Xmas might have promised more than it delivered.
My mother’s younger cousins, Xmas c1947
My mother recalls an earlier straitened wartime Xmas where her mother made her a handsewn doll from a kit that was on sale at the local Co-op. A few weeks earlier my mother had been helping my grandmother with the shopping when they passed the ragdoll display in the shop. Do you like that doll? My grandmother asked my mother, hopeful in her tone. No, it’s horrible! my mother replied petulantly, tired and fed up at being dragged round the Co-op after school. Needless to say, when it turned up in her stocking on Xmas Day (customised by my grandmother, a qualified dressmaker) she promptly named it Betty – the ugliest name she could think of at the time. Now of course she cringes at the memory and to this day still hopes she hadn’t hurt her mother too much with her outburst. As my grandmother was rather thin-skinned, I’m surprised that doll actually did turn up on Christmas Day. I should add that this was also the year my mother realised that there was no Santa Claus. (For obvious reasons no photographs exist of Ugly Betty).
But perhaps my mother would have been more appreciative of her gift had the wonderful and quirky Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile been established during her own childhood, rather in 1955 when she turned 17. In the 70s it was one of my favourite places to visit as a child and I’d go with my mother and sister whenever we went to stay with our Edinburgh grandparents. At that time the museum was housed in an old soot-blackened tenement building (since much expanded and modernised) with dark, steep winding staircases and small cramped rooms. This of course was itself all part of the experience, lending the museum a slightly spooky lost-in-time feel. Display cases of glassy-eyed Victorian dolls vied with straw-stuffed bears for our attention, alongside cabinet curiosities and creepy automated doll-sized shows (such as the one of Sweeny Todd disposing of his clients with a cut-throat razor). Many of the exhibits were in fact the stuff of nightmares, which is why the museum held such a macabre fascination for me.
An old collectable postcard of the ‘shoe doll’ (c) Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh
But perhaps the display that exerted the most pull on me was the one which housed the ‘make do’ dolls. There, a sad metal-faced female doll made from a discarded shoe nestled beside a barely-there doll composed of nothing but a rag wrapped round a mutton bone. I collected postcards of these objects – which to my mind were beautiful – and wondered at the children who had owned and loved such things seventy years previously. Yet as an adult I am more interested in the idea that the shoe doll was most likely made by impoverished parents for their daughter, and it is that sentiment that moves me, rather than the doll itself.
There is a more modern ‘interactive’ image of the doll (shown above) in the Edinburgh Capital Collections that can be directly accessed here. With the wonders of technology we can zoom in to see the detail on the clothing and limbs – even the individual stitching. I had always wondered how such a doll came to be in the museum (was it abandoned or stolen?) but the accompanying text to the digital image (below) has now cleared up the mystery for me.
This is part of a collection of over 600 dolls which belonged to Edward Lovett (1852 – 1933) who was a cashier in a London bank. He was a member of the Folklore Society and became an authority on ethnographic dolls, particularly makeshift, or emergent, dolls made for poorer children who did not have commercially made toys. He travelled extensively collecting these dolls from children in exchange for new ones.
So now I know that somewhere in the East End of London, in 1905, a little girl was unexpectedly presented with a brand new, possibly relatively expensive, doll in exchange for an old pre-loved improvised one. I’m not sure, had I been that child, that I could have willingly given my homemade doll away. But I’m glad she did just that, as the shoe doll is an item which has intrigued and fascinated generations of children (and adults) in the Museum of Childhood for almost seventy years, and along the way gained an importance that its original maker could never have expected.
To be continued in Toy Stories: Part 2 next month.
The Incidental Genealogist, June 2022
What an unusual angle, brilliant. The association of play things in relation to access to leisure and the assumption that children were allowed to “play” rather than have a useful role. You also encompass the economy of childhood, how much did these play things cost or were they home made. This also indicates how important the child was at is was relative to the amount of money spent.
Thanks for your comment, Marion. I’ve been fascinated by photos of children and their toys for a while now, particularly because of my childhood visits to the toy museum and the discovery of the ‘toys under the floor’. I’m looking forward to writing part 2 and expanding on some of the themes that only seem to make themselves known to me as I start to write.
Thank you for that trip down (your) memory lane. It’s true that children are rarely photographed with their own toys in old photos. In fact, there are so few photos that I find it hard to imagine what life was like for poor kids between the wars. You have some lovely pictures though.
Thanks for the comment, Jane. It’s only something I started to think about when I looked through our family album. And in the days when not so many photographs were taken then the children were rarely at spontaneous play while being snapped. I’m hoping to have unearthed a few more children with their toys for next month, though.