New Works For Old ~ From Foundry To Teddy Bear Factory And More Besides

We’re standing on a riverbank just upstream from the Iron Bridge, at the foot of the Coal Brook that once powered the furnaces of the Coalbrookdale Company (the place where coke-fuelled iron casting was invented in 1709), and across the road from a little lane surprisingly called Paradise, which long ago was my daily route to work. As retail parks go, then, this site of re-purposed industrial workshops, it is pretty unusual.

The roof-lit buildings once belonged to the Severn Foundry. They were built in 1901  when Alfred Darby II, last of the dynasty of Coalbrookdale ironmasters, was company chairman. By this time the business was contracting – that is to say, it was moving away from heavy industry to more domestic production, and operating only within the Coalbrookdale Valley. Even so, in 1900 the company still employed 1,100 men, a huge workforce for a small semi-rural community.

The reasons for the new foundry, built on the site of an old timber yard, seem rather remarkable now. Demand for its products came from unexpected quarters in faraway London.  From the late C19th the then new London County Council had begun clearing the city’s slum dwellings and putting up council houses – this in response to the passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Requirements for improved living standards included cast-iron fireplaces and gas cookers, both of which were produced by the Coalbrookdale Company.

Iron founding is of course a dangerous, if highly skilled trade. The pouring of red hot molten metal from handheld crucibles into moulds provided plenty of scope for industrial accidents.  The workforce undoubtedly benefited from the better lighting conditions of these roof-lit premises. Although not for long. The London County Council contract was short-lived, and the foundry closed in 1917. Thereafter, the former industrial prosperity of Severn Gorge and the Shropshire Coalfield went into rapid decline, and the foundry buildings were left empty…

…until 1930 when, in another odd twist, along came Merrythought – a small family business producing high quality soft toys and handmade mohair teddies. They took over the foundry buildings and, also benefiting from the well-lit workshops, went into production. By 1940 they were employing 200 workers, mostly women. And yes, those noses and paws are all hand-stitched with, it is said, much pursing of lips by fastidious craftswomen who liked to get the job done without inflicting too much pain to their creations.

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And the firm is still going – into the fourth generation, and run by the two elder daughters of the previous chairman, Oliver Holmes, a man with great flair and drive, who sadly died before his time. The company is Britain’s last surviving teddy bear maker. It has had to fight to hold its own against competition from cheap soft toy producers and now specialises in limited edition bears, which it also sells in the Teddy Bear Shop just round the corner from the factory. The shop was the brainchild of my sister – back in the 1980s when she was running the Ironbridge Gorge Museums’ shops and did a deal with Oliver, who until that time only traded through the famous London toy store Hamleys.

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Recently, after Oliver Holmes’ death, Merrythought developed the former foundry site, providing new retail spaces in all the buildings not needed for teddy bear production. So now we have a fine little art gallery specialising in prints and print-making equipment, an antiques centre with riverside cafe, a bespoke kitchen fitters, and a small Co-Op store. Oh yes, and the Teddy Bear Shop just around the corner, with Guardsman Bear outside the door, overseeing Paradise.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Roof Squares 13

34 thoughts on “New Works For Old ~ From Foundry To Teddy Bear Factory And More Besides

  1. Bonjour Tish,
    What a thoroughly informative and very enjoyable article. Great pictures too. I think l bought my daughter one of the Merrythought teddy’s many years ago from Hamleys one memorable Christmas Eve. What a wonderful gift you have for painting living pictures with your words – thank you.

    Dan

      1. Celeste and I went to see this group in Johannesburg at a theatre that is no longer here – knocked it down some time ago.
        The song this was a big hit over here. (The group were on the same bill as a young Johnny Clegg). She was mad over it. Not really my cup of tea music-wise, but well … you know, young love and all that . 🙂

  2. What a wonderful juxtaposition, and what superb teddy bears. And then there’s brick, brick and more delightful brick, beautifully photographed. And hidden inside this whirl of history the roof challenge. Another great post.

  3. Those old buildings have an enduring beauty. It makes me happy to read of the current use. I’m curious about one thing. Is this, “the late C19th”, a common way in England of saying “the late 19th century?” I’ve never seen that before.

    janet

  4. I have to agree with Dan about this post Tish. As always, you tell a story so well. I’m really glad that the teddy factory is still going strong. Kudos to your sister; and yay for everyone who buys quality and keeps small (relatively speaking) businesses going.

    1. Many thanks, Su. The place does tick a whole lot of boxes. Even the little outpost of the big Co-op giant makes you feel pleased to visit it, as if it’s the corner shop. The local conservation officer apparently made sure they didn’t do anything horrid to the building.

  5. Sort of like our valley when we were the very first burst of American economic technology, followed by ALL the mills going down south … but for us, nothing came back so we are a non-business environment. It makes the place very pretty, but also rather poor.

    1. Indeed – the cycles of full-on prosperity to states of being stranded. You somehow feel it’s a mistake when we stop making things in our own localities. Very hard for the young if they want to make a living.

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