In 1919, Norah Wellings took a long look at herself in the mirror and concluded: ‘Norah, you are never going to be beautiful so you had better make yourself useful.’ And then she became one of the best soft doll makers in the country writes Julie Carter.
Norah Wellings was born in Shropshire, England, in 1893. Although she left school at the age of 14 to help her mother look after her invalid father, she was tutored at school and studied with the London School of Art via correspondence. She learned sewing, needlework, dressmaking and gardening - which became a lifelong passion.
Events changed for Norah in 1919, following the death of her father. That was the year that she went to the management of toy manufacturers Chad Valley Company, and got a job as one of their chief designers on the newly-opened soft toy manufacturing site.
Norah worked at Chad Valley for seven years, leaving in 1926. She was very close to her older brother Leonard, and together they decided to establish the Victoria Toy Works Factory in Leonard’s plastering premises in Victoria Avenue. There were seven employees: Norah, her cousin Mary, the four Tinsley sisters and another of Norah’s cousins, Arthur, who was sales manager. It was a humble beginning.
In 1927, when the Victoria Toy Works had been open less than a year, Queen Mary visited the town to open the Shrewsbury Floral Fete. Norah designed a Cora doll that she was able to present to the Queen herself – giving her fledgling company some fantastic public exposure. In the same year she also took a stand at the British Industries Fair in London, and was reported in Games and Toys magazine as being one of the outstanding successes of the event: ‘Miss Wellings has not long been manufacturing on her own account, but evidently there is a very big future for her in the trade, for her caricatures, dolls and animals are produced as saleable lines which every high-class store throughout the country will feature,’ it said.
Within a couple of years the Victoria Toy Works had moved to larger premises and the company continued to take a stand at the British Industries Fair until 1939 when war forced the temporary closure of the Fair.
At its peak of production Victoria Toy Works employed around 250 workers, but all the designs came from Norah. The first of the Wellings dolls was called Cora. With felt faces, applied ears, jointed velveteen bodies and short mohair wigs, Cora dolls were fashionably dressed. The 1929 catalogue featured 20 girl and 2 boy dolls in the Cora line; by 1933 they had ceased production entirely, making way for the Norene dolls which were manufactured from the 1930s to the factory’s closure in 1959. Fully jointed with a felt head, arms, legs and cotton body, the Norene dolls had painted features and mohair wigs that could be combed. They were made in a large range of models, in a total of seven sizes.
Norah’s motto was ‘Quality not quantity’, and it was this philosophy that allowed her toys and dolls to be sold in some of the most upmarket stores of the time. The London department store of Harrods was an important customer of the Victoria Toy Works; the manager at Harrods once remarked that they never inspected their incoming deliveries of Norah Wellings dolls, as they knew that she only allowed first class work to leave the factory. Each year Norah designed toys specifically for their famous Christmas toy window, with these toys forming the display at the British Industries Fair the following February.
Although she had a highly successful business in the UK, more than 70% of Norah’s trade was through export; in 1941, she was placing trade advertisements as Britain’s Leading Doll Exporter. The Wellings products were sold in the US, Canada, Australia (where they were retailed through Myer department stores) and Egypt.
Almost all the shipping companies sold Norah Wellings products on board their ocean liners, with the main line being the range of sailor dolls featuring the name of the ship on their hatbands. It was a period of great travel – there were literally hundreds of ocean liners plying the seas between Europe and the United States – and for the majority of passengers, the trip wasn’t complete without a souvenir. The Jollyboy Sailor, which was introduced in 1929, soon became the most popular novelty doll in the Wellings catalogue. Over the years a whole range of Jollyboys were produced, in a variety of sizes, but all with the name of the Navy ship or ocean liner on the hatband and nearly all with bare feet. The small sailor dolls are the most easily found today, which makes them the most affordable.
Relying so heavily on the export market posed problems for Norah and her brother Leonard with the outbreak of the Second World War. Although the factory continued production through the war years, it was with a greatly reduced staff, and operations were forced to continue alongside the army, which commandeered the machine room to store food supplies, and a company that manufactured uniforms and gas masks.
There was a bright side to the business, however. Norah was inspired to create the Royal Air Force Mascot Harry the Hawk, who became one of the most sought after characters of the war years. With a stockinet face, painted features and a cotton flying suit with a felt parachute and vinyl goggles, he cut a dashing figure. For each sale of Harry the Hawk – who was made in several sizes - money was donated to the RAF Comforts Fund to help the war effort.
After 30 years in business together, Norah Wellings lost her brother Leonard when he died in early January, 1959. She continued running the factory for several months, but on September 4 of the same year her employees were given two weeks notice. Not wanting to sell her designs, and also not wanting them to be left for somebody to use, Norah created a huge bonfire and burned everything – her tools, the designs, and all the unfinished dolls. Everything went. The completed dolls and toys were given away to different societies and institutions.
Norah spent her retirement painting, gardening and cooking at the home Leonard had built for her. She passed away in February 1975 at the age of 82, leaving behind thousands of cheerful little faces in the form of her delightful cloth dolls.