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Sunday 3 April 2011

Heir to bear


It has only come to my notice that in some slight way, my family is a tad famous.

The Hall of Fame at the top of the house features treasured bears from the Museum's collection. "The Best of British" cabinet features four fine old bears from three pioneering teddy bear companies, Chiltern Toys, Chad Valley and JK Farnell. It was Christopher Robin's 1921 Farnell bear which inspired A.A. Milne's stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. The oldest of the bears is Arden, made in 1913, bequeathed to the Museum by his owner Claire Jukes, who started the first Elizabeth Arden salon in the United Kingdom.

The family firm of J K Farnell and Co Ltd occupies a position of unparalleled importance in British soft toy history, firstly because it was the very first British toy company to manufacture teddy bears, and also because it created the actual bear that inspired A A Milne to write the Winnie the Pooh stories. Yet impressive as those facts undoubtedly are, they comprise just a small fraction of the fascinating Farnell story. Founded in the Nineteenth century, for decades J.K. Farnell and Co Ltd was the most respected and influential soft toy manufacturer in Britain. Thanks to the superior quality of its products, the company experienced enormous commercial success at national and international level - even in Germany, home to its biggest rival, there was great demand for Farnell products. Surviving economic depression, devastating fire, the ravages of World War II and other traumatic events, the company kept going until fundamental changes in the British toy market forced its closure in 1970. Since then, the Farnell name has been forgotten by all but a dedicated band of teddy bear enthusiasts and the true story of this pioneering British firm has fallen into obscurity.

It just happens that I’m the Heir to the J. K Farnell Bear, fortune. (I wish). I hadn’t until a few days ago realised that A. A. Milne was inspired by something that my family had crafted. I am quietly delighted that my family have had an influence on children’s pleasure in some small way.

It was a great shame that the family business folded through intense competition for the new era of plastic toys, that became the rage in the late sixties.

I see that a Farnell bear is selling for £300 on Ebay. Should I bid for it? After all it may have been mine.