Hobbies of Dereham - Dolls Houses, Part 1
by Rebecca Green
Introduction and History
Hobbies of Dereham is very well known as a supplier of dolls house plans, interior and exterior papers, and fittings. The 'Hobbies' weekly magazine began publication in 1895, with the sub-title 'A Weekly Journal for Amateurs of Both Sexes'. Early in 1896, the editors listed the hobbies which they intended to cover in the journal, including china and pottery, “ladies’ workroom”, boating and swimming, photography, sketching, stamp collecting, chess and draughts, collecting coins, cycling, natural history, pets, livestock, fishing, electricity, meteorology, as well as wood carving, bent ironwork, fretwork in wood and metal, marquetry, gardening, etc.
As well as the weekly magazine, Hobbies issued an annual catalogue of tools and materials for many of these pursuits. The Catalogue for 1923 states “This is the 41st annual issue of this Catalogue”, which would mean that it was first published in 1881.
As I explained in my article on Handicrafts Dolls House Designs, Hobbies was set up by John Henry Skinner, while the rival firm of Handicrafts was started by his brother Frank Skinner. The Skinner brothers had been born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, John Henry in 1860 and Frank in about 1863. Their father, John Young Skinner, a printer and stationer, was originally from Norfolk. By the age of 10, J H Skinner had moved to East Dereham (often known simply as Dereham), in Norfolk, to live with an uncle, William Stebbings, who was a timber merchant. Later, he went into partnership with a man called Samuel Bloy, as S. Bloy & Co, Wheelwrights, Cart and Wagon Builders; this partnership was dissolved in August 1882.
The first publication of fretwork designs came shortly after this: a 'Copyright Series of Fret-Work Portraits', in folio, published in 1884 in East Dereham by J. H. Skinner. Two years later, in 1886, another series of fretwork designs was published by J. H. Skinner & Co.
1929. Above, Hobbies' timber gantry; below: the sawmills
During the 1880s, John Henry Skinner and Edwin Jackson Lyth set up business as Manufacturers and Importers of Fretwork Materials and Photographic Apparatuses and as Timber Merchants, under the name J. H. Skinner & Co. They registered a patent for photographic cameras (and J. H. Skinner registered one for preventing trousers from creasing!), but their partnership was dissolved in April 1890. Lyth continued the timber business under his own name, and Skinner continued the photography and fretwork business as J. H. Skinner & Co.
A book published in 1891, 'Every Man his Own Mechanic', mentions that J. H. Skinner & Co “have always on sale the following timber, either in the tree or plank : — holly, lime-tree, sycamore, horn-beam, pear-tree, apple-tree, chestnut, walnut, yew-tree, thorn, cherry, willow, beech, larch, ash, alder, birch, poplar, and every other description of English timber.” They even had a display at the Tasmanian Exhibition in Australia in 1892, showing “wood prepared for use in fret-work, chairs, photo cameras, etc., together with a handy outfit of tools for amateur workers”.
1929 - Cutting boards to the required thicknesses
J. H. Skinner must also have established another company, the Hobbies Publishing Company Limited, as in 1897 he was the chairman of two firms, Hobbies Publishing and J. H. Skinner & Co Ltd, when they amalgamated and formed a new company, Hobbies Limited. Hobbies also had a nursery department, selling seeds, rose bushes, dahlia corms, etc, by mail order. An online history of Dereham mentions the name of John Green, nurseryman, seedsman and florist, who joined his expertise in this area to Hobbies.
By the time of the 1901 census, John H Skinner gave his occupation as Managing Director of Hobbies Limited. However, the following year, he emigrated to Durban, South Africa, where he set up Skinner, Thomas and Co, manufacturing fine plywoods, veneers and parquet flooring.
At some time during the 1890s, his brother Frank Skinner had joined him in Dereham. Frank Skinner also left Hobbies during the next decade, in his case to set up a rival firm, Handicrafts. In 1907, Hobbies took legal action against Frank Skinner, James Carruthers Smith Brough and Fred Clark, who had all left Hobbies to start Handicrafts. As if setting up in competition wasn’t bad enough (the Hobbies chief designer had gone "over to the enemy and left them in the lurch"), they had taken with them lists of the names and addresses of Hobbies’ customers to send out Handicrafts circulars and magazines.
Hobbies won that case, and advertised for a new designer. They also survived a fire at the Dereham works in 1907 and a flood in 1912. They continued publishing the 'Hobbies Weekly' and 'Hobbies Catalogue' during World War I.
1913 - Hobbies' fretsaw workshop
1913 - hardening the saws. Hobbies employed men, women and "infant skilled workmen"
In 1926, Hobbies took Handicrafts to court again, “for selling fretwork and carpenters’ outfits to which the false trade description “British Make” or “British Made” was applied.” Hobbies made the tools they sold in their East Dereham factory, but claimed that Handicrafts “sold as “British made” fretwork tools that were imported from Germany and were merely assembled at their so-called “factory” at Kentish Town.” As a result, Hobbies had suffered severe financial loss, because Handicrafts sold these tools at lower prices than Hobbies’ own British-made tools.
1929 - A British Industry
As we will see, in the 1920s, Hobbies offered fewer dolls house wallpaper designs than Handicrafts did. Handicrafts appears to have imported German dolls house papers, while Hobbies probably sold only British papers.
L: Ad for 'Hobbies Weekly' in 1933. R: Cover of 'Hobbies Weekly' 1934, No 2034
During World War II, the Hobbies factory manufactured components for aircraft, including the De Havilland Mosquito. They were able to continue the 'Hobbies Weekly' and the catalogue (known as the Handbook), although the catalogue grew smaller as the war progressed and supplies became scarcer. There were more designs of model guns, areoplanes, tanks and battleships, and fewer dolls houses. I will end this first article on Hobbies with the last dolls house design issued during the war, in 1945. A later article will start with the first new design published after the war, in late 1946.
1942: Father and Son find Hobbies fun! Despite their earlier subtitle A Weekly Journal for Amateurs of Both Sexes, and despite employing women, fretwork was promoted very much as an activity for men and boys.
Dating Hobbies Dolls Houses
I have the Hobbies catalogues (called Handbooks after 1934) for 1913, 1923, 1929, 1930, 1932-1944, and 1946, as well as some 'Hobbies Weekly' magazines and Hobbies design plans from 1895 on. Isobel Hockey and Susanne G. have kindly provided information about which dolls house designs and wallpapers were listed in the years 1925 and 1926.
It is possible to say that the earliest date a house could have been made to one of these designs is the year the design was issued. However, we can’t say with any certainty when it might have been made after that. Some designs were available for 17 or 18 years, while others were only listed in the catalogue for one or two years, but still could have been used to make a dolls house many years later. Any plan could have been bought and kept for many years, or bought from a Hobbies stockist some years after its release.
Hobbies also offered dolls house papers for walls and flooring, as well as designs for furniture. The papers can also help to date a house, so I have included them here. The furniture designs for this period will be covered in the next issue, followed by post-war houses and furniture in future issues.
Dolls House Designs
The first dolls house design that I am aware of appears in the 1913 Catalogue. As the design is not numbered, I don’t know when it was first published; it may have appeared at much the same time as the first Handicrafts dolls house design of 1913, or perhaps a bit earlier.
1913 - "A remarkably fine and imposing model. The entire back is arranged to open by means of a double door." Size 33" x 24" x 20" high.
By 1923, the date of the next catalogue I have, three new designs for dolls houses were available. They are all Special designs, and as such, do not take the number of the Weekly in which they appeared.
No 93 Special.
Issued in about 1916. Available until 1934.
Size: 25" wide by 24" high.
The parcel of wood for this design included mahogany, sycamore and canary. Turnings and glass (including coloured glass for the hall) could also be purchased. Note the "tiled" wooden roof.
A Hobbies No 93 Special, before restoration. Photo © Karen Bridge.
If you have a dolls house that looks rather like this, but which has different dimensions, plastic in the windows, etc, it may have been made from the redesigned plans that Hobbies published in the 1980s.
No 127 Special, Doll's Bungalow
Size: 8.5" high x 9.5" wide x 12.25" long.
Probably issued in late 1921; available until 1934.
No 133 Special
Size: 15" high x 17" wide x 10" deep
Probably issued in 1922; available until 1939.
Four sets of dolls house furniture designs were issued for use with this house, and the plans for the house and furniture could be bought as one pack. The furniture will be shown in detail in the next issue.
No 157 Special
Size: 16 3/8" high x 10 1/2" wide x 8" deep.
Possibly issued in late 1926 or early 1927. Available until 1937.
"This splendid doll's house is fitted with a front which swings open on hinges and so reveals the inside floors, which can be furnished as ordinary rooms by any youngster."
Size: 22" high x 25" wide x 16" deep.
Issued in the 'Hobbies Weekly' No. 1828 November 1st, 1930. Available until 1934, and again in 1936.
"Look at this top-hole model. Any fellow with a set of Hobbies Fretwork Tools can make it. Quite straightforward to cut and construct ... The house really looks too good to be true, but it is so planned that any fretworker or woodworker can make it."
Hobbies No 1828. Photo © Susanne G.
Hobbies No 1828: detail of the front porch. The parcel of fretwood for this house (cost 17/6) included turned wood for the pillar and chimney pots, while the parcel of fittings (1/6) contained the door knob, glass for windows and door, and hooks and eyes.
Photos © Susanne G.
Below: the interior of the 1828, viewed from the rear with the back removed.
Above: drawing room fireplace; below: bedroom fireplace in the 1828. © Susanne G.
The wallpaper in the drawing room is the famous Triang amoeba paper - did the maker of this house obtain it from Triang, or from a retailer, or from Hobbies? Hobbies did not show this pattern in their catalogues, but along with the fretwood and fittings parcels for this design, listed 'Paper - Suitable Doll's House paper, sheets measuring 20 ins. by 30 ins., price 3d. per sheet.' If the buyer did not specify wallpaper numbers from those shown in the catalogue, separately from the dolls house designs, perhaps Hobbies supplied other, unlisted, designs?
No 1992 Model Farm House
Size of base: 6" x 3"
Issued 23 December 1933, available until 1941. This is tiny, but the roof does open at the back; it could have been used as a home for tiny dolls.
No 186 Special
Size: 24" high x 30" long
"A large, modern, half-timbered house, with garage. Inside are four rooms, hall and landing, with the back open to facilitate furnishing."
Four sets of furniture were issued, in 1/12th scale, for use with this house.
The furniture will be shown in detail in the next issue.
Hobbies No 186 Special, previously in the collection of Faith Eaton. Photo © Jenny
This must have been one of the most popular Hobbies dolls house designs, as many models have survived. Here is a video tour of Celia Thomas' restored 186 Special:
Video © Celia Thomas of KT Miniatures
No 2093 Fine Doll's Bungalow
The next dolls house issued was a more modern bungalow.
Available 30 November 1935-1942
Size 24" wide x 20" deep, with lift-off roof.
Three sets of furniture designs were issued for this house; they will be shown in detail in the next issue.
Available from 1934-1937
Size 17.5" high x 12" wide. Two rooms with staircase. Front hinged to open..
"This house is patterned after the small villa so popular today."
No 195 Special Model Farm
Issued in 1936; available until 1942.
Baseboard of farm: 30" long x 18" wide.
This was a model farm, not a dolls house - a set of diecast lead farmyard animals could be purchased for 3/-. However, I have included it as I have a dolls house made from this design, presumably scaled up to 1/24th scale, which measures 21.75" long x 9.25" deep x 12.75" high.
Hobbies 195 Special enlarged Farm House before restoration. © Rebecca Green
No 2069 Miniature Greenhouse
Size 18" long x 13.25" high
This is also not a dolls house, but perhaps it could have been used alongside one. Miniature flower pots 1 1/2" high were available too.
No 2151 Modern Doll's House
Size 24" long x 18" deep x 18" high
"A large and imposing model with hinged front & back, & removeable roof."
No 204 Special Ye Olde Country Inn
Size 24" long x more than 12" high
This was intended for use with the Britains' hunting figures. Although the interior had two floors, and there were opening doors at front, back and sides, the inside would not have been readily accessible.
NEW: Elizabeth Jackson has a Hobbies Inn which has a completely removable back, and which is furnished with tiny fretwork furniture:
Hobbies No 204 Special, front and interior. Photos © Elizabeth Jackson
No 2204 A Large Modern Doll's House
Issued 15 January 1938; available until 1941
Size: 28" long x 15" high x 10 1/2" deep.
"You'll like this Doll's House with its flat roof, modern style windows and balcony." The left and right sections of the front hinge open, while the middle section is removeable.
No 2265, a Fine Modern Doll's House
Available 18 March 1939-1942
Size: 29" long x 22" high
This is a front-opening dolls house, and the first for which Hobbies supplied plastic windows (transparent Rhodoid, the trade name of Cellulose acetate as manufactured by May & Baker, Ltd., of London).
No 227 Special Model Doll's House
Issued 24th June 1942; available until 1944.
Size: 22" high x 10.5" wide x 20" high (not including the base).
Designed to open at the back through doors cut in the same positions as the windows in the front. Hobbies could still supply panels of wood, but left it up to the maker to find glass or other transparent material for the windows, and recommended painting tiles and brickwork.
Hobbies No 227 Special, front and rear. Photos © Zoe H.
The plans for the 227 Special included 3 different fireplace designs, all intended to have tiles painted on.
Above: drawing room fireplace in the 227 Special. Below: dining room fireplace.
Photos © Zoe H
Above: bedroom fireplace in the 227 Special. Photo © Zoe H
No 2486 Model Farm House
Size:10.5" long x 4.5" high x 7.5" high
This design was published in 1944, in the fifth year of the war, when no metal was available for toys. It was designed as a simple but realistic farm house, which, with the separate design sheet for the figures and animals, would form "almost a complete farmyard". "The house itself is a plain model and, of course, anyone who wishes to do so can build it as an ordinary doll's house."
Finally, the 1945 Handbook (published in 1944) contained a half-scale version of the No 186 Special. The design sheet included 26 pieces of miniature furniture to fit this scale.
1/2 scale version of No 186 Special. Photo © Nicki H.
Size 11" high x 12" wide.
Hobbies, as this 1934 ad stated, sold a range of interior and exterior papers to decorate dolls houses. They appear to have introduced dolls house papers to their catalogue between 1913 and 1923. In 1909, two readers of the 'Hobbies Weekly' magazine asked where they could purchase brick paper for a dolls house. The answer provided by 'The Helping Hand' column in the magazine was "The brick pattern paper you require is manufactured by the Wallpaper Manufacturers, Ltd., Light Brown Aspinal Branch, Pendleton Mills, Manchester. This may or may not be supplied to you direct, but if they refuse to supply you direct, they will probably give you the name of a retailer who you could purchase from."
From at least 1920, the 'Hobbies Weekly' magazines carried advertisements from the firm of Axon & Harrison for brick, tile and slate papers, and wallpapers, for dolls houses. This firm, which also manufactured transfers, started in Rugby, in Warwickshire, and later moved to Jersey. The factory closed very recently, in 2011, but wallpaper production had ceased many years earlier, and sadly no samples or patterns were found when clearing out the factory.
It seems likely that the dolls house papers which Hobbies sold were produced by one of these firms (Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd or Axon Harrison), but without named samples or catalogues, we may never know for sure. Some of the wallpaper patterns sold by Hobbies were also used by Triang (as were some of the wallpapers sold by Handicrafts in 1939). This suggests to me that Hobbies and Triang probably bought their wallpapers from the same British maker, which Handicrafts also used for their 1939 catalogue.
The 1913 Hobbies Catalogue, the earliest I have, has no dolls house papers. The next catalogue that I have, the 1923 Catalogue, has only two patterns: brick paper and slate paper.
1923 Brick paper
1923 Slate paper
These two items, basic to decorating the outside of a dolls house, appear in all the Hobbies catalogues I have until 1942. Brick paper in natural colours and half-size brick paper were introduced in 1937, in addition to the usual red brick paper.
140 Red Brick Paper sheets 1920s-1942
141 Red Brick Paper in rolls 1929-1934
140a Brick Paper in natural colours 1937-1942
163 Brick Paper in natural colours 1937-1942
145 Slate Roof Paper 1920s-1942
Wallpapers for the interior of the house were introduced sometime between 1923 and 1929. Isobel Hockey kindly shared a page of papers photocopied from the 1926 Hobbies catalogue. The three designs (one available in two colourways) are all also found in Triang houses from the 1920s.
This catalogue page doesn't give any information about the colours. Paper No 700 appears in Triang houses with both pink and purple flowers.
Wallpaper No 700 in pink from a Triang DH 9 © Susanne G.
Wallpaper No 700 in purple from a Triang DH A, 1924 © Marion Osborne
Wallpaper No 702 is the same design as No 701, but probably has a white background, while 701 may have a beige background as in this photo:
Wallpaper No 701/2 from a Triang DH 9 © Susanne G.
Wallpapers 701/2 and 700 together in a Triang DH 9, 1924-1927 © Marion Osborne
Wallpaper No. 703 in a Hobbies catalogue (l) and in a Triang DH 11 (r) © Marion Osborne
Carpet papers in blue (600), green (601) and red (602) were also available at the same time as these wallpapers. Intriguingly, Susanne's Hobbies 1828 has the same pattern in brown. Design number 1828 was not issued until late in 1930, while these carpet papers were not included in the Hobbies catalogues of 1929 on. Possibly the maker of Susanne's house obtained the papers from a retailer who still had them in stock, or direct from the wallpaper manufacturer.
Carpet paper in brown on the stairs of Susanne's Hobbies 1828. © Susanne G.
None of the wallpapers or carpet papers shown above were listed in the 1929 catalogue. Instead, there are two new wallpapers, two floor papers and tile paper.
No. 100, a design of foliage and flowers in pale brown. Available 1929 - 1932.
NEW: Isobel Hockey has sent photos of her Hobbies 186 Special, which has this wallpaper in the kitchen. It's a much nicer shade of brown than I had imagined!
Hobbies Wallpaper No 100 © Isobel Hockey
No. 101, another design of foliage and flowers, this time in green. Available 1929 - 1932.
No 102, a woven design in a pretty pink. Available 1929 - 1932.
No 111, parquet floor paper. Available 1929 - 1932.
No 112, lino floor paper. Available 1929 - 1932.
The colour is not stated - perhaps the dark colour was black, or green or brown. The same pattern in blue and white was sold as No 146, blue and white tile paper.
No 146, blue and white tile paper. Available 1929-1941.
No 146 blue and white tile paper in the kitchen of a Hobbies No 1828. (I don't recognise the floor paper.) © Susanne G.
Hobbies also sold leatherette and veneer papers from 1929 to 1941. They were intended for use in other designs too (for example, lining small boxes), but could usefully be applied in dolls houses and dolls house furniture.
Leatherette papers, No 118 sage green, No 119 chestnut brown, No 120 brown, No 121 rich sepia. Available 1929-1941
Veneer paper, un-numbered, in grey, walnut, green and red. Available 1929-1941. Susanne's No 1828 makes extensive use of veneer paper - above, as flooring in the bedroom, and below, two shades are used to imitate panelling on the kitchen door. Photos © Susanne G
Walnut veneer paper on the landing walls of the Hobbies 1828. Photo © Susanne G
New papers were introduced in 1933. Perhaps they weren't very popular, or interior decorating fashions changed very quickly, as they were only shown in the 1933 and 1934 catalogues, and a new range was introduced in 1935.
No 147, "a pleasing shade of grey", and No 148, brown and grey. Available 1933-34.
No 149, a pattern of blossoms and twigs in pink and mauve. No 150, a pattern in mauve, green and pink of what could be fruits or berries and twigs. Available 1933-34.
NEW: Isobel Hockey also has Wallpaper No 149 in her Hobbies 186 Special, in the children's room:
Hobbies wallpaper no 149 © Isobel Hockey
Cherry blossom seems to have been very popular on wallpaper around this time. Susanne's Hobbies 1828 has a wallpaper with cherry blossom on a blue background, and another cherry blossom pattern also appears in some Triang houses.
While the slate roof paper was still available right through until 1942, a red tile paper was also introduced in 1933. Like the slate paper, it was available until 1942.
154 red tile paper, above, as it appeared in catalogues from 1933-1938; below, as it appeared from 1939-1942. I don't know whether it was just the catalogue image which was re-done, or if the actual paper changed too.
As stucco had become popular as an exterior finish on real houses, Hobbies sold a rough-cast paper for dolls houses from 1934-1941. A fort paper was also available from 1935-41 - as its name suggests, it was intended for forts and castles, but perhaps its grey stone effect was used on some dolls houses?
155, rough-cast paper in stucco effect; 156, fort paper, in grey mottled effect.
In 1934, linen cloth was introduced, for backing material behind open fretwork, for example in radio cabinets. Like the leatherette, this was not primarily intended for dolls houses, but could have been used for flooring or for covering furniture. Three patterns were available in 1934, each in a different colour. From 1935, only one pattern was available, in all three colours. (In 1940 and '41, an identical pattern was sold as Alanap suede paper, in the same colours.)
Linen cloth: above left, No 151 green; above right, No 152 red; and left, No 153 blue, available in 1934. From 1935-1939, pattern 153 was sold in blue, green and red. In 1940 and 1941, a very similar pattern was available in the same colours as Alanap suede paper.1935 brought another range of modern wallpapers, with large, striking designs. This range included the famous inlaid linoleum floor paper. Some of these designs were available until 1941.
Left, No 157, a wintry scene with children playing snowballs, in red, gold, blue and black on white. Available 1935-1941.
Right, No 162, a bold and bright design of black and yellow streaky shapes on an orange background. Available 1935-1940.
No 158, inlaid linoleum floor paper in brown tones. Available 1935-1941.
No 159, gold on red ground. No 160, gold on green ground. Available 1935-1941.
(Yes, this image from 1936 does say 'No. 168, Gold on Green', but all the other catalogues show it as No. 160.)
159 Gold on Red ground wallpaper in a Triang Princess from 1938-39. © Marion Osborne
No 161, above, blue on white. Available 1935-1937.
Replaced in 1938 by another blue on white design, No 164, below. Available 1938-1940.
The last wallpaper design introduced before the war was a splotchy pattern in red or blue. It is described as 'embossed', so I imagine that part of the pattern was raised; whether that was the coloured part or the white part, I don't know.
If you have a dolls house made to one of these designs, or which has some of these wallpapers, I would love to hear from you!
A dolls house in the Hobbies display at the Olympia trade fair, 1937. It's hard to see clearly, but doesn't appear to be exactly the same as any Hobbies dolls house design I know of.
Perhaps you have a dolls house that has similar features to these Hobbies houses, but isn't identical to any of these designs? As I mentioned, I don't have all the Hobbies catalogues or weekly magazines, so it's possible that there are other designs we don't yet know about. It's also possible that someone modified a Hobbies design - even the parcels of fretwood sold for each plan had to be cut by the maker, they were not sold as ready to assemble kits. In addition, other publications besides Hobbies, Handicrafts and Woodworker issued dolls house plans, and some commercial manufacturers of dolls houses produced models very similar to those published by Hobbies. We'd love to know about dolls houses that look like these, too - they all help in identifying designs, makers and models.