A Piece in the Dolly Mixture Puzzle
by Jenni Lowcock
I am not generally a lucky person. If someone in our neighbourhood is going to have burst pipe, blocked drains or an illness that prevents a much anticipated outing, you can bet that I will be first in line to volunteer for the honour. But when it comes to my dolls’ houses, I have to say I have been very fortunate. I have had more than my share of good luck in purchases, and many exciting moments.
My latest little house and what happened as a result of it, is yet more evidence to me that dolls’ houses are THE thing I am supposed to enjoy in my retirement years. When I asked Rebecca whether I should write this, she mentioned that my meeting with George B was serendipitous and I am certain that she is absolutely correct. Without that meeting, a little piece in the Dolly Mixture puzzle might not ever have come to my attention.
My latest little house ...
For many people, the stars amongst early to mid-20th century, 1:16 British dolls houses have always been those made by Lines Bros/Triang, but my own childhood house stood roof and chimney pots above them in my early imagination. My father was, I believed, on personal terms with the big man in red at the North Pole and my house had been built just for me. I had been told that Dad had been summoned by Father Christmas to help in the designing and building of a house that would be the right size to sit on top of the little coffee table that was no longer in use. There was no other dolls’ house in existence that was quite like it, it was special, and proved, to me at least, that my happiness was of real importance to Father Christmas.
That feeling of non-commercially made houses being personal began my love affair with the little houses, designed or built by ordinary people. But I always assumed that all the houses that were not made by a handful of reasonably well known companies, had to be ‘Daddy-made’, and that belief remained with me until I came across my first Dolly Mixture a few years ago. Through emails to Celia at KT Miniatures about the DM house and reading messages on DHP&P I found out what you already know, such houses are not home made from kits, as I had suspected earlier because of their similarity to one another. They had, in fact, originally come to their first owners from toy shops or department stores.
No 2 Dolly Mixture Lane, my first Dolly Mixture house
My first DM came from KT Miniatures, but I wanted at least two. Being unable to drive, it took an age to find one which a seller was willing to send by courier or mail. Finally, a few weeks ago, I found one that was being offered for sale but with personal collection only. I emailed the seller to ask for more photos of the box which was being sold with it and explained that I would not be able to buy as it was impossible for me to pick it up. A few emails passed between us and I asked if she would be kind enough to look for any information on the box about a maker, beyond what I could already see in the sale photo. She couldn’t see anything she thought might help us to find out more about Dolly Mixtures, but asked if I would be prepared to pay £10 towards mail costs on top of my winning bid if I won the auction. If so, she said, she’d love to have me bid and hoped I’d win, as she wanted a good home for the house.
I was thrilled to win it and, as I was still in hospital, my husband brought it in for me to see. It was all I’d hoped, with original flooring, plain white, untouched walls and in extremely good condition. On his way home, Bruce popped in to see my mother at the care home she was staying in whilst I was away and took the house for her to see. It attracted a crowd of elderly folk, and one old gentleman announced,
"We used to make them! "
Now, my husband is not a doll’s house person. Apparently, they all look the same to him. He does not, however, dislike them, and had caught on to the fact that this one was of particular interest because nobody knew much about its manufacture, so he asked the man about it. He said he had worked as a prison officer at the first ever open prison in Yorkshire and had stayed on there when it had become a borstal (young offenders institution) in the 60s.
Once out of hospital, I arranged to speak to the gentleman when we collected Mum to bring her home. I was asked by the staff not to release his full name, or that of the home, as his relatives might consider such information confidential and he had only a few months to live at the most. With that in mind, I took notes, keeping them as close to his exact words as possible, leaving out family names and several long digressions when we moved on to vaguely connected things such as his health. Below is what he told me and I hope his own voice, that of a true, proud, but gentle Yorkshire man comes through to you.
My name is George B. I’ve been living here for 4 years since my Hilda passed. A man in his 90s is not much at caring for himself without a good wife to help him. We used to live in Leeds, like your Mum did, that was when we retired. Before that we were in Wakefield and I travelled each day to New Hall Camp or the Training Prison. I was an officer there, not an inmate! But they all called me Mr B, it was not formal or stuck up in any way.
The entrance to New Hall Camp at Wakefield Training Prison, 1944. Ministry of Information Photo Division; photographer Bryson Jack.© IWM (D 19220)
Well, The Camp (New Hall Camp) was a prison when I was first there, but not one where inmates are locked up all day. It was one of the first to be called an open prison. The men were all given things to do, to try to give them a chance of behaving themselves and not coming back in once they were released. There was a farm at The Camp and there were workshops and a good library for the more bookish men. I mostly worked on the woodwork side, my Dad having insisted I followed him into carpentry when I left school, to make sure I had a trade, you see. So I showed the men how to use tools, what screws or nails might suit a job and how to choose the right wood, that kind of thing. Later it got turned into a borstal for naughty lads – same job for me, but just younger hands to guide.
In the engineering works at Wakefield Training Prison, 1944. In the foreground, one of the four staff members at the prison explains a point to one of the prisoners. Ministry of Information Photo Division; photographer Bryson Jack. © IWM (D 19200)
Anyway, you’ve come about your little house, haven’t you? It makes me right glad to know you and your friends like them still and I do hope you’ll keep the ones you have for your grand-kiddies. I always liked the houses best of the toys we helped the men make. When I thought Hilda was having a babby (sic), I hoped for a girl so we could buy one and have it in the house, but it didn’t happen that way for us. It made my heart right fond to see grown men and, later on, teenage louts, turn soft as they worked on them, though. You’d hear them talk to each other about getting screws in right and sanding pieces well, so that no little lass would get splinters in her little fingers. It brought out something gentle in the toughest of chaps.
So, this is what happened then. In the late summer or early autumn, we’d get orders. So many toy forts, so many garages, maybe a few wooden trains for the babbies (sic) or a box of aeroplanes, they were hardest to do and were left for the best woodworkers in the group to make because of the shaping. But there were always more orders for doll cots and houses than boys’ toys. Most of our orders were for little girl things. Oh, we got small orders all year round, but most came in for the Christmas market and so we’d put a lot into teaching the chaps new skills each between September and October, to be ready for a big push at the end of the year.
The orders came from the prison authorities, not direct from the shops. Me and my mate would get the plans and we’d show the men how to change what was on the paper into the toys. They were just line sketches and measurements, not done to scale and the reading was hard on some of the chaps because they’d not done much in school, but they were dead keen to get it right and I think it helped them in a lot of other ways, like having to read and do the sums. And then they sometimes turned from, well thugs really, into nice chaps, just having to think about the needs of the kiddies that would get the toys at Christmas. Some of them hadn’t done too much thinking about other people in the past and one or two even asked if they could make furniture as an extra for the house.
We couldn’t do that though, let them make furniture for some houses and not others, it wouldn’t have been fair for the girls who didn’t get any in their houses, would it? We did let them have a go at shaping bits from their own designs after the Christmas rush was done though and they could keep them to give as a present to someone when they were released. Some were all out of scale, big chairs with a tiny table or some such, but they were always pleased to have done it all from out of their own heads. Then there were some that were really handsome bits, the sort of thing that looked like apprentice pieces – skilled looking, if you know what I mean, the kind of thing you might like to collect yourself now. Once I saw piece in a posh antique shop in the Lake District. It was labelled as a Victorian apprentice piece, but I knew! I could have told the shop owner the name of the man who made it and what he’d done to be inside – but I thought she might not want to know the truth, being as it would drop the price of her ‘antique’!
Each man would have a turn of everything that needed to be done on the houses. They’d start on just painting, then move to drawing up and cutting, then assembly and then putting in windows which could be tricky if the cutting was not perfect. That taught them patience, that did. Some loved doing the roof jobs, as they were a bit more challenging than the walls. Others would ask to go back to painting. They thought the flowers on the house fronts a bit girly at first, but then some really liked it, got them feeling artistic, I suppose.
By November, each man knew what he was best at doing and we’d be in full swing, making loads of toys on a sort of assembly line, but cheerful, not like in a factory. The funny thing is that we only had to tell one or two men that they were not suited to something they wanted to do in all the time as I was there. It seems a man is happy to know what he is best at, as long as he had the chance to try everything first and find his own niche. If we had just told a man to do a certain task before he’d had a go at everything, he’d have been left feeling somebody else had a better job to do and it would cause jealousy. Instead, we’d ask them what job they fancied doing and they almost always chose something within their capabilities.
Each year there might be a bit of a change in the way the houses were to be finished but there were always two or three sizes so the men got some variety, even if they only made houses and not the boys’ toys as well. Sometimes we’d be asked to put in flooring or paint inside the walls, but some of them were just left all white inside for the little lass to do up herself, or maybe her Dad. We’d sing carols or tell jokes and it was a jolly time, like all the days in that month or six weeks were Christmas Day.
Original flooring and white walls in my new Dolly Mixture. Above, top left; below, top right.
Above, bottom left room; below, bottom right room.
There were a few lads and men that were only nine pence in the shilling, if you take my meaning and we’d tell them the most important job was packing the houses up safe. They’d be right proud to be boxing up, then. The boxes were just stamped with a few words to describe the toy inside, like your box. Something like “dolls’ house, style no. 2” or “train, red and black, 3 carriages.” Funny to think a cardboard box like yours could last 50 years or more, but it looks like it was only played with once in a while does your house, doesn’t it?
We never put where a toy had been made on the box as the Mums and Dads probably wouldn’t buy them if they knew they were prison work – probably thought the men should be breaking stones or sewing mail bags! But it wasn’t just us that turned them out, there were other places, even hospitals where people stayed in long term, maybe places like mental hospitals and those hospital schools for the unfortunates with learning problems as meant they could never live as independents. In the 60s a lot of the borstal boys were making them all over the country, too, not just my lads. I chose to stay on at the old place when the men were moved out and it became a borstal – I don’t suppose you remember them, but a borstal was instead of a youth detention centre that they’d go to now, only it was better because we treated them as young men and got them working with their hands, which they liked, not sitting in desks, which they’d not done too well at in their past.
One year, I remember a big army truck coming to collect a load of the boxes. I think some of the lads thought they were going to be rounded up and sent to war. Some of them were old enough to do national service, but had to finish their time with us first. The poor boys didn’t read much news and thought World War 3 had begun. You have to remember their Dads and Grand-dads had had the second and the first wars, so they thought it was their turn! It turned out there had been a flood near Catterick barracks and the usual lorry had broken down trying to get through, so the chap in charge of Catterick had sent an army truck to collect the load and deliver to the shops on the coast so orders would be filled in time for Christmas delivery.
Anyway, you’d see the toys on shop shelves. Little shops and big department shops like Lewis’s (a Leeds store) sold them alongside the big named ones such as Triang, but always at a deal less money. Funny thing though, I always thought our houses, forts and such looked just as good as the named ones, especially in the early days when the men were working on them. Some of those bushes and flowers got a bit rough and ready when it was youngsters doing them and the people sending us the basic designs did cut back on some of the harder bits to make up then, too – well, some of the boys were only 14 years old, so they couldn’t all reach the skill of a man.
Grandpa Roland (1:16) showing the scale of the house.
The garage with brick paper.
Shopkeepers having sold them for less makes me glad now, though it used to offend me a bit. But just you think of the little lasses who got one, who might have been disappointed on Christmas Day if we hadn’t made them affordable. It feels like my men and lads did their bit for the kiddies, for all their bad ways before that.
I’ve been thinking of things a lot since I was told I’d be on my way to join my lovely Hilda very soon, maybe before the New Year. But you and your computer friends have made me even happier to be joining her now, I feel more than I did before that I’ll have left a little piece of me and my lads for you all to enjoy. Me and Hilda have no one coming up behind us, there’s just Hilda’s great nephews who are good men, but it isn’t like leaving your own children as your mark on the world. So you’ll ask the computer group people to look after the houses, for me and the chaps, won’t you? I think those little houses had lot to do with my men turning out alright after a bad start or a lot of misfortune in life. They deserve to be looked after by nice people and to be played with by kiddies too. Who would think a toy house might turn a man from bad to good? But they did you know, many a time they truly did.
Sadly, George passed away on 14th December 2015. I hope you will join me in sending up a silent thank you to him for his contribution to the dolls’ house world and to the happiness of a host of little girls in the 50s and 60s who must have been delighted to receive one of these special little houses.