by Rebecca Green
Pomona Toys were fashionable in 1920s and 30s Britain – they had a shop in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and later in Holland Street, Kensington, and (according to Christie’s) they supplied Fortnums, Liberty's and Harrods. Among dolls house collectors they are best known for their wooden dolls, but they also made dolls houses and dolls house furniture.
Pomona dolls, 3 3/4" tall (Photo: Marion Osborne.)
Pomona Toys was the creation of two artists, Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse and Louise Jacobs. Both had worked in other media – Mary Wheelhouse as a painter and book illustrator, and Louise Jacobs as a painter, drawer, and designer of murals and posters.
They had begun making toys as early as 1915. A reviewer in the 'Journal of the Royal Society of Arts' that year expressed the opinion that “some of the toys strike one as being more beautiful than fit for 'their purpose. Some of the charming little models exhibited by Miss MV Wheelhouse and Miss Louise Jacobs, for instance, suggest that the average child could only be trusted to gaze at them from a distance, except on rare occasions when there was someone by.”
They also exhibited toys together at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1916.
Cook (5") and maid (4 1/2"), both commercially dressed. Cook has a padded bust! (Photos: Isobel Hockey)
The first advertisement I have found for Pomona Toys is from the journal 'Studio Trust' in 1917:
M. V. WHEELHOUSE and LOUISE JACOBS, Pomona Toys, 64 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, S.W.3. Hand-made British Toys in great variety. Original designs by artists. Special orders carried out. Price list on application.
Family of Pomona dolls: Dad (4 1/2", commercially dressed, with painted tie and shirt collar), Mum (4 1/2"), brother (3 3/4"), sister (3 1/2") and toddler (2 5/8"). (Photos: Isobel Hockey)
Both artists had been born in Yorkshire – Mary Wheelhouse in 1868 in Leeds (daughter of Claudius Galen Wheelhouse, a surgeon at the Leeds General Infirmary and a JP), and Louise Jacobs in Hull in 1880, daughter of B. S. Jacobs, an architect and surveyor.
Illustrations by M.V. Wheelhouse for, left, A Flat Iron for a Farthing (J.H. Ewing; 1926 edition); right, Cranford (Mrs Gaskell, 1909 edition).
Mary Wheelhouse was already living in London by 1901, at Pomona House studios, 111 New Kings Rd, Fulham, with 3 other artists. (At the time of the 1911 census, she was back in Scarborough, Yorkshire, with her sister Ethel, a violin teacher, and their 86 year old widowed mother.)
NEW: Photo of Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse in 'Notable Londoners' (1924), from the digitised collection 'Britain, Business Indexes 1892-1987' on findmypast.co.uk. © Society of Genealogists.
Louise Jacobs was awarded a free studentship in art in 1903. She won a competition to design a mural for a London County Council school in 1912, and had an exhibition of drawings in line and colour at a gallery in New Bond Street in 1914. She belonged to the Suffrage Atelier, and is probably best known for her 1912 poster The Appeal of Womanhood. I can’t find her on the 1911 census – it’s possible that she was taking part in the suffragettes’ boycott of the census.
By 1922, the date of the next advertisement I’ve found for Pomona Toys (in 'The Saturday Review'), only M. V. Wheelhouse’s name appears. Louise Jacobs continued painting, with an exhibition in 1935, but perhaps she didn’t continue making toys.
Grace’s Guide to British Engineering and photographs from a Red Rose Guild exhibition in 1935 give another name associated with M. V. Wheelhouse in Pomona Toys, that of A. B. Ellis.
A Miss A. B. Ellis worked at Dryad Handicrafts in Leicester in the 1920s. She wrote a leaflet for them called Toy Carving for Children (Dryad Leaflet # 25), and some of her carvings can be seen on the website of the Leicester Arts and Museum Services – a yo-yo, ca 1927; wooden farm animals, ca 1920; a giraffe, also ca 1920; and a rooster (at bottom of page). These carvings are very like the Pomona animals and birds, so it seems likely that, if an A. B. Ellis was involved with Pomona, it’s the same Miss A. B. Ellis. The Leicester website also shows carvings which she collected from Africa: four storks on a stand from Beheu, ca 1927; a warthog from Zimbabwe, ca 1933, and a crocodile from Lebamba, Mozambique, also ca 1933, as well as rings and bracelets from South Africa.
Photograph of wooden toys by M. V. Wheelhouse and A.B. Ellis in a Red Rose Guild exhibition, 1935. The catalogue entry describes photographs mounted in an album - I think this could be a very valuable source for Pomona Toys! (Found through Shelf Appeal blog.)
I haven’t (yet) been able to find out anything else about her. I have established that she was not the Miss A. B. Ellis who prepared coloured plates of garden and cider apples for 'The Herefordshire Pomona', a treatise in 4 parts (at least) on apples, pears, the orchard and its products, published in 1884. This Miss A. B. (Alice Blanche) Ellis was born in 1848 and died in 1918. Nor was she Aline (Adeline Rosa) Ellis (1886-1971), who had a pottery in Hertfordshire and was well known for her pottery figures of dogs and horses. Nor can I find any connection with Colonel Sir Alfred Burdon Ellis (1852-1894), who was posted in Africa and wrote a number of books – so for the moment, she remains a mystery.
NEW: With a little more information, and more resources online, I have now (in 2016) identified Miss A. B. Ellis as Aileen Blanche Ellis, born 8th December 1892 in Highgate, north London, the daughter of stockbroker William Walter Ellis. An entry in the 1924 publication Notable Londoners states that she had studied sculpture (she appears on the 1911 electoral roll as a student, living with her widowed father in Woking), and had worked during WWI manufacturing scientific instruments. She had become a partner in Pomona Toys by 1924. She is listed on the London electoral rolls, with Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse, at the Pomona Toys' shop addresses in Cheyne Walk and Holland Street, with her abode given in some years as Pomona House Studios and in other years as her father's residence, Amyand House, Twickenham. She died in Dorset on 23rd July 1970.
NEW: Photo of Aileen Blanche Ellis in Notable Londoners (1924), from the digitised collection 'Britain, Business Indexes 1892-1987' on findmypast.co.uk. © Society of Genealogists.
Promotional postcard of Pomona Toys shop at 64 Cheyne Walk, found on the Exciting Chelsea website (the creator added the paragraph on Pomona Toys after I emailed him about the postcard).
Pomona Toys’ first known shop was at 64 Cheyne walk SW3 (from 1917, at the latest). Pomona’s first listing in the telephone directory in 1925 was still at that address (ph Kensington 1950). However, from October 1927 until 1939, the shop was at 14 Holland st W8 (ph PARk 9634, changed to WEStern 3761 in 1929).
Workshops at 28 Gunter gro SW 10 KENsngtn 3830 were also listed in the phone book from 1926 to 1939.
Detail of shop windows at 64 Cheyne Walk. Visible are skipping ropes, single-wheeled toys, carved giraffes, camels, ostriches, penguins and other animals; a swinging bird, a hobby horse, a well, a horse-drawn caravan, dressed dolls, a pony cart (with parasol?) filled with dolls, and other toys.
Pomona toys seems to have ceased operating at the start of World War II. Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse was 71 by then, and she died in 1947 aged 79. (Louise Jacobs died in 1946.) But for about 24 years, Pomona Toys had produced wooden toys, and, according to some sources, run a doll’s hospital.
In 1922, Pomona advertised: "English Toys for English children, designed and made in Chelsea, from 2d to £5. Write for illustrated price list." I wish we could see that price list!
Pomona toys for the dolls house nursery. (Photo: Isobel Hockey)
Queen Mary bought several Pomona Toys, and Pomona also contributed toys for the dolls house presented to her. Everybody’s Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House mentions some:
“... and then please, if you were ever a child, squeak with joy over the precious Pomona toys ! Amongst these a Sedan chair with lady all complete, a Dutch cradle with child, and a swinging bird. ...”
A tiny merry-go-round by Pomona Toys, which is in the Day Nursery, can be seen in detail in the Object Gallery of Queen Mary's Dolls' House.
At the 1929 British Industries Fair, they were described as “Manufacturers of Wooden Toys of all kinds, specializing in well-designed small birds and animals. Noah's Arks, Merry-go-Rounds, Hobby Horses, Monkeys-up-Sticks, Coster Carts; Dolls in Composition and Wood. Dolls' Furniture; Menu Stands, Flowersticks, etc.”
These two 17 inch dolls were sold as part of the 'Mary Merritt Doll Museum auction' in 2006. They are marked on the left foot "Pomona Toys - 64 Cheyne Walk - Chelsea, S.W.3 - Reg No 261548". They are described in the auction catalogue as earthenware art dolls, ca 1918. I suspect that they are some of the composition dolls mentioned in 1929 BIF listing. The address indicates that they were made between 1917 and 1927. (Thank you to Shelf Appeal for this link too.)
A review in 'The Times' of a Christmas Exhibition in 1929 says that
“Pomona toys not only show birds and animals, true in form and colour, but they have revived old traditional toys like the monkey-up-a-stick and the weather-house with the little man and woman presented in Tudor dress.”
Two 6 inch plywood dolls. (Photo: Marion Osborne)
Dolls houses are first mentioned in the 1930s. At the 1932 British Industries Fair (quoted in Marion Osborne’s 'A-Z 1914-1941 Dolls Houses'), they were favourably mentioned:
‘An attractive stand was this with the gaily coloured Noah’s Arks and other wooden toys. The lines featured included market gardens, with real seeds, dolls houses both furnished and unfurnished, hunting sets, jockeys on racehorses, birds and animals. The artistic qualities of these were plainly apparent’.
Again in 1936, when they had a stand at Olympia, Pomona is described as a “Manufacturer of Wooden Toys, Noah’s Ark, Push Toy “Twinkle Twins”, Wooden Dolls and Doll’s House Furniture, Small Birds and New set of Jointed Dogs. Nursery Wall Pictures in wood.”
Pomona doll's head, and the brand marked on the back of the doll's torso. (Photos: Marion Osborne.)
If anyone has or knows of a Pomona dolls house, or Pomona dolls house furniture, please let us know! It seems very likely that they would have been marked with the brand name, so perhaps they are very rare - or the brand name has been painted over!
These two dolls have a different (perhaps earlier?) signature stamp on their backs, and L 1/- written in pencil on their chests. (Man or boy: 4", woman or girl: 3 3/4".) (Photos: Isobel Hockey)
Although Pomona clearly catered for the well-off inhabitants of Chelsea and Kensington, they also directed their advertisements to those of lesser means. As a 1937 ad said: “Wooden Toys, large and small, to suit all purses.”
A 6" Pomona doll demonstrates how her limbs work. Perhaps she was at the cheaper end of the range - the plywood is splitting on her feet. This doll's clothes look homemade. Barbara King was told by a member of the Doll Club of Great Britain that Pomona dolls were sold undressed, to be dressed at home (perhaps by mothers, perhaps by girls learning sewing). Isobel Hockey had a school needlework textbook, which showed dolls clothes to make for Pomona dolls. She also had a 12" Pomona doll dressed in one of the designs shown in the book.
Pomona also produced educational toys, and advertised in Nursery Schools and Nursery Classes (a pamphlet of the Great Britain Board of Education):
POMONA TOYS 14, Holland Street, Kensington - W.8 SIMPLE, WELL CONSTRUCTED WOODEN TOYS. Plain Building Bricks, per bag 1/8 nett. Cut-out Numbers. Jig-saw Numbers. Wooden Dolls from 6d. to 2/6 nett. ...
(Tri-ang advertised a climbing frame in the same pamphlet: “A constant source of exercise and amusement. Stands firm when erected and folds flat when not required.”)
These 3 3/4inch dolls (left and below) are made of solid wood and have painted shoes. They show some of the variety in hair and eye colours of Pomona dolls: black, brown and red hair; blue or brown eyes. Are their clothes homemade? The red dress certainly looks it; with the others, it's harder to tell. (Photos: Barbara King)
3 3/4" Pomona dolls at home with Westacre, Pit-a-Pat and Cole furniture. (Photo: Barbara King.)