Chad Valley gets set for television
Chad Valley is now a brand of Argos, part of Home Retail Group, which is Britain's leading toy retailer. This bonus page in the Woolworths Museum relates to the history of Chad Valley from the start of World War II to their twenty-one year association with Woolworths which came to an abrupt halt in 2008. It is offered for historical interest. All trademarks are acknowledged.
In the late 1930s all of Europe feared another World War and countries started to re-arm at pace. Government intervention meant that many factories were encouraged to convert for their peace-time manufacturing to maufacturing armaments and specialist engineering for a future conflict. Chad Valley was no exception, but by the late 1930s had a string of factories, giving them more flexibility.
As the Toymaker to the ruling classes, Chad Valley persuaded the powers-that-be that supply to the top London stores should be maintained. The rationale was that "children won't understand war". So while Woolworth children made do with Mighty Midget comics and patriotic Lumar jigsaws of U-boats and Spitfires for sixpence, the clientelle of Harrods and Gamages in London and provincial stores like Manchester's Kendal Milne & Co. could still expect diecast figures and vehicles, the academic range and even teddies and soft toys.
The items - now bearing the Royal Warrant as 'Toymakers by Appointment to H. M. the Queen' - included globes reflecting the changing political scene in Europe. The layout was updated regularly to show the changing borders between the major powers,- for example the enlarged Germany after the Anchluss and the Channel Islands as part of the Third Reich.
As with the downmarket Woolworths range, paper card products were updated, with military characters appearing in the game of snap, and the Happy Families cards including soldiers in uniform heading off to war. The major difference between the two companies was on price - with the Chad Valley cards four shillings and elevenpence (around 25p) and the Woolworths version just sixpence (2.5p).
The Chad Valley wartime teddy bear maintained the usual high quality. The illustration below shows that the company did not compromise the design or manufacture.
Initially it appeared that manufacturing at Chad Valley would simply return to normal once hostilities ended. Some of their early post-war toys were very reminiscent of the offers of yesterday, with tin toy cars finished with lots of detail back on the shelves in 1947. Other ranges were updated too - the clockwork trainset was amended to remove the logos of the steam railway companies, with 'British Railways' replacing the traditional LMS (London Midland Steam), LNER (London and North East Railway) and GWR (Great West Railway) tenders respectively, along with the Carter Paterson van. Even the London bus got a makeover to reflect the narrowing of the Routemaster chassis after the war.
But change was sweeping through Britiain in the 1950s. The Chad Valley team had to decide how to re-engage. Their response was exemplary, modernising the firm while maintaining its core values and brand ethos. For example, in a bid to get toys onto the shelves of Woolworths (from whom Chad Valley had traditionally been too expensive), they designed clockwork diecast cars which were unpainted and had a little less detail. Now that Woolworths had abadonned its sixpenny pricing, this allowed for some middle ground with solidly-built vehicles for half a crown (12½p)
Building on a traditional strength, Chad Valley were quick to respond to the wave of royal fervour that swept the nation on the accession of the young Queen Elizabeth II. A jigsaw showing the Queen with T. R. H. Prince Charles and Princess Anne proved to be a smash hit around the world. In deference to the Monarchy the unusual puzzle featured outsize pieces for the heads of each of the subjects with much smaller wooden interlocking pieces for the remainder. The box included a revised royal warrant as Toymakers by Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The same royal fervour that saw sales of the puzzle rocket also prompted a massive increase in the sales of television sets ahead of the Royal Coronation, which prompted what many consider to be Chad Valley's finest hour.
Building on the pre-war Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been licenced from Disney, Chad Valley was quick to spot the potential to make toys to link up with popular TV shows, after the launch of a commercial television service in Britain in the Fifties.
The toymaker licenced many BBC and ITA programmes. Each was translated into a simple toy, spanning genres from the Jimmy Edwards classic Whack-o! to comedian Tony Hancock's satirical Hancock's Half Hour and the Michael Miles hit Take your Pick.
The biggest hit came from the inspired choice to licence The Sooty Show. Its creator, Harry Corbett, rose to stardom after a career as a Butlins redcoat when the show first aired in the 1950s. The puppets had a special magic, because they broke the mould of talking down to perfect, politically-correct children.
Sooty was a bear who did magic tricks that always went wrong. He never spoke out loud, prefering to whisper in Harry's ear. Sweep was a dog, who could say more in a squeak that Mrs Mills managed in three posh sentences to Muffin the Mule. And Soo, a Panda, was practically perfect in every way. While she was quietly spoken, she knew exactly how to keep the boys in line.
The Sooty show franchise became a money-spinner for Chad Valley. Not only did it spawn a board game and a series of books, but also many magic tricks (some of which accidentally went right) and a highly regarded family of glove puppets. To satisfy demand executives bought the Chiltern Toy Company, a leading British cuddly toy factory.
For many of today's parents and grandparents the defining Chad Valley product was the Give a Show Projector, which brought countless hours of happiness and was one of very few toys that actively encouraged kids to want to go to bed. The battery operated projector included strips of seven pictures from some of the popular shows of the day - in the Fifites led by Popeye the Sailor Man and in the Sixties by Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds.
Chad Valley's designers had hit on a great product, caputing the technology revolution which was emerging in the Fifties, the popularity of Childrens TV and the character franchise all-in-one. But they never guessed that instead of projecting the pictures onto a 'piece of card about eight feet away', children would discover the great picture and wonderful effects and shapes that could be achieved by playing the film strips under the covers on the white bed sheets!
The success of the Give-a-Show spawned a whole range of products, including extra film strips, either singly or in fives at pocket-money prices, and projectors, initially for cassette films of popular TV programmes from Britain and America, which were exported all over the world. We flew our exhibit back from Canada, if you spotted the spelling 'Favorite' on the box, which Chad Valley would never have allowed for Britain. The idea of replaying television programmes on cartridge tape pre-dated the Betamax and VHS Video Recorder by more than twenty years, and could have made the Company fabuloulsy rich if they had patented the concept!
The 1970s Projector (above) gives a hint of what was to come. Under the new-look logo, in tiny print it says 'Made in Italy'. Many more lines were to follow to factories overseas.
The upmarket toymaker was an early adopter of new technology. Its telephone kit, which had beeen added to the range just before World War II, became a hit in the Fifites and Sixties, once the homes of ordinary people caught up with the ruling classes, with phones of their own. The original Bakelite design, mirrored the engineering of the real thing from the 'GPO', now known as BT.
As the Fifties continued brightly moulded plastics were used for the telephones which fell in price in line with technology developments in the adult world.
Another example of Chad Valley engaging with new technology was the introduction of a very popular wind-up gramophone in the 1950s, which was later replaced by battery operated 'slot'n'go' model in the Sixties which remained popular into the 1970s. The firm also released records of nursery rhymes and children's songs on their own record label - among the first to sell at 45 rpm rather than the 78s of rival companies. The fifties model, complete with the Royal Warrant, are a popular collectable in the twenty-first century, fetching good prices at auction - and like so many other Chad Valley items tend to work straight out of the box almost sixty years after they were made.
Despite the innovation, and some clever new games, Chad Valley struggled to compete with cheap foreign imports in the late 1960s.
It enjoyed occasional hits like Jacko the Monkey, a Woolworth exclusive, and a link-up with The Smurfs, and sold thousands of musical instruments. But it seemed that only the major US toymakers had the muscle to compete with Hong Kong imports. Chad Valley's owners cashed in, selling out to Palitoy.
Under new ownership, the Seventies brought new direction. Chad Valley was briefly linked with Milton Bradley, harnessing its strength as an educational brand. The facts and figures game below is typical of this association. But by 1978 the Chad Valley brands and most popular products had been split among several other toy companies - some branded Waddingtons in Britain and Hasbro overseas - and the name had vanished. 118 years after the first card games were produced it look as if the brand was gone forever, with the Harborne factory closed and the others subsumed into larger corporations and heading for a similar fate as the move to overseas to overseas production accelerated.
|"Sell a toy, spread some joy"
Frank W. Woolworth - letter to stores. November 1909.
Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Wonders from Woolies
Bonus Items - The History of Chad Valley