Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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Dolls Houses from the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops by Rebecca Green

I was recently fortunate to acquire a catalogue of toys made during 1916-17 at the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops in Fulham, London. I knew from Marion Osborne's A to Z 1914 to 1941 Dolls Houses that this organisation had made dolls houses from 1915 until about 1922. This is quite a short period, so both catalogues and the dolls houses themselves are rare.



The Workshops were formed in 1915, named for Field Marshall Lord Roberts, who had served in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, in Abyssinia and Afghanistan and in the Second Boer War. He died in France in November 1914, while visiting troops fighting in World War I. 


The Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops in Fulham, London, as expanded in 1918. From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1918 supplement, courtesy Marion Osborne. 


Many soldiers fighting in WWI suffered wounds which disabled them not only from fighting, but also from the occupations which they had followed before the war. They returned to civilian life with a pension, but with few opportunities for employment. The catalogue I have states that "the one great and primary object" of the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops was "the economic utilisation of maimed men untrained in any craft", "men broken in the wars, men whose arms and legs and hands are stricken off or permanently injured men". 



A hundred years and several major wars later, the development of prosthetic hands and limbs has advanced beyond the imagination of those employed in these Workshops. There, "the "drilling and block-making machines [were] fitted with flexible pulls, easily operated by one-armed soldiers ... the man's one perfect hand guiding the material, the handless stump operating the pull."


"To make inanimate things, hooks and wire, metal and wood, take the place of hand and arm, is the keynote of our program."



Women and girls were also employed in the Workshops - in the painting room. All were dependants or daughters of service men. (What happened, I wonder, to any nurses injured while serving on the front?) 


A view of a painting room in February 1918, showing many dolls houses. From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1918 Supplement, courtesy Marion Osborne.


By 1916, there were already workshops in other cities, too, making "goods which local circumstances point out as economically suitable". In Birmingham, metal toys, including lead soldiers, were made. The Bradford workshop focussed on printing and woolly toys. Colchester made household requisites and porcelain toy bricks, while Liverpool and Belfast made small furniture and toys. "Lord Roberts" cigarettes were produced at all the main centres.


Toys were an obvious product, as the war cut off the supply of toys from Germany, previously one of the main sources of imported toys. There was also a patriotic desire to build up the toy industry so that when the war ended, Britain would have no need of imports.


Above and below: The Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops exhibit at a toy fair, 1916. From Games and Toys, April 1916, courtesy Marion Osborne. 



The hoped-for self-sufficiency in toys after the war did not eventuate, however. Also, Marion Osborne explained in her A to Z, government subsidies to the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops were cut in 1921, and several branches had to close. By 1923, the Workshops were no longer appearing in the dolls house section of the trade journal Games and Toys.


Dolls houses were therefore only made for about seven years, from 1915 to 1922. One was featured in the International Dolls House News of February/March 2000. It had the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops logo on the base, but this was not recognised at first by the auction house specialists or dolls house collectors. Do any readers recognise this logo, or any of the houses below, from their own collections?


The Dolls Houses

Four assembled dolls houses are shown in the 1916/17 catalogue.


D.H. 1 The "Georgian"

Size 28½ x 31 x 14 inches.

Price £2 2s

This house has four large rooms and is fitted with fireplaces and staircases. It is pink and light blue with white moulding (inside or out or both?), and the front door is green.

This house also appeared in an ad in The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader in January 1918.



Isobel Hockey has sent a photo of a DH1 Georgian dolls house, which she took some years ago at a little exhibition in a village in Dorset. The owner said that it had a Lord Roberts stamp or label in its base. It is indeed light blue with white moulding, though the front door is no longer green:

Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops DH1 Georgian dolls house © Isobel Hockey



D.H.2 The Thatched Cottage

Size 26½ x 20 x 9½ inches.

Price £1 12s 6d

This cottage has a real thatched roof, fitted fireplaces and glass windows. There are four rooms. The exterior is painted cream and black, and the front door is green with a brass knob.



D.H.3 Country Bungalow

Size: 42 x 15 x 28 inches.

Price £2 10s.

The base forms a lawn with flowerbeds and shrubs, and it came with two backgrounds, one of foliage and the other (shown in the illustration) of the road approaching the back of the house.


D.H.4 The Houseboat

Size:  43 x 21 x 26 inches.

Price £2 10s. 

Suitable deck chairs, tables, and a miniature punt included.


D.H. F Folding Dolls Houses

These are larger - in fact, D.H. F 1 is a play house for children which is 4 feet high. D.H. F 2 (on the right in the scan below) is nearly 3 feet tall, and it is for large dolls. It has two large rooms, is coloured white, green and blue, and all the doors and windows open. It folds up like a screen, so I presume that the walls are hinged together at the sides. How the interior is constructed, I don't know - is there a base and a floor for an upper room? The catalogue doesn't mention these details.



The 1916/17 catalogue also offered two types of constructional dolls houses, Constructo and Empire Bricks.

D.H.C Constructo Dolls Houses

"Constructo" dolls houses were made of strong wood, millboard and glass, with the box forming the base. The timbers had grooves for the walls to slide into, and the gables, main timbers and floors were dowelled (I presume this means they had dowelling tabs to secure them to the adjacent parts). The glass windows were framed, and were fixed into the ground floor and hinged in the upper floor.


Coloured plans were provided for making the three models illustrated.





E.B. 1 and 2 Empire Bricks dolls houses

Empire Bricks consisted of "wooden blocks or frames, tongued and grooved". "When built up, an ideal Dolls' House is formed, with separate rooms, well lit by suitable windows and provided with staircase. ... the bricks fit so firmly that there is no fear of their falling apart."

Some printed designs were supplied with the two sets of bricks. Box No 2 had nearly twice the number of bricks as Box No 1, so larger houses could be constructed. However, the pieces were all of uniform size, so bricks from the two boxes could be combined.


E.B. 1 Small Cottage


E.B. 2a Double-fronted Dolls House


E.B. 2b Two Storey Dolls House


For later Lord Roberts' dolls houses, I am indebted to Marion Osborne, who has shared the images she found by searching the toy trade journals.


1917, Tudor-style Dolls House

A new Tudor-style dolls house was advertised in the Toy and Fancy Goods Trader in February 1917. The details of the exterior - the door, windows and shutters, timbering and roof tiles - were painted directly onto the wood, in "bright attractive colours".


From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1917, courtesy Marion Osborne


A year later, in February 1918, a smaller version of this house appears. The house shown above, which was advertised in February 1917, is now 'A' Dolls' House, and the new, smaller one is 'B' Dolls' House. House A measures 18" x 15", while House B is 16" x 11½".


From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1918, courtesy Marion Osborne 

NEW: Member Eleanor has kindly shared photos of a Lord Roberts dolls house she acquired, the "B" Dolls' House. As the ad says, the colours are printed on the wood, though 100 years ago, the range of colours was small. The exterior of the house is white and black; the door is green and white; the base and floors are black and yellow; and the interior is white and pink.

Lord Roberts "B" Dolls' House, exterior and interior. Photos © Eleanor.





Another dolls house from Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops was shown in a supplement to this same February 1918 issue of The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader. We don't see the exterior, although we can see from the inside front that it has a central front door with a long window above it, and two smaller windows on either side.

The interior has two large rooms, with a staircase rising from the centre of the ground floor and then turning to run up the back wall to the upper room. There appear to be built-in fireplaces with very elaborate overmantel mirrors.

The roofline is quite distinctive, with balustrades along the bottom edge and around the flat rooftop, forming a widow's walk. There appear to be two chimneys, one at each side of the widow's walk.


From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1918 supplement, courtesy Marion Osborne 


In August 1918, a chalet-style house called The White House appeared:

                                  From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, August 1918,

                      reproduced in A to Z 1914 to 1941 Dolls Houses, by Marion Osborne


The last dolls houses which we are aware of were exhibited in 1920, and can be seen in this photo from The Toyshop and Fancy Goods Journal, March 1920:


From The Toyshop and Fancy Goods Journal, March 1920, courtesy Marion Osborne


The short article describes the houses as having "cunning bow windows". I have scanned the houses at higher resolution, so that we can see these windows in a bit more detail:


Detail from The Toyshop and Fancy Goods Journal, March 1920, courtesy Marion Osborne




Dolls House Furniture and Figures

Three sets of dolls house furniture are illustrated in the 1916/17 catalogue. The boxes they were packed in measured 14" x 12" x 2½". The furniture appears to be made of simply cut fretwood, with some stripwood and dowel for legs, etc. One feature that the sets have in common is that the legs of chairs, sofa, bed, and dressing and wash tables are indicated by a semi-circular piece cut from the uprights. The kitchen pieces have circles cut in the sides of the dresser and the backs of the kitchen chairs.


D. F. 1 The bedroom set, consisting of a dressing table, wardrobe, bed, two chairs and a washstand, was decorated in "delicate colour".


D. F. 2 The Drawing-room set was either stained or painted. It comprised a sofa, two armchairs, one upright chair, a round table with a triangular or square baseboard, and a dresser or cupboard.



D. F. 3 The kitchen was made of whitewood, and has a dresser, a kitchen table and two kitchen chairs, with a mangle, a clothes horse and a ladder.



This catalogue states that other patterns are being prepared, but the only other set of Lord Roberts' dolls house furniture we know of is from early 1918:

From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, January 1918, courtesy Marion Osborne

As you can see, this set came in two sizes. 



Susanne saw these Lord Roberts' chairs and table at a fair, and was able to take a photo. She remarked that the chairs came in three sizes, looking as if they were meant for the three bears!

Suite of decorated dolls' furniture made by the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops. Photo © Susanne G. 

It's likely that if we had other catalogues, we would find more sets of dolls house furniture.


Chunky Toys

The composition dolls made by the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops were larger than dolls house size, ranging from 12 inches to 22 inches (apart from the kewpies, which were 6 and 8 inches). However, wooden figures called Chunky Toys were also produced, which ranged in size from 2 inches to 15 inches. Some of these could probably have been used in dolls houses.


Shops and Kitchens

The 1916/17 catalogue contains one kitchen, two butcher's shops and a greengrocer's.


K. 1 Folding Kitchen

The kitchen is enamelled inside and out, and has hinges at the sides and front, so that it can fold up into a box. It contains a sink and plate rack, a stove with pots and pans, a dresser, table and two chairs, a broom and a couple of other hanging utensils. It measures 21" x 11½".  


B. S. 1 Butcher's Shop

This Butcher's Shop comes complete with background and a small street scene, including lamp-posts.  There are hanging joints of meat, a chopping block, and a figure of the butcher. It measures 19½" x 12" x 12½", and cost 12/6.


B. S. 1 Butcher's Shop

This is a much smaller model, which is in effect an open butcher's stall, measuring 12½" x 10¼ x 4¼". It is painted blue, with tiled walls and floor, and comes with a butcher, a chopping block and joints of meat hanging on the wall. The price was 6/9.



G. S. 1 Greengrocer's Shop

The greengrocer's shop is in between the two butcher's shops in size, measuring 14" x 12½" x 8¼". It came with moveable counters and vegetables, and was painted cream and black with tile and brick decorations. The cost was 9/6.



Another butcher's shop appeared in an advertisement in The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader in February 1917. This one has a name, A. Jones, Butcher:


From The Toy and Fancy Goods Trader, February 1917, courtesy Marion Osborne

Farms, Villages and Tableaux

While I will not show here the forts, battlefields, war toys, Noah's Arks, dolls and other toys made by the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops, I will show the model villages and farms, as their buildings could find their way into dolls house nurseries.


F. M. 1 English Farm


The English Homestead contained a cowhouse and barn, haystacks, dovecote, and pigsty, as well as hedges, trees, fences and gates and many animals. The measurements given (for the box?) are  21" x 14" x 5", and the price was 9 shillings.


V. 1 Sussex Village


"An exact replica of a South Down old-world village with its Norman church and quaint inn and cottages. Special attention has been paid to the production of local colour and other outstanding features."

Size: 18" x 12" x 4½", price 5 shillings.


V. 2 Cheshire Village

The Cheshire Village was "mounted in a fall-front  box with hinged lid", measuring 12" x 9½" x 3". It contained "typical half-timber Cheshire houses, stone walls, trees, etc." The cost was 7/6.


A Surrey Village, V. 3, was also available, measuring 24" x 14" x 5", price 7/6. It is not pictured in  the catalogue.


V. 4 Kentish Village


The description of the Kentish Village specifically mentions a baseboard, which was perhaps part of the other village sets too. The pieces are all moveable, and include a church, a village cross, the Ship Inn with its sign, a mansion house with hedges and gate, the doctor's house, a school, a barn, corner houses, oast houses, and other houses and shops.

The measurements are 27" x 16" x 4½", and the price was 10/6.


M. V. 1 Miniature Village


A smaller, less expensive village was also available. Measuring 12" x 9" x 2¼", it also came in a hinged box with a fall front. It cost only 1/6.


No V. 5 is included in the 1916/17 catalogue.


V. 6 English Market Place

According to the catalogue, the Queen (Queen Mary, who was later presented with the famous Queen's Dolls House) particularly admired this set, and bought several. It included 8 figures, as well as a pony with a tilt cart, a pig pen, and 6 stalls filled with produce. All pieces were moveable.

It measured 24" x 18" x 6½", and cost 12/6.


V. 7 Belgian Village

Belgium was invaded by Germany early in World War I, and so this set was "of particular attraction now that children are so interested in this country." It contained 21 separate pieces, including examples of the old Flemish "step-roof" houses (one of which had also made its way into the English Market Place, above), the canal and bridges, the Hotel de Ville rising over the market place. Figures included a curé and a dog-cart.

It measured 24" x 18" x 6½", and cost 10/6.


Tableau Toys

This series presented scenery and figures from 12 fairy stories and the Nativity. Only five are illustrated in the catalogue, of which I'll show two here, as they incorporate houses.


T. T. 1 Red Riding Hood

Here the grandmother's cottage forms a box, which contains her bed. Red Riding Hood appears to be turned in the round,while grandmother and the wolf are flat figures cut from fretwood.

Size 7" x 5" x 5¾". Price 5 shillings.


T. T. 4 The Manor House

This is "an old Georgian house, with two wings, a stable, and an ideal old-fashioned garden with bright coloured flower-beds, hedges, trees, etc. Every piece is moveable, and the base is made with a sloping drive approaching the front door. The tiny doors of the house are made to open." No indication is given as to the story this set is associated with.

Size 20" x 14" x 6", price 12/6.


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