Dolls' Houses Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern. Plus furniture and accessories.


Does anyone own or have any pictures of Ladies Guild furniture? It was made for such a short time that it must be very rare.  From a few articles I found on the World Wide Web I have tried to follow its story.


“Ladies Guild” takes its name from the society formed in London in 1852 for the suitable Employment of Ladies. The Guild was supported by Christian Socialists and conceived as a source of employment for unskilled women in distressed circumstances. One of its activities was to manage and supervise craft workshops making toy furniture for dolls houses. Mrs Caroline Southwood Hill was appointed manager of the venture and her daughter Octavia, aged 14, was also involved. (Octavia, right, later went on to be famous for her work in social housing and the National Trust).  Initially she did odd jobs in workrooms, reading to the women as they worked, taking charge of the supplies, and acquiring some knowledge of the business. As Storekeeper she was obliged to maintain a strict accountancy. Octavia Hills' administrative and numeric skills ensured that within a few months she was appointed salaried manager of the Guild's toy makers, which typically consisted of a group of two dozen girls mainly drawn from a local Ragged School.


The toy making methods used by the girls were devised by Miss Mary A. P. Smith who contributed, as both designer and maker, a fully furnished 'Tudor Villa' dolls house to the Great Exhibition of 1851, listed as No. 213  in Class 30 – Sculpture, models and plastic art – in the Great Exhibition Catalogue. Unfortunately no picture was included - it would be wonderful if an image of the villa could be traced.


Entrance to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, London


According to the Ragged School Union magazine, 1854, page 150, Mary Smith had searched everywhere within reach to find furniture for her villa, but found so few English made objects that she gave up and decided to make the contents herself. Many rooms were to be furnished – drawing room and conservatory, dining room, library, smoking room, entrance hall, two bedrooms with dressing rooms, boudoir and circular stair.

Ladies' Guild chairs. Height: left, 6 cm; right: 7 cm. (Photo: Guy Steeds)


After many experiments, a wire framework to the furnishings was found to work best, and Mary Smith spent six months creating every piece of furniture and every accessory, including burnished 'steel' fenders and fire irons ornamented with 'ormolu', 'Dresden china' chandelier adorned with china flowers, carved 'ebony' bedstead and 'cast iron' garden seats. She went on to fashion plants and creepers for the exterior, and a family of occupants were carved out of wax using a common pen knife.

 In her own words (during a Court case relating to a contract between herself and the Ladies' Guild about her patent), she described her invention as

"consisting of improvements in the application of well-known materials in a peculiar manner, enabling the production of toys which were pretty accurate models of whatever they were constructed to represent, and had the advantage of lightness,  strength and durability.

The method of fabricating the model articles employed bonnet-wire, that is wire covered with fine silk or cotton threads. For the broad surfaces of articles thin wood or tin-foil could be used, although pasteboard was preferred. This must be cut to the desired form of all the flat or nearly flat surfaces, such as table-tops, seats and backs of couches and chairs. The thread-covered wire would then be divided into suitable lengths for sets of legs, frames, and the like.

To facilitate the attachment of wire to wire, or of wire to pasteboard, wood, or tin-foil, the use of bonnet-wire was preferable, as this could be fixed by stitching through the binding on the wire. When the skeleton of a toy, model, or ornamental article was thus formed, the flat surfaces, if made of cardboard, could be coated with tin-foil or oiled or varnished, in preparation for the next operation.


For the wire framing to have any fluted or figured appearance, this would be effected by covering the wire, and likewise the card or pasteboard, with a composition of whitening mixed with glue or size, such as ordinarily used by carvers and gilders, so that the wire was embedded in the material, thereby serving to strengthen it. This preserved its lightness and plasticity. At the same time any ornamental embossing of the surface could be enhanced by painting, varnishing, gilding, or bronzing. When  upholstery was required this would  be completed with remnants of silk and other fabrics.

The whitening composition mixed with glue or size could be reduced with warm water, and brushed over flat surfaces which required only a thin coating. Other composition, principally formed from gutta percha or papier maché, variously combined, might be employed, so long as it was one that would spread over the wire."


She maintained that these methods were her invention, although her claims were later disputed.


Side view of Ladies' Guild chairs. (Photo: Guy Steeds)

The toys exhibited at the Great Exhibition were purchased by Mr George F. Cremer and formed the stock for his 'German Fair'. Each year in the few weeks before Christmas he would take special premises in Bond Street to sell toys, dolls, games, etc, the original Cremer's being in Regent Street.

The enthusiasm with which the Tudor villa and her furnishings were received led Miss Smith to seek further outlets for her invention. She approached Lord Shaftesbury with the idea that the methods could be taught to girls in Ragged Schools, and he supported the idea. (In 1844 the London Ragged School Union had been formed under the chairmanship of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. He was president for 39 years, in which time an estimated 300,000 destitute children received education).

The Ladies' Guild, the object of which was employment for females in suitable work, entered into an agreement with Miss Smith whereby the ladies would supervise these groups of toy makers who were using her methods, for which she obtained a patent in 1853. The director of the Ladies' Guild agreed to make the periodic payments needed to keep the patent active; this he failed to do, and Miss Smith brought an action for breach of contract.

Ladies' Guild half-tester bed. Dimensions: height at back  4",  length  4",  width  2 1/2". (Photo: Yvonne Kilshaw)

Some of the girls' considerable output, including cast iron, wood and other bedsteads complete with mattresses, sheets and pillows, drawing room, dining room, hall and garden chairs, sofas, loo tables, carved hall tables, wire baskets, paper roses, etc. was put on show at Lord Shaftesbury's mansion, for perusal by some 1500 nobility and gentry. 

Ladies' Guild half-tester bed. The metal work on the tester top and the headboard end has been done with the eyes used in hooks and eyes. (Photo: Yvonne Kilshaw) 

The 17 May 1856 edition of Charles Dickens's periodical Household Words, page 417,featured an article on the toymakers:

In a large, light, lofty workshop, situated in one of the best thoroughfares of the town, about two dozen girls between the ages of 8 and 17 make choice furniture for dolls houses. They work in groups – some cut the wire which forms the framework of the furniture, some cover the wire with muslin, or adorn the furniture with imitations of wood carving. Others cover sofas and chairs with gay chintzes, satins and velvets, or fit up miniature bedsteads with bed furniture. The articles so made all look luxurious and beautiful ...and are not fragile... It is pleasant to know that these art toys find a ready sale.


 This drawing probably depicts a Ladies Guild toy workshop. It appears on p 299 of C. E. King's Collector's History of Dolls' Houses, Dolls' House Dolls and Miniatures, with the caption "A group of children making doll's house furniture at the Girls' Ragged School in Gray's Yard, James Street, Oxford Street, London, in 1854. ... The project was inspired by the 'Tudor Villa' model that was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The furniture was made of wire and decorated with composition castings made to imitate cast iron and carving." The drawing was most likely published in a periodical of the time, although the source is not given and we have not been able to identify it.



Another view of the Ladies' Guild half-tester bed. (Photo: Yvonne Kilshaw)

However, following a dispute over Bible classes [!!!!] for the toy makers, Mrs Southwood Hill was dismissed as manager of the Ladies Guild in 1855. Although the Ladies Guild itself ceased in spring 1856, the toy furniture workshops carried on for two years longer as the Girls' Art-Toy Manufacture, under the direction of a Mrs Amelia Wilson at 21 Percy Street (in 1857) and at No 6, North Crescent, Bedford Square (in 1858). The toys were sold at counters 59 and 60, Soho Bazaar, singly or in sets, with each set containing nine pieces. There were four sizes, helpfully described by price: 1s. 6d., 5s., 6s. 6d., 7s. 6d! 

Country orders could also be made, addressed to Mrs Wilson, with payment by post-office orders payable at the Tottenham Court Rd post office. Octavia Hill was still responsible for receiving subscriptions in aid of the institution.

Ladies' Guild armchairs. (Photo: Angela Bulteel)  Another of C. E. King's books, Dolls and Dolls' Houses, shows (on p 246) a group of 9 pieces of tin dolls' house furniture upholstered in velvet, from Blaise Castle House Museum in Bristol. The group comprises 4 chairs like the blue one in the top two photos here, and one armchair like the right-hand one in the photo above, plus a settee, footstool, prie-dieu chair, and a table. King says that "This type of very decorative metal furniture is usually thought to be of French origin." As much as can be seen from the black and white photo, it does appear to be Ladies' Guild furniture, and may be an original set of 9 pieces. It's not known if it is still in the Museum.



Ladies' Guild armchair. Height: 4".  (Photo: Angela Bulteel)


Sales of the art toys were written up several times in the Illustrated London News in 1857 and 1858; in one, "An appeal is here earnestly made to ladies to purchase the art toys, for it is by the custom of ladies that the institution must be supported."

It is possible that Dickens' Household Words article was also an attempt to boost dwindling sales. However, it seems that these efforts were unsuccessful, and the girls ceased making art-toys some time in late 1858.


Ladies' Guild armchair. Height: 4" (Photo: Angela Bulteel) 


Another set we know of which may be made by the Ladies' Guild was  auctioned at Christie's in 2006; it comprised 7 pieces of cream-painted wire garden furniture, including an arbour. It would be interesting to hear if other collectors possess any examples or know of dolls houses in museums which contain pieces. Some may still have the original label, ''Patent Art Toys - Ladies' Guild; 4 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, London."


 Additional research by Rebecca Green.


*Stephen P. Walker.”Philanthropic women and accounting: Octavia Hill and the exercise of quiet power and sympathy”  Accounting, business and financial history, vol. 16, no.2, July 2006. pp. 163-94

Mechanics' magazine and journal of science, arts, and manufactures, Vol. 65

Smith's patent toys.   Smith v. Neal.

Court of common pleas, Westminster, November  6th , 1856.

The Illustrated London News, December 26 1857  and June 19 1858.

Constance Eileen King, The Collector's History of Dolls' Houses, Doll's House Dolls and Miniatures, Robert Hale, London, 1983.

ditto, Dolls and Dolls' Houses, Hamlyn, London, 1977, 1989.

Christie's, Fine Dolls, Dolls' Houses, Automata and Traditional Toys, 5 October 2006.


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