During the Industrial Revolution, Ironbridge in Shropshire was a hotbed of metal-bashing. Now it’s a sleepy little place on the tourist trail and the manufacturing that takes place there is often of a far cuddlier variety. For Ironbridge is the home of Merrythought, the last teddy bear-maker in Britain.
Gordon Holmes (pictured, right) founded the business in 1930 and since 2011 it has been run by his great-granddaughter Hannah Holmes, 29, and her 32-year-old sister, Sarah. The sisters took over after their father’s sudden death – there was no succession plan in place and no management who could step up and run the business. “We had to come in on the Monday morning and take the [management] position,” says Holmes. She took a sabbatical from her job as a chartered surveyor in London, and now “can’t imagine” going back.
The sisters oversee everything from sourcing materials to sales and manufacturing. “Our company is very unusual in the fact that we manufacture everything under one roof in the UK. It’s totally handmade in England. We have to oversee absolutely every element of it,” she says.
It isn’t cheap. The cost of materials and staff, as well as maintaining the Victorian factory, is high. And although the bears sell for £60 (€70.4) and above, Holmes says the mark-up is very low. “When you compare our products to a designer handbag or a pair of shoes, I think we’d be selling ours for thousands if we had the same sort of mark-up,” she says. It would be cheaper to move manufacturing abroad, but they pride themselves on their “made in Britain” label.
A workforce of just 25 makes about 25,000 bears a year, and each takes an hour and a half to create. The employees are “extremely skilful and very difficult to replace”, says Holmes. It takes about two years to train a new member of staff on production and “even longer for machinists and finishers”.
It’s common for the children of employees to also come and work at the company. “We’ve got a few mother and daughter combinations. They’ve passed on their skills to their children at home, and the children had a real loyalty to Merrythought and wanted to join the firm as well,” says Holmes.
She too seems very loyal to the company and quickly dismisses any suggestion of selling the business or going back to the bright lights of London. The sisters are in it for the long haul, she says.