the history of the rocking horse

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rocking horse history

I found a photograph of an antique rocking horse photograph and became a lover of old rocking horses and, eventually, a collector. There is something beautiful and fascinating about traditional rocking horses and I have spent some time delving into their history.

rocking horse makers

I was helped by Kensington Rocking Horse Company, a leading rocking horse maker. They provided me with background information and photographs. I adored the traditional rocking horses at their showroom in Sussex where there are wooden rocking horses for sale. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a rocking horse shop! They are also specialists in antique rocking horse restoration and repairs and have earned a reputation as the country's leading old rocking horse restorer, particularly where sympathetic restoration of antique rocking horses is concerned. Their small team of rocking horse restorers has restored old rocking horses for museums and stately homes as well as individual owners and collectors like myself.

early rocking horses

Wheeled horses on which knights and warriors practised swordsmanship, horsemanship and jousting date back at least to the Middle Ages, but it is the 18th Century before the 'toy' rocking horse begins to appear more widely as a children's plaything and examples of the German and British rocking horse from the period survive.

19th century rocking horses

In the wake of the industrial revolution, an aspiring upper middle-class emerged in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. These people were to become the natural buyers of Victorian rocking horses. The Victorian rocking horse made increasing appearances in the nursery and commercial rocking horse making began.

queen victoria's dapple grey rocking horse

To some rocking horse lovers, a carved English rocking horse means one thing: a dapple grey. No lesser person than Queen Victoria gave the dapple grey rocking horse 'royal approval'. In 1851, she visited the works of J. Collinson in Liverpool and selected a dapple grey to ride. News of her (perhaps apocryphal) preference is said to have assured the future of the dapple grey. Subsequently, the visit has become part of rocking horse folklore. I devote a separate page to the story of the dapple grey rocking horse.

victorian rocking horse makers

The visit to Collinsons in the Liverpool in the North of England acknowledged British provincial rocking horse makers and it is known that there were makers in Birmingham and Leeds too, but this was 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and so all roads led to London, capital of England, of Great Britain and of the British Empire. London rocking horse makers led the world and the capital's dapple grey rocking horses were the overwhelming favourites of Victorian English children.

rocking (horses) in the USA

Whilst British rocking horses or, more accurately, English rocking horses led the world, it was actually an American who was responsible for the single most important advance in design in rocking horse history: in 1877, P.J. Marqua of Cincinatti, Ohio, patented the safety stand.

Hitherto, all rocking horses had been mounted on bow rockers. Marqua's design responded to both safety and practical concerns. The concern with the bow rocker was not so much that a child could be thrown over the head of the horse when riding. Rather, the risk of the horse being ridden across the floor and running over the fingers or toes of another child was the greater concern. The safety or swinger stand, on the other hand, provided a fixed static frame on which the rocking horse swung on swing irons.

safety stand holds sway

English makers quickly saw the potential for this new style of rocking horse and London solicitor Herbert Haddon was granted a British patent in 1880. Over the next 30 years, the rocking horse on a safety stand rapidly became the preferred form in the heyday of leading London rocking horse makers, F.H. Ayres and G & J Lines. Most of the Victorian rocking horses for sale were mounted on the new form of base.

Today, rocking horse makers like The Kensington Rocking Horse Company do offer traditional rocking horses on bow rockers. This style of rocking horse does have an undeniable elegance.

However, I am told that most clients ultimately opt for their rocking horse to be mounted on the safety stand, not least because a similar sized rocking horse probably requires up to 3 ft or 1 metre of extra length when mounted on a bow rocker.

Interestingly, rocking horse logos used by antique shops, toy shops, children's nurseries, toy fairs etc. almost invariably depict the rocking horse on a bow rocker.

golden age of rocking horse making

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were many rocking horse manufacturers in London. Those rocking horse makers enjoying greatest prominence included F.H.Ayres and G & J Lines, but there were many other smaller makers. J.R.Smith and Paul Leach were two others whose horses are still to be found. Paul Leach rocking horses are particularly highly regarded. Wilson of the Silver Cross Works, Leeds in Yorkshire is another rocking horse company name to note, though there is some discussion as to whether this company actually made horses itself.

Unlike today, when most customers opt to make direct contact with the maker to increase choice and value for money, Victorian rocking horses were often sold in the major London toy- and department stores of the day, including Harrods, Hamleys, Selfridges, Army & Navy Stores, Fortnum & Mason, Gamage's and Barkers of Kensington.

My picture above shows a rocking horse made in 1908 and it was the late Victorian- and Edwardian era age which probably represented the golden age of rocking horse carving. The dawn of the First World War in 1914 was to usher in the decline and fall and (much later) revival of British rocking horse making.

rocking horse owners

Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit books and The Tailor of Gloucester refers to her own rocking horse in her coded diary.

EH Shepard, most famous for his wonderful illustrations of the Winnie the Pooh books by AA Milne, received his tricycle rocking horse as a birthday present from his Godmother-Aunt in the 1880s.

JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan who lived close to Kensington Gardens and adopted five orphaned boys, describes buying a rocking horse in the first Peter Pan book, The Little White Bird, published in 1902.

rocking horse links

The Kensington Rocking Horse Company
rocking horse shop Sussex
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