Our very first rocking horse was made in 1986. This horse was made for a little girl, then five years old; Phillipa Stoke. Phillipa’s dad, our life long friend, Jeremy Stoke, noticed the fine carpentry skills when restoring wooden narrow boats and Alison’s fine art skills when painting intricate designs onto narrow boats. He suggested they amalgamate their skills and make a rocking horse for their daughter’s birthday. Phillipa and family instantly fell in love with the horse. Jeremy, at the time, chairman of Maclaren push chairs had a lot of friends and business associates who admired the horse at dinner parties and such. Soon after, we were to make horses for many of his friend’s children. Thus the origins of the Rocking Horse Works began.
At the time we were living on a 72 foot wooden narrow boat called Heather Bell. We had converted Heather Bell so that the back half was living quarters with traditional hand painted boater’s cabin and the front half, a canvas covered workshop to accommodate the fledgling business. We collected timber on the roof of our old Land Rover from our local wood yard, so much so that planks had to double up as furniture within the boat before being transformed into rocking horses.
We began travelling the English canal system and led a very charmed existence, exploring the country, pulling up at canalside inns and forest clearings became our workplace. As orders continue to flow in, we found that our lovely boat was no longer big enough to cope with the demand. After much searching, we found a wonderful workshop, this was part of a large factory on Leopold Street, in the Jewelry Quarter of Birmingham. This workshop is featured in our logo and letterhead, still used today.
We really enjoyed working here in the hustle and bustle of the Jewelry Quarter. It was a thriving area of skilled craftsmen. We made many friends and contacts and soon discovered Walsall, the heart of the English leather trade. This was extremely useful, since we were now in the business of making fine quality saddles and bridles for our increasingly popular rocking horses. To this day, we thank our time at Walsall for the quality of our leather craftsmanship.
Still young at the age of 25, Alison applied for the Prince’s Youth Business Trust. As well as giving us a grant for further development of the business, the Prince’s Trust were very supportive. They helped us develop our export market and encouraged us to partake in exhibitions and shows. Our very first exhibition was at the NEC in Birmingham and went very well indeed. Alison had a chance to meet Prince Charles in person and thank him. He was very interested in our business progression and had many questions, all of which was recorded live for BBC Radio 4. The exhibition was fun. We sold many horses and made many new contacts which encouraged us greatly to partake in future shows. We later attended the Olympia Toy Fair, NEC Autumn Gift fair, the toy fair at Harrogate and many other craft shows at historical locations throughout the UK.
It was 1989 and we were still living aboard Heather Bell. Whilst the Jewellery Quarter provided us with an excellent workshop, we very much missed the nomadic life afforded to us by a narrow boat. We were torn between this free existence and the hustle and bustle of Birmingham.
The next major event in our life was the birth of our wonderful daughter, Heather Bell Joan Smith. She was named after two of our narrow boats, Heather Bell and Joan. For a while after Heather was born, we moored underneath Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham. This allowed us to work from our home as the motorway provided shelter for outdoor carving and painting. Many of Heather’s baby photographs are at this location. Despite our newly acquired outdoor working area, it quickly became apparent that we need a footing on land, both to expand our business and to give our daughter a more permanent setting. Culminating our love of the canals but also needing a dry footing on land, we sought out a list of properties available from British Waterways. It was then that we discovered Tyrley Lock Cottage on the Shropshire Union Canal. In the first readjusting months of living in the cottage, we were still commuting on a weekly basis to Birmingham, staying at Heather Bell whilst there. During this transitional period, our sitting room had to double up as a painting room for our horses.
We soon found a workshop closer to our newly acquired home, just across the road in fact. It was a spacious barn on a charming little farm. It was a beautiful workshop with views of the Shropshire hills and rambling fields, broken only by the canal. It was here in this little barn that we met in person, our first international customers: Mr and Mrs Abikura from Japan. They spent a great deal of time carefully admiring our horses and wondering around the workshop. They then returned to our little cottage for a cup of Jasmine tea served in a Japanese tea set purchased by Alison’s father during the war. Mr and Mrs Abikura chose two extra large deluxe mahogany rocking horses and returned to Japan very proud owners.
Shortly after their visit, it was nearing Christmas. We were working day and night and made use of friends and family members to be able to keep up with work. Heather’s grandmother came to look after Heather at the cottage, whilst nephew, 18 year old Richard, and lodger on Heather Bell at the time, came to assist on anything he could i.e carving, sanding and painting. All deadlines were met and happy children all over the UK managed to receive their horses in time for Christmas day.
The following January, we made plans for a new bigger and better workshop. We found a fantastic space just ten minutes from home. Again, on a farm. It was much larger and allowed for an office, a small paint room, a timber store, a small showroom and a carpentry room. We were approaching our third year in Shropshire and had already met many great people who became lifelong friends including Charlie who would go on to work for us for the next 20 years. We began employing in the local area; Still having a hand in canal life and our new setting of Shropshire enabled us to meet people from all walks of life, many of whom brought great artistry and skill to the workshop and offered diversity and further creative development.
As our business and small team grew it became apparent that again, we needed more room. Then, as luck would have it, we came across a hidden gem. We learned that a newspaper printer works in Newport had been empty for some time and the owner was looking for someone just like us to take over the property. The building was fantastic as any Victorian newspaper printing factory is. Suddenly, we were working on three floors. Through its twisting corridors and high ceiling multitude of rooms, it was here that the Rocking Horse Works finally had a chance to spread its wings fully. With its glass roof and huge Victorian bay windows on the top floor, it made the perfect painting studio for Alison and team. The third floor was a fantastic space for seasoning our horses and stands and the first floor were several carpentry rooms, allowing each team member a little space of their own. We also had an excellent showroom showcasing our entire range. It was this excellent workshop that inspired us to switch things up a little. We attended more shows, designed a whole new range of horses, commissioned a local photographer for a professional shoot and ordered a printer to design us a brand new glossy brochure. Things were running very smoothly indeed.
During the latter part of this period, the internet became more widely used, providing us with a sudden platform to reach customers across the globe and our international sales grew. Our export market was booming. As well as a rapid increase in sales, we were undertaking a large amount of renovations. After many years of continued business growth, the recession hit us. This gave us a new approach. We scaled back our advertising in expensive glossy magazines, did less shows and concentrated more heavily on developing our website and explored the avenues the internet had to offer us as a business. We found that restorations increased whilst sales temporarily slowed. This was short lived as we found that the internet came through for us in these turbulent times. The team continued this way for many happy and successful years.
The next phase in the Rocking Horse Works was our decision to separate workshop life from our showroom. We decided that we needed a beautiful space, exquisite enough to display our horses in a more shop-like setting and have a separate premises for manufacture. Both still open to the public. We went ahead with this decision, leaving our Newport workshop behind in search of something a little more exclusive. We began the hunt immediately and, for a while, we were at a loss. But then, a wonderful opportunity arose. The offer to rent Tyrley Chapel, just 100 metres from our rambling cottage. This unique setting would go on to provide us with our most beautiful and exquisite showroom yet. We restored the chapel to its former glory, as it had been derelict for some time. Then, we began filling the space with our beautiful horses. Many locals popped in at the excitement of seeing lights on in the church for the first time in years. People were amazed to step into this Santa-like grotto of Victorian style Rocking Horses. We spread manufacture over three workshops, all within ten miles of the chapel. This new logistical approach catered for all of our customers as, whilst many of our customers liked to observe manufacture and our team at work, others preferred not to step inside a workshop full of wood shavings, horse hair and paint. Now they had the choice.
Seven years later, this arrangement is still working for us and our customers. Our team has adjusted to the change and a new segmentation of the business. You are welcome to visit us at the chapel or any of our workshops. Please get in touch with us on 01630 653 194 or email email@example.com