The older I become, the more I see that life is often about coincidence, each seemingly isolated incident, a piece of jigsaw linking to a greater story as years pass...
In my mid twenties as a young mum, I worked as a teaching assistant in a local school. The school was close to town and on lunchbreaks, I often enjoyed a short walk to the local bookshop to browse. One day I spied Pauline Cockrill's 'The Ultimate Teddy Bear Book' on a shelf and couldn't resist opening it... by some mysterious chance, it fell open to an image of my childhood bear 'Big Ted', a wonderful Chiltern Hugmee teddy bear gifted to me on my first birthday by my parents and still with me to this day, sixty years later. The coincidence made me smile and for some reason, I couldn't put the book back on the shelf and instead bought it, then read it from cover to cover that evening. From that day on, I was utterly entranced by the history of the teddy bear and I would say that particular book was the reason I began collecting teddy bears and ultimately, my inspiration for creating them too...
I began making teddy bears as a hobby. After a while, friends and family requested my bears and word soon spread beyond school that I was not only a teaching assistant but also a secret teddy bear maker! In the mid 1990's, before I had even heard of the internet, I came to realise that to keep up with what had quickly evolved into an ever growing demand for my teddy bears, I would need to set up a little homespun business to sell them.
In those days, my sister Fiona had also started to make teddy bears and one day, she took several of our bears to show the owners of 'The Rochester Teddy Bear Shop', a rather magical local teddy bear emporium. She returned home full of excitement because not only had the shop asked to stock our work, they had also invited us to exhibit our teddy bears at 'The Rochester Teddy Bear Show' held twice yearly in the Corn Exchange. I could hardly believe my ears and instantly forgave my sister for borrowing my bears!
And so 'Auntie Bears' was born, the prelude to 'Absolutely Bear by Fiona Smith' and my subsequent label, 'All Bear by Paula Carter' (now 'All Bear by Paula') which launched at the start of the new millenium. It was also the start of many more teddy bear show adventures throughout the country and the inception of our venture into selling to other teddy bear outlets, both in the UK and overseas. Wonderful shops such as 'Bears and Bunnies', 'The Rochester Teddy Bear Shop', 'Theodore's Bear Emporium', 'Growlies', 'Edwina's Friends', 'Sue Pearson's Dolls and Teddy Bears', 'Silly Bears' and 'The House of Bruin' among others, have sadly long ceased trading and are much missed by collectors and bearmakers alike. Over the years we made many long standing friends in the teddy bear world and will always be grateful to the shops who supported us during our early days as newly aspiring teddy bear makers. Other teddy bear shops thankfully survived the recent pandemic and are still selling artist bears to eager collectors. One such shop is 'The Bear Shop' in Norwich, trading since 1990 and as those of you who have followed my bears over the years will know, this shop still stocks my bears today (thank you so much Robert!) Oddly enough, it is 'The Bear Shop' which links neatly to my latest teddy bear book 'coincidence'...
As I mentioned earlier, in the 90's, before I had even considered making teddy bears myself, I had become somewhat of a teddy bear collector and eager reader of all things 'bear'. At the teddy bear fairs I visited, I would occasionally catch a reverent mention of a gentleman named 'Peter Bull', an English actor with a heart full of teddy bears. I learned that Mr Bull was the person responsible for bringing much-loved childhood teddy bears out of discreet and sometimes rather embarrassed hiding by sharing true life teddy bear stories in the wider world, with pride, gentle authority and a well-earned sense of place. He wrote and talked about teddy bears and their importance within our social history, with great fondness, humour and dedication, asking the world to understand that teddy bears were not only for children. In fact, many had provided a significant source of comfort to their grown-up owners during troubled times, including the war years and as such, earned their place in history, so we should be rightly proud of owning them in adulthood.
In my early days as a teddy bear collector, I don't mind admitting I didn't fully appreciate the impact Peter Bull made on the teddy bear collecting world. Born in 1912, he was of my Grandmother's generation, a generation that had lived through the horror of two World Wars. Originally a journalist, he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, achieving the rank of Lieutenant-Commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for service in the Mediterranean. Later he became an actor with films such as my Mum's old favourite 'The African Queen' and 'Dr. Strangelove' to his list of credits. He was also a Member of Parliament for Hammersmith for 29 years.
With a long and distinguished life established, Mr Bull subsequently became known as 'The father of teddy bear collecting' both in the UK and overseas, shining his bright light on the role of the teddy bear in the lives of men, women and children throughout the past century. He published his first book 'Bear with me' dedicated to sharing tales of real life teddy bears, in 1969. Mr Bull also appeared on television and became well known for championing the cause of teddy bear collecting as an acceptable adult hobby.
Peter Bull passed away in 1984 aged 72, several years prior to the publication of Pauline Cockrill's 'The Ultimate Teddy Bear' in 1991 and just as excitement for teddy bear collecting and creating 'artist bears' was sweeping across the UK. On his passing, many of Mr Bull's own teddy bears were rehomed by the London Toy and Model Museum but 'Aloyssius', a famous actor teddy bear, best known for his role in the film 'Brideshead Revisited', was adopted by Ian Pout, owner of the famous Teddy Bears of Witney shop, first established in 1985 and still selling wonderful teddy bears to this day.
My own little coincidence occurred recently, when I happened to be selling a teddy bear making book I no longer needed. I popped it on a well known auction site in the hope it might inspire another new maker and as I listed it, happened to notice another book for sale entitled 'The Teddy Bear Book', written by Peter Bull. It was offered by a charity for the deaf, so I put in a bid of a few £'s and promptly forgot all about it, until I received notification that I had in fact won the auction! I received this fabulous tome yesterday, first published in 1970 when I was only seven years old. It arrived in the original hard case and was in immaculate condition, clearly much cherished by the original owner. That alone was enough to delight this bearmaker, but to open the cover and discover this was one of the original 10,000 first printed and signed by the author's own hand, put a huge smile on my face. I began to read and was immediately drawn by the author's expressive style, then the joy of flicking through the pages as I supped my mug of coffee, only to find little treasures carefully placed within the pages by the original owner... a polite hand signed note of sale from the retailer, a bookmark detailing Peter Bull's biography with little annotations scribed in a neat hand, a list of teddy bears and books made available from 'The House of Nisbit', an address for a teddy bear restorer handwritten and noted 'a lovely lady'... and further on, a little round cardboard tag printed by 'The Bear Shop' and saved like a carefully pressed flower... the very same bear shop which has welcomed my teddy bears since my early days as a teddy bear maker!
Receiving this very special teddy bear book out of the ether yesterday, felt as though an invisible force somewhere had witnessed my teddy bear making journey over the past thirty years and brought the perfect gift to my door. I couldn't have been more touched, surprised and delighted... and for that I believe I may have Serendipity to thank!
To read a little more about Peter Bull please visit: https://letstalkteddybears.com/peter-bull-collector/