A&E at the dolls' hospital

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Media caption,

Hilary Brown introduces some of the patients at her toy hospital

Millions of toys are thrown away every year in Britain. But a growing respect for the quality of traditionally-made toys and pressure to save money has led to a surge in demand for the services of at least one "dolls' hospital".

Hilary Brown cradles the damaged rag doll in her arms as if it were a baby. She has been running a toys hospital in Essex for the past twenty years. It's one of the few remaining places in the UK where you can get a precious toy or teddy bear from your childhood repaired.

As chief surgeon and head nurse, Hilary deals with all sorts of injuries from balding teddies to missing dolls' limbs and she receives requests for help from all over the world.

"The owners of the patients that arrive in the hospital can be anywhere between three and 93 years old," she says. "A lot of the time it's a loved possession that has worn away over the years and needs some help and they suddenly realise its falling to pieces and needs desperate help.

"Sometimes its something that has been put in the loft and has been rediscovered and the owner now has a child of their own and they want it repaired so it can go on for the next generation."

Octopus from Seattle

Hilary taught herself dressmaking at the age of 13 and ended up taking over the "dolls' hospital" from a toy shop in the 90s.

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Galley of the dolls' heads - Hilary has to search far and wide for suitable spare parts

Her workload has gone from about seven repairs a year to that many in a a day. With husband Dave, aka Mr Fixit, they now repair about 700 toys a year.

Her services are sought from far and wide.

"Somebody once sent me a porcelain doll from Hong Kong... a man also contacted me from Seattle about repairing an old octopus. It needed new eyes. The gentleman said nobody would take him seriously in America".

Hilary and Dave's house in Essex has been completely overtaken by the hospital. Bottles of paint lie next to one broken doll and hundreds of little drawers contain all Hilary's precious buttons and eyes.

Their spare bedroom is the waiting room while Hilary treats her charges in another bedroom and the living room.

The enterprise has the aura of an industry from days gone by - not dissimilar from Geppetto's workshop in Pinnochio or the intricate work of the irritable toy doctor in Toy Story 2.

It's all very at odds with the throwaway nature of today's consumer society. Some 44 million toys are thrown away each year, according to the government's waste watchdog Envirowise.

Waiting list closed

The result is fewer toy shops than ever will undertake repairs, says Hilary.

Yet for her, demand currently outstrips the supply (of her labour). She has had to close her waiting list.

Image caption,
Tiny cheers - hooray for the toy doctor, working his magic

Toy expert Ken Hoyt is only too aware of the shortage of expertise in this area.

The manager of Pollock's toy museum in London, which specialises in toys from the Victorian era, says it's "increasingly difficult to find people who repair old toys and a lot of the repairers we have used in the past no longer exist."

"Just buy a new one is the attitude these days" says Hilary, and she admits finding the supplies can be difficult.

"Some of the eyes in the plastic vinyl dolls have to come from America and the wigs come from China. I have to search websites in America to buy odd little eyes."

Yet there are signs or a revival of the make-do and mend attitude, says another expert in the field.

"There are fewer new rocking horses being sold these days but there is no let up in the number of horses being restored," says Richard Bowman who the Kensington Rocking Horse Company in East Sussex. Restoration, he says, has come back into fashion.

His family run business repairs up to seventy rocking horses a year. "Usually it's the grandparent who rediscovers a horse which belonged to their child when they were younger, which has been stored away for years and then rediscovered and they want it to be passed onto their grandchild. Lots of people say they would rather spend their money on something that is traditional and built to last."

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