Fifty Thousand Rocking Horses!
Ever since the first one was made (over 400 years ago, for Prince Charles) wooden rocking-horses have been a favourite childhood plaything, although by 1976 the traditional craft of making them was all but dead. “I made one,” says Anthony Dew, “and everyone liked it. I thought maybe the craft was ripe for revival.” So Anthony and wife Pat and set out to become rocking-horse makers.
In the beginning they knew nothing about how to make a good rocking-horse, and less about business. But eventually, after struggling and losing money for seven years, the enterprise started to come good and they opened ‘The Rocking Horse Shop’ in the rural East Riding of Yorkshire, and hired their first employee, soon to be joined by others.
Their aim was to design and make everything they sold in their own workshops, always to the highest quality possible. They drew their own plans, prepared all the wooden parts, assembled and hand-carved the horses and made their own leather bridles and saddles as well as many of the specialised accessories needed, including real and synthetic hair manes and tails and many of the metal components.
Inevitably, rocking-horses become battered and worn, sometimes they’re abused. When outgrown they may be left in a shed where damp, rot and woodworms lurk. So as well making new rocking-horses, a significant part of the business has always been restoring old ones to their former glory. “However bad he is,” Anthony says, “even if he’s falling to pieces, we can give your sorry old rocker new life, a kind of immortality!”
In 1991 The Rocking Horse Shop outgrew its old premises, moved to a run-down farm in the delightful village of Fangfoss in East Yorkshire, and erected new purpose-built workshops and showroom. By this time, as well as finished rocking-horses made to order, they were selling plans and packs of prepared timber and accessories to growing numbers of home woodworkers keen to make one of their own.
The internet and Anthony’s books enabled The Rocking Horse Shop to reach out to customers across the UK and around the world, and as well as finished horses they were soon regularly shipping parcels of plans and specialist rocking-horse accessories to new makers and restorers, both amateur and professional, in over twenty countries.
Anthony developed more than eighteen different rocking-horse designs, from simple little rockers for toddlers to magnificent fully carved steeds suitable for riders of any age, even adults. “We’d decided to specialise in rocking-horses,” he says, “but within that narrow speciality we’d do everything. If it’s to do with rocking-horses, we do it.” It succeeded, and by the end of the 1990s they were employing fifteen people.
In the early 2000s The Rocking Horse Shop was commissioned by a London-based artist to make a 5-metre long rocking-horse, nick-named Big Bertie, to be followed by Bigger Bertie, 9-metres long, the largest hand-carved rocking-horse in the world, which really rocked! These giant horses were laminated using plywood, a fascinating new approach to the craft (traditional ones used solid blocks of wood glued together and carved).
After going ‘super-size’, Anthony Dew developed several ‘normal’ sized laminated horse designs which proved immensely popular. They provide all the fun and pleasure of traditional rocking-horses but enjoy a strikingly novel and attractive appearance. Also, as a project for the home woodworker, these new ‘Rocky’ laminated designs are very accessible, relatively easy to make, yet are materially much less expensive.
Before retiring in 2015 Anthony drew designs for a safe and simple chair rocker for very small children. This rocker has five interchangeable heads: two horses, elephant, kangaroo and a remarkable dinosaur - ‘Pinocchio Rex’ - with opening mouth. They are very straightforward to make and, Anthony says, “I’ve enjoyed keeping my hand in through the covid lock-down, making several for friends’ grandchildren.”
In 2019 James took over The Rocking Horse Shop and, in spite of very difficult trading conditions during the pandemic, he has risen magnificently to the multiple challenges of running a small, highly skilled, craft-based rural business with an international reach.
Recently James and Anthony have collaborated to produce and publish two books:
The latest (and last!) book he’s written on the subject, “The Complete Rocking-Horse Maker 2” distills Anthony’s 50 years devotion to the craft and is a lavishly illustrated manual containing plans and instructions for making many rocking-horses, with projects to suit all abilities and chapters on the use of carving tools, restoration and history.
“Making It with Rocking-Horses” tells of Anthony Dew’s involvement in the revival of rocking-horse making in the late 20th Century up to now. It is a fascinating story told with emotion and humour: “A must-read for anyone trying to juggle family, business and creative endeavours.” (Lara Stafford, Theatre of Science).
But, with computerised games and playthings dominating the market and after four hundred years, haven’t toy rocking-horses had their day? Not at all. Rocking-horses are beautiful artefacts, they enhance any home and remain as loved and enjoyed as they’ve ever been. On the back of a rocking-horse young riders are in full control and can walk, trot or gallop anywhere in the world (or beyond!) that their imaginations can take them.
The future looks bright and assured for The Rocking Horse Shop, and sometime in the Autumn of 2022 it will serve its 50,000th customer. That’s an awfully big herd of rocking-horses, and a wonderful lot of happy riders!