Rocking Horse Restoration - Identifying Old Rocking Horse Makers

Getting to know Rocking HorsesOver the last 35 years The Rocking Horse Shop have restored hundreds of Rocking Horses and below we look at one of the most prestigious makers of traditional Victorian Rocking Horses - F H Ayres.F.H.AyresAmong the half dozen or so historic makers of wooden rocking horses which are readily identifiable by name, Ayres horses are generally regarded as the best. As with all hand crafted artifacts, there is some variation in the quality of the finished article, so although all Ayres horses are good, some are better than others. For example the smaller and medium sized horses and some of the large ones tend to be a bit more basic than others in the provision of carved detail, presumably because these horses were made with more of an eye to price, and perhaps more junior, less experienced carvers.Even among the bigger and better horses there are interesting variations. Thus two of the large carved Ayres horses may be more or less identical in size and have similar carved detailing, but one (for example the one with three seats pictured here) has some thing about it which makes it better than its twin. This is a very large and very unusual Ayres three seater. The metalwork for the end seats is original, but the remains of the original wooden seats and footrests were so worm eaten they were beyond repair and replacements were made, using the remains, as far as possible, as patterns to determine the shape and size of the new seats and footrests.The difference between the two horses are small, but significant. When asked to say which of the two they prefer, people invariably choose the first one. This is the one with 'star quality' and is due, presumably, to the fact that it must have been made by a carver who had just that bit better eye and talent (or was having a particularly good day). Suffice it to say that the best of the Ayres horses serve as a model of the epitome of the traditional Victorian rocking horse. Many a maker has looked with awe at a really fine Ayres horse and thought, 'I would love to be able to make something that good'.The company was founded in 1864 by Fredrick Henry Ayres and operated from an address in Aldersgate, London. Little is known about the man, but it seems the company depended very much on his personality; in his heyday when he was at his most active and declining as he grew old. The company had its most prolific period between about 1875 and the early 1900s. The company described itself as a 'manufacturer of Indoor and Outdoor Games and Sports' and as well as its excellent rocking horses produced a wide range of sporting goods, including billiard tables, tennis rackets, cricket bats and equipment, croquet sets and board games. F.H.Ayres was eventually bought out by a Yorkshire company called Sykes and Co in 1940, though the name lived on for some time after that.Makers marks are rarely in evidence, though sometimes an 'F.H.Ayres' black coloured stamp can be found under the belly. If you are very lucky you may find a white mark nailed onto the top stand rail in the shape of a horizontal H and bearing the words 'Manufactured by Ayres London', and Patricia Mullins also mentions a transfer found on a stand base consisting of a union flag with the words 'British Manufacture' incorporating a device of a Maltese Cross and the words 'Registered Trade Mark'. Black stencilled lettering is quite often to be found on the stand base, usually giving the name of the shop which supplied the horse – eg 'Selfridge', 'A.W.Gamage Ltd, London', 'Harrods Knightsbridge' (in italic script), 'Baker's Kensington' and also sometimes the simple legend 'Patented Jan 29 1880'. This last refers to the registration in Britain of Philip Marqua of Cincinatti's patent for the swing iron safety stand, the patent having been first issued two years previously in the USA. Presumably Ayres had acquired the right to use this patent (as did Lines, followed by virtually all the other rocking horse makers. I hope Marqua benefited from this patent; it was such a good idea everyone wanted to use it, and did!). Later in 1887 Ayres filed a patent for a horse whose head and neck could be made to swivel to the left and right. The pivot is a great long bolt which passes through the body of the horse from beneath into the neck and the head is made to return to the centre by means of a pin set into the underside of the neck and which locates into a long spring set into an arc shaped trench. A wide strip of thin leather conceals the join between neck and body. It was a simple arrangement and was intended to be employed on large horses mounted on safety stands as well as on a tricycle mounted horse. These swivel head horses are very rare and it is hard to imagine Ayres made very many. A fine large Ayres Rocking Horse, fully restored.  The wide leather strap round the neck conceals a join, for this is an example of the very rare swivel head horse.Patricia Mullins mentions another patent filed in 1914 by F.H.Ayres and one Thomas Freeman, for a rather interesting looking rocking horse mounted on an arrangement of springs and levers. The drawings do not make it clear how the horse could rock in practise, and it is not known if many or any of these were actually made. Ayres made about eight sizes of rocking horses and sometimes a black stencilled number can be found on the base of the stand, which indicates the size. In the absence of a makers mark the easiest way to begin to identify an Ayres horse is by examining the design of the stand. Large Ayres horses were fitted with four hole iron brackets and the bottom stand rails and cross pieces often have big chamfers, the top rails having very small chamfers, little more than a rounding over of the corners. The largest horses have very heavy stands, the lower part of the base being made of 2 ½ x 7 ½ inch timber (usually pine) with the cross pieces half jointed into the bottom rail and a 2 x 5 ¼ inch top rail, again employing the four hole iron brackets. The Medium and Large horses are fitted with the four hole type of steel bracket.Hoof rails of the larger horses have a section cut away in the mid part (usually parallel but sometimes curved), and are wider at the ends where the hooves are secured and the swing irons pass through. The posts are of a distinctive design, usually beech, threaded at the bottom, with 1 inch spigots (surprisingly thin considering the massive surrounding timber on the largest of the stands) and wedges at the top. Typical Ayres design stand post.The smaller models have stand posts of a simpler design and simple pressed steel three hole swing iron brackets. The ends of most Ayres hoof rails are cut and chamfered at angles to leave a small diamond or hexagonal shape at the extreme ends. The lower ends of the swing irons are riveted over the washer rather than using split pins and they did not employ 'bowler hat' covers.The horses made by Ayres have many distinguishing features, easier to spot in the pictures (and with experience) than to describe here in words. Taken from Issue 3 of The Rocking Horse & Toy Magazine © The Rocking Horse Shop Ltd F H Ayres Rocking Horse brought to The Rocking Horse Shop for restoration. The above F H Ayres Rocking HorseRestored byThe Rocking Horse Shop

" An excellent course! I was amazed at how well my "head" turned out, not having carved anything at all before. I would highly recommend this course. All members of the Rocking Horse Shop staff were very friendly and extremely helpful. "

Frank Jarvie

" A cracking course. The team build confidence in both your woodcarving skills but also your artistic interpretation - by the end your horse's head may not look exactly like one of his but it will be pretty darn good! "

Leon Walker

" I have to agree with all the positive reviews already made on the 3 day workshop on carving a rocking horse head. I experienced a very well organised course on learning the techniques for using the tools on solid wood without messing up the head right away, leading on to shaping the head as you would like. Just follow what is demonstrated step by step and you will end up with a very professional looking horse’s head and a good working knowledge of how to use the tools. I had already assembled the Large Rocky and carved the body but I needed some practise on a head. This was just what I needed. I am now full of enthusiasm to complete the Large Rocky. Most enjoyable, full of fun and a fabulous active holiday. There were six of us on the course and there were six good looking heads after only three days. I could not recommend this workshop more highly. The only negative is that I had to go home afterwards. "

David Smith

" For woodworkers we offer a range of exclusive DIY plans supported by prepared timber packs, quality accessories & tack and specialist tools. We also hold regular carving courses with tuition by Anthony Dew."

" I just want to say how wonderful our new rocking horse that you delivered last week is.  It really is a fantastic work of art and I wish to express my sincere thanks to all who worked on it.  It really did exceed all my expectations.  So a massive thank you to everyone.   "

Brian Simpson

" Every horse is a hand-crafted individual. Ready-to-ride horses are available from stock, or you can commission a 'Special', made to your own preferred size and style. Horses can be shipped to any destination. "

" What a great way to spend 3 days! It was with some trepidation that I arrived at The Rocking Horse Shop to become a student at the 'Carve a Head' course. I had minimal experience with woodwork having made some small wooden toys, but had never tried my hand at carving. The first thing to be said is how friendly everyone was, only 2 mins after entering the premises I had a cup of coffee in my hand. You were never rushed, everything from carving techniques to use of special power tools was very well explained. All 5 students ended up with rocking horse heads that we could be proud of. We had learned the basics of a great craft and had some fun along the way. I have the rest of the timber pack and am now looking forward to completing the whole rocking horse.?If you have ever considered trying your hand at carving or making a complete rocking horse, then put it off no longer, this is the course for you. I can't recommend it highly enough. "

Paul Lattimore

" Highly recommended. I'd never done any woodcarving before and managed to leave with something that looked like a rocking horse head! Very relaxed and friendly atmosphere on the course and I liked the format of demonstrating each stage before letting us loose to have a go ourselves. He provided as much or as little help as requested and at no stage was I ever made to feel like I was going to fail. I am determined to complete the full horse and have in fact now purchased the materials to do so. Go on, give it a go!!! "

Mark Levis

" As a competent hobby woodworker, but with no woodcarving experience. Miraculously, at the end of three days, I found myself in possession of a very presentable carved head, greatly exceeding my expectations. The team were able to give just the right level of help or advice to a pretty varied bunch of students. Everyone at the Rocking Horse Shop was very pleasant and helpful. Well worth travelling all the way from Kent to Yorkshire for the experience. "

Geoff Gymer

" This is just to say how delighted I am with our restored rocking horse which arrived safely yesterday.  The handsome horse seems a far cry from the poorly horse we dropped off in May and it is now in pride of place in the dining room awaiting introduction to the grandchildren next week. It has been a pleasure to deal with your enthusiastic team and the result is great. It arrived on time as agreed and on budget. Rosemary Burke "

Rosemary Burke

" We love the rocking horse - it is absolutely as we wanted it. Thank you!  "

Denise Caruth Stevenson

" I just wanted to drop you a note to thank you for the warm welcome I received last week on the Head Carving Course. It was a genuine pleasure to spend time in the work shop with a highly skilled and creative tutor.  The 3 days provided ample opportunity to share this enthusiasm and to learn from a master craftsman. Thank you again for your support, guidance and timely advice. I feel equipped and inspired to complete my very own medium rocking horse which I am sure will become a munched loved addition to our family.  "

Steve Kibble, Cornwall

" I am writing to express my appreciation for the great customer service I have received from The Rocking Horse shop during making a Large Rocky Rocking Horse. On the three occasions I either phoned or emailed I was given helpful and friendly advise which was followed by a speedy delivery.  "

Rob Stephens

" Its hard to find new words to describe this course after looking at all the past reviews. Lets just say it was everything and more that I'd hoped but with great Yorkshire Hospitality thrown in. What a team they have down there. With very little carving experience I came away with a head -- and the rest of the kit to build the whole horse at home. Went on the course at the end of June and I have a completed horse sitting in my conservatory today 2 months later. Support from the Team has been great throughout. Believe me they wont leave you out there on your own if you need assistance. One complaint -- they don't tell you that this is very very addictive. One problem -- which horse to do next. If you are dithering about going on this course, don't, just book it   "

Mike Booth

" Had an great time and learned quite a bit in the three days I was there and it was my first course on carving and I will def think of doing something else again soonish lol. The team made me very welcome and have no hesitations what so ever in recommending this course. "

Ian Wilson

" For me it was a first working with sharp chisels and wood but within the first hour of the course we were given enough confindence to begin to shape our horses heads and by the end of the three days we all came away with heads we could hold up with pride. The whole course was well planned and we never were never made to feel the beginers we were. I now have an almost complete horse getting ready for his saddle, main and tail after countless hours of fun and head scratching. Try it! "

Bob Hacking