It was a charming sight: two little girls standing at the end of the collectors’ fair stall while each agonised over which “antique” they would purchase to add to their respective collections.
Each child clutched a £2 coin – either pocket money or perhaps a bribe, I thought, so their parents could spend unhurried time of their own at the fair on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Fortunately their mother was a patient woman too. The girls were spoilt for choice and the process took a good 10 minutes while each potential purchase was handled and inspected for its suitability.
And amazingly, when they finally handed over their cash, each child got 50 pence change!
Here were two budding collectors in the making. The objects of their desire? A tray of Wade Whimsies – porcelain animal models small enough to fit into children’s hands and the perfect collection where space and money are tight.
Don’t be fooled though. These mass-produced fripperies of the fancy ceramics market are big business.
There’s an international collectors’ club for Wade Whimsies and some examples, particularly the early sets, change hands for big bucks (which is a hint as to where that happens most).
The first Whimsies appeared in 1954, introduced by George Wade at the British Industries Fair of that year.
At the time, the pottery manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent were still struggling from the restrictions on production imposed during the Second World War.
Manufacturer of all non-essential ceramic items had ceased and production of domestic china was limited to plain, undecorated dinnerware and teapots.
The restrictions were not lifted completely until August 1952 and Wade, in line with its competitors, struggled to keep the factory in production.
The little animal figures were among a number of new product lines dreamed up by designer Iris Carryer and so called after they were described as “whimsical” by Wade’s secetary.
Although not aimed directly at children, the endearing little figures – the largest measured just over two inches in height – had a toy-like quality which was not lost on the company.
The first were introduced in a boxed set of five and cost 5/9 (29 pence). It included a leaping fawn, a horse, a spaniel with a ball, a poodle and a squirrel.
In 1953, Wade established a giftware factory in Portadown, Northern Ireland and the company took it in turns to produce subsequent boxed sets of Whimsies.
Competition between the two factories maintained the quality of the early sets until 1959, when the 10th and final boxed set was produced in Portadown.
Whimsies continued to be made in the 1960s but not for the retail market. Instead, they were packaged as giveaways intended to promote the sales of various often unrelated products made by other manufacturers – the so-called premiums market.
As such the little animals became “one free in every box” of tea bags or whatever.
Many were also the prizes inside several brands of Christmas crackers – the source of many of today’s collectable examples.
Their popularity was such that in 1971, Wade introduced a second set of 60 Whimsies to be sold individually in their own boxes.
For the collector prepared to pay a small premium, the 60 were divided into 12 sets of five and it was still possible to buy each of the sets in a display box, issued regularly until 1980.
Production ceased in 1984, although it continues today in the form of one-off commissions for advertising and promotional giveaways, notably in the U.S.
Red Rose have given away Whimsies with their packets of tea since 1967 in Canada and the promotion was extended to the U.S. in 1983 and is still going strong today.
Whimsies are collected for their quirky charm, not the quality of manufacture!
Because of massive production runs, there are many variations in seemingly identical models but all with minor changes. This is because moulds became worn over time and were then retooled, giving slightly different results.
Later models are less well defined than earlier productions and colours, which were soft, pastel, more varied and hand-painted are uniform and less realistic.
Place a 1950s Whimsie alongside a late example and the difference is striking.
Quality aside, the great thing about Whimsies is that there’s a range to suit all tastes: they include cats, dogs, birds, sea life, snow animals, pets, wildlife, farm animals, dinosaurs, nursery rhyme characters, circus figures, miniature houses, leprechauns, monks and even Disney animals.
Most collectors’ fairs have at least one stall selling Whimsies and prices start at £1.
Early figures usually sell at a premium of up to 10 times a later more common example and prices are generally rising.
Boxed sets in mint condition are sought after and can fetch £200 or more depending on age.
The early Shire Horse or Swan are among the rarest of all Whimsies, so watch out for them at your next boot sale.
And a brief word about displaying your collection: nothing sets them off better than the wooden cases used by printers in the days of hand-set metal type.
Now largely redundant, the cases, or trays, contain lots of small compartments which are just the right size for a Whimsie in each.
Hang the case on the wall and you have an instant shadow box that might have been made for the purpose. They turn up in auctions and collectors’ fairs for £10-20 apiece.
George Wade’s factory can trace its origins to the Henry Hallen Pottery founded in 1810 near Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.
At the beginning of the 19th century, an enterprising furniture maker, John Wade from Crewe, set up business in Burslem and was joined by his sons who later diversified into the manufacture of pottery.
In 1867, Joseph Wade and his business partner, Thomas Myatt, opened a potbank in Hall Street opposite to Hallen’s, but the venture was not a success.
However, the business was rescued by Joseph’s uncle, George Wade, who went into direct competition with the well-established Hallens.
Ultimately, he bought out his competitor in 1905, virtually cornering the industrial ceramics market.
Wade called the Hallens potbank the Manchester Works to reflect the glory days of the Hallen’s own Lancashire Works but it was renamed the Greenhead Works in the 1950s when it became specialists in tableware production.
In 1919, son George Albert joined George Wade, the firm becoming George Wade and Son Ltd.
Brothers Albert and William Wade joined brother George and his son and the firm became The Wade Group of Potteries Ltd in 1958, later to be changed again to Wade PLC.
Wade (Ulster) Ltd founded in 1947 in Portadown, Northern Ireland was changed in 1966 to Wade Ireland Ltd.
With the death of George Wade and his son, the company was sold and became Wade Ceramics Limited under Beauford PLC. Wade Ireland was later renamed Seagoe Ceramics.
The company continues today as simply Wade.
Picture shows Wonderful Whimsies: boxed sets of five like this from the 1950s are highly prized by collectors who are prepared to pay upwards of £200 for mint examples