Frank Whittington (1876-1973) was an artist and wood-carver who set up a toy making business in the New Forest at the end of the First World War. The Forest Toys factory became renowned for its beautifully observed painted wooden toys. Whittington was particularly inspired by the animals, people and vehicles surrounding him in the New Forest. He also regularly visited London Zoo and the Natural History Museum so as to produce accurate scale models of exotic animals for his Noah’s Arks and Zoo sets.
Originally from Reigate, Whittington worked at a munitions factory in Redbridge, Southampton during the First World War. He moved to Brockenhurst and began by making toys on a small scale in his home. In 1922, unable to keep up with demand, he set up a small factory which eventually employed up to 16 people.
The toys were made in sections from deal wood (pine or fir) and then glued together. A horse for instance had one part for the head, body and tail and then each leg was added. Linoleum patterns were made for each piece and these were then cut out of large, thick boards by a jig-saw. They were then planed and finished by hand. The final process was the painting, which was carried out by female workers.
The Forest Toys came to prominence at the British Industries Fairs held between the wars. At one fair, the young Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) is said to have taken a particular fancy to Whittington’s Noah’s Ark, complete with all its animals. Queen Mary too was very impressed and, according to ex-employee Basil O’Donnell, ordered two dozen arks on the spot.
After this, the orders increased dramatically, with toys being sold to Harrods, Selfridges and other large department stores. Many customers turned up at the factory to buy toys, including passengers from the ocean liners who would take a coach from Southampton. O’Donnell recalled that there was no admission fee and that it was sometimes so crowded that it was difficult to get any work done.
Whittington often accepted commissions for pieces, including a near life-size figure of a horse for the film actress Elizabeth Bergner and numerous carvings of people’s dogs. He also made nativity sets for several churches in the area, including St. Saviour’s in Brockenhurst. In the late 1930s he carved a trio of musicians from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performing in a subscription concert at the Balmer Lawn Hotel, Brockenhurst. The piece is now in the collection of the Russell Cotes Museum, Bournemouth.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the closure of Whittington’s factory. He was unable to import the necessary wood from America and many of his employees joined up or became involved in the war effort. Frank Whittington died in 1973 aged 97.
Frank Whittington painting his wooden toys
The New Forest Book; An Illustrated Anthology, edited by J O’Donald Mays