The Councillor Designer and Deans

By Gemma Glover

For those who have lived in Rye all, or most, of their lives, I bet it does not seem 52 years ago that Deans Rag Book Company came to Tower Street. The Company spent 30 years here and employed many local people. Deans moved out in 1982 re-siting at a new home in South Wales. Yes it really is that long ago, so I thought maybe it was about time for a look back at the history of Deans Rag Books in the town, especially as the chief designer of the firm, Sylvia Willgoss, stayed on here when Deans moved on and is now a Rye Town Councillor.

Two employees who’s names were featured in an early edition of Rye’s Own (October 1966) were Mrs. Fredda Stark, a former stage actress from the USA stage actress in the U.S.A, was Public Relations Officer, her job was to make sure that the Press, Television, etc had up to date information on all the companies products. Another Miss Glynis Smith, who lived in Camber graduated to Dean’s Design Studio from the finishing department and worked with Sylvia Willgoss, the chief toy designer for the company. She married Rodney Smith and remained a ‘Smith’.

Sylvia Willgoss designed the amazing floats that became a feature of the Rye Fawkes parades, in 1957 the Dean’s float judged best entry and won the Clark Shield with “Nursery RAG”. Sylvia had won 1st prize the previous year in the ladies fancy dress with a gypsy costume she made herself.

deams3In 1966 one of Dean’s dolls caused global controversy when an Australian newspaper “They Sydney Morning Herald” published the following “The GOLLIWOG, the black faced coon of the rag doll world, has been involved in the racial issue. It has long been the favourite of the aunties as a safe present for nephews and nieces. They can’t eat it or break windows with it-and it will last for ever. But the innocent little fellow is now the subject of colour bar murmurings. Ian Scott, a rag doll manufacturer of Rye. Sussex, whose factory produces 30,000 golliwogs a year, found it was virtually impossible to sell the dolls in America because both sides in the U.S racial conflict object to black-faced dolls-for different reasons of course.

So far sales have not been affected in Britain or on the Continent.

Scotts agent in New York suggested a solution-eliminate the reason for the sales resistance. So the production line at Rye is now interspersed with an occasional white faced golliwog for American buyers. They have the usual black curly hair and brightly colour suits, but their faces are rosy pink, their cheeks red, and their eyes blue.

Is a white-faced golliwog really a golliwog? Mr. Scott hopes so”.

There were many other newspapers, some in this country, that ran with the story. Whatever the rights and wrongs the publicity was good for Deans whose output of rag dolls soared but by the 1990’s they were just known as Golly dolls.

Peter Dee (A Councillor then and Rye’s oldest surviving Alderman today) worked in Dean’s Rye office. When he left to work for Pontin’s in the early 1970s Sylvia Willgoss did a cartoon for him to remember the people he used to work with including Sid Staples, Frank Nye, Pat Lane etc. Peter returned to Deans in his retirement years and sprayed the chimp rubber parts in the spray shed.

Deans manufactured a very wide variety of toys, from the traditional “Teddy Bear”, to cats, dogs, squirrels and of course, the famous Chimp.Deams 2

The Chimp was designed by Sylvia Willgoss, she visited Regents Park Zoo and closely studied a baby chimpanzee, this chimp was the design basis for Deans ‘Tru-to-Life Chimp’. Another of Sylvia’s creations was the ‘Tru-to-Life’ bear, based on the American black bear. She produce a second face for the bear as she thought the original was a little fierce, but unfortunately as too late the first face had been manufactured so the more friendly face was never to be seen. “Timmy”, as the bear was named, was actually given to two real bear cubs at London Zoo, stories and pictures of the cubs playing with him were featured in the “Daily Mirror.”Deams

The Tru-to-Life bear again made the newspapers recently when one came up for sale at Christie’s and reached a record £3000 against its catalogue estimate of £400-600.

Sylvia recently became a local Councillor, she is a keen writer, artist and an avid reader of Rye’s Own.

“Rye’s Own” August 2007

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