Joy to the child

Christmas is toy time. Does the name Hamleys ring a bell? It's the moniker of the historic and world-famous toy store on London's Regent Street that is visited by some six million people a year. They swarm all over its seven stories of soft, cuddly stuffed animals, dolls and teddy bears, radio-controlled cars, train sets, model kits, board games, outdoor toys, and computer games.

It began as the dream of William Hamley, a Cornishman from Bodmin (located 26 miles WNW of Plymouth) who simply could have become a fisherman or tin miner but instead mined toys - rag dolls, tin soldiers, hoops, wooden horses, and the like. So, in 1760, determined to open the best toy store in the world, he carted his collection to Holborn in London where he set up shop in cramped quarters as "Noah's Ark." This, too, was the beginning of the reign of George III, who, incidentally, would bear the blame for the loss of the American colonies. Westminster Bridge had just been opened to traffic for horses and carts, but it would be another 50 years before gas lights illuminated the city streets.

Today, as a run-up to Christmas, Hamleys will be milling with kids, parents, and visitors. It recalls my own experience when, for several years, my sister and I and our parents became part of the crush. I was born in London on April 22, 1920, within the sound of Bow Bells, thus making me a true cockney. St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, had one of the most celebrated peal bells in the city. At the time of our visits, toy theatres, Punch and Judy puppets, pedal cars, miniature railway trains, and Meccano (a model construction set) were hot items.

I don't recall going into raptures over any particular toy, but was surprised when Santa in successive years sought to attract me musically - first with a trumpet that I tooted to death; next a violin that gave me a crick in the neck from constant admonishments to keep my chin up; and, last, a barrel organ - now that I could "handle." That my mother was a musical comedy actress and my father a classical pianist couldn't have had anything to do with it. Could it? Another thing, I don't remember ever having a teddy bear; so I never developed an attachment to one. Certainly Hamleys had a ton of teddies, being purveyors of the original Stieff teddy.

Another time Santa dropped off a huge fort and a veritable army of soldiers (I wonder were they "leaded?") I soon lost interest in military maneuvers. Years later I stumbled across Robert Louis Stevenson's poignant poem, "The Counterpane" from "A Child's Garden of Verses" (1885).

A writer of robust adventure yarns, Stevenson was a delicate boy. He died in December in Samoa at the early age of 44.

To continue the Hamley saga, his grandsons in 1881 opened a new branch on Regent Street and called it the "Joy Emporium." Interestingly, this preceded by eleven years the erection of the Eros statue in nearby Piccadilly Circus. the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the shelves were laden with croquet sets, cricket bats, and marionettes. Then in 1921 Jean Jacques and Sons gave Hamleys exclusive rights to launch their new creation "Gossima" that people called ping pong, later officially christened table tennis.

Hamleys has had its share of vicissitudes in almost 250 years. It was forced into liquidation in 1931 when the economic depression hit Europe. However, Walter Lines, chairman of Tri-Ang Company, bought it and restored its reputation. He remembered riding on one of Hamleys delivery trucks as a child. During World War II, the store was bombed five times. Its staff donned their tin helmets and served at the front of the store, running in and out of the shop for the toys. Hamleys moved to 188-196 Regent Street in 1981; was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1994; and became a private company with the help of Baugur, the Iceland-based retail group in 2003.

Many years ago, I went back to England to spend Christmas with my sister. I happened to be on Regent Street, standing idly by, taking in the hustle and bustle. Suddenly a young couple with two children approached me. She asked me: "Can you direct us to Hamleys?" I laughed. "It's just a stone's throw away on the other side of the street." With no English bobby on hand, they must have thought I looked a knowledgeable sort of chap! And for once I was.

It was a transporting encounter because in my mind's eye I suddenly saw Santa's sleigh packed high with presents and the reindeer at the ready to deliver the delight, and it seemed to me that I heard his jovial "Ho! Ho! Ho! And away we go!" echoing across the years.

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