Since first appearing in the 1958 children’s book, Paddington Bear has become a household name. This year, the iconic children’s book character even became entwined with Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy. However, the very first Paddington Bear plush toy has a little-known link to a divisive British TV personality. Here’s what we know about the long history of the ever-popular Paddington Bear plush toys.
Paddington Bear Meets The Queen
To celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee this June, the creative minds behind the Paddington movies helped create a short video of the animated bear meeting the queen herself. The palace released the clip, and it immediately resonated with fans of both the royal family and Paddington Bear alike. Of course, most UK citizens land in at least one of those camps. The clip was nothing short of a pop culture phenomenon, and it was still fresh in people’s memories when the queen passed on this September.
In honor of the departed monarch, people began leaving Paddington Bear plushies at Buckingham Palace. Along with the many, many flowers, cards, and other sentimental items, the palace collected 1,000 of the red-capped teddy bears. However, the palace wants to assure people that their donations will go to good use. In a post shared on the royal family’s official Instagram page, Camilla Parker Bowles announced that the bears were being sent to Barnardo’s, the UK’s largest children’s charity.
Of course, this is only the latest phase in the long life of the fictional bear. From children’s book character to cinematic sensation, Paddington has charmed generation after generation. For many adults today, the very first memories they have of Paddington Bear are of the same fluffy plush toy that flooded the gates of Buckingham palace last month.
Shirley Clarkson Designed The First Paddington Bear Plush
While the first book in Michael Bond’s beloved series, A Bear Called Paddington, hit shelves in 1958, Paddington plush toys weren’t first available until the early ’70s. While teddy bears have been a popular toy since the early 20th century, it would be hard to find one specially made to resemble the book character.
Paddington is recognizable due to his (usually red) hat, his old suitcase, his (usually blue) duffel coat, and his love for marmalade sandwiches. Sometimes he carries a yellow umbrella. Over time, toy companies have used a combination of these qualities to produce their own Paddington plush toys. However, the first Paddington plush toy on record was designed by a UK woman named Shirley Clarkson. She made her first Paddington plush as a Christmas gift for her children, Joanna and Jeremy Clarkson.
This is the very same Jeremy Clarkson who hosted the popular BBC show Top Gear for decades—and who now appears on Clarkson’s Farm. It’s certainly a fitting coincidence that the very first child to have a Paddington Bear plush has forged his own place in British pop culture. Of course, Clarkson’s controversial career has deviated slightly from the wholesome fictional bear, but it’s interesting all the same.
Gabrielle Designs Procured The First Paddington Product License
It’s unclear when Shirley stitched her very first Paddington plush, but they quickly became popular. She made them in an unofficial capacity for a while before her company, Gabrielle Designs, procured an official license to sell them in the UK in 1972. This was the very first Paddington product license distributed. The company had immense success.
In fact, the teddies were so popular that Gabrielle Designs struggled to meet demand. The earliest Paddington Bear toys were dressed in children’s Dunlop rain boots. However, when the Dunlop brand couldn’t produce enough boots to keep up, Gabrielle Designs started producing their own teddy shoes.
In 1975, the US company Eden Toys acquired its own license and began distributing Paddington toys as well. As it turned out, there would be more than enough room for competition. In 1976, Paddington, the very first TV show starring the fictional bear, hit the airwaves. As a consequence, demand skyrocketed not only for plush toys but for novelty items like greeting cards and wallpaper as well.
Paddington Plush Toys Became A Childhood Staple
That being said, there was a clear difference in quality between the two companies. Eden Toys outsourced its production to large factories in other countries. By contrast, Gabrielle Designs continued hand-making its Paddington plushies in a small factory in Doncaster, England. As a consequence, there were far fewer of Gabrielle Designs’ Paddington Bears in circulation. They’re now considered collectible items and fetch a pretty penny if they’ve been well-preserved.
The Paddington Bear plush became a well-recognized symbol in the UK. It was so popular that, in 1994, workers constructing the Channel Tunnel between England and France chose the stuffed bear as the first item to pass through the channel to their French counterparts once the two sides met.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle Designs closed shop in 1997, followed soon after by Eden Toys. While the two companies were active, they were the only licensed manufacturers of Paddington plush bears—so, if you had a Paddington plush toy before 1997, it most likely came from one of the two companies. Today, a multitude of toy manufacturers produce Paddington plush toys. With the popularity of online shopping hubs like Amazon, it’s easier than ever to procure a Paddington teddy bear. That fact was only exemplified by the hundreds of plush bears that were left at Buckingham Palace in tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.