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Abbatt [née Cobb], (Norah) Marjorielocked

(1899–1991)
  • Elizabeth Newson

Abbatt [née Cobb], (Norah) Marjorie (1899–1991), promoter of toy design and businesswoman, was born on 18 March 1899 in Surbiton, Surrey, daughter of a well-to-do fur broker. She was educated at Roedean School, Brighton, and at Somerville College, Oxford; but her postgraduate studies at University College, London, intended to combine psychoanalysis and speech therapy, were interrupted by marriage to (Cyril) Paul Abbatt in December 1930. Paul Abbatt had been born on 19 July 1899 in Bromley Cross near Bolton, son of a Quaker family, and educated in Quaker schools and Trinity Hall, Cambridge (natural sciences), following which he had taught at another Quaker school, Sidcot, from 1922. From 1932, when their toy company was registered, they were known in the progressive education world as Paul and Marjorie Abbatt.

Marjorie Abbatt was a romantic idealist with a highly pragmatic centre; she respected Paul for his ideas and principles, but saw herself as getting on with the practicalities of their life together. Paul had been deeply influenced by the order of Woodcraft Chivalry (which had established a lodge at Sidcot), and they first met at the yearly folkmoot—to which Marjorie had been taken by a friend—in the scented pinewoods of Godshill, Hampshire, where Paul had been working for a term in the order's newly established forest school. Marjorie in her eighties described the experience as 'ecstatic'. Both were inspired by the order's educational ideal of children ‘learning by doing’; determined to start a progressive school themselves, they set off on a year's ‘honeymoon’ to Vienna and Russia, armed only with a letter of introduction from Sir Charles Trevelyan (then president of the Board of Education), to study kindergarten methods. In Vienna especially they were impressed by the way children's play was taken seriously as a valid form of ‘work’, and by the innovative educationist Professor Cizek at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. They returned with a collection of experiential toys and were ready to be inspired still further by Susan Isaacs, writing of her experimental school in Cambridge: 'We see no reason to let the school and its conventions stand between the child and the real situations in the world' (S. Isaacs, Intellectual growth in young children, 1930, 21).

The couple's focus now changed, away from starting their own school and towards the toys themselves. They visited workshops and small factories at home and abroad to discover craftspeople in wood, and held a six-week exhibition (1932) in their flat in Bloomsbury, London, to test interest. Encouraged, they started a mail-order business in a room rented from the New Education Fellowship, produced a catalogue illustrated by the sculptor John Skeaping, and registered as 'designers, manufacturers and retailers of toys, educational materials etc'. From the beginning, the principles and coherence of design were clearly set out in their catalogues, as well as in occasional lectures, linked to the psychology of play. In both 1933 and 1934 their toys filled the nursery sections of exhibitions of British industrial art for the Design and Industries Association, associating them with important architects such as Erno Goldfinger; and in 1938 Goldfinger himself designed their shop-front and interior at 94 Wimpole Street, London, emphasizing the validity of a marriage between imaginative play and functional design.

The shop itself was never a runaway commercial success: indeed, Marjorie late in life lamented that they had never even drawn salaries from it, living on her inherited money; but it was always the ideas it represented that were important to the Abbatts. They worked nationally and internationally to produce bibliographies on toys and play and to establish accepted standards for toy design, later to include design for children with special needs. At the time of Paul's death, Marjorie was president of the International Council for Children's Play and had established the Children's Play Activities Trust to 'extend the understanding of play … promote the design of good toys, and encourage safe and adequate provision for children's play' (trust deed; priv. coll.). The trust still exists as a charitable fund with the same objectives, and was especially active during Marjorie's eighties and nineties, when she delighted in the schemes funded through her generosity: 'I am so happy about how many different things we do nowadays!' (personal knowledge).

The Abbatt climbing frame, designed in the early thirties, won the Observer design award in 1969. Marjorie Abbatt was made an honorary MA in her eighties by Nottingham University in recognition of her contribution to the study of children's play (1981); and in 1989 the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood mounted ‘A tribute to Marjorie Abbatt’ as part of its ‘Themes from the thirties’ exhibition. The British Toymakers' Guild awards a prize every year, named in her honour, for the toy most likely to encourage imaginative play. Paul died in June 1971, after a two-year illness in which he lost his capacity for speech; Marjorie continued active to the age of ninety-two, and died at her home, 39 Diamond Court, Moreton Road, Summertown, Oxford, on 10 November 1991.

Sources

  • J. Welton, ‘Paul and Marjorie Abbatt: the story and ideas behind Abbatt Toys’, MA diss., U. Nott., 1980 [Welton's sources were a ser. of interviews with M. A. and significant others, and access to Abbatt papers]
  • minutes of Children's Play Activities Ltd, later CPA Trust Fund, May 1966–Dec 1993, priv. coll.
  • H. Pasierbska, The Independent (13 Nov 1991)
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Archives

  • Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, London, CPA records
  • priv. coll., archival material, incl. artefacts

Likenesses

  • J. Bown, photograph (with P. Abbatt), repro. in ‘Idealists in the Toy Shop’, The Observer (2 Dec 1962) [interview]
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian

Wealth at Death

£423,988: probate, 15 May 1992, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
private collection