Susan Gardner of the Museum of Childhood opens Edinburgh favourite 'toybox'. Did you have any of these?

In the third of a new series in which five curators from some of the city’s best loved museums choose their favourite artefacts, today Susan Gardner of the Museum of Childhood picks her favourite toys from the collection, including an 18-room Victorian dolls house fitted with lighting and working plumbing.
The 19th century dolls house had electric lighting and working plumbingThe 19th century dolls house had electric lighting and working plumbing
The 19th century dolls house had electric lighting and working plumbing

EDINBURGH’S Museum of Childhood is a treasure house of childhood memories. Toys, dolls, books and games fill the five galleries, along with items showing how children have been brought up over the generations.

It was founded by Patrick Murray in 1955, a man who claimed he didn’t like children. He was certainly an avid collector of all sorts of childhood items and, from one small display, he built up what he claimed to be the first Museum of Childhood in the world. The museum has collected many thousands of objects since then. Everyone will have their own favourite but here are just a few highlights.

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Stanbrig Eorls dolls house is one of the largest objects in the museum. It has 18 rooms with electric light and, at one time, functioning plumbing. It was made in the late 19th century for Lena Graham Montgomery and was based on her family’s home in Hampshire. The house is furnished with everything you could wish for. Lena filled it with a family of dolls headed up by Mrs Nellie Bligh who she said was ‘born about the year 1880 on a Christmas tree at Dudley House, Park Lane, London’. The dolls house was a life-long passion for Lena who displayed it to the public during World War II to raise funds for the war effort.

The Shoe DollThe Shoe Doll
The Shoe Doll

Another great favourite with visitors is the shoe doll. This doll, literally made from the sole of an old shoe and some scraps of fabric, belonged to a child in London around 1905. Surely this represents the highest form of recycling and it demonstrates the loving efforts of a family who couldn’t afford to buy even the cheapest doll for their child. It’s unusual that a homemade toy like this has survived over a hundred years and it’s thanks to Edward Lovett who collected dolls from all over the world in order to preserve local culture. There are more dolls from Lovett’s collection on display but it’s the shoe doll that strikes a chord with most people.

The museum has relatively few teddy bears because, although people dispose of other toys, their teddy bear is often a treasured possession kept throughout their life. There are some examples of this iconic toy on display though and one of the nicest is Teddy Lane. He belonged to Rosa Winnifred Lane who grew up in Largs, and was made about 1908 by the famous German company, Steiff.

Steiff also made the Peter Rabbit soft toy on display in Gallery Four. It was patented in 1903 by Beatrix Potter after the publication of her story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. One of the earliest examples of children’s merchandising, it was soon followed by a board game and wallpaper.

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Some of the newer items on display in the museum include electronic toys which have revolutionised the way that children play. Technology moves on very quickly and even some of these games are very outdated now. Younger visitors stare in amazement at the cassette tape games played on the Spectrum ZX and the BBC home computer. The most recent exhibit is an Xbox made in 2002. It will be interesting to see if its popularity lasts as long as that of Monopoly or Barbie. The electronic toys are displayed in the museum’s newest gallery, Changing Childhood, which opened in 2018.

Curator of Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood, Susan GardnerCurator of Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood, Susan Gardner
Curator of Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood, Susan Gardner

This gallery is an introduction to the museum’s wide collection and is divided into three sections representing the major aspects of childhood - life at home, life at school and time spent playing. The section on education focuses very much on Edinburgh and includes items from St Saviour’s Child Garden, a nursery which opened in the Canongate in 1906.

This was just the second free nursery to open in Scotland in an effort to care for young children often living in slum conditions. St Saviour’s was run by Lileen Hardy who dedicated her whole working life to the families of the Canongate, supported by Father Laurie and the congregation of Old St Paul’s church. The nursery only closed in the late 1970s so there may still be some people who remember it well.

Memories and nostalgia are a big part of visiting the Museum of Childhood and proves why it’s not just for children. What’s the most overheard phrase in the museum? ‘I had one of those’.

Susan Gardner, Curator at Museum of Childhood

Grandstand Video GameGrandstand Video Game
Grandstand Video Game
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Further information on The Museum of Childhood can be found on the Museums & Galleries Edinburgh website -

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