Behind the scenes at a rocking horse maker on the Wirral
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 December 2016
Once a rocking horse was the ultimate status symbol Christmas toy. Rebekka O'Grady visits a Moreton craftsman
When Stephen McGreal fell off a roof and shattered both wrists, he was told he would never work again as a joiner. But he proved everyone wrong with a busy career crafting wooden toys which has spanned nearly 30 years. Rocking horses, once the ultimate status symbol toy in an upper class nursery, were something of a speciality for Stephen.
‘I would come back from physiotherapy and start work on a rocking horse,’ explained Stephen McGreal, from his Wirral Rocking Horses workshop in Moreton, Wirral. ‘They think that the movement of using a gouge and mallet really helped.’
The ex-shipbuilder’s perseverance to continue his trade has seen him fashion hundreds of rocking horses, as well as restoring many older ones. From grandparents wanting to buy something special for a new baby, to unloved horses discovered in basements and attics, the joiner has been able to bring horses to life – including one special Liverpudlian horse many locals will remember.
‘When Blackler’s Department Store was still open in Liverpool, there used to be a giant rocking horse at the top of the stairs. It was famous in the city, people used to want to have a ride on it. After the store closed in 1988, the owner gifted it to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Years later it was in a bit of a state, so I restored it for free.’
The horse named Blackie, which is now at the Museum of Liverpool on the Pier Head, is not the only restoration item that Stephen has helped to revive. Most recently he acquired a Lines (which later became Tri-ang) rocking horse from 1910. After correspondence with the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood on how to restore the wheel, the little rocking horse is nearly as good as new.
‘I don’t do that many restorations now, maybe six a year. But when I do, I get a kick out of restoring a horse that is badly damaged so that when it’s finished no-one knows it’s been done,’ explained Stephen, who around five years ago closed his store to move the business online. As well as restoration, the business now primarily focuses on the manufacturing of accessories for other makers and restorers.
‘There’s quite a big movement in the UK of people rescuing rocking horses and restoring them themselves, especially in the antique industry. With the accessories they can just buy what they need, so we hand make leather saddles (which are named after Wirral towns and villages) and bridles, as well as stocking items like glass eyes and manes.’
Stephen has seen the industry chop and change. Moving with the modern way of rocking horses has given him flexibility within the business. He still has one hand on the traditional crafting of horses, but also one firmly in the future of the industry.
‘When you get a horse, sometimes you think – where have you been?! I bet they would tell a good tale if they could.’