Starting in 1860 in Birmingham city centre, Joseph and Alfred Johnson set up a stationery business.
In 1897 Joseph and his son Alfred J. Johnson moved the company to a newly-erected factory in Harborne, close to the Chad Brook – hence the name Chad Valley. The firm trade initially as Johnson Bros. (Harborne) Ltd., making stationers’ sundries and cardboard games, many educational.
With the outbreak of the Great War, all imports of toys and games ceased, giving a boost to the British toy trade. The company expanded the range of products in spite of wartime restrictions, making their first soft toys (teddy bears). With the ending of the war, the firm needed more production space, and acquired the Harborne Village Institute as their printing works, making box covers for their toys and games.
The Wrekin Toy Works was opened at Wellington, Shropshire in 1920 and soft toy production transferred there. The three factories merged into one firm, Chad Valley Co. Ltd. During the 1920s the company continued to expand, and the production of Mah Jong sets took off in 1923, at the start of the craze, acquiring Peacock & Co. Ltd., of London, long-established manufacturers of wooden toys.
Their Mah Jong product line ranged from cheap cardboard & playing card sets, through bamboo & wooden tiles, to casein (sold as ‘Ivorine’) – there may have been Chinese bone & bamboo sets sold, but I have not seen any examples, and there is nothing in the literature.
The company logo is a green sinogram on their oak boxes, a silver sinogram on their monocolour card boxes and a circle of tiles surrounding MAH JONGG (note the 2 Gs) on their gingham cardboard boxes and the same in silver on the blue boxes.
There are 2 distinct styles to their tiles; the ones printed on a paper slip glued to a wooden base occasionally feature a swooping crane, but more usually a displaying peacock with erect tail, separated rod Bamboos, (sometimes serifed), always simple wan Craks, and simple circles. The impressed wooden tiles have the slightly different displaying peacock, but still recognisably Chad Valley. The bamboo tiles are not to any standard form, as these were made by small artisan firms in China and imported, to be housed in Chad Valley boxes.
During the Second World War the company handled many Government contracts, but one factory was retained by the Government for toy manufacture, specialising in jigsaws for military hospitals and board games for the Forces generally.
With the ending of the war, Chad Valley factories quickly returned to toy production, adding metal toys to their range. In the immediate post-war years, several metal-producing businesses were acquired, including A.S. Cartwright Ltd., manufacturers of aluminium hollow-ware’. But Mah Jong sets are not seen as viable any longer and are discontinued in 1957.
During the next 20 years, the firm expanded, acquiring several businesses, until recession caused the bubble to burst and the company was bought by John Bentley, of Barclay Securities, for a relative song – £600,000. A millionaire at 31, he had a reputation for thoroughly streamlining companies, re-styling and re-packaging their products. Which he did again at Chad Valley; hundreds were made redundant, 3 out of the nine factories were closed and 2 years later John Bentley moved on, having sold Chad Valley for £1,800,000 – trebling his outlay! After 2 more years the rot had set in and only two of the Chad Valley factories remained open. The Harborne factory was demolished and in 1978 the company was taken over by the Leicester-based firm of Palitoy. More factories closed as they were considered poorly adapted to the production of the new, increasingly popular plastic toys, and in 1988 Woolworths acquired the trade name Chad Valley, the toys still being manufactured elsewhere.