Shropham collector’s children’s clothes
TINY, EXQUISITE dresses fill the room. Each has a rounded collar, short puffed sleeves and a smocked bodice glowing with intricate stitching. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of hand-made frocks in delicate pastel silks and light-as-air cottons, sprigged with flowers and prettied with intricate embroidery and no two are the same.
Standing, almost swamped by the rails of these jewel-like dresses, is Angela Lynne. She has created this extraordinary collection of English nursery clothes and equipment in the 45 years since her first baby was born. It is probably the only collection of its kind in the world.
It began with a single dress, bought for her eldest daughter. She went on to have another four daughters and finally a son, and her collection of nursery clothes and equipment, toys and books, is still growing.
The attic rooms of her home in Shropham, near Attleborough, are now entirely given over to the world of the upper class English nursery of the early to mid 20th century. And the collection is spreading throughout the house.
Guest bedrooms on the first floor have a couple of extra vintage cots apiece, or toys first played with a century ago, or a trunk of tiny romper suits. Downstairs, alongside the main furniture of the dining room, there are child-size tea-party tables and chairs. Prints and paintings of children line the walls and the collection includes prams too. Dolls lie in the toy prams and there are
also the old-fashioned coach-built prams once used by Angela and her children.
Rooms which might once have been nurseries are laid out as a traditional day nursery and night nurseries, complete with beds, baths, books, glass bottles of medicines, mother-of-pearl backed hairbrushes and all the other accoutrements of childhood for babies who wore silk for best and were packed off to boarding school at seven or eight.
Angela herself grew up in Yorkshire and even as a little girl she loved dolls and babies and remembers her main ambition was to have as many children of her own as possible.
She and her husband George, now retired and a lay-reader for the local parish churches, have six grownup children and 14 grandchildren ranging in age from three to 18.
Angela still remembers buying that first dress for her first daughter. “I had two spinster great aunts and they took me to Harrod’s and told me to choose a dress. All the way home I kept peeping into the little package!” she said.
Even today she adores adding to her collection, because every dress is different. Many will have been handmade to order by seamstresses for London boutiques, others lovingly created by nannies.
“I feel I am about the only person now able to recognise the makes, styles and materials of these exclusive clothes,” said Angela. “The only other people who could help in the identification of this specific subject would be old nannies and nursemaids who are, literally, a dying breed.”
It is quite possible Angela knows more than anyone else on earth about the fabrics, cuts, techniques, fastenings and labels and the slow-changing fashions of upper-class English children’s clothes. When she saw one of the Downton
Abbey children in long white socks, when they should have been wearing ankle socks, she was so perturbed she contacted writer Julian Fellowes.
Her oldest dress dates back to the 1780s but nursery clothing from between the 1920s and 1960s are at the heart of her collection. She calls it the Christopher Robin to Prince Charles period and says it “must surely be considered the prettiest run in history of children’s clothes.
“Children’s clothes were so beautifully made then – all finely stitched, smocked, tucked or tailored. The materials were the purest of silks, lawns, muslins, linens, flannels, wools and tweeds. The colours were every possible shade of cream, and all the delightful tones of old stamp colours – dusky blues, murky fawns, faded greens, dull pinks – and every hue that looks pretty on a child.”
Her absolute favourites change. “I take them out, and puff them up with tissue paper, and each one is like a jewel,” she said.
There are dresses and romper suits, sturdy coats and shoes, knitted matineé jackets, bonnets and pram sets.
On one section of rails is a line of little blue and white smocked frocks. Every one is subtly different – the shade of the blue, the width of the stripes, a pattern within a stripe…
Rows of children’s coats are miniature masterpieces of early 20th century men’s tailoring; knitted underwear threaded with ribbon is stored in boxes; beneath the rails are scores of little shoes.
Her fascination began with her close observation of the babies of the well-heeled families she visited as a child in Yorkshire and continued with her own brood, who grew up in Dedham, on the Suffolk-Essex border, moving to Shropham 20 years ago.
She dressed her five daughters and son in her beloved traditional styles and the clothes they wore, the prams she pushed them in and the books and toys they loved, became the heart of her collection.
“I used to write to Start-rite in Norwich and get special orders of the traditional shoes they didn’t sell in England any more, but were made for the French market. I went to quite a lot of trouble to get old-fashioned things for them.”
“They were quite obedient!” she said, showing a photograph of all six, dressed in kilts and Fair Isle jumpers. “It was still, just about, the era of doing what your mother told you!”
Angela is also a talented artist and has painted charming watercolours of her children and grandchildren, modelling the clothes. Some of this art-work illustrates the book she has produced to celebrate her still-growing collection.
Occasionally Angela gives a guided tour to people with a particular interest, but it is mainly a personal joy and a record of an almost-vanished era. And she still scours second-hand shops, antique dealers and sales, and people who know about her collection will offer her items discovered in their own attics.
“Moths are my biggest enemy,” said Angela, who has a freezer devoted entirely to freezing tiny garments she fears might be suffering a moth attack.
And despite a lifetime of dressing dolls, and then her own babies, Angela admits: “I would still love to have a grandchild on their own for a few days, and dress them up, and put them out in one of the prams under an apple tree, and give them back with rosy cheeks!”
Above: Angela Lynne is an artist as well as a collector. This is her picture of her six children when young
Above: Collector Angela Lynne with just some of her vintage children’s clothes and toys.