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Early Biographies

Marjorie Abbatt was born Norah Marjorie Cobb on the 18 March 1899. She lived in Surbiton, Surrey, her father working in London as a fur trader. She was educated at Roedean School, Brighton and, between 1918-21, at Somerville College, Oxford, where she took a ‘groups’ degree in English, French and Political Economy. On coming down from Oxford, she became a post-graduate student at University College London, combining psychoanalysis and speech therapy with a view to a career in child therapy helping patients who stammered. She continued with her studies until marrying Paul in 1930.

Paul Abbatt was born Cyril Paul Abbatt in Bromley Cross, near Bolton, Lancashire. His family had been Quakers since the 17th century, and he was educated at Ackworth and then Bootham, both Quaker schools. In 1918 he worked on ambulance trains in France before going up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1919, where he sat the Natural Sciences and Mathematics tripos and represented his college at cricket and football. Between leaving Cambridge in 1922 and marrying Marjorie at the end of 1930, Paul worked as a private tutor and teacher in a number of schools: as Assistant Science and Mathematics Master at Sidcot School, Somerset between 1922 and 1925, returning as Senior Mathematics and IV Form Master between January and July 1927; at Priory Gate School, Suffolk between January and July 1926; as Assistant Mathematics Master St Georges, Harpenden between October and December 1926; and for a short period at Mill Hill School, London. He also worked at the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry Forest School at Godshill, Hampshire, and as a secretary to P. H. D. J. White, at the Department of Psychology, University College London between September 1927 and April 1928.

Paul and Marjorie met in 1926, at an annual gathering of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry at Sandyballs, Godshill, Hampshire. The Order was a scouting-like movement focussing on the virtues of kindness and fellowship, and an appreciation of the natural world. [1] Paul was already involved in the Order as a Grand Keeper of Fire and Lone Member Representative, with a seat on the Council of Chiefs, and Marjorie subsequently joined. The ethos of the Order was to have an influence on their later work, particularly the importance of learning by doing and the need for the all-round development of children, for them to learn independence as well as just acquire knowledge.

Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Limited – the beginning

Between meeting in 1926 and their marriage in December 1930, the Abbatts nurtured ambitions of becoming educationalists and of opening their own progressive school. With this in mind, in January 1931, they travelled to Europe on an extended honeymoon to study kindergarten methods in Vienna, which at the time had an advanced social welfare programme and some of the most progressive education in Europe. They also visited the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. In addition to their tent and rucksacks, they took with them a letter of introduction from Sir Charles Trevelyan (the then President of the Board of Education), which enabled them to visit and observe practices within a wide range of educational establishments. These included the Haus Der Kinder in Vienna, established to follow Montessori principles, and also the work of Professor Franz Cizek at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. The Abbatts were to witness children using their own initiative, learning and finding solutions to problems themselves and in co-operation with each other, rather than being under direction from a teacher. Paul later described the atmosphere in the Viennese nursery schools they visited as ‘…of regulated eagerness, of appropriate discipline, above all an atmosphere which seemed to suit the children.’ [2]  It was also at this time, in Vienna, that they first met Milan Morgenstern and Helena Löw-Beer, who together had been developing teaching methods for children with physical and learning disabilities, and who would later become involved in the design of toys for the Abbatts.

They returned home in December 1931 with examples of the experimental toys they had seen in use, and quickly formulated more concrete ideas for a business to fill a gap in the market in terms of toys for younger children. As Margaret remembered in an interview for the BBC in 1973, “…in those days when you thought of a little child and you wanted to give it a present, you just gave it another soft toy.” [3]  A business selling and promoting well-designed toys was a way of enhancing the Abbatts’ credibility as educationalists, and a means of raising the capital necessary to open a school. They were also influenced at this time by Susan Isaacs’ book ‘Intellectual Growth in Young Children’, which was first published in 1931, and which further confirmed the Abbatts’ ideas on the importance of play for the development of young children.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Throughout 1932, the Abbatts continued to investigate and collect toy designs, visiting the Leipzig Toy Fair, toy factories is Dresden, Nurenberg and Berlin, and also the Maison des Petites in Geneva. They continued to learn from progressive practitioners, meeting with Margaret Lowenfeld, a paediatrician and pioneer of child psychiatry and psychotherapy who, in common with the Abbatts, recognised the importance of play for a child’s development, and visited the Rachel McMillan Nursery in Deptford.

For six weeks in the summer of 1932 they held an exhibition of toys in their flat at 49 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, London. This was such a success that on 23 September 1932 Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Limited (PMA Ltd.) was registered as a company “…to carry on the business of designers, manufacturers and retailers of toys, furniture and educational materials etc”. This mail-order company was soon operating from new premises at 29 Tavistock Square, in the same building as the New Education Fellowship, Froebel Institute, Nursery School Association and the Home and School Council. The range of the Abbatts’ products continued to grow, and the sculptor John Skeaping was employed to produce the illustrations for the first catalogue. Freda Skinner was also employed as a designer, her work including jigsaw puzzles and picture trays, inspired by the equipment used in Montessori schools and nurseries.

Further Developments

In 1933, to cope with demand, the Abbatts expanded their premises, acquiring a factory, offices and stockroom at Midford Place, Tottenham Court Road, London. Also included was a showroom designed by Franz Singer. The Abbatts’ toys were exhibited at the British Industrial Art Exhibition, Dorland Hall, London in 1933, in a nursery designed by Oliver Hill. At around this time, the Abbatts started to collaborate with the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger. In 1934 they exhibited their toys in a nursery designed by Goldfinger at the Contemporary Industrial Design Exhibition, also at Dorland Hall, and also provided the toys for the Goldfinger-designed exhibit ‘The Child’ for the British pavilion in the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques de la Vie Moderne in Paris. In 1936, when the Abbatts opened their first shop at 94 Wimpole Street, it was Goldfinger who designed the shop-front, interior and pieces of furniture, as well as some of the toys on sale. Now unfortunately demolished, it has been acclaimed as Goldfinger’s most perfect pre-war work in England, and at the time demonstrated both the Abbatts’ commitment to good design, and the influence of modernist design in particular on their overall ethos. 1938 saw the publication by PMA Ltd. of ’25 Best Toys for Each Age’, based on ‘The Child’ exhibit, and also saw the Abbatts involved in the child’s nursery section of the Modern Architectural Research Group exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries, London.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite the success of their business, the Abbatts did not regard themselves as shopkeepers, as was pointed out in a profile of their partnership in the Observer newspaper nearly thirty years later. The division of work within the Abbatts’ partnership is described as being made by two well-defined temperaments. Marjorie, although a romantic idealist, [4] was also a highly pragmatic businesswoman. It was she who ran the business. Paul is described as spending most of his day in ‘academic retreat’, as ‘an idealist whose chief interest is in the ethos behind the business’. [5] It is this combination of academic sensibilities and strong business sense which meant that the Abbatts’ activities were not confined to selling toys. At the same time as establishing their business, the Abbatts also quickly went about establishing themselves as specialists in their field. These activities not only satisfied Paul’s more academic interests, but also, by positioning Paul and Marjorie Abbatt as specialists and aligning them with prestigious international design fairs, served to promote the quality of their products. To this end, in addition to their involvement in the exhibitions above, the Abbatts published and lectured widely. For example, Margaret had delivered lectures on ‘Toys and the Child’s Development’ and ‘The Children’s Choice of Toys’ in November 1933 (the former to the Child Society, London, the latter to accompany an exhibition of the Abbatts’ toys in the Bon Marché department store, Liverpool). Paul also published two articles in the early 1930’s in the journal ‘Design for Today’; ‘Psychology in Toys and Games’ in the December issue, 1933 and ‘The Evolution of Toys’, in December 1934.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1933 article laid out many of the core principles of the Abbatts. Firstly, Paul emphasised the importance of play, described as ‘…a force which can be used for development and valuable experience, a force which, if it is not thwarted by the wrong choice of playthings, develops into the power behind the successful architect or engineer.’ He went on to describe play and play things as ‘…just as necessary for the child as food and clothes.’ He argued that toys should be designed from the point of view of children, rather than adults, that toys should be ‘…suited to the size and power of the child…’, they should be designed simply, to encourage the use of the child’s imagination and creativity and to allow them to be used ‘…as often and in as many different ways as possible’, and that, because toys provide an opportunity for the child to experiment, they must also be strong enough to withstand these varied uses. It is therefore clear to Paul that ‘…the choosing of toys is an important matter, and better not left to chance.’ [6]

The War Years

The onset of the Second World War in 1939 brought a number of changes to the Abbatts’ life. The Midford Place factory was closed down, and the business was relocated to High Wycombe. This closure marked the end of the short period of time in which the Abbatts had their own factory. Post-war production of Abbatt toys relied upon a number of different manufacturers, including individuals, which was more appropriate to the short production runs required.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Changes in society also had an impact upon the business. As more and more women started to work, more nurseries were required to look after children during the day. As the Abbatts were known for the manufacture of high-quality ‘educational’ toys, they supplied many of these nurseries. However, this increased demand meant that there was a shortage of toys to supply to the general public. Therefore, during the war, sales to the public consisted in the main of books.

The war also brought changes to the Abbatts’ personal circumstances. Milan Morgenstern had moved to London at the end of 1938, and had begun to work on designs for toys which he was developing from his earlier work with children with physical and learning disabilities in Vienna. Now, with the outbreak of war, the rest of the Morgenstern family fled Vienna for Britain, and came to live with the Abbatts in Tavistock Square.

Post-War: Expanding Interests and Expanding Influence

After the war, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd. continued in a similar vein to the 1930s, the Abbatts’ toys becoming synonymous with good quality and design. New products were added, and the developmental toys that Milan Morgenstern had been working on before the war became the new range of Abbatt Developmental Toys for Assessment and Training. The Abbatts themselves became more settled in High Wycombe. Paul became the Labour Party agent for the local constituency in 1945, and they bought Idlecombe Farm in the early 1950s. The Wimpole Street premises also continued, and in 1955 Edward Newmark, who had previously established the Astu Studios toy company, and whose wife the Abbatts had met previously during their 1931 visit to Vienna, was taken on as a junior partner in Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd, becoming manager of the Wimpole Street toy shop. He remained only five years, leaving in 1960 to go to James Galt and Co. Ltd., where he was involved in the formation of the Galt Toys division, and the opening of Galt’s first shop in Carnaby Street, London. Also to move to Galt Toys was the designer Ken Garland, who, between 1958 and 1961 had designed the Abbatts’ catalogues and advertisements, creating their distinctive house style.

Paul continued contributing to academic and professional journals, and also continued to deliver lectures, including: ‘The Place of Woodcraft Training in Technological Education’ at the Association of Education Committees Conference in January 1958 (which was later expanded into a proposal for a book, never published, entitled ‘Education: Constraints and Variables’); ‘Remarks on the Educational Value of Play and Toys’, at the International Congress of Toys, Brussels, in June 1958, and the work of Milan Morgenstern and Helena Low-Beer at Harris College, Preston, in 1965. (Morgenstern’s and Low-Beer’s book ‘Practical Training for the Severely Handicapped Child’, based on their research, was published in English in 1966, translated by Milan’n son, Franz). He also attended the meetings of Organization Mondiale pour L’Education Pre-Scolaire (OMEP) in 1960 and 1962. Much of this work was undertaken under the name of Children’s Play Activities Ltd., (CPA Ltd), and later the International Conference on Childs Play (ICCP), which together are the most significant activities of the Abbatts during this period.

Children’s Play Activities Ltd.

Children’s Play Activities Ltd. (CPA Ltd.), which later became the Children’s Play Activities Trust, administered by Nottingham University as a charitable fund, was a research organisation founded by the Abbatts in 1951, with Paul becoming its secretary, and Marjorie its treasurer. Its stated aims, in general, were to ‘extend the understanding of play as an element in mental and social education; to promote the design of good toys; to encourage safe and adequate provision for children’s play; to provide a reference library of good play materials, equipment, books etc.’. [7] In short, to facilitate discussion and dialogue between interested parties from different, yet connected, professional fields, to establish a corpus of resources, and to educate the public in the importance of children’s play. Draft memoranda within the Abbatts’ archive at the Museum of Childhood list a much broader range of aims, including those associated with a socialist agenda, providing a fuller picture of the Abbatts’ thinking in this area.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The activities of the CPA Ltd. were varied. It published a number of information leaflets and booklets, including ‘Toys for Sick Children’ in 1957 and ‘Play and Toys’, and in addition to those mentioned above, Paul delivered a number of lectures on its behalf. These included a talk, broadcast in December 1958, entitled ‘The Right Toy for the Right Age’ and an appearance in February 1960 in a television programme ‘Living Through Playing’, in which he spoke about the value of play in the life of a child. CPA Ltd. also made gifts of toys to needy organisations, (in 1955, distributing toys to the value of £885), and bestowed grants to assist research. It also provided some financial support to the Brighton Toy Museum, which opened in Rottingdean in 1960. In May 1956, CPA mounted an exhibition ‘Caring for Children’ at the County Hall, London in conjunction with the Golden Jubilee Conference of the National Society of Children’s Nurseries. The aims of the exhibition were broad; ‘to stimulate thought on the varying heritage of the world’s children in the past and present; to spotlight the ignorance that still exists about children’s welfare in history and throughout the continents; and to emphasise our common responsibility for child welfare not only at home but abroad.’ [8] Members of CPA Ltd. (usually the Abbatts) undertook a variety of fact-finding visits, for example to Scandinavia in 1955 to collect examples of Norwegian toys, to visit the Swedish Exhibition of Design and to meet with the designer Kay Bojesen, and in

the Autumn of 1958 to a number of toy factories to investigate their facilities for designing new toys.


Although ostensibly a not-for-profit, philanthropic organisation, it is clear that CPA Ltd. was of great benefit to the Abbatts. It held 40% of the shares in Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd., and in the CPA annual report the relationship is described as ‘fruitful’, because ‘Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd. is particularly susceptible to the ideas about children’s toys and play that CPA Ltd. gleans from its close and friendly European and American contacts among circles connected with education, sociology and child development’, whilst Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd. ‘is an instrument that can disseminate such ideas more easily than most voluntary societies which have no shop window and very limited financial resources.’ [9] In return for making CPA Ltd. more visible, then, a door was opened for the Abbatts into academic circles and societies, which remained closed to other toy manufacturers. Indeed, the relationship between CPA Ltd and PMA Ltd is so close that in many cases, the distinction becomes difficult to make. The Creative Play catalogue, published by PMA Ltd., is in essence the CPA Ltd. advisory booklet ‘Play and Toys’, which in turn, in common with many CPA Ltd. publications, contains advertisements for PMA Ltd.

In May 1956, Boris Ford was appointed as organising secretary to the CPA. He was its first salaried member of staff and, although he left the following December, managed to organise the two working groups through which a large proportion of CPA’s work was undertaken, Panel A and Panel B.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Panel A, set up ‘to discuss the principles of good toy design and to investigate the present design of toys’ [10] met for the first time on 29 November 1956. Its members included Francis Spear, Director of J.W. Spear and Son, Edward Brady, Chairman of the National Association of Toy Retailers, Terence Conran, representing designers, as well as representatives from the National Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations, the Froebel Educational Institute and the Association of Child Psychotherapists, and it was chaired by Professor Wyndham Goodden, of the Royal College of Art. Throughout 1957, the panel visited nursery and primary schools, toy manufacturers, retail stores, the British Toy Fair in Brighton, and the German Toy Fair in Nuremberg, and also took evidence from expert witnesses from the fields of toy manufacturing, education and child psychology. At the end of the year it produced its report on British toy design. The main conclusions of the report centred around criticisms that ‘toy manufacturers as a whole could use more fully the possibilities of design relative to the invention, manufacture and packaging of toys’, [11] and the provision of specific recommendations for the design of toys. Sent informally to the Council for Industrial Design in December 1957, the report was only sent to toy manufacturers in September 1958, whose response was polite yet largely dismissive.

Panel B was formed in 1957, with the objective of facilitating and integrating different knowledge, approaches and theories of play. As a starting point it published U.M. Galluser’s paper ‘A First Survey of Research on the Play of Children’, which it had earlier commissioned, as well as a bibliography of 900 books and articles dealing with different aspects of play. This was followed in March 1958 by an Expert Group meeting, called and financed by CPA Ltd and held at the UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg, Germany, which brought together international academics for a discussion, based on Galluser’s paper, on the subject of children’s play. Although proposals were made for a book based on these discussions, this was never published.

International Council for Children’s Play (ICCP)

The ICCP was founded at its inaugural conference in Ulm, in 1959. The Abbatts were instrumental in setting it up in conjunction with Spiel Gut, a German organisation involved in judging the quality of toys, as well as academics from Germany and Austria. [12] Initially organised to consider ‘good’ toys, the ICCP’s scope was broadened at its subsequent meetings. In October 1960, for example, at Brighton, it considered the theme of the role of play in child development. Contributors at this meeting included D.E. M. Gardner and Professor Hildegard Hetzer, and the December volume of the journal ‘The New Era’ was dedicated to the Brighton conference, and included articles by attendees, and an introduction by Paul. [13]  The ICCP continues to meet at conference regularly to discuss a range of issues related to children’s play, for example: the role of play in children’s development (1960 Brighton conference); the provision and equipment of play spaces (1963 Zurich conference); the play of children with physical and learning disabilities (1966 Paris conference). [14] In October 1962 Paul was nominated as Vice-Chairman, and was involved in drafting the ICCP’s constitution.


Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Final Years

Abbatts archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1969, the same year that the Abbatts’ climbing frame received the Observer Design Award, Paul fell ill. Two years later, in 1971, he died. Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd., which was by now made up of the mail-order business, the London shop, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt (Northern) Ltd, (founded in August 1970 and based in Stockport), and over six hundred trade accounts, continued for two years under the leadership of Marjorie. However, in the summer of 1973, it was sold to the Educational Supply Association. Although Abbatt catalogues were still produced, and the toys sold in a number of outlets, they had, in effect, become part of a much larger range of toys. Also in 1973, Marjorie was interviewed by the BBC, [15] and was the subject of a profile in the Times Educational Supplement. [16] Her involvement in children’s play continued through her involvement in Children’s Play Activities, which eventually became the CPA Trust , administered by Nottingham University as a charitable fund. In 1981, she was awarded an honorary Masters degree from Nottingham University, for her contribution to child’s play, and in 1989, the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, mounted ‘A Tribute to Marjorie Abbatt’ as part of a ‘Themes from the Thirties’ exhibition. Marjorie died on the 10 November 1991, at her home in Oxford.


[1] The Affirmation of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry reads: “To respond to the call of the world of nature, seeking from it simplicity, good sense and fortitude. To pursue bravely and gaily the adventure of life, cherishing whatever it holds of beauty, wonder and romance, endeavouring to carry the chivalrous spirit into daily life.” Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, at Accessed 11 February 2010.

[2] Abbatt, Paul. Toys and Play. Education 2. 1957. pp.30-37. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive].

[3] Abbatt, Marjorie. Transcript of BBC Interview, 1973 [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive].

[4] Newson, Elizabeth. Abbatt, (Norah) Marjorie (1899-1991). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[5] Unknown author. Idealists in the Toyshop. The Observer. Dec 2 1962. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[6] Abbatt, Paul. Psychology in Toys and Games. In: Design for Today 1:8, 1933. pp. 291-297. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[7] Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Children’s Play Activities Limited Annual Report 1957. 1957. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Children’s Play Activities Limited Annual Report for year ending 31 March 1964. 1964. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Report on the Design of Toys. 1957. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[12] International Council for Children’s Play. Short History of the ICCP 1959-1981. At Accessed 12 October 2009.

[13] The New Era. vol.41 no10 December 1960. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

[14] The ICCP still meets regularly to discuss and promote research on play and toys. Information can be found on the ICCP website,

[15] The transcript of the interview can be found at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued.

[16] Duncan, B. Marjorie Abbatt – toy maker extraordinary. The Times Educational Supplement. 1 June 1973.


Abbatt, Paul. Psychology in Toys and Games. In: Design for Today 1:8, 1933. pp. 291-297. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Abbatt, Paul. Toys and Play. Education 2. 1957. pp.30-37. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Brown, Kenneth. The British Toy Business. A History since 1700. London: The Hambledon Press, 1996. ISBN 1852851368.

Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Children’s Play Activities Limited Annual Report 1957.1957. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Children’s Play Activities Limited Annual Report for year ending 31 March 1964, 1964. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Children’s Play Activities Ltd. Report on the Design of Toys. 1957. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

International Council for Children’s Play. Short History of the ICCP 1959-1981. At Accessed 12 October 2009.

The New Era. vol.41 no10 December 1960. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Newson, Elizabeth, ‘Marjorie Abbatt: a working life in play’, The Guardian, 19 November 1991.

– Abbatt, (Norah) Marjorie (1899-1991). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Welton, Jude. Paul and Marjorie Abbatt: the story and ideas behind Abbatt Toys. Unpublished MA diss., U. Nott., 1980. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

Unknown author. Idealists in the Toyshop. The Observer. Dec 2 1962. [V&A Museum of Childhood, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Archive, uncatalogued].

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