You can almost plot the history of the UK by the work carried out over hundreds of years by Toye & Co.

Since 1685, the company’s expert weavers, goldsmiths, enamellers and embroiders have designed and manufactured medals, sashes, uniforms and badges for governments, companies and societies.

The factories, based in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and in Bedworth, Warwickshire, even make the FA Cup and the insignia for the Royal family.

“One of the biggest things Toye & Co used to do were the trade union banners in London,” explains chief executive Fiona Toye.

“We still make some but they’ve pretty much disappeared now.

“For the Queen’s coronation, cypher banners were made for each premier member of the royal family.

“These great embroidered banners have recently been at Westminster Abbey. One was made for Queen Mary but it was not used because she died before the coronation.”

The company was supportive of votes for women, especially as many of the staff were female at that time.

Mother-of-four Fiona says: “The organisers of the Suffragette rallies, or generals as they were known, needed to be recognised as the meetings sometimes involved thousands of people.

“So we made their hats and fascias (sashes).

“We also made the medals for the hunger strikers, for those who had been in prison for the cause. The medals had bars under them for those who had been force-fed, some of them had more than one bar.

Fiona Toye, chief executive of Toye & Co.
Fiona Toye, chief executive of Toye & Co.
 

“Those medals are in the Museum of London now. It’s quite emotional looking at them.

“Toye’s factory staff would have been very sensitive to this as they would have had so many women workers. The women in the firm have always been very involved.

“In 18th and 19th century registers, the wife is often listed as ‘weaver’ just as much as the husband.

“And in the early 1950s, one of the daughters became one of the board directors.

“I think that’s what happens in a family business. It’s recognised very early on that you need equal contribution to make a business.

“It was forward, modern-thinking.”

But this is the first time Toye & Co has had a female chief executive.

Fiona Toye wasn’t born into the family, but became involved in the business after her husband Bryan had a near fatal heart attack in 2009.

Whilst Bryan remains chairman, today Fiona is responsible for the firm’s London showroom, its two factories and its 132 staff.

“Bryan had a heart attack at the Birmingham factory,” says Fiona, 54, who lives in Broadway, Worcestershire.

“His life was saved because the hospital was just around the corner.

“I did not come from this background at all. I was a nurse so it was a very steep learning curve for me.

“Bryan is still the chairman but he retired from running the business.

“It made a big difference to our lives. Our youngest son Guy had to go to boarding school so I could take over here.

“He’s 16 now and still at boarding school.”

Today, international tennis players compete for Toye trophies in the Davis Cup matches whilst soccer stars play for the all-important FA Cup, once again made by Toye, who also make Honours Caps for the international rugby association.

And the company still makes all the state insignia for The Royal Family.

 

The Royal Family Order of Queen Elizabeth II depicts The Queen in evening dress wearing the ribbon and star of the Order of the Garter bordered by diamonds and surmounted by a Tudor crown in diamonds and red enamel.

Toye & Co made the Diamond Jubilee medals given to all serving personnel in 2012.

“This shows how the trade adapts,” says Fiona.

“Lots of mass production has left this country.

“We are a small company. If we get a big opportunity, such as the Diamond Jubilee medals, we work together.

“Three companies in the Jewellery Quarter got together to make those medals.”

For a company with such well established links to Queen and country, it is surprising to learn it all started from very humble beginnings.

“The company was started in the 17th century by illiterate weavers in the East End of London,” says Fiona.

“When William Toye married at Shoreditch church back in 1758, both he and his wife signed an ‘X’ for their names.

“They were working people – husbands, wives and children weaving in their homes.”

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the firm moved from London to the Midlands.

“The company lost manpower to the forces and, sadly, they lost one of the Toye sons in Japan,” explains Fiona.

“But because Toye supplied the military, the war wasn’t a bad thing for the company.

“The war brought lots of changes for other firms and Toye ended up buying Kenning and Spencer, turning it into Toye & Co.

“After the war, firms were encouraged to take manufacturing out of London so Toye sold the land in London and took over factories, a metalwork one in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and a textiles one in Bedworth – what we class as one ‘dirty business’ and one ‘clean business’.

Toye & Co, based in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, are expert weavers, goldsmiths, enamellers and embroiderers.
Toye & Co, based in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, are expert weavers, goldsmiths, enamellers and embroiderers.
 

“The skill base for each is very particular.”

Understandably, technology has changed manufacturing at Toye & Co hugely over the years but much of the tradition still remains.

“We have a design studio for our textiles and materials now which has made an enormous difference,” she says.

“But a lot of our USP (unique selling point) continues to be very fine weaving. We use old style looms that are 100 years old.

There is no doubt Toye & Co will carry on being a family business into the next generation.

Fiona and Bryan’s eldest son Charles, 30, works at the Birmingham factory, where his father started his working life.

Freddie, 26, works in the London sales office, where their daughter Lily has worked in the past.

Lily got married recently wearing a tiara made by Toye. All the ribbons and cuff links for the wedding were made by the company too.

Bryan has now held the title of chairman for the longest period ever in the firm’s history.

Fiona explains: “When Bryan started working at the Birmingham factory, his grandfather Fred was a very dominate chairman.

“He didn’t approve of the children going to school, but they did and worked at the factory during their holidays.

“When they were 18, they were expected to start working in all areas.

“Bryan spent most of his time in the Birmingham factory.

“Sadly, Bryan’s father Herbert died in his fifties so Bryan was catapulted into becoming chairman at a very young age. He was only in his thirties.

“It means he’s probably the longest-serving chairman, having now been so for around 50 years.”

It’s not only the Toyes who have worked as a family at the firm. The company has attracted generations of families as their staff over the years.

“That’s another thing about family firms,” smiles Fiona, “there have been members of other families working for us all the way through at both factories.

“And we have an amazing amount of people who have worked for us for 40 years – you don’t get that a lot these days.”

* For more information, visit www.toye.com