The boss of Britain's oldest surviving toymaker wept yesterday as he told his workers the world-renowned teddy bear factory was closing with the loss of 48 jobs.
Oliver Holmes, managing director of Merrythought Toys in Ironbridge, Shropshire, blamed government red-tape and cheap Chinese imports for the death of Britain's last toy manufacturer.
The company's Latin motto is Parate Compleri. Mr Holmes said: "It means 'Get Stuffed' – which is exactly what has happened to us."
Merrythought, a third-generation family business, was set up in 1930 and was revered for its handmade, fully jointed mohair bears, classic rocking horses, wheeled toys and traditional gollies. Top stores such as Harrods were among its customers and it produced a limited edition regal Cheeky teddy, with a headscarf and three corgis, to mark the Queen's 80th birthday.
Stunned workers were in tears as Mr Holmes, grandson of the company's founder, addressed staff in the factory canteen and announced the end of 76 years' of toymaking history. Production was stopped immediately.
During the mid-1990s, Merrythought employed 104 staff and produced 200,000 toys a year, but by 2005 production had slumped to 30,000 toys and the workforce had halved. Turnover fell by two-thirds over the past six years as losses spiralled.
Mr Holmes was outspoken in his criticism of Tony Blair and condemned the raft of legislation and taxation introduced by Labour and its "army of civil servants".
Mr Holmes, aged 56, who has worked at the company since he was 21, said: "Today has been terrible. I told the staff in the canteen this morning and it was incredibly hard.
"There were tears in my eyes and in a few of theirs but they took the news magnificently. They are the best workforce I could hope for.
"For the last two-and-a-half years I have done everything I could think of but I still feel as though I 've let everybody down."
Mr Holmes said the Government had to take responsibility for Merrythought's "catastrophic" demise. The factory's running costs for a month were equivalent to a comparable Chinese firm's costs for a whole year.
"The price of manufacturing in this country is incredible. We have been totally hindered through Government legislation and taxation," said Mr Holmes.
"When you're giving the Government ten times what you pay your staff you know you're in trouble."
Workers spoke of their devastation as they went to a nearby pub for a farewell drink. Their final wage packet will be paid under the terms of the Employment Protection Act but they have no idea what the future holds.
A factory supervisor said: "We came in this morning and we were called straight to the canteen where Mr Holmes gave a long, emotional speech.
"We were flogging our guts out on Friday to fill all the
orders for Christmas. Then this morning, we don't have a job. There are some people here who are not going to be very merry this festive season."
A colleague, who carried out stitching on teddies, said: "This is the only job I've ever had. We were like one big, happy family."
Auctioneers Christie's teddy bear specialist Daniel Agnew said he was amazed Merrythought had managed to survive as long as it did.
"It is the end of an era," said Mr Agnew. "We have lost some great names over the years. Some are still going but they are no longer British.
"It is so costly to make toys over here. You can manufacture something in China and get it shipped all the way here for half of what it would cost to produce in this country."
Ironically, there is still a buoyant market for Merrythought bears among collectors. Christie's has two of the company's "Tummykins" bears, made in 1946, at its toy sale next week.
Each bear – one is black and white, the other pink and white – is expected to fetch #1,000. Mr Agnew said the most sought after Merrythought bears could sell for as much as #2,500.
Birmingham-based chartered accountants Heathcote & Coleman LLP has been appointed to put Merrythought into creditors voluntary liquidation by mid-December.
Asked if there was a possibility of selling the company as a going concern, Caroline Smith, of Heathcote & Coleman, said: "It will be the end."
She confirmed the Inland Revenue was among Merrythought's creditors. A meeting will be held on December 14 to inform Merrythought's shareholders of the results of Mrs Smith's inquiries into the company's accounts.