Friday, December 30, 2022

Bears and postmen

Charles Mitford Cust tells the tale of a Steiff bear with a fascinating past


I was routing around in the family safe one rainy day recently when I spotted an unusual object hidden behind a pile of ancient documents right at the back, it turned out to be a near mint condition 1908 Steiff teddy bear which following some simple arithmetic I soon realised had been hiding there for over one hundred years.


Steiff teddy bears, from the famous German soft toy manufacturer founded in 1880, are the most valuable teddies in the world with more than one exceptionally rare model achieving staggering figures at auction. It was a Steiff which broke the world record price for a teddy bear of £110,000 in a Christie’s sale in 1994.


Edward the Steiff bear
Edward the Steiff bear

1908 was the first year in which the famous metal ear tag with the Steiff brand on it was fitted, and so a 1908 Steiff bear in unrestored near mint condition is a rare enough find in itself, and of great interest to collectors. However this particular bear called Edward also has an amazing history as well. You see it so happens that I am the great grandson of General Saint Claire Wilkins who famously caused a national crisis in the late 19th century when his real bear, Edward, whom this Steiff teddy bear was later named after, unwittingly caused the death of a postman in Victorian London.


The general performed great deeds for the British Empire and most famously so in Yemen, where as the commanding officer of the Royal Engineers, he masterminded the restoration of some important ancient reservoirs, the Cisterns of Tawella, which were originally built around 600 AD, and then organized their connection by aqueducts to the city of Aden, then the busiest and most important seaport in the British Empire, being close to the Suez Canal. His genius provided the population of Aden with their first reliable source of fresh drinking water in centuries as until then, they had been at the mercy of local warring tribesman who frequently cut the water supply and held the seaport to ransom.


The result of this herculean task was that my great grandfather was showered with medals and honors including being elevated to aide de camp to Queen Victoria herself to whom the dashing general was a great favorite. The grateful inhabitants of Aden however bestowed a rather more unconventional honor, a local brown bear cub, a species common in that region in those days, that the delighted general named Edward after the queen’s eldest son, who later became king.


The general married Violet, the daughter of another historically famous military figure, General McIntyre (of Indian mutiny fame) and moved into a house in Queen’s Gate, a fashionable part of London, with his bride and his cherished bear Edward, who lived inside the house and by all accounts considered himself a member of the family, and was treated as such by the general. Family records indicate that Edward liked to sit beside the general on his sofa when he read The Times newspaper in the mornings and play with the general’s cook on the double swing in the garden of an afternoon.


One particular afternoon Edward was enjoying his customary swing with the cook when the postman arrived. Unfortunately whilst the normal postman knew Edward and would happily accept an affectionate hug from him, on this occasion it was a relief postman who, having not been informed about Edward, understandably did not expect to encounter a bear in a Queen’s Gate garden and so promptly dropped dead from a heart attack brought on by shock.


The incident led to the Prime Minister, Disraeli, calling an emergency all party session in the House of Commons about how to respond to this tragedy. On the one hand they did not wish to risk offending the population of the strategically important port of Aden by shooting Edward, but on the other hand they did not wish to offend the Royal Mail who were baying for his blood. After much debate a compromise was arrived at which the general’s bear would be sent to Kensington Zoo and the general, and all his family and descendants would be granted access without charge to visit and feed Edward and all Edward’s descendants at teatime in perpetuity. I am currently investigating whether any descendants of Edward can be traced so I can maintain this tradition.


The arrangement reached by Parliament, though better than the alternative, nevertheless caused the general great distress. Though parted from his beloved bear, he was able to visit Edward at teatime at the zoo and did so every day without fail.


Some years later in 1908 the general’s daughter, Ethel, visited Hamleys – the famous London toy store – and bought a Steiff teddy bear for her youngest son’s third birthday. She naturally named it after her father’s much loved bear Edward. Some sixty years later, that lucky three year old, Ronald, became a father himself when I was born. My father, perhaps wisely, decided that as Edward had already survived sixty years in perfect condition, he was now too precious to be passed to his youngest child and I was given a less valuable teddy as a substitute.


Having been incarcerated in the family safe for over one hundred years and having missed the passing of virtually all of the twentieth century, I now feel it is time for Edward to emerge from his hiding place and to go out and explore the new century. The trouble is that with my erratic lifestyle, once he comes out of the safe, I fear that I won’t remember to look after him and the moths will get at him, so having read an article about Unique Auctions of Lincoln successfully selling a 1908 Steiff teddy bear this October, I have sent him there to find an appreciative Steiff enthusiast who knows how to care for him.


I hope that the lucky new owner treats him with the respect that this distinguished and aristocratic Steiff bear deserves. He was fitted at the factory with what the experts call a ‘growler’ mechanism, but just imagine if only he could talk instead. Do you know what? When I look at him sometimes, I catch a look in his eye which makes me feel that he wants to.


Edward is offered for sale with a guide price of £2000 to £3000 at the New Year’s Day sale at Unique Auctions of Lincoln.


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