DOBBIN THE ROCKING HORSE
When you visit our main library, you’ll find a noble steed having a well-earned rest amongst our bookshelves – Dobbin the rocking horse.
Dobbin was potentially made in the mid-nineteenth century. He was originally owned by a lady from Outgate, near Hawkshead. He had been in her nursery as a child, but as an adult she gave him to the local infants school for “the children of Ambleside”. We believe this was around the early nineteen hundreds. In interviews with the Ambleside Oral History Group, many former students recall riding Dobbin when it was too wet to play outside!
He spent many decades in the school nursery until the amalgamation of the infants and junior school in Ambleside in 1991, when it was decided that he was too large and unsafe to be in the new primary school. Several years later, Dobbin was, yet again, given away, this time to The Armitt as a gift for local children. He even took part in an exhibition here in 2000.
Rocking horses have been a popular toy for centuries. Earlier forms of rocking horses include rocking cradles, tilting seats used to practice medieval jousting, and hobby horses (a horses’ head attached to a stick, made to be ridden by small children).
Some claim there are mentions of carved wooden rocking horses in medieval manuscripts, but the toy in its current form first appeared in the seventeenth century. King Charles I of England (1600-1649) is believed to have used a wooden rocking horse in his early childhood, to develop leg mobility.
Their popularity increased in the nineteenth century, until rocking horses were considered a staple toy in the Victorian nursery. They were mostly built by individual craftsmen, so they did not become industrialised until the late-nineteenth century. We can see that Dobbin uses the traditional “bow rocker” design, where the horse rests on two semi-circular rockers that enable it to rock back and forth. It’s possible he was also used as a see saw, as there are two strips of wood on the end of each bow that could be used as seats by two children.
One of the major drawbacks of the bow rockers design was how much it could move around. If a child was rocking hard enough, they could move the rocking horse and injure themselves, their siblings, or their playmates. For example, it was common for children to fall off, or get caught under the runners of the horse. They also required a lot of space to rock backwards and forwards.
In 1880, Philip Marqua from Cinncinnati, USA, developed a new design, where the rocking horse rested on a ‘safety stand’ with a ‘glider’ type base. This meant a child could rock backwards and forwards while the horse remained in the same spot. Dobbin’s traditional bow rocker design may be why he was eventually considered unsafe for the pupils of Ambleside School.
Unfortunately, we have no precise records of who gave Dobbin to The Armitt and when exactly he arrived here, although it was likely in the late 1990s. His riding days are over, but he’s enjoying a peaceful retirement in our collection.