As written by Mary Hildesley

Mary Hildesley was born in 1917 and trained as a dancer and choreographer. She married in 1940 and has three sons, one daughter and twelve grandchildren. She first started her collection of bears in 1974 having given up her Fine Art Gallery in London to have more time for her family. She bought a few small bears from Harrods. These she dressed and gave to members of her family and friends. Harrods ceased to stock the bears, so through the Austrian Consulate she contacted the firm who made them, Tiere Mit Herz, and bought all the six inch bears that they had. About 300 of these she dressed and gave away.

Soon the characters began to spark off stories and she made a scrapbook of the stories, with her own photographs of the bears in action.

In 1975 she commissioned John Honeychurch of Market Lavington to build a bears’ house and duplicate the bears she had already dressed to live in it, in the family flat at 30 Hyde Park to be something for the grandchildren to find and play with when they visited.

When her husband retired they moved to Encombe in Dorset and for the next few years the house and contents were kept more or less packed up because of the damp, but the stories grew and John Honeychurch, who was suffering from cancer, added the stable block. He died in 1979. About this time Mary began drawing the bears’ portraits in pastels. These drawings are now the Wareham Bears Postcards and illustrate ‘Meet the Wareham Bears’.

Eighteen and Twenty Church Street were purchased in the Autumn of 1977 and over the next two years renovated and converted by Spillers, the builders next door. A staircase to the cellar was added so that it could be used to house the Exhibition. More scenes were created. The Exhibition opened to the public in 1981. In 1986 a second staircase was built and the shop enlarged for the safety of visitors. The shop is staffed by herself, her husband – who also runs the business side – many voluntary helpers, and occasionally her grandchildren and students as holiday jobs.

Once running expenses have been paid, the money raised by the Exhibition and Shop goes to save children’s sight through ‘Sight by Wings’, which operates mainly in East Africa Profits from the publications remain in a Family Trust whose trustees are their son Michael and there three eldest grandchildren.

‘Meet the Wareham Bears’ was first published in 1984, ‘The House of Bears’ in 1985. In 1989 the first six of twelve short stories about some of the individual bear characters were published and the second six in 1991. These twelve stories were illustrated by John Doubleday, the artist and sculptor, who used to show at Mary’s gallery in London

Since 1989 we have welcomed over 50,000 visitors a year.

Copyright Mary Hildesley April 1992


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