Down at the Dolls Hospital

The Northern Echo: Millie Zealand, who ran the Grange Road Dolls Hospital Millie Zealand, who ran the Grange Road Dolls Hospital

THIS morning's Memories touches briefly upon the Dolls Hospital that was once in Darlington's Grange Road. I last mentioned this subject seven years ago. This was the article I wrote then:

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DOLLS - hairless, eyeless, toothless, speechless, armless, headless. . . but no casualty is beyond the healing powers of Mrs Mildred Zealand, the kindly matron-cum-surgeon at the Darlington Dolls Hospital."

The hospital was at No 23 Grange Road - currently The Gallery - and, as recent Echo Memories have shown, is well remembered.

But now we have the whole story. Peter Zealand, son of Mildred, has been in touch from deepest, darkest Doncaster.

The business was begun by Peter's grandparents, Charles and Lillian Ruddock, who arrived in Darlington from Stockton around the time of the First World War. They started a business: Charles concentrated on repairing watches, Lillian taking in dolls.

"My mother could remember as a small child seeing soldiers and horses through the archway in the stables behind No 23, " says Peter. Minories garage later occupied the premises behind the dolls hospital.

Hospital life was one of fiddly clutter, with the innards of both dolls and watches filling the ground floor of the family home. Millie tried to escape, moving with her husband Christopher Zealand - a cabinet-maker from Middlesbrough - to London.

But the Second World War started; their windows were blown out in the Blitz, and Millie returned to safety in Darlington and to dolls.

"She can get through 30 operations an evening, " said the Northern Despatch in 1957.

"She sets to work with saw, pliers, glue, wire, elastic and hooks, and soon the disabled and debilitated are back on their feet. Once again, curls gleam, cheeks are rosy, lips are a scarlet flame, eyebrows flicker flirtatiously."

Peter grew up among spare dolls limbs, growlers (voiceboxes that made teddies growl or feminine dolls say "mam-ma"), false eyelashes and wigs galore (made out of either nylon or real human hair).

"Sales reps called to offer samples for mother to buy, so that dolly could be transformed from a blonde to a brunette overnight with a new wig, " he says. "My mother would sit and fix things with little more than pearl woodwork glue heated in a pan on the fire, wire hooks to grab elastic inside the dolls, fireplace cement to set eyes in place, and a few clever touches with paint to give lips and cheeks a rosy hue."

Dolls would come from all over the country - indeed, the world - to be repaired in Grange Road.

The Zealands moved to Park Lane in 1970 and the dolls hospital closed. Mildred died five years ago in Middleton Hall nursing home.

MANY thanks to everyone who has been in touch about the hospital. "It brought back memories for both my husband, Ralph, and myself, who worked in Grange Road in the 1950s, " writes Pam Davison. Ralph was an apprentice mechanic at Minories; Pam worked in the offices of the Motor Delivery Company - our 1956 picture shows its petrol forecourt, with attendant Jim Gent.

"I had to go along Grange Road every day, past the Minories' apprentices who would sit on the windowledge ofthe garage showroom and whistle at passing girls, " says Pam, who has now been married to Ralph for 49 years.

THE worldwide web makes the wide world a much smaller place. Valerie Smith (nee Mitchell) e-mails from Melbourne, Australia, to reminisce about the dolls hospital and about railway snowdrifts. She's an exDarlingtonian, a former Technical College pupil.

"My late father, Syd Mitchell, was a member of the tool vans which went out from Bank Top to assist any derailed railway engines or carriages, " she says.

"He really enjoyed being called out in the middle of the night to an overturned engine as his crew always took a cook with them, and they would enjoy a slap-up meal in their tool van afterwards."

More importantly, over a distance of many decades and thousands of miles, Valerie wants to apologise.

"We lived in Brinkburn Drive, and I recall a cold winter's day when I was clearing snow from the front path, " she says. "It had got quite slushy and a friend, Bernie B, a nice chap who lived at the top end of the street, had just bought a loaf of bread for his mother. He chatted to me at our gate and I suddenly knocked the unwrapped bread from under his arm and on to the slushy ground.

"He was very good about it, but I have always remembered that incident, thinking what a dreadful thing it was. In those days there was not much money around and I expect his family, like mine, were having a hard time making ends meet.

"Whenever I return to Darlington, I try to find him to apologise - so I hope he reads this."

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