Pensioner boasts Islington’s largest teddy bear collection
- Credit: Archant
Family of cuddly toys helping Sylvia to ward off loneliness
Like most children, Sylvia Jeffery loves cuddly toys. Every morning, she climbs out of bed and fetches two brown teddy bears – both dressed up in hand-knitted jumpers, white socks and jewellery – and places them side-by-side on her pillow.
Straight after, Sylvia finds Angus McCuddles, her favourite, bespectacled teddy bear, who she keeps close to her at all times (unless she thinks it’s too cold for him to go outside).
Yet Sylvia, a life-long Islington resident, has not been a child since 1952. That year she turned 18.
Now 80, she has been collecting cuddly toys for the past four decades.
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Nearly 200 of them fill her one-bedroom sheltered housing apartment in Cutbish House, Hilldrop Road, carefully arranged on top of each seat, table and windowsill.
“I call my flat the teddy hotel,” Sylvia says. “I tell people that if they ever forget my door number, just look through my window, see the teddies, and then you’ll know you’re in the right place.”
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Loneliness, particularly in winter, has become a serious issue for Islington’s elderly population. Some 86 per cent of the borough’s over-65s, according to the council, live alone without any support from local social services.
Across London, around 250,000 elderly people do not see a friend, neighbour or family member at least once a week. A recent psychological study of 2,000 middle-aged men and women also found that loneliness, by increasing blood pressure, is twice as likely to kill as obesity.
But Sylvia, largely due to Angus McCuddles, who she perches on top of her grey shopping trolley whenever she leaves Cutbush House, says she rarely feels lonely. People approach her in the street wanting to talk about Angus McCuddles – who even has his own pocket money – as they do for any cute-looking dog.
“If I don’t take him out, I get people asking, ‘Where’s Angus?’” Sylvia says. “One morning, I was in the Post Office and a little boy was just screaming, ‘Mum, I want to get out of my pram! Mum, I want to get out!’
“And then, after seeing Angus, he suddenly went all quiet and reached out for him, so I let the boy have a cuddle.”
Friends, aware of her love for cuddly toys, have often been the source of Sylvia’s ever-growing collection.
In every Islington ward where she’s lived (Holloway, Clerkenwell, St George’s) people have always come to know about her quirky, heart-warming hobby.
Last year, Sylvia and Angus – who Sylvia usually dresses in a red woollen jumper and a pair of her old, oval-rimmed glasses – even became the subjects of a poem dedicated to St George’s well-known locals.
“It’s good to meet Angus, the wee Scottish bear,” the poem reads. “Sylvia takes him out in a pram, so beware!”
As a child, growing up in the 1940s, Sylvia often had to be wary while out in public. After school, rather than playing at home, she remembers scrambling over the brick-strewn ruins of bombed houses around Canonbury Road, where she used to live with her parents and three younger brothers — and near to where she worked for most of her adult life in various department stores, as well as matchbox and toy factories.
Her father, a greengrocer, was forced to close his shop when he joined the Army after the outbreak of the war.
Six years later, upon his safe return home, Sylvia never dared to ask him about his wartime experiences. Her uncle, she was told, witnessed one of his closest friends blown up in front of him.
“They saw terrible, terrible things in that war,” Sylvia mumbles, looking down towards the carpet. “I never dared to ask anything.”
She grows most quiet when asked about her mother. She worked as a seamstress, even designing her own wedding dress. “I had a good mum,” Sylvia says. “She always looked after us, my three younger brothers and me. She didn’t send us away in the war in case we didn’t get looked after properly.”
Pat Sparks, Cutbush House’s manager, has known Sylvia for the past 15 years. Over that period, she has seen Sylvia’s teddy collection steadily grow, as well as the other residents’ affection for it.
“The residents know how much Sylvia loves her teddies,” she says.
“One of them even took Angus to stay with her when she was in hospital last year. The teddies are company for Sylvia. They give her a meaning in life.”
Sylvia has made her toys her family. Both of her parents died towards the end of last century. She has not seen her two living brothers for the past 20 years. (“They know where I am,” she says, declining to comment further. “If they want to find me, they can.”)
She has plenty of friends, as the 50 Christmas cards – addressed to both Sylvia and Angus – around her flat show. Yet she has no children. In fact, Sylvia says she has never even been in love.
“It’s not that I didn’t ever want to have any children,” Sylvia says, sitting beside several smiling pictures of her friends’ grandchildren. “You’ve got to love someone first properly before you can have one yourself, and I didn’t believe in having a baby for the sake of it.” As she speaks, her eyes flick around the toy-filled living room.
The cream settee is covered with toy dogs, owls, cats, giraffes and one enormous brown-and-white bear named after Bruce Forsyth, the toy that started Sylvia’s immense collection of cuddly toys.
“Anyway, the teddies are my kids,” she says, gesturing around the living room with a wrinkled, ringless hand. “They don’t need to go to the toilet. You don’t have to worry about their diets. They don’t ever cry, either. ”
For Sylvia, then, her toys help to protect her from the life-threatening loneliness from which thousands of the UK’s elderly population suffer each day.