A Tale of Two Doll Hospitals – Bexley, NSW

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Suspensions of disbelief get a thorough workout these days. Whether you can’t believe there are Superman movies that don’t star Christopher Reeve, or you refuse to believe it when NRL stars run afoul of the law, you’re likely having a tough time of it in this, the dawn of the information age.

For a long time, I refused to believe that one area, nay, one stretch of road could support not one but two doll hospitals. So when the Doll Repair Centre at 444 Stoney Creek Road, Kingsgrove ceased to exist a few months ago, that suspension vanished, the disbelief came crashing down, and here you are reading my attempt to process a lifetime of astonishment and uncertainty.

In simpler times, kids played with toys. ‘member toys? Action figures, Matchbox cars, those lame wooden ones that barely moved…and dolls. Back then, dolls were seen as a “girls toy”, and the levels of attachment the little girls of the past had for their dolls was in the minds of many a by-product of “maternal instincts”.

I speak from experience when I say this: when an action figure broke, it went in the bin. Too bad, so sad. “Boys toys” were expected to take damage through rough play. A broken doll, on the other hand – be it a loose seam, a torn dress, or a missing head – was a tragedy, and required immediate repair.

And so it was in 1913, when a Mr Harold Chapman of Campsie established Sydney’s first doll hospital. The demand was there, and carried the business through to the late 1930s, when Chapman’s son Harold Jr moved the Doll Hospital to Her Majesty’s Arcade in the city. If you had a shop in the city at this point in time, you’d made it.

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The Sun, Sunday, July 29, 1945

Her Majesty’s Arcade had a problem, however – it occupied a most plum piece of real estate on Pitt Street, and in 1968 plans arose that sent all tenants packing. The Doll Hospital ended up here, near the corner of Stoney Creek and Forest roads in Bexley.

The arcade was demolished, and by 1981 Sydney’s favourite 309m-tall resident stood in Her Majesty’s wake.

But back to the Doll Hospital, as it stands today.

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Unlike most hospitals, patients line the windows, exposing their medical issues to the world.

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Sorry, but dolls are creepy. Maybe that’s why this is going up on Halloween. There’s something about those glassy eyes and pre-sculpted faces that rub me the wrong way. The public’s tastes have also skewed away from traditional dolls in recent years, and toward licenced merchandise instead.

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There’s no better way to brag about your mad surgeon skills than by showing off no less than three fully intact Humpty Dumptys, the most frail of all toys.

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Handbags and umbrellas need love too, so they’re also welcome here. They don’t repair signs, I’m guessing?

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That’s a double no, then. Honestly, I was surprised to find it’s still in operation. Imagine my shock when I saw this sign:

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That’s right – if your doll’s blue in the face and unresponsive at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re shit out of luck.

Or are you?

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Carmo’s got your back after hours, but I bet it ain’t cheap. Even with this safety net, don’t let your doll go for a big night in Newtown anytime soon.

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The Doll Hospital wears its heritage proudly via its suit of signage armour. It’s still in the Chapman family: Harold Jr’s son Geoff runs the joint these days, and has a full team of dolly doctors on his staff. Though not everyone is a fan. Check out this “nit-picking whinger”:

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Ignore the ominous green building and check out the sign on the western side of the doll hospital. It hides the identity of the building’s previous owner, but only just. If it ever comes down for an update (perhaps at the 180 years of service mark), we might get a look at that piece of blue and yellow history. But not today.

The building is old – “olde”, in fact – and in one place seems to literally be held together by a plank of wood. The signs boast that the Doll Hospital’s provided “Over 80 Years of Service”, but the sign above the awning says it’s “Over 100 years”. Get your story straight, guys.

The sign also makes the curious, almost defensive claim of being the “original” doll hospital. Is that to suggest there was at one time a pretender? An upstart that wished to usurp the Doll Hospital’s monopoly? A firebrand so ballsy that it would take up residence in the Chapmans’ own backyard?

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The incredible answer is yes. This may be the “the Olde Doll Shoppe” of Sydney, and you should go and check it out. But imagine just for a moment, there was a doll shoppe that looked even olde-er…

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Yep. This is where I’m gonna go when I need something repaired.

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It’s hard to read as the sign has cracked and rusted from years exposed to the elements, but once, this was the other doll hosp- uh, I mean doll repair centre.

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Until recently, that is. Now it’s anyone’s, so if you want to challenge the might of the Famous Original Olde Doll Hospital, here’s your chance. You can’t do any worse than the last one…

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From what I could discover, rash daredevils Peter and Mary threw caution to the wind a few decades back and tried to democratise doll rehabilitation.

“We repair, we care” says the card, bold in its implication. It’s not hard to imagine a time when raw, violent rivalry spanned the gap between the two surgeries, and I believe that may have bubbled over in 1992:

canberra times sat 26 sept 1992

The Canberra Times, Saturday, September 26, 1992

They couldn’t even bear to follow on from each other in the dot points! That the Doll Hospital placed a full three spots above the Doll Repair Centre tells you everything you need to know about the hierarchy.

Ultimately, Peter and Mary couldn’t hack the cutthroat world of doll repairing. The state of this shopfront was a sorry sight in the last few years; a battered old pram stood outside, attracting the wrong kind of attention. It was far from the lush doll dioramas of the Doll Hospital.

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A look inside gives nothing away. They had a cupboard.

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The signage above suggests this corner belonged to someone in a time before the divine feud. I can’t make out what it says, so if you know (or it was your corner), get in touch.

Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied by my as-exhaustive-as-I-was-bothered research, so, fascinated by the mysterious Doll Repair Centre, I went deeper. I found an old website, long since defunct. But thanks to our friends at the Wayback Machine, I was able to jump back in time. I had no idea what lay in wait.

What I found left me scandalised. Check out the layout of the Doll Repair Centre’s website.

Maybe it’ll seem familiar to you.

And maybe you’ll recall that old saying about staring into the abyss for too long.

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So…any web designers in the house?

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13 responses

  1. There was an establishment called ‘The Doll Hospital’ in Jolley’s Arcade at Hurstville. I clearly remember it when I was a child, teenager, and adult. I am now into my 70s. The business was certainly still operating there in the late 1970s. The physical shop itself is still in the Arcade .. walked past it last week (Wed 25 Oct 2017) albeit occupied by another business. The Arcade was opened in the 1930s and I presume the Doll Hospital was established in that era or soon after.

  2. Interesting,keep up the good work.I also liked that Alan bloke who did ‘Walk Sydney Streets’. http://www.walksydneystreets.net
    Thanks.

  3. While I totally disagree with your creepy doll comment I found this very interesting having trekked out to Bexley to see this shop a few years ago. I must say we found the owner somewhat disinterested in talking to us. I hope you won’t mind if I share on my doll blog.

  4. Reblogged this on Dolls, Dolls, Dolls and commented:
    Interesting piece about doll repair shops in Sydney even though the author does not like dolls. It is another sad sign that young people don’t seem to like dolls let alone getting them fixed.

    1. I’m just happy you think I’m young!

      1. Well I actually meant young people of today.I’ve read some of your posts as I’m also interested in old buildings so I didn’t think you were a teenager. 🙂

  5. Excellent work as usual, Michael!

  6. Maybe the man who runs the doll repair shop should get together with the man who runs the “haunted” milk bar on Parramatta Road. They could both growl and snarl at each other to see who could do it best. There is a toy repair shop in Jannali that, as far as I know, is still trading. I bought quite a few toys there when my kids were small and 17 years later, they still work. Viva le revolution in the toy world!

    1. The shop in Jannali, is run by volunteers…still going strong, but hours open are limited. They repair donated toys and resell.

  7. I remember around 1982-83 my friend accidently breaking my Barbie doll at the waist (Barbie dolls had special waists which required professional help, they werent the pop back in variety). My mum was furious and complained to her parents who proceeded to take this Barbie doll to the Bexley doll hospital. I have no idea how much it cost him to fix her (but I think my friend got in trouble over it 😬), but she was restored back to normal.

  8. The green building next door was once a toy store in the late 70’s. I’m sure it was owned & run by the doll hospital

  9. I visited this doll hospital place and the bloke who showed us around was rude and I did not feel encouraged to have any work done on my dolls. The place was messy and again I say the owner was rude rude rude. I would like to add a general comment about dolls. They are just plastic people. Real people are much creepier! Think about it. Who came up with the ideas for making dolls in the first place????

  10. I remember going to the olde doll hospital with my nana when I was very young and the man who ran it had his father there as well who I’m guessing would of been Harold Junior Chapman and damn he seemed so old to me at the time.

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