Skip to content

Trail talk: Golly badges- an unacceptable relic

Twenty years ago some little badges were retired. For decades they aroused loathing, outrage, hysteria, fair comment, indifference, appreciation, love or simply fond nostalgia. It wasn’t so much the badge that attracted such divided opinion, but the character depicted. For those unaware of the existence of such things, these wereGollybadges.

Many people will wear a badge to demonstrate a particular interest, affinity or membership of a particular organisation, interest or pastime. For example, Three Points of the Compass has previously illustrated the various badges produced by the Camping Club. But there can be few badges, or brooches, that have excited as much comment as the Robertson’s ‘Golly’.

Twenty years ago Robertson’s announced that their Golly brooch was to be retired. Some believe that it was pressure from the public that bought about this change, possibly it was, or perhaps Robertson’s eventually tired of continued negative comment. More likely is that these badges had simply reached a natural end to their existence. So, a glance here at a once popular child’s trinket, a trinket that encompassed outdoor pursuits, but is now too uncomfortable for many to even view or discuss despite it once gaining a wide and enthusiastic collector base.

Illustration from Florence Upton from one of her popular 'Golliwogg' books
Illustration by Florence Upton from one of the once popular ‘Golliwogg’ books
1969 Robertson’s advertisement for their “free golliwog brooches”

As a character, the original Golly is obviously based upon the very popular Minstrels shows of the early 19th century. These were often blackface white performers, though not exclusively so, performing comedy skits, variety acts, dancing, music and singing. The first depiction of the character in children’s literature were those by American born English illustrator Florence Kate Upton in the series of thirteen books she wrote and illustrated with her mother Bertha. The characters in the books were based on packed away childhood Dutch and German made toys found in Florence’s attic, one of which she had named ‘Golliwogg’. The first book was published in 1895, the last in 1909. The character was not copyrighted by Florence and manufacturers produced toys based on it. Various authors, including Enid Blyton, wrote him into their children’s stories. For some, the once innocuous character and name moved from childhood innocence to become linked with racial insult. Florence was later to write- “I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name“.

The Robertsons ‘Golly’

In 1864 Scottish born grocer James Robertson bought a barrel of Seville Oranges. His wife made a sweet marmalade from this bitter fruit and the two perfected the recipe which became a commercial success. Their product was named Golden Shred and James opened a factory to produce this in bulk in 1880. A lemon marmalade, Silver Shred, was added to the range in 1909, later, jams and mincemeat were also produced. Second, third and fourth factories were opened. A visit was made in 1910 to Boston, USA, to set up a production plant there. On that trip, son John Robertson purchased a doll he had seen children playing with. ‘Golly’ became the company’s mascot. First appearing on price lists and labels, then as a general trade mark. In the 1920s Robertson’s produced some rather strange looking ‘Golly’ brooches made of tin or bakelite. Later that decade, Birmingham based enameller H. Miller approached Robertson with the idea of producing enamel ‘golly mascots’. The first of these, Golly Golfer, was produced in 1928. These could be collected by the public sending in sufficient labels from their jars of preserves. There were many subsequent manufacturers- Coffer, Charles Davis, Dingley, Firmin, Gaunt, R E V Gomm, Graham Products, Greens, Jewellery Metal Co, W.O. Lewis, Marples & Beasley, Melson, Olympic Badges, W Reeves & Co, R.T. Toye & Co. and of course, that most prolific of enamel badge manufacturers- Fattorini.

Golfer- H.W.Miller Ltd.B'Ham.18. 1950s-60s
Golfer- H.W.Miller. 1950s-60s
Footballer- F&S. 1950s/60s.
Skater- R.E.V. Gomm. 1950s/60s
Standard- Fattorini. 1950s/60s
Tennis- Fattorini. 1950s/60s
Guitar 1970s
Guitar- Fattorini. 1950s/60s.

Golfer was followed in 1932 by enamelled fruit badges, these advertised the fruit preserves produced by Robertsons- Blackcurrant, Bramble, Lemon, Orange, Raspberry and Strawberry. Each badge had Golly’s face appearing somewhere on the fruit. A popular and now much sought after ‘Coronation Golly’, with Union Jack emblazoned chest, was produced in 1937. Sporting Gollys were released 1935-39- Cricketers, Footballers, Hockey and Tennis. Many different cricket and football clubs were represented.

Robertson Raspberry, no ‘S’ on fruit. Fattorini. 1950s/60s

Manufacture of badges halted during World War II as metal was required elsewhere, but resumed in 1946. Raspberry and Lemon fruit badges produced in the 1950s and 1960s did not feature Golly.

It almost seems as though there was little limit to the pastime, sport or profession that Golly depicted over the years- from footballer to nurse to bagpiper to astronaut, dozens were portrayed.

Silver Shred
Silver Shred Lemon. Miller. 1950s/60s

Golly was not just a male character either. A tutu wearing Golly Ballerina vies with Air Hostess Golly for gender sterotyping however the sex of Golly race car driver and Jet pilot Golly is indeterminate, others- Mermaid Golly and Queen Golly are pretty obvious. There are subtle differences in some issued badges though some can be related to different manufacturers. If allowing for fairly major differences, less than 300 Golly badges have appeared over some seventy years of production. Minor differences account for almost 800 badges.

Label from rear of a jar of Robertson's Apricot Jam. Golly tokens were cut from these and sent in to claim a badge
Label from rear of a jar of Robertson’s Apricot Jam. Golly tokens were cut from these and sent in to claim a badge
astronaut acrylic 1990
Astronaut= acrylic. 1990s
Doctor- 1990s
policeman acrylic 1990
policeman- acrylic 1990s
standard acrylic 1990s
standard- acrylic 1990s
Skateboarder, acrylic 1990
Skateboarde- acrylic 1990s
Rugby- acrylic. 1993

The manufacturing quality of the little enamel badges was very high from the outset and they were worn by children and adults alike. The ‘brooch’ or badge based collector series was expanded to other products, such as golly pendants (from 1956) and plaster football and band figurines in the 1970s. The switch to cheaply made acrylic badges in the 1980s lost some collectors but gained a wider and appreciative audience.

Set of four Gollys issued for 1992 Barcelona Olympics
Set of four Golly badges released for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

The end for Golly badges was in sight. On 23 August 2001 Robertsons announced the retirement of Golly. The last Golly badge was issued 11 November 2002. Over 20 million gollys had been sent out since they were first produced.

Father Christmas Golly and Rudolf badge issued 1 November 1998. Sequentially numbered: 8918 of 10000
Father Christmas Golly and Rudolf badge was available from 1 November 1998. Sequentially numbered: 8918 of 10000

“We are retiring Golly because we found families with kids no longer necessarily knew about him. We are not bowing to political correctness, but like with any great brand we have to move with the times.”

Ginny Knox, brand director at Robertson’s, 2001

Instantly recognizable and iconic, it was a struggle for Robertsons to replace their Golly trademark with something equally as successful. The golly badge was replaced with Roald Dahl badges however these never captured the imagination of the public in the same way that Golly did and in 2006 Robertsons anounced that after just five years, their production would end. Current jars depict marmalade loving Paddington Bear.

The ‘Outdoors’ Golly badges

This blog is primarily concerned with matters hiking and backpacking so I mostly focus here on Golly badges relevant to those outdoor pursuits.

Just a few of the Robertson badges released over the years have featured hiking or Scouting Gollies

There aren’t that many, and most of them were concerned with the scouting movement. They are not necessarily a ‘scouting collectable’, for Golly badges were not actually sponsored by, or necessarily encouraged by, the scouts. That said, along with other children and adults, countless thousands of scouts and guides were keen to obtain and wear these to demonstrate their enthusiasm for scouting without ever giving thought to any perceived racist connotation. It is doubtful that Golly badges have been worn by anyone within the scouts in recent years as even the young have become attuned to possible offence.

There were five badges released from the 1950s to the late 1990s associated with the Scouting movement. These were for Brownies, ‘Cub’ Scouts and Scouts. They also reflect changes in uniform over the decades.

Scout Golly
Enamel Scout Golly. Gomm. 1950s
Scout Golly
Enamel Scout Golly. Gomm. 1950s
Scout Golly
Enamel Scout Golly. Gomm. 1950s

While there is essentially just the one design, the Scout Golly badge from the 1950s comes with a wide variety of subtle differences, mostly reflecting the large number of manufacturers who produced this enamel badge. Just three are shown here. There are wide and narrow bases, wide and narrow mouth, small and large fleur-de-lis, differences in the Golden Shred waistcoat, different shades of bush hat etc. Note that the three shown here are all produced by Gomm and illustrate how much slight variety can be found in Scout badges produced by just one manufacturer, there are many more. An example of expert detailed study into these badges can be found here.

Scout Golly
Enamel Scout Golly with slogan ‘Golden Shred’ on chest. R.E.V. Gomm, circa 1968

In the 1970s all Golly badges were subject to a major redesign. The classic ‘pop’ eyes were changed to sideways looking and the words ‘Golden Shred’ was removed from Golly’s chest.

There was one Golly badge that straddled these changes. This was the beret adorned Scout Golly that had, in turn, replaced the classic Bush Hat wearing Scout Golly of the 1950s. The new Scout badges frequently showed poor quality control with blow holes and pitting in the enamel.

Enamel Scout Golly without slogan on chest, 1970s
Enamel Scout Golly without slogan on chest. R.E.V. Gomm 1970s

In the 1980s enamel badges gave way to acrylic, obviously for reasons of cost. There are many that feel the golden era of Golly badges ended with this change. However the range of different gollys increased phenominally.

Brownie acrylic 1980s.  red socks
Brownie Golly, acrylic. Red socks. Rear of badge: vertical ‘© JAMES ROBERTSON & SONS PM LTD.’ 1980s.

The Brownie Golly badge released in the 1980s came in a couple of varieties. Nothing particularly startling, one had white patches on both sleeves and a white patch on the chest (shown here), the other has a white patch on one sleeve and a brown one on the other, also a brown patch on the chest. There are pointed feet on both.

In the 1990s, the design was simplified and tweaked. The most noticeable changes with the Brownie badge was that eyes became smaller and feet were more rounded. Socks became white, uniform badges are yellow and forehead hat bands were removed. There is also a variety of this badge where Brownie has a brown belt buckle.

Brownie, acrylic, 1990
Brownie Golly, acrylic. White socks. Rear of badge: Horizontal ‘© James Robertson & Sons’. 1990s

In 1998 Robertsons ran an online survey asking what new Gollys they should consider releasing, nine of the 12 new releases in 1999 had been suggested within that survey. Within the many responses were the following: “Childrens organisations e.g. cubs” had been proposed by Mike Howell. “Girl Guide Golly” and “Rainbows, Beavers, Cubs, Rangers & Guiders set” by Melanie Bowling, “All uniformed organisations, not just brownie and scout” by Rebecca Wilson. The following year, the two badges below were released.

Cub Scout
Scout Golly. Rear of badge: ‘© J ROBERTSON’S’. 1999

The last Scout and Brownie were first released on 4 October 1999 as part of a 12 piece set. These badges met with huge approval from the thousands of children who attended their local scout/guide group meetings each week. They were worn with pride and as a badge signifying their youthful passion for wholesome outdoors activity.

These were the last Golly badges to be produced associated with the scouting movement.

Brownie Golly. Rear of badge: ‘© J ROBERTSON’S’. 1999
Hiker Golly
Large acrylic ‘Walker’ Golly. Rear of badge: horizontal ‘© James Robertson & Sons’. 1993

Beside the ‘scouting’ Golly badges, two ‘hiking’ Gollys were issued by Robertsons in the early 1990s. These were Acrylic with a bubble coating on top and were slightly larger than most previous badges. Their year of manufacture can most easily be identified by the backstamp- horizontal on the 1993 issue and vertical on the 1994 issue. This change was due to problems encountered with the pin fastenings on the rear. There are subtle differences on the front too. Different colouration of pack and boots are obvious with other more subtle changes such as Golly’s smile.

Hiker Golly
Large acrylic ‘Walker’ Golly. Rear of badge: vertical ‘© James Robertson & Sons’. 1994
Millennium Classic Golly, Acrylic. 1999

For most people today, the Golly character is both uncomfortable and unacceptable, such distaste extends to the Golly badges that were manufactured for over seventy years. This is now to the extent that many people will decry their existence, portrayal or permit discussion, even in a historical context. For many, they are now simply an unacceptable relic of another time, but, surely, no less interesting as a record of that era.

There is a YouTube film that explores more of the roots of the golly character, arguing passionately for greater understanding and appreciation of its roots and heritage. You will form your own opinion. Sadly, today it seems that opportunity for intelligent dispassionate discussion has largely passed, or, more usually, is simply abandoned.

Order form 1990s
Order form 1990s
Order form 1994
Order form 1994
Order form 1998
Order form 1998
Order form 1999

4 replies »

  1. Thank you for that and great photos too.
    Robertson’s Golly badges were extremely popular in their day and demand was such that there were a number of UK badge manufacturers producing them and struggled to keep up with demand at times. But I believe the Golly emblem had run its course and and time went on, the symbol became more and more politically incorrect. Which leads me on to say it is wrong to take the Golly badges out of context and condemn them as “racist” or inappropriate in any way. They were not seen as such over the decades in which they were issued and surely never intended as such. They are relics of a bygone and more innocent age and it is surely wrong to retro-fix one’s sense of moral outrage to them. Stuart. 16/3/2022
    Sadly eBay has bowed to the Cancel Culture and have banned Golly badges and any other Golly merchandise too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting Stuart, in the meantime, judgement on historic norms based on current morals, ethics, or simply individual warped opinion, continues


  2. These badges only become unacceptable if you use the full description of the creature depicted. It’s a ‘Gollywog’ and seeing as the term ‘Wog’ is nowadays regarded as being somewhat offensive, so has the whole word ‘Gollywog’. Other than that, they are nothing more than a part of history, part of the past, not the future.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Three Points of the Compass on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 294 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: