United Kingdom

Meet the inspiring woman who shares her home with 12,500 furry friends

Every shelf, chair, corner and surface in Tink Rush’s workshop in Pickering, North Yorkshire, is filled with teddy bears.

Giant bears with stern looks, bristly fur and sturdy limbs. Teeny squashy bears with soft fur and deep-set eyes. Bears in flat caps. Bears sitting down at a table for tea and iced muffins. Bears in army uniforms, perched on ladders, peeking from behind milk urns, or wrapped in hand-knitted scarves.

Because this is the nerve centre of Yorkshire Teddy Rescue — a group with more than 1,200 members, thousands of customers all around the world and a very active Facebook page — which is currently home to more than 12,500 bears, every one of which Tink knows by name, age, back story and sex.

‘You can tell from the set of the head, the face, the way it holds itself, if a bear is male or female,’ she says.

Tink rescues and repairs teddies in her home in Pickering North Yorkshire, as well as repairing the teddies at Yorkshire Teddy Bear Rescue

Each one has been washed (often a dozen times), dried, brushed, stitched, dressed and lovingly prepared for someone to love them again

Just like a proper hospital, each patient is assessed, considered and triaged before they join Tink’s enormous ‘hug’ — the collective noun for teddy bears

The whole house is full of bears. There are more than 400 in her sitting room alone and the workshop doubles as the bear orphanage — brimful with now pristine bears waiting expectantly for new homes.

Each one has been washed (often a dozen times), dried, brushed, stitched, dressed and lovingly prepared for someone to love them again.

Across the yard, in a separate building, is the hospital, where 800 more bears await treatment. Each one has been swaddled in a blanket and placed gently on its own tray. The scale is extraordinary.

Every week, more bears arrive. Some are delivered by courier, others by Royal Mail. Quite a few are left by Tink’s front gate, or wrapped in plastic bags and shoved through the teeny gap under with a desperate note, ‘Please look after this bear.’

Tink also spends hours each week corresponding with people about their bears, advising them on care

Tink’s obsession began when she was four and was given a bear, Button Rush, by a neighbouring farmer to keep her company when she was admitted to hospital

She carefully shows me a small, battered bear in a grubby green jersey with no eyes.

‘His owner is 90. She’s at the end of her life. Her family don’t want him and she’s terrified he’ll end up in a skip, so she posted him to me.’ Tink has taken him in, sent a card to confirm his safe arrival and will soon set to repairing and readying him for a new home.

Just like a proper hospital, each patient is assessed, considered and triaged before they join Tink’s enormous ‘hug’ — the collective noun for teddy bears.

‘Some arrive in a horrendous condition,’ she says. ‘And the feeling that comes off them! I always get a feeling from a bear, all they’ve been through, when I look in their eyes. Sometimes it can be very emotional,’ she says.

Next, she’ll set to work — steaming, scrubbing, stitching, repairing dislocated joints with cotter pins and often spending dozens of hours on a single bear.

Tink works with psychologists and counsellors supplying autistic children and sexual abuse victims with bears and now she’s providing little Covid bears for NHS workers

Teddies provide a comfort, a familiar smell and, according to research, cuddling them can produce a heightened sense of wellbeing

Some consider Tink to be wildly eccentric, mad even, to be sharing her lovely home with 12,500 second-hand bears

It all sounds very full-on. Doesn’t her very supportive husband Scott ever put his foot down? ‘I keep saying “no more” to him, but they keep arriving. We live with bears. It’s a full-time job, you’ve got to care for them properly.’

Naturally, some people don’t get it. They consider Tink wildly eccentric, mad even, to be sharing her lovely home with 12,500 second-hand bears. But then teddies have always inspired strong feelings — just think of the joy Winnie the Pooh, Paddington and Rupert Bear have bought.

Many of us still have our childhood bears on a shelf somewhere. Some still cuddle them when times are blue. Sir John Betjeman and his teddy, Archie, were inseparable. TV presenter Carol Vorderman and her one-eared ‘Bungee’ share their own secret language and Grayson Perry has described his bear, Alan Measles, as ‘like a god to me’ and has built him a gold throne in his bedroom.

Teddies provide a comfort, a familiar smell and, according to research, cuddling them can produce a heightened sense of wellbeing.

So it’s not surprising that, right now, demand for adoptions from the orphanage has never been higher — from lonely pensioners to key workers who just need a hug, to children feeling isolated in lockdown.

While Tink sells most of the donated bears on eBay (to raise money for Asthma UK), some she donates. She works with psychologists and counsellors supplying autistic children and sexual abuse victims with bears and now she’s providing little Covid bears for NHS workers.

While Tink sells most of the donated bears on eBay (to raise money for Asthma UK), some she donates

She’s also in the process of making a bear on a key ring for Boris Johnson. ‘Despite what you think of him, what a year that man’s had! Covid. Brexit. A child! He needs a bear!’

Lately though, she’s been overwhelmed with demand for bereavement bears, memorial bears — with a name, a flag or perhaps a teeny football scarf — and casket bears. ‘We do a lot of casket bears — to travel on that last journey. Particularly with kids, so they’re not on their own.’

She also spends hours each week corresponding with people about their bears, advising them on care.

Some people get in contact desperate to replace lost childhood bears. One chap lost his beloved cuddly when his ex-wife swiped it in a nasty divorce and refused to give it back. ‘He was heartbroken! He brought me photographs,’ says Tink. ‘I keep a book of pictures of lost bears, just in case.’

And, happily, one day, at Newark antique fair, she spotted a bear just the same. Or nearly the same. ‘His bear had been mended badly down his face, so I replicated the stitching so he felt the same,’ she says.’

Tink’s obsession began when she was four and was given a bear, Button Rush, by a neighbouring farmer to keep her company when she was admitted to hospital with scarlet fever. ‘I still remember being given him — the feeling,’ she says. For the past 61 years, Button — who today sits in pride of place in the workshop — has given her strength and comfort to carry on through the ups and many downs of her life.

He was by her side for the loss of both her brothers as young boys to heart conditions and, later, her parents. He helped her weather a difficult divorce and has stood by her various incarnations — as a blues singer, antiques dealer, artist and ‘muscle’ motorbike rider.

For decades, Buttons was her constant companion as she cared for her two beloved children Jazz and Jofi, both of whom were diagnosed as babies with brittle asthma — a particularly severe form of the illness. 

And he was there, steadfast, when, in 2016, Jofi passed away during a particularly brutal asthma attack. She was 25 years old. Her much-cuddled teddy, Dogger Dog, sits next to Button.

Within five days of Jofi’s death, Tink’s hair had turned white with sorrow. ‘It’s called Marie Antoinette syndrome — it happens when the body can’t express what it is feeling.’ Losing her daughter changed everything, but it also taught Tink to enjoy a gentler pace.

‘I’ve taught myself to live at a slow pace — not to worry if I have 800 bears waiting in the hospital. To realise that the most important thing we have is time.’ And to never complain, despite having spent so long caring for children without a day off.

Instead, she glows with love for them — ‘they’ve been an absolute joy’ — and busies herself in bear rescue.

Her hardest rehabilitation job so far is Grey Ted, a bear so ravaged by cuddling that his face had gone completely, along with one of his legs.

‘Dear me, I really didn’t know where to start! It was a job and a half. I spent 40 hours just darning his face!’ It is the only private commission she’s ever done — not that she’d accept any payment — and never again. ‘I spent ridiculous hours on him, 14 hours a day for four weeks!’ she says. ‘But his owner wept when I returned him.’

Sadly, some bears are beyond surgery. ‘I open the bag and, well . . .’ her voice falters. ‘It’s very sad, it really chokes me. I’d never give up on a bear, but if they’ve absolutely had it . . . I’ll remove the fur and keep the eyes and maybe they can help another.’

But let’s be clear, it is bears — and only bears — that make her heart soar. ‘Other soft toys do nothing for me. I have no affinity for them. I can look in their eyes and feel nothing!’

And there are some bears that even she doesn’t like. ‘I had a 7 ft Steiff bear I just did not get on with,’ she says. ‘He had a bad vibe about him. He didn’t fit into my hug well at all.’ So she sold him and spent the money on bits and bobs to repair the others.

After all that care, it can be emotional when she finally sends her charges off on ‘teddy travel’ to their new homes, wrapped in three layers of packaging with a bit of meshing to protect the delicate eyes, a sweet and a card setting out their back story — ‘Torn to pieces by a dog, little Squashy had little left to work with!’ or, ‘Barbara, left in the garden shed and chewed by mice, she has scars but is a sweet-faced lovely bear’ — and a plea for acknowledgement of safe receipt.

‘It sounds daft, but the work that’s gone into them . . . it’s just so nice that people let me know when they’ve arrived and they’re going to be cared for and hugged and loved again.’

Just a morning spent with Tink and her 12,500-strong ‘hug’ is enough to see that she is neither mad nor misguided, just a remarkable, warm and wonderful woman who has endured desperate sadness but is still trying to give something back, find some calm and love, raise some money for Asthma UK and bring joy to others.

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