I think it’s fair to say that a large portion of the UK population has heard of Welephant. When someone recently mentioned it to me, I couldn’t help but smile and drift off on a wave of nostalgia about the first time he came to my school.
The lesson was fire safety and more importantly, how to use a fire alarm correctly. The impact of this big red elephant in his shiny yellow fire helmet was a sure fire reason why my house was safely guarded from combustible hazards and that my smoke alarm battery was regularly tested (much to the annoyance of my parents). Still in use today, Welephant is now the mascot ambassador for The Children’s Burn Trust and an iconic figure in the history of the costume character.
Welephant came to life in 1978 when the Greater Manchester Fire Service ran a children’s competition to design a character to teach young people about fire safety. A 14-year-old girl entered the competition with a big red elephant sporting a yellow helmet, black boots and a fire axe. The name she gave him was Welephant. As a clear winner, the GM Fire Service adopted Welephant and children across the North West began to learn of his existence. The big friendly elephant proved to be a successful acquisition for the GM Fire service who founded The Welephant Club for children in 1984. Being inundated with club applications, other fire departments across the country heard of its success and began to adopt the red elephant for use in their own district. Welephant went nationwide!
By 1986, the first Welephant mascots were being manufactured right here in Manchester by Liz Milnes, founder of Situation Clothing (now Costumes with Character) and were deployed across the country for fire departments to use, promoting fire safety within schools and at family events throughout the eighties, nineties and early noughties. Costumes with Character still produce Welephant mascots to this day, albeit with a few minor adjustments to bring him trumpeting into the 21st century but he is still the same cuddly and conscientious elephant he has always been.
So where do the six degrees of separation come in? We’ve all heard the theory that everyone is connected to everything by six steps or less (3.5 steps if you’re a Facebook user) and Welephant is no different. Whether it was on a school visit, or at a local event, someone you know will have a story or have at least had an encounter with Welephant over the last few decades. Here at Costumes with Character, most of us have a story to tell that dates back to childhood, or to when our children were young.
Take for example Alison Dermott. Alison was just a young girl when she first encountered Welephant during a firework safety campaign. Being a talented individual even at that age, Alison shone brighter than the other children and won a colouring competition, resulting in some fantastic prizes and the opportunity for a photo with the iconic elephant. It didn’t stop there, Alison’s mum even wore the costume throughout the nineties in the school that she worked for, using it to teach local children the principles of fire safety. Little did Alison know that when she joined the team at Costumes with Character, Welephant would once again charge into her life.
Now I’m almost sure you’re sat reading this article with a smile on your face. Not because of my witty wordsmanship or carefully crafted sentences, but because you are remembering your first encounter with the popular figurehead of fire safety. Be it at school, at a summer fete or even in front of a supermarket, Welephant has popped up everywhere and has helped spread the message that fire can be dangerous to children across the country for over 30 years. Here at Costumes with Character, we are proud to have made this mascot since its inception and will hopefully do so for many years to come.