Early Learning Centre

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Early Learning Centre
Public limited company
HeadquartersWatford, England
Number of locations
ProductsEducational toys
ParentIndependent (1972–2007)
Mothercare (2007–present)

The Early Learning Centre (ELC) is a British retailer selling toys aimed at very young children.


The first shop was in London Street, Reading, Berkshire in 1972. The business was started by David John Beal. The mail order department was in the basement. John employed the services of a child psychologist to ensure that the toys and books were a positive and educational value to children.

The clever and unique concept was for parents to join as a member, new sets of educational toys/books were then sent to them regularly. If they decided to keep the items, they would pay via their account. If they returned the items, they would not be charged.

It proved very successful and within a year, much larger premises in Silver Street Reading were obtained. John’s partner was an accountant named David so Beal used his middle name to avoid confusion. John and David were excellent employers and thoroughly nice chaps. Those early years were exciting and hugely fulfilling. Soon it started to spread and shops started to appear in every town.

Early Learning Centre in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (2013)

Originally set up as a mail order company in 1974 and based near Swindon, by 1980, it had ten shops, and it has grown to include 215 shops in the United Kingdom, and over 80 in 19 other countries including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Australia. In addition, their toys are available in some stores of Debenhams, Boots and Sainsbury's.

Since 2001, the company sells via their website. In the 1980s, ELC opened a number of "nursery stores", which sold equipment such as pushchairs and cots. Until 1991, the chain had stores in the United States; contrary to standard American English the word "centre" was preserved in these. Over 80% of products sold are own brand, being designed at a research centre in Hong Kong.


In May 1985, John Menzies rescued ELC.[1] Sales struggled in the end of the 1990s.

After some years, the company's board of directors led by Mike France, bought the company back in October 2001 for £30 million, being backed by 3i, before selling it to Tim Waterstone (who founded Waterstones bookstores) under the name Eagle Retail Investments, for £62 million in April 2004, and he joined it with his Daisy & Tom chain of shops within the "Chelsea Stores Group".

In June 2007, ELC was purchased by Mothercare for £85 million, from Chelsea Stores Holdings. Mothercare has continued to expand the high street presence of ELC by opening additional stores; mainly as concessions within over one hundred stores of Mothercare.

On 12 March 2019, it was announced that ELC would be purchased by The Entertainer for £13.5m.[2]

Product range[edit]

ELC are known for selling products which use wood such as plywood and Chinese maple. Toys are designed to be primarily about play, with a focus on educational and developmental aspects. ELC playtest their toys to check they can withstand the expected knocks and bumps and employ various techniques into their manufacturing process such as ultrasonic welding and use of plastics.

Other meanings of the phrase[edit]

In Australia and New Zealand, early learning centre (often abbreviated to ELC) is a synonym for a preschool or kindergarten.


  1. ^ John Menzies history - see 1985 section Archived 4 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Mothercare sells Early Learning Centre to The Entertainer for £13.5m". Retrieved 12 March 2019.

External links[edit]