The story of the British toy industry from 1900-1985
The Museum holds a fascinating archive of material donated by four major British toy manufacturers which are no longer in operation:
Pioneers of innovative educational toys, they set up in business in 1932 selling toys to friends and by mail order from their flat in Tavistock Square. Demand was such that in 1936 they opened a child-friendly shop at 94 Wimpole Street, designed by Erno Goldfinger. Their range included toys for children with physical disabilities and, in 1951, they set up the Children’s Play Activities Trust to promote excellence in toy design and manufacture. The business was bought out in 1971 after Paul Abbatt’s death.
In 1919, Lines Bros. Ltd. was established. It subsequently registered Tri-ang Toys, took over Hamleys, made Pedigree dolls and soft toys, and bought Meccano Ltd. In 1965, Tri-ang and Hornby Dublo were consolidated to form Tri-ang-Hornby Railways. In 1971 the company ceased business.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Mettoy produced a range of die-cast model vehicles which, although crude, proved to be popular. The company realised that a wider range of toy cars could rival Meccano’s range of Dinky Toys, and in 1956 Mettoy Playcraft Ltd. launched Corgi Toys.
The company grew out of a plastics firm established in 1909 and became one of Britain’s leading toy manufacturers until its closure in 1984. The material complements the Museum’s important collection of around 3,000 Palitoy objects, which were catalogued over a ten year period.
These unique holdings include photographs, advertisements, financial information, trade catalogues, manufacturing information sheets and personal letters. They are supplemented by further material relating to toy manufacturing, the social history of childhood and the education system, providing a fascinating record of the British toy-making industry and the social context of the period.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the dominant centre for the toy industry was in Germany and in particularly in the southern regions around Nuremberg, Thuringia and Sonneberg, rich in raw materials and toy making traditions. These regions produced and exported vast numbers of toys beautifully crafted from wood and from metal.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth British manufacturers began to manufacture toys, some of which would compete or eventually eclipse the German imported market.
In this early period, several large companies established themselves. G&J Lines was a leading British toy manufacturer.
‘Little girls and little boys,
Never suck your German toys;
German soldiers licked will make
Darling Baby’s tummy ache.
Parents, you should always try
Only British toys to buy;
Though to pieces they be picked,
British soldiers can’t be licked.’
Little Folks Christmas 1914
The outbreak of war led to an explosion in production of toy soldiers, tanks, boats and uniforms as miniature battles were played out on bedroom floors.
In turn, this affected the ebb and flow of the ever growing Toy Trade and key players (Meccano/Tri-ang/Dean’s) within its own conflict as the introduction of conscription and the raise in cost of raw materials hit the industry hard.
Before the eruption of violence, many manufacturers and shops had bought German goods. Convincing the public that it was not unpatriotic to purchase a German made soldier gained before the War was a difficult task indeed especially because Germany were seen to be dominating the market in the first place.
This rejection of German made goods opened the market further for home-spun British toys.
Yet it was to be a foreign influence to fill part of the gap (the other part plugged by English entrepreneurs) left by the Germans; Japan.
By 1915 Japan and America were ready to import and so they did only to be stymied by sanctions introduced by the Government Board of Trade as an attempt to protect British interests.
In the same year, the first ‘British Industries Fair’ occurred which was attended by numerable toy manufacturers with Meccano perfecting its first mechanical tin train.
This seeming ‘upturn’ of events was short lived as British distribution worsened to an extraordinary level as the war dragged into its final years giving them an awful reputation which would be difficult to recover from.
The second inter-war period heralded a boom, a bust and a race for new technology; taking Britain and the Toy industry a few years to rid itself of the war suppression.
There was a continued interruption of German imports to Britain and many British companies took advantage of this. However, with reduced materials and many shortages, this proved a challenge.
In particular, the soft toy industry boomed in this interwar period, with companies such as Dean and Chad Valley thriving.
The initial post-war success only started after the war’s effect on the industry had settled down: Not only did the War enhance successes, but it also highlighted great weaknesses acting in a polarized way for each circumstance without a level ground.
But, by the 1920s the industry had gained some footing and money was being made in the post-war baby and money boom with Germany no longer a threat as it had (supposedly) been before.
Chad Valley (soft toys), Meccano and ‘the reign of the Lines Brothers’ (who bought and saved Hamleys in the late 20s after their bankruptcy) were to mark these years in particular, all surviving Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The Industry was affected – but not in a grievous way as was some; Harry Ives the great American toy conglomerate folded stirring caution over in the British seas – whilst this economic gloom was voiced, it was not bowed down to within the larger toy firms. It was the middlemen and small companies with no cash to keep them ticking over that suffered for these hard times, and, due to the of the lack of information still, it is hard to put a number on how many middle class and young toymakers lost their businesses because of this hyperinflation.
The Second World War brought around significant changes in the Toy Industry which teetered on the edge of destruction in February when a raid brought the geographical centre of the Industry to rubble.
Unlike the First World War rumblings of the Second had been growing in strength after the failure of appeasement which gave time for the industry (and Britain) to arm themselves appropriately with merchandised army sets and soldiers.
At first the British trade looked overseas to plug the gap that German trade had left once more, but failing to find any ally combined with: a rise in labour rates (brought into line with other industries), an increase in materials jacking up the prices of the finished product, Government taxations with a reduction in sales quotas (1941: a whole quarter less than at the beginning of the war) and a national nervousness about what the future held for Britain, let alone its Toy Industry, engagement in the war effort became the answer.
With the majority of factories in Moorgate and Houndsditch they became regular targets for the Luftwaffe and in a raid, in February of 1941, the German planes managed to hit this epicentre.
By the end of 1942 a sudden ban on all metal toys was introduced and later in the year other materials followed; cork, hemp, celluloid, and rubber.
Physically the Industry was in rubble, the Government seemed to be finishing the rest off and back alley toy traders were reaping some benefits simultaneously causing question marks over what a child should be allowed to play with.
The blame for shoddy and faulty toys fell at the wrong doors (i.e. brand names now making planes rather than toys like The Lines Brothers) as it became a ‘hot topic’ with men and women like the Abbatts and Susan Isaacs proving that play for children was an important part of learning.
The route back to financial validity after the destructive Second World War was bumpy, but filled with opportunities for those willing to take them.
Germany were not to make a comeback, like before, in this post-war period, ‘The Motherland’ and Japan had been crippled and as our main export rivals their defeat effectively paved the way for Britain (mainly The Lines Brothers) becoming the largest exporter of toys by the late 1950s.
Back on home turf, 500 new toy industries had been set up by those who saw a market that had been starved for five years of any new product and growth. Their sustainability was not high, however, and many of these small businesses were short lived as the giants (Meccano, Lines Brothers, Tri-Ang) woke from their dormancy once more.
Apart from a predominantly British product now in the market, post-war Britain continued into the psychology of the child and the child’s education. Health and Safety were of highest import and the black market that thrived in the war was shot down abetted by new designs such as lock screw eyes which saved baby’s tummy, and life, as the hazard of choking was no longer there. Companies like Dean’s Rag Toys and Merrythought revelled in this new technology with Merrythought taking it a step further and buying a stuffing machine and Chad Valley creating Sooty and Sweep toys based on their TV success.
Revolutions were not confined to plush toys -die casting and large injection moulding machines which produced weight bearing toys revolutionized the market: the Corgi range from Mettoy became a hit (miniature cars) but had competition from The Matchbox series selling 4 million in 1959 in the USA alone!
All was not as it seemed, however. Even with the new revolutionary technology Britain was no match for American advertisement and coupled with a lack of ingenuity the British Toy industry died a very sudden death.
For all the machines and quicker production lines came to nothing as it slowly became clear that Britain lacked one thing in its industry; creativity.
Reports on copies of American creations were printed and what’s more, they were copies that were not as good or changed for the worse, even.
Meccano was in trouble in the 1960s as they refused to diversify their product and had stiff competition from the likes of British Lego and the blazing HotWheels imported from the American company: Mattel – one of the first negative signs of the recently relaxed import controls.
Although Lines ended up buying Hornby’s flailing Meccano in 1965 their export business was in pieces by 1968 and with the home market in disarray for need of British Toys, The Lines Brothers went into liquidation in 1971: A quick, surprising and disastrous end to a company that at one point had been the largest toy company, not just in Britain, but in the world. (Page 175)
More was to come with a harsh lesson to be taught: the power of advertisement. American companies put their toys into TV sets and no matter how amateur the adverts were, the toy always sold to the disbelief of the British Industry.
Mettoy were the next to feel the strain due to ignorance that America also had mastered die-casting and a fire at their complex resulting in a slew of sackings (about 1000 employees) in 1971.
Things seem to be at an all-time low for the British Industry, but the economic depression came to eat away at whatever foundation they were still clinging on to and with the ‘saddest Christmases’ of their time in 1979 and 1980 even THE time for toys was no longer a life saver for companies.
This was the end for Meccano. In 1980 after the liquidation of Triang-Pedigree, Meccano collapsed leaving another big British name in the dust of the second American invasion with household names of today such as FisherPrice.