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by Professor Kenneth D Brown
BA (Reading), MA (McMaster), PhD (Kent), FRHistS

Toy soldier set, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders Britains Ltd England, 1900 © Victoria & Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw a general upsurge of militarism throughout Europe. In Britain the sentiment was so powerful that, uniquely among the main protagonists, the nation was initially able to sustain its armed forces on a purely voluntary basis: by the time conscription was introduced in March 1916 some 2.5 million men had volunteered for the army alone.

In examining the reasons for this, historians have often drawn attention to the underlying influence of cultural ephemera such as postcards, board games, cigarette cards, jigsaws, commercial packaging, and populist literature, much of which in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods had strong militaristic and imperialistic themes. Consciously or otherwise, it is argued, such artefacts shaped the thought patterns and expectations of the generation which flocked in such numbers to the colours in August 1914. To that list, however, should be added toy soldiers, items which, Oscar Wilde’s wife told a meeting of the women’s branch of the International Arbitration and Peace Society, should be kept away from children on the grounds that exposure to such martial playthings in childhood could encourage warlike tendencies in adulthood.

Cardboard Cuirassiers, 1870, Germany © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Battle of El Teb set of tin flat soldiers, about 1890, Germany, made by Ernst Heinrichsen © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She made this claim in 1888 at a time when most of the toy soldiers available to British children were imported from France or Germany and confined to the relatively well off, like the young Winston Churchill who had a collection of about 1500 metal figures, mainly made by the German firm of Heyde. Shortly after her speech was delivered, however, rising disposable incomes and technological innovation combined to unleash an invasion of mass produced lead soldiers into British homes. In 1893 a struggling mechanical toy maker in London, William Britain, hit upon a technique for casting model soldiers that unlike their solid continental rivals were hollow. As such they used less raw material, were lighter to transport, and consequently were much cheaper. At about half the price of German figures, Britain’s figures were also better finished and more accurately detailed. Within a short space of time they became something of a commercial phenomenon.

Grenadier Guards, about 1900, England, Britain’s Ltd © Victoria and Albert Museum  Imperial Yeomanry, about 1900, England, Britain’s Ltd © Victoria and Albert Museum  Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own), about 1900, England, Britain’s Ltd © Victoria and Albert Museum

By 1910 about 200,000 figures a week were leaving the company’s small north London factory, a success story which soon encouraged other British entrepreneurs into the market. Some of these were only minor producers, known now only by the chance survival of an odd figure or box, but at least two other firms, Reka and Johillco, were manufacturing on a large scale. Nothing is known about their output levels, but even if each was turning out only a quarter of what William Britain produced, the total output of toy soldiers in Britain by 1914 must have been of the order of 15,000,000 figures a year, most of which went to the home market. W. H. Gamage, proprietor of the People’s Emporium in Holborn, stocked so many that his store was popularly known as the Aldershot and he as the Napoleon of the toy soldier world.

Little Wars by HG Wells, 1931, Published by JM Dent & Sons Ltd, England © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Contemporary literature and autobiography both attest to the general popularity of toy soldiers among Edwardian boys but they also appealed to certain sections of the literary and political intelligentsia, including writers such as Jerome K. Jerome, G. K. Chesterton, and R. L. Stevenson, together with politicians such as Leo Amery, C.P. Trevelyan, C.F.G. Masterman and Sidney Buxton, the latter three all members of the government that went to war Germany with in 1914. The most prominent of this group was H.G. Wells who published what became the first popular set of war-gaming rules in 1913 under the title of Little Wars.

The easy availability of cheap toy soldiers in Edwardian Britain interacted with other aspects of contemporary society to contribute to the growth of militarism, a nexus of symbols and ideas extolling the virtues of the warrior. Contemporary uniformed youth movements like the Boys’ Brigade and the scouts had strong militaristic overtones and many of their adult leaders had links with the Volunteers. Wells hinted at this connection in his semi-autobiographical novel, The New Machiavelli, but the best example of the link was provided by A. J. Holladay, a sergeant in the Volunteers who in 1910 published War Games for Boy Scouts played with Model Soldiers. While publications like these contained quite complex rules, there were many other boys who devised their own guidelines for waging war on the floor – or in the case of C W Beaumont on the lawn where his carefully cut trenches incurred considerable parental wrath. Implicit in all these games were notions of enmity and conflict, which Britains at least fostered by producing sets of rival armies as occasion arose – British and Boers, Russians and Japanese, and most of the spasmodically warring Balkan states. In this way the toy soldiers perhaps contributed to that build up of tension and aggression which, according to the drive-discharge model advanced by some psychologists, explains the enthusiasm for war and the mass volunteering of 1914.

Box for 17th Lancers, about 1900, England, Britain’s Ltd © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Box for 21st Lancers (Empress of India's), about 1900, England, Britain’s Ltd © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The drive-discharge model posits that war provided a welcome release for pent up aggression denied valid outlets in an increasingly constrained contemporary world. It may thus help us to understand what the volunteers were escaping from when they joined up, but it is not a wholly satisfactory hypothesis because it says nothing about what individuals thought they were escaping to. It is here perhaps that the second and arguably more insidious influence of the toy soldier craze may be detected. Manufacturers made deliberate attempts to foster the connection between the toys and the real world of war, as in 1908, for example, when Britains published The Great War Game for Young and Old, juxtaposing photographs of their toy soldiers alongside those of real troops. In similar vein Holladay’s 1908 book urged readers to try, when playing with toy soldiers, to imagine what Roberts and Kitchener had felt whilst commanding the British forces in South Africa. Here perhaps is the key point – toy soldiers were toys meant to be played with a reality which served to reinforce the view that games and war were two sides of the same coin. Churchill’s opinion that the Great War was like an extension of school games certainly found many an echo among serving soldiers in the early days of the war.

Furthermore, the understanding of war gained from playing with toy soldiers was hopelessly romantic and unrealistic. This was symbolised perhaps by Britains reluctance to manufacture figures in khaki uniforms, even after 1902 when the British army abandoned its red coats in favour of khaki service dress. Yet if brightly coloured figures fighting battles in which the casualties could be repeatedly resurrected hardly represented the grim reality of modern warfare, it took months of fighting and unimagined levels of casualties to disabuse a generation of British men of such illusions. In Britain the ethos of militarism, together with notions of war as a game involving glamorously arrayed combatants engaging in noble and costless conflict, all owed something to the astonishing proliferation of interest in toy soldiers in the years leading up to 1914. In this way the toy soldier manufacturers of Edwardian Britain made their own contribution to Britain’s voluntary war effort. As the educationalist Elsie Parsons shrewdly observed twelve months into the conflict, the toy soldier, long after he has been put away with other childish things, lives on unchallenged by reason.

Professor Kenneth Brown is Professor Emeritus of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast. His research interests have encompassed economic, social history and business history. He has written several books on the British toy industry including The British Toy Business, A History since 1700, the Hambledon Press, 1996, Tri-ang Toys, Shire library, 2012 and The British Toy Industry, Shire library, 2011.

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Bethnal Green

The Museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.45 in Bethnal Green, London.

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