This post was originally published as a blog post on HoL in October 2010. I have moved it here for safe-keeping.
I'm not sure how old you need to be for the name Britains Toys to cast something of a magic spell. But Britains soldiers, cowboys & indians and animals were as much a part of my childhood as the x-box is for kids today.
So, I was interested to discover recently that Britain's was a local firm.
Britains was established by William Britain (1828-1906) a toy maker of Birmingham, England, in about 1845. He moved his family to a house at 28 Lambton Road, Hornsey Rise, and there gradually established a cottage industry involving the family, producing ingenious mechanical clockwork toys, but these were too expensive to be mass produced.
Extensions to the house next door at Lambton Road, Hornsey Rise, eventually culminated in the whole block being torn down and a factory, warehouse and office complex established with some 300 workers. Eventually another factory, known as the North Light Building, was constructed at Walthamstow, also in north-east London, where the Britains Model Home Farms production was moved to in 1931.
A major development for the company occurred in 1893 when William Britain Jnr found a way of casting lead figures that were hollow, more lifelike, and most importantly more economical than the two dimensional solid figures known as flats that had been made by German toy manufacturers. The method of commercially producing the hollow-cast soldiers involved pouring the molten metal into hinged brass moulds by hand. The metal was an alloy, a mixture of lead, tin and antinomy. As it cooled, the alloy formed a skin around the shape inside the mould. The mould was then turned upside down and the residue metal streamed out through a funnel in the mould. Air holes were left at strategic points to make sure that metal reached the extremities of the mould. The thinner parts of the model, such as horses' legs and rifle barrels, were left solid to prevent breakages. Skilled operators could produce 300 castings per hour.
The company became renowned for hollow-cast lead toys, in particular soldiers, and especially in regard to attention to detail and emphasis on research to ensure accuracy of uniforms and arms. By 1900 the company had produced over 100 different sets. The 1920s saw a dramatic change in the Britain's product range. The company introduced US army and navy figures as well as South American soldiers and Canadian Mounties, but sales plummeted due to the rejection of military-style war toys after the carnage of the First World War. Britain's responded by introducing farm, zoo and circus series.
Here is the fekktreh in an old British Pathe film clip. As the film makes clear, making the toys calls for a real stiddiness of heand and aaah:
And although the factory is long gone, it's not hard to see where it once stood:
Thanks for this: we lived near Finsbury Park and my father worked for Britains, taking the Victoria line out to Black Horse Lane, which I think was the nearer station to their Walthamstow works. He used to bring home the occasional toy, much to my delight, often slightly mis-shapen ones, where the moulding had not worked quite properly, so you got the most weird shapes. He said that the people (mainly women I guess, more dexterous) who poured the lead soldiers were insentivised by the amount of lead they returned to the company - i.e. to keep the soldiers as thin as possible. Didn't Britains merge with Herald's, who were a plastic company, and switched to making toys in plastic, not so poisonous as lead!
Oh I used to love playing with those figures, westerns, military and farm. Hours and hours of fun and amusement, imagination running riot. Most fondly etched in my childhood memories. Sixpence a piece seems to ring a bell from Woolies. Thanks Hugh.