Heritage Toys

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Heritage Toys' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Heritage Toys' page

The best of the good old toys


The Best of Old Toys


This was the theme of an address by Mr. Brian Howes from Gedling, who is a long-term collector of old toys, and is also a writer on the same topic.  Rather than the usual approach of slide illustration, Brian’s talk took the form of a presentation backed up by a table display of samples which were readily-recognisable to his audience.

The speaker began by a brief summary of the background to toy collection.  Prior to 1970, he said, the hobby had not existed as a favourite for collectors; indeed it had been viewed as unusual and perhaps a little purposeless; even eccentric.  In 1977, however, the Lambley Village toy collectors fair was held, revealing just how much the pastime really did exist.  People really were keen to retain nostalgic memorabilia of childhood, recognising that these would be cherished and no longer produced in years to come.  This fired a spark, and the spark triggered a new collecting craze.

The first name that Brian mentioned as a toy-maker of the past was that of CHAD VALLEY.  This company, which began thanks to two brothers named Johnson, specialized in ?Santa’s workshop' toys, items such as hand-cut jigsaws and soft toys.  Tin cars were made for Chad Valley in Mansfield.  The soft toys, animated puppets, were produced largely in Wellington, Shropshire, and included such famous characters as Sooty, the famous bear belonging to Harry Corbett (and, later, his son, Matthew), together with Sweep, the long-eared dog.  ?World Cup Willie' appeared in 1966 as a mascot for England’s successful victory in football’s World Cup.  Chad Valley had its offshoots, for the company embraced a broad spectrum.  MERRITHORPE and PEDIGREE were brands which may be remembered, the latter being taken over in 1971 when it was absorbed into Woolworth’s.

Another type of toy that was well-loved in the mid twentieth-century was the simple figurative representation made in metal – toy soldiers and the like.  These  figures were usually only a few inches long, small enough to fit into the hand of a child, although the love that they were given meant that they would be handled with great care.  They were static figures with no manipulative function.  Initially being made of solid lead, they later adopted the technique of hollow casting in tin.  This had begun around 1850 thanks to William Brittan (Junior; his father had the same Christian name), but was widely adopted in this country from 1934 owing to the marketing of Cadbury’s.  They, in order to promote their cocoa brand, came up with the initiative of giving cococubs, small toy figures inside tins of their product.  This was an increasing success; by 1937 there were 29 such figures to be collected by the purchase of Cadbury’s cocoa.  Spearheading the figures, designed by Ernest Aris, was one named Jonathan, who could be found in either of two sizes, depending, of course, on the size of the cocoa package.  The move was further stimulated by offering membership of the ?cococub club' with its badge, which declared of the wearer: I am a cococub.

The name of TRI-ANG, instituted by the Lines brothers, could not fail to meet with recognition by  a generation which lived through the1960s, although they actually began toy manufacture before the Second World War.  They are best remembered by those who enthused after model railways and all associated railside memorabilia.  In the beginning, though, Lines made early wooden toys.  They were known for their lifesize horses, which were in demand from many toyshops.  It was Lines’ three sons who, after 1919, advanced to steel-plate toys, made in Merton, from which the toy train industry made its beginnings.  It was then that the Tri-ang name was initiated.[1] In the 1930s, pressed-steel trucks were a further innovation.  Additionally, Tri-ang made pedal-cars, one of the first of many practical toys.  The outbreak of War interrupted progress, as metal was in demand for military equipment; any less essential use, including the toy industry, was banned.  In fact the industry that had been Tri-ang contributed to the wartime production of bren guns.  Following the end of hostilities in 1945, Lines resumed toy manufacture with new advances and initiatives.

But after 1945 the world as a whole increased in ambition, realising opportunities that had previously been suppressed, and technological advancement was on the way.  Tri-ang was faced with a good deal of rivalry to its one-time leadership in the world of toys.  Consideration of the nature of girls’ play led to the arrival on the scene of PEDIGREE dolls.  The less-familar SPOT-ON toys, transport miniatures with detailed castings, also appeared, continuing until the less-expensive DINKY superseded them in 1964.  Meanwhile SCALEXTRIX, another offshoot of Lines, emerged in 1959, but this also had to give way to Dinky in 1963.

Around 1904, MECCANO had made an appearance with its ?make-and-know' construction sets.  The original sets provided only simple nickel plates for uncomplicated designs.  Mechanics made easy was the designation of the first set, which enclosed just fifteen parts, but continuous development increased the potential in the following years; many will remember far more detailed sets with joining metal strips and a variety of attachments and devices which allowed not only the building of complex structures, but also a measure of manipulability owing to adjustable gadgetry such as wheels, axles and strings.  The Meccano-made crane is perhaps one of the best examples.   By 1938, Dinky builder had introduced competition, the latter consisting of plates and rods.  These kits tended to favour boys’ toys, such as trains and bridges.  Play things for girls were more difficult to produce in this manner.  Hornby double-O and Bassetloke added to the childhood liking of trains.  They made use of an engineering background amongst their designers, which enabled the production of miniatures.  A real-life tragedy, in the follow-up of the 1898 rail crash, led to photo publicity, which raised cash that was to be invested in the model-making companies.

1914 saw an innovation in the toy industry, one that made simple toys available for the poorer children.  Called penny toys, or penn’orths, they were just as their name implied.  At the low cost of one old penny each[2], they were sold on the streets.  Later, Rowntrees sweets recognised the potential of these for their own sales of confectionary, and they gave these toys away with purchase of their own products.

Liverpool gave birth to Dinky toys as early as 1934.[3]  These consisted of miniature models, and were marketed in boxes of six.  The designers anticipated that these would sit alongside railway layouts as whole scenarios.  By 1939, several series of these toys had appeared, but production ceased that year in the interests of warfare and armaments.  This meant that nothing new was to emerge until 1945, when Dinky resumed, this time using a leaden alloy which proved of better quality as it eliminated metal fatigue.  1947 brought the Dinky supertoy, a larger, more robust model along the lines of its predecessor.  Double-O Dinky came next, following Hornby Double-O collectables, but proved less successful.  1957 saw the challenge of Mettoy Corgi toys.  The last-named were more detailed working-models produced in Swansea.  They gained advertisement from the media of television and film, as they included such vehicles as the Batmobile, as well as the James Bond car.  However, the lifespan was brief.  The late 70s brought their demise owing to Far Eastern competition.

Matchbox toys brought the next input, being plant-machined toys capable of fitting into standard matchboxes.  Until 1970, these were popular amongst schoolchildren, and adults would have shown interest in these as coronation souvenirs.

Plastic, that supposedly-indestructible material, changed the status of toys in a permanent direction.  Blue box, from Hong Kong, was the first innovation, followed by cheap plastic toys produced by Tudor Rose.  Plastic led to the post-war popularity of Airfix modelling-kits of varying ability and size.  These were not generally working-models, but rather exhibited after construction.  Aircraft were the first subjects of this approach, which was later extended to many other forms of transport, such as military or railway themes.  Four shillings would purchase a kit consisting of fifty pieces together with the appropriate adhesive.

  Plastic was used as the wonder material of toy-production; so much so that even Tri-ang was forced to concede.  But toys, like anything else, were unlikely to go on for ever.  The industry declined after 1970, probably owing to changes in social and cultural values.  The collectors were not slow to seize the opportunity afforded now, as toys surged in monetary and sentimental value.  To this day, that nostalgic feature of toys applies, but it is less of a childhood occupation and more for those more advanced in years, who recall the heyday of the toy.  One thing is undeniable; the subject of toys is one that every person over a certain age can relate to, and this Society is no exception.  Through this media, one’s younger activities can still be reborn, and long may this continue!  Thanks, then to Mr. Howes for his sharing of his interest with this audience.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: November, 2016

Edited by Brian Howes: December,  2016.





[1]   As its name suggests, the name was derived from the three sides of a triangle, the number of sides corresponding, in this case, to the number of Lines brothers in leadership of the project.

[2]  1d, in pre-1971 British currency.  There were 240 such pennies to the pound.

[3] The name is defined in most English dictionaries as ‘pretty; neat, or of engaging appearance’.

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 28/01/2017.

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