Toy farm animals, accessories, horsedrawn machinery, lead, W. Britain, London, England, 1921-1961 and farm buildings, timber, [Australia] purchased from Walther & Stevenson, Sydney, NSW
The English firm of W. Britain, became the world's leading toy model manufacturer and over a period of 60 years produced several thousand different sets of cavalry, infantry and militia from countries around the world. However, it was the British toy buying public's rejection of war-like military toys during the inter-war period which provided Britains with the opportunity to introduce their model farm animals and figures introduced in 1921. The farm reflected the social history of agricultural production in the United Kingdom at the time in an idealised form. The firm were quick to realise the potential of the huge overseas markets, especially in the United States, but also in Australia. The Sydney toy department store of Walther and Stevenson Ltd, at 395 George Street, which operated from the 1930s to the 1970s, sold Britain's farm toys together with Australian-made timber farm buildings. This gave Australian children the opportunity to more realistically build and develop an Australian-style farm layout with British toy farm animals, machinery and workers. Production of lead models made by Britains ceased in 1966 though the company still makes plastic and pewter models. After close to a century toy farm sets are still very popular with children today especially in the country areas of New South Wales. The market appears to be dominated in Australia by the moulded-plastic animals and figures made by the German firm of Schleich and the French one of Papo.
The farm toys made by W. Britain are of lead and manufactured in a technique called hollow casting introduced in 1893. This enabled the firm to compete in the lead toy market, which had previously been dominated by Germany. The technique involved pouring a molten mixture of lead, tin and antimony into an engraved mould. The lead was then swilled around inside the mould by the hand caster which stuck to the sides of the mould. As the antimony cooled, it expanded and developed the fine details in the casting. The excess metal was quickly poured back into the melting pot, leaving the shell of the figure inside the mould. The air hole in the top remained and was the route by which the excess was discarded. The secret of success relied on the temperature of the metal coupled with the speed of the process. The hollow-cast method enabled up to four times as many figures to be made from the same amount of lead previously required for one solid figure and therefore reduced the cost and increased sales.
The W. Britain firm was founded in about 1845, when William Britain Snr (1828-1906) moved from Birmingham to Hornsey Rise in North London where he converted his new home in Lambton Road into a factory. The family worked together producing ingenious mechanical toys clockwork toys such as a walking bears, Chinese coolies and penny farthing riders but these toys were too expensive to mass produced. However, it was the miniature toy lead soldiers, people, and farm animals for which the company would eventually become famous.
A major development for the company occurred in 1893 when it was said that William Britain Jnr, found a way of casting lead figures that were hollow, more life like and most importantly more economical than the two dimensional solid figures, (known as flats) had been made by German toy manufacturers. Despite this claim, the origin of the hollow-cast method has been attributed to Germany. In 1896 Britains experimented with new ideas and figures with movable arms appeared. William Junior designed and cut all the models for toys soldiers which at first were quite crude and often anatomically incorrect. However, they rapidly improved with every new model released and this together with new painting techniques saw them become renowned for hollow-cast lead toys especially in regard to their attention to detail and emphasis on research to ensure accuracy. Adoption of the hollow-cast method enabled Britains to gain a strong hold on the lead toy market with William Britain Snr's sons taking the business into model soldiers.
At first Britains made regiments from the United Kingdom including mounted Lifeguards, the household cavalry of the Queen, foot soldiers and guardsmen. William's younger brother, Frederick, became the salesman of the family and set out to convince the conservative-minded British store-owners that Britains lead soldiers were worthy of being sold alongside the Heyde figures made in Dresden and the Mignot pieces made in Paris. Initially business was slow due to these imports however the expansion of the British Empire in the later decades of the nineteenth century resulted in a larger Royal Navy and British Army with new battalions. The company then developed a new series based on contemporary events and in 1897 model troops of the Empire began to appear celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Britains opened an office in Paris in 1905 and models were adapted for the French market. British Royal and ceremonial occasions such as the accession to the British throne, coronations and trooping the colour provided an opportunity to issue souvenir and ceremonial lines connected with the Royal family. Models of football teams where introduced in 1904, Salvation Army figures in 1906, and civilians in 1908 followed by railway staff and passengers in 1909 all in the standardised 54 mm size. A series devoted to North American Indians appeared in 1908 but cowboys did not follow until 1913. The Scout movement formed by Baden Powell influenced the company's decision to issue Boy Scout sets in 1910 but Girl Guides and American Girl Scouts had to wait until the 1930s.
Britains became a limited company on 4 December 1907 and the new board of directors included William Britain Jnr, Alfred Britain, Fredrick Britain, Edward Britain and Frank Britain. Like other companies in 1914 they were encouraged by the British government to produced toys of a patriotic nature, so cannon on gun carriages and soldiers poised for battle joined the range of model soldiers.
The 1920s saw a dramatic change in Britain's product range. They introduced the US army and navy as well as South American soldiers and Canadian Mounties but sales plummeted due to the apparent rejection of military style war toys after the carnage of the First World War. This saw Britains introduce their farm, zoo and circus series. The farm figures, animals, accessories and horse drawn farm equipment were first introduced in 1921 and the models were marketed as the Model Home Farm which soon ousted the traditional timber hand-carved German farm sets from British nurseries. The figures included a farmer, the farmer's wife, son and daughter; a carter with a whip; milkmaids; land girls; aged villagers; stable boys; shepherds; a curate and clergyman; blacksmith; dairyman; navvies; and policemen. Animals included shire horses and colts; bulls, jersey and Highland cows and calves; Exmore Horn sheep and lambs; collies, greyhounds and St Bernard dogs; fowls and chicks; swans and cygnets; geese and goslings; Berkshire pigs and piglets; and rabbits and hares. The animals were finely detailed, realistically modelled and hand painted. The series represented a rustic romantic view of English farm life and despite the development of mechanised farm machinery all the agricultural machinery and transport was horse drawn. These included horse rakes and rollers, wagons, carts, gigs, timber carriages, tumbrel carts, milk floats and farm carts. The accessories included telegraph poles, trees, hedges and shrubs, dovecotes, stiles, fences, milk churns, gates, scarecrows, troughs, wheat sheaves, dog kennels and garden seats. Britain's sold their pieces individually and in boxed sets so that children could develop their farms with small purchases augmented with the more expensive pieces at Christmas and birthdays. Some collections grew to considerable size and because they were sturdy the figures often survived several generations of children. It was extremely popular not only with boys but the quaint farm carts, shepherds and farm workers interested girls, doubling the potential market for lead toys. One rare piece was the village idiot. Queen Mary visited the Britain's stand at the 1927 British Industries Fair and commented that the 'Britain's farm set had everything but the village idiot!". This dubious omission was quickly put into production but did little for sales.
Britain's toy farm sets were also popular in Australia and sold in Sydney at Walther & Stevenson Ltd in George Street. Purchasers of Britain's farm pieces were encouraged to buy Australian timber buildings as a landscape for the English farm animals, people and machinery. The buildings and structures ranged from colonial homesteads complete with outside toilets, to sheep dips and windmills. These were specially made for use with Britain's Model Home Farm series during the Second World War. Farm figures continued to made by Britains until 1961 although after War the range became known simply as Britains Farms. The farm models were advertised to add realism to Hornby 0-gauge model train layouts while a smaller series, introduced in 1954 called Britains Lilliput World, was manufactured to go with 00 and H0 gauge railways. The average size of a standing figure for this later series was 21 mm.
The Hunt series of lead horses and hounds was introduced in 1924, famous race horses and jockeys in 1925 and a police and road series in 1927. In the 1930s the firm also created English military sets with renewed vigour for a revived home market and in 1930 the zoo series was first issued with inspiration from London's Regent Park Zoo. Miniature garden pieces also first appeared in 1930 and were produced until 1941 while the Mammoth circus range was introduced in 1936.
The Second World War had a different effect on the public than the first. Feelings of patriotism inspired a renewed interest in military toys. Britains responded and created models of topical subjects including barrage balloons and air raid wardens. The War helped to rekindle interest in the company but some of the factory was pressed into making war material and it was bombed by the Germans. Post-war the production of lead toys was further restricted by the government's restriction on lead for the home market. In the 1950s plastic models were added to the range under the name of the Herald Farm but the firm never regained its pre-War stature and in 1966 stopped production of its lead models due to child health and safety concerns. It was not until the 1980s that the firm began making traditional style soldiers again in die-cast alloy and lead-free pewter some from old moulds, others brand new and in limited edition sets. These were marketed as Britains Petite Ltd and the firm was then based in Nottingham. In 1993 the firm celebrated its centenary as a toy soldier maker and launched the William Britains Collectors Club. In 1997 they were bought by the Ertl Co. of Dyersville, Iowa, a manufacturer best know for its toy tractors. In the mean time toy soldier production work moved from the United Kingdom to China. By 2000 Ertl was absorbed by Racing Champions Ltd, now know as the RC2 Corporation. This was a conglomerate based in Oak Brook, Illinios, which owned many toy and collectible brands. A range of toys was made by RC2 under the name of William Britain. More recently, in 2006, Britains changed hands again and this time has become part of First Gear, a company based in Peosta, Iowa, which produces highly-detailed trucks, and farming and construction models. The firm specialises in die-cast replicas from horse-drawn wagons to trucks for business promotions and fund-raisers.