Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Early Toy Soldier Newsreels

Continuing my romp through the YouTube archives, here are a few more finds that I think are worth more than just one look.  It always surprises me that however much you trawl through YouTube every now and again something new surfaces, which has probably been buried away there for years.

Model Soldier Club 1939
Now this is a bit of archive footage I haven't seen before, it's an early meeting of the British Model Soldier Society.  Among the luminaries I spotted Otto Gottstein (in the opening shot, sitting at the far end of the table smoking a cigarette, next to a chap with a pipe) he was President of the Society at the time and a great patron of the hobby.  Also I think I see a young Deryck Guyler (at about 22 seconds in) who was a keen member of the BMSS before going on to be one of the founding members of the Society of Ancients.  The clip includes a rather nice selection of model knights produced by Richard Courtenay.

Model Soldiers 1953
I have Detlef Heerbrand to thank for finding this clip and posting it on facebook (which I finally got around to joining this month - a sure sign that it's days are numbered).  It features Bill Carman who was Vice Chaiman of the BMSS at the time and was one of the first to manufacture model soldiers for the collector.  His figures are a bit basic by modern standards but I've always been a big fan of them so I was particularly pleased when this surfaced.

Toy Soldiers 1949
Archive footage shot inside the Britains factory showing the hand casting of hollowcast figures, through to cleaning the castings, painting and packing them.

Toy Soldiers 1965
This piece of footage has been doing the rounds for a while but given that it's dated 1965 it's interesting that the commentary points out the hollow cast figures shown are made strictly for adults as collectors items. Britains ceased hollow casting in 1966, the story that this was because of lead paint and child safety fears is an urban myth, the truth is they just weren't selling enough.  The second half of the film shows an injection moulding machine being loaded up with plastic pellets and states that production of plastics was in full swing for the juvenile toy market.

Model Soldier sale 1968
This newsreel covered the very first specialist auction of Toy Soldiers (in fact the first specialist auction of any toys), held by Knight, Frank and Rutley who were founded in 1896 as Valuers, Surveyors and Auctioneers, they are a well known Estate Agents (Realtors).  I didn't recognise any of the faces amongst the crowd here but the toy soldiers needed no introduction.


  1. Hello BRIAN- Very interesting clips on the Production of Toy Soldiers- a big employer for sure. Cheers. KEV.

    1. Hi Kev, yes it's easy to forget there was a time when we actually used to make stuff!

  2. Thanks Brian for these clips! The injection molding was very interesting. Carving and filing lead was very scary! And all of the figures were wonderful to see!

    1. They're only short clips but I feel I find something new every time I watch them.

  3. Fascinating!i really enjoyed those. You are quite right--you can always find something new and interesting on YouTube.

    1. Yes, it's very democratic, we all have the ability to contribute something and anyone can do so.

  4. Happy Birthday Brian. Interesting your comment about the modern urban myth of the decline of lead soldier production and safety fears. I would be interested to read more of your thoughts and sources on this plastics versus hollowcast cost of production theory.
    Certainly by the late 1960s, (because of this safety fear? ) no lead soldiers survived into our family toybox, just a very random collection of 50s to 70s plastics (and Britain's Deetail from the 1970s onwards). My Dad with a young family in the early to late 1960s must have purged whatever lead ones had survived from his 1940s / 50s youth.

    1. Thanks Mark, the years just seem to fly by these days!

      The comment I made about the demise of hollowcast figures wasn't so much my thoughts but rather passing on what I'd been told by the people who were actually making them back in the 1950's and 60's. These people being: Roy Selwyn Smith and Charlie Biggs, who both started out designing hollowcast figures for Timpo While at Willmores, then went on to produce plastics for Herald under Zang before ending up as Managing Director and Design Director respectively at Britains. Salomon (Sally) Gawrylovitz (known as Ally Gee) and Norman Tooth who were the owner and Designer respectively at Timpo through the hollowcast and plastic years.

      As part of the Plastic Warrior editorial team we set out to interview as many of the people involved at all levels in the production of toy soldiers during the 1950's to 1970's while they were still with us, there were many more but the four mentioned above had the most involvement with the transition from lead to plastic. We only met Ally Gee once but the others we met on quite a regular basis, typically we would spend the best part of a day with them individually and at some point conduct a one hour formal interview with prepared questions which I would tape. The tape was then copied for safety and transcribed verbatim for publishing in the magazine, but of course we gleaned much information outside of the interview when we were all just having a relaxed chat, we made lots of rough notes at the time and I try to get as much of that knowledge out to collectors while I can recall it before it's gone forever!

      Post war the three biggest hollowcast manufacturers (by sales) were Britains, Timpo and Cherilea, the latter two made the transition to plastic relatively easily by utilising their old hollowcasting moulds but Britains never managed the leap, a few moulds from the farm series were run in plastic but most of their figures were too wooden and there were problems with the moveable arms, Charlie Biggs told us they tried to produce some new designs for plastics but they just didn't have the skills.

      Selwyn Smith and Biggs both had an arts background, and together had made the moulds for Timpo's hollowcast ranges while working for Wilmores. Ally Gee was a salesman through and through with his finger very much on the pulse of the market, while Tooth had concentrated on developing the engineering capability at Timpo. When Selwyn Smith and Biggs left Wilmores to work for Zang, and set up Herald, they began to make the first UK toy soldier moulds specifically for producing in plastic. With all this going on Britains were being left behind so their answer was to buy Herald from Zang, but the management at Britains were still wedded to the concept of the steadfast lead soldier so they ran the two companies completely separately - as this newsreal points out, plastics being mass produced for the juvenile toy market and a steadily reducing line of lead for the adult collectors market.

      So that in a nutshell is what happened but why the switch from lead to plastic in the first place, well plastic was cheaper but all four of our subjects (bearing in mind that they were now direct competitors at Britains and Timpo) stated that in the early years they experienced great difficulty obtaining supplies of the raw materials often using recycled plastics and bulking them out with fillers (hence they are often so brittle now). What they also told us was that the big draw back in consumers eyes was that lead figures were too easy to break if you dropped them and the big selling point of plastics was that they were unbreakable. Of course we know differently now but all four told us their sales reps would visit shops and make a point of bouncing figures off the floor to show how much more resilient they were than lead, and that they say is why plastics won out.

      They may say that, but speaking as a consumer around that time my preference was definitely for the mostest I could buy with my pocket money.

    2. Brian That is fascinating - have you read the V and A BethnaL Green Museum of Childhood interviews with toy firms - I came across them looking up my Tiger Toys forts.

      I would happily read more blog entries on this if you want to write more about it - I have read Suspended Animation by Peter Cole.

      Some interesting comments on wartime disruption to WW2 toy soldier and postwar recovery work:

    3. Thanks for the links Mark, I haven't read the V&A interviews, but I will now! There's actually an awful lot more information out there than we think and it comes out of the woodwork all the time, often from the most unexpected places. I'm always happy to share whatever I know on this blog or elsewhere but the words don't flow easily for me and it helps to have a prompt, like this newsreel and your subsequent question. Trying to understand how the toy soldier industry developed during the 1950's onwards is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, you can have all the pieces before you and group them into some semblance of order then out of nowhere a couple of pieces fit together and it all starts to make more sense.

      There is of course also a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding, memories blurred by the passing of time, big egos at play and partisan reporting. That's how we end up with just about everyone in the industry claiming to have invented the swoppet idea and modern researchers endlessly arguing the case for one party over the other.

  5. I think you will enjoy the V and A interviews. I did not warm to the Lines Bros. Man from one or two of his comments (redacted) and as you say, not everything someone remembers is Gospel truth. Obviously you are chasing ghosts with time in this one as the pioneers pass. Useful Chinese proverb - A little weak writing is better than a strong memory.
    It is also needs a global overview, the British toy industry would not have been the only pioneers and developers of plastic toy technology.