Traditional British manufacturing company of figures and vehicles.More
Traditional British manufacturing company of figures and vehicles.
From the beginning, William Britain & Sons (the firm's original designation) determined that their principal focus would be on toy troops representing the various regiments of the British Army and colonial troops from all parts of the empire. There would be no attempt to duplicate the extensive listings of Heyde or Mignot, whose miniature soldiers marched across the pages of history from antiquity to modern times.
Britains lead-soldier production would remain firmly rooted in the British Army of that day, with occasional forays into history and the sporadic issuance of sets representing foreign armies then involved in a war. Just how faithful Britains remained to its nationalistic emphasis is indicated in the composition of the first sets issued by the company between 1893 and 1901. Of the 125 numbered sets put on the market during that period, 104 were of British regiments, 15 represented colonial troops (primarily regiments of the Indian Army), and only six were of foreign military units.
The expansion of Britains Ltd., the name adopted in 1907, when the British "Company Act" was introduced, continued steadily throughout the first decade of the 20th century. A French subsidiary was opened in 1905, which, in addition to the general range of toy soldiers, also produced some sets intended exclusively for the French market. Figures produced by the French branch of Britains bear the further designation "Depose" under the base. By this time, Britains had all but swept its German competitors from the domestic field.
To further promote its lead soldiers, the company put out, in 1908, a delightful booklet entitled The Great War Game for Young and Old, which used photographs of actual troops as well as Britains lead soldiers to illustrate how war games ought to be conducted. Britains steadily added to its premier line of 54 millimeter figures, and the total number of different sets rose from 126 in 1901 to more than 200 numbered sets at the outbreak of World War I. At that time, the company drastically curtailed its production of toy soldiers and began to manufacture munitions in order to aid the war effort. By then, Britains was already exporting hundreds of thousands of boxed sets of lead soldiers to Europe and the United States.
Following the armistice of 1918, Britains swung back into full scale production. Initially, the firm added to the ranks of its military line, but it soon became obvious that the public's enthusiasm for toy warriors had been considerably diminished by the horrors of real war. The natural consequence of this unparalleled blood-letting was an upsurge of antiwar sentiment and a temporary move toward arms control. Mindful of the public mood, Britains joined the pacifist parade, literally beating its swords into plowshares.
In the early 1920s, the company brought out its "Model Home Farm" series. Success with the farm figures led to other non-military lines. A zoological series offering a variety of animals "majestic, ferocious, or docile as the case may be" was begun in the early 1930s. To capture what it termed "that indefinable attraction of the wild," Britains issued nearly 100 different models of wild animals, from bears and bison to tortoises and tapirs. Many of the figures were designed by L. D. (Dennis) Britain, who had succeeded his father, William Britain, Jr., as a director of the firm and one of its principal modelers.
The Paris branch was closed down in 1923, due to operational difficulties, Britains discovered fertile ground in the New World. A serious effort to exploit the American market began in the early 1920s with the issuance of United States and Latin American military models. By the end of the 1930s, with 500 workers now on the payroll, three factories going full blast, and more than 20,000,000 items being produced yearly, it could fairly be said that Britains was the world's leading manufacturer of toy soldiers, having far outstripped even the most prolific of its Continental rivals.
Unfortunately, the zenith of the "Britains Empire" coincided with the rise of one being fashioned through terror and tyranny by Nazi Germany. Once again Europe was girding for war. Britains quickly resumed toy production at war's end, bringing out a catalogue in the closing weeks of 1945. That first postwar catalogue, and those that followed during the next eight years, offered an extremely limited selection of some of the more popular pre-war sets.
As part of its effort to rebuild a war-ravaged economy, the British government, badly in need of foreign trade revenues, mandated that non-essential domestically manufactured goods be shipped abroad. The export only policy meant that Britains models would not again be available in British shops until the early 1950s. Although Britains had made great strides in rebuilding its toy soldier lines by the early 1950s increasing the number of sets in its catalogue from a meager 103 in 1947 to nearly 400 in 1954 the postwar years presented a new set of production and cost problems.
With demand for the firm's toys far outstripping its ability to supply them, new production methods had to be found. The postwar years also saw a burdensome increase in the cost of raw materials. Britains made every effort to trim costs in order to keep price increases down to a minimum. Despite these cost saving measures, time was running out for metal toy soldiers. They simply could not effectively compete with cheaper plastics. With this in mind, Britains began to shift gears in the mid 1950s, purchasing a part interest in Herald Miniatures, the leading British manufacturer of plastic toy figures.
Ironically, the move into plastics came at a time when the firm had restored its metal lines almost to their pre-war peak. In fact, the second half of the 1950s saw the issuance of many interesting new metal sets. Probably the most productive year was 1956, dubbed the "Collector's Year" by Britains. During that year the firm brought out a series of military bands. Britain and his son, William, Jr., applied their creative talents and mechanical skills to the task of producing good but low-cost lead soldiers. In the early 1890s, after a series of experiments, William Britain, Jr generally acknowledged as the firm's inventive genius successfully developed the first hollow-cast lead troops, and in so doing revolutionized the toy soldier industry.
Unlike the solid figures of Heyde and Mignot, Britain's figures consisted only of a metal skin. Because the hollow-cast figures required much less metal than did the solids, they were cheaper to produce, less expensive to ship, and thus could be priced lower than German and French imports. The process of creating the hollow-cast figures was an intricate one. Master models would first be carved out of wax, the sculptor in the early years being William, Jr., who served as the master modeler of the firm.
The next stage was the creation of a two-piece metal mold that, when clamped together, formed a box with a spout where the metal, a lead alloy, could be poured in. Casting was always done by hand up to the final years of Britain soldier production in the 1960s and required dexterity and a keen sense of timing on the part of the craftsman. Britains had their first sets out on the market in 1893.
With a polite and predictable bow to Buckingham Palace, the company chose for its premier offering the two regiments of Household Cavalry: The Life Guards (Set No. 1) and the Royal Horse Guards (Set No. 2). These were shortly joined by another cavalry unit, the 5th Dragoon Guards. All three sets used the same basic figures painted different colors. Compared to later efforts, the first figures were crude.
The ponylike horse (later replaced by a sturdier cavalry mount) was a bit on the scrawny side, and the troopers had fixed arms with a strip of tin attached to simulate a sword. Later versions had movable arms with cast-lead swords.
During the first year of production, Britains also put out its first infantry set, the 7th Royal Fusiliers marching "at the slope" (the British equivalent of shoulder arms). The soldiers were outfitted in their distinctive black busbies, scarlet tunics, and blue trousers tucked into half boots. The rifle and hand holding it were cast separately and plugged in at the left cuff. The officer for this set was mounted and all the figures considerably larger than the normal size.Other sets quickly followed this modest beginning. They included the famed Black Watch (the first in a line of popular kilted Highland regiments) running at the trail with rifles plugged in at the cuff (hence the "plug-handed Highlander"), several regiments of hussars, and the first line-infantry unit, the East Kent Regiment. This last regiment, nicknamed "The Buffs," set the pattern for other sets of line infantry; it contained 10 figures, including 7 soldiers at the ready, a boy drummer and bugler, and an officer. Britains figures were generally made in what was termed "standard size" 54 millimeters or 2‘£ inches with mounted cavalry proportionately larger. This enabled a youngster to build a collection that was uniform in appearance. Furthermore, because Britains lead soldiers came in only a few basic positions such as marching and running with rifles at the slope or the trail, standing and kneeling with bayonets fixed as if defending against cavalry, and charging a young collector could build up formations of marching troops or the well known British square of troops standing or kneeling at the ready, or firing from standing, kneeling, and lying positions a defensive formation that had stopped Napoleon's heavy cavalry at Waterloo and the fanatical Dervishes in the Sudan.
Early sets were nicely packaged in long red boxes with a simple label on the lid containing the name of the regiment and the company trademark, originally given as "W. Britain." (More elaborate labels, featuring drawings of troops, regimental badges, and battleflags, were introduced later.) A standard box initially contained 10 infantry (reduced to 8 when movable arms were added) or 5 cavalry figures, although early in its history the company produced special display sets containing larger numbers of toy troops. The largest of these, Set Number 131, provided an array of 16 different British units and contained a total of 275 figures.
The year 1895 saw Britains expand its line with a host of ambitious new sets that were to remain staple items in the catalogue throughout the years of lead soldier produc‘ëtion. Among them were the first military musicians: the Band of the Line (Set No. 27), the Drums and Bugles of the Line (Set No. 30), and the Full Band of the Coldstream Guards (Set No. 37). The Band of the Line featured 12 figures with slotted arms (arms with pegs that could be inserted and then soldered into slots in the shoulders of the bandsmen); and the instruments included snare and bass drums, cornets, trombones, cymbals, fife, and a tubalike instrument called a bombardon. The Drums and Bugles of the Line, with fixed-arm buglers and drum major, originally sold at Gamage's for IO2 pence (about 25 cents) and was quite popular. (In 1911 all of the band sets were altered to the movable-arm variety.) During the 1914-18 war, Britains continued a limited output of soldiers and cannons, besides munitions; and the period between the wars was one of great prosperity.
One long-lasting success was the Howitzer gun (Patent No. 641319) which fired matchsticks with deadly accuracy. At the end of the First World War, anti-war feelings encouraged the introduction of 'peace toys', such as farm-yard sets, zoos and menageries, circus sets, football teams, US cowboys and Indians, pots and pans for dolls' houses, and even garden gnomes and hunting series.
William Britain junior, who was born on 14 December 1860, died on 24 November 1933. He had been one of the first men to invent a man-carrying aeroplane and he designed beautiful model planes. He was succeeded by his son, Denis, who had entered the firm at the age of 19 and who in World War II served as an RAF navigator and was awarded the DFC. He also received the OBE for his services to industry. In 1953, the Coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II, a beautifully designed Coronation Coach with outriders was produced - one of the last major sets. In 1967, Denis retired as Managing Director but remained as Chairman. Gradually production was given over to plastic models, but in 1971 scale-model motor cycles were introduced and also American Civil War characters with metal bases, anticipating the American Independence Bicentenary.
After the First World War Britain launched non-military lines the Model Home Farm. Early models were a predictable mix of common farm animals; horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and the like, farmers and their wives, and an assortment of country village and farm folk. Immediately successful, the farm range was steadily expanded over the next decade, so that by the mid-1980s there were more than 200 separate entries in the section of the catalogue devoted to this series.
Success with the farm figures led to other nonmilitary lines. A zoological series offering a variety of animals "majestic, ferocious, or docile as the case may be" was begun in the early 1930s. To capture what it termed "that indefinable attraction of the wild," Britains issued nearly 100 different models of wild animals, from bears and bison to tortoises and tapirs. Many of the figures were designed by L. D. (Dennis) Britain. One of the most delightful of the civilian lines was Britain's "Mammoth Circus." Some of the firm's most unusual and best-designed models were here to be found. Though not as richly varied as Mignot's circus range, there was a good mix of big-top performers and trained animals: clowns in baggy pants or twirling a hoop while perched atop a prancing horse; men on stilts; a ringmaster with whip handling show horses balanced on their rear legs; and a delicate figure of an equestrienne in ballet pose who could stand gracefully on the back of a horse or an elephant. All figures were available individually or in several boxed combinations. Other non-military sets include English footballers in boxed sets representing the major British teams. (If your favorite team was not already in stock, Britains would paint standard figures to order in appropriate colors.) A popular "Motor and Road"' series featured attractive models of an open touring car There were jockeys on race horses with unusual for Britains detachable riders painted in the col‘ëors of famous owners such as Lord Astor and the Aga Khan, and a popular series of railway-station figures to accompany 1-gauge toy trains. In short, with a proper selection of Britains models, a youngster could create his own world in miniature. The extent to which Britains had moved into civilian lines is easily gauged by a comparison of the pre-World War I situation with that of the interwar years. Before 1914, fewer than ten civilian sets (excluding pistol-packing "North American Cowboys") were available among them Salvation Army bandsmen and personnel, Boy Scouts, and railway figures while in the 1930s there were several hundred. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Britains' catalogues from 1936 to 1939 were devoted to nonmilitary items. Regardless of period or type, packaging played an important role in promoting the sale of Britains figures, Attractive illustrated labels adorned the lids of the straw-board boxes covered in a distinctive red paper that were a trademark of the firm. Over the years, several artists were employed in designing these, but the principal and most prolific of them was Fred Whisstock. Beginning in the years just before World War I and continuing until the early 1930s, Whisstock created individualized labels for each of the hundreds of British, colonial, and foreign units produced by Britains. Typical is the box lid for Set Number 120, the Coldstream Guards, showing the figures firing from the kneeling position; on the left is the regimental badge, the Star of the Order of the Garter, under which is the familiar signature of the illustrator; on the right a drawing of a Guardsman, shown as he would be found in the box kneeling and firing; in the center, in bold letters, the words "British Soldiers, The Coldstream Guards," below which, on either side of the "W. Britain" trademark, are listed the regimental battle honors. In their own day, Whisstock boxes undoubtedly did much to entice youngsters browsing the counters of toyshops; today they are avidly sought by adult collectors. Britains made every effort to trim costs in order to keep price increases down to a minimum. With a few exceptions, the old illustrated labels were eliminated in favor of a standard box bearing the words "Britains Soldiers "Regiments of All Nations," with illustrations of a Life Guard and Royal Scots Grey trooper at opposite ends of the lids of the cavalry boxes, and a Coldstream Guard and a Black Watch Highlander similarly positioned on the infantry box lids. A final change in the packaging of standard-size sets occurred in 1961, when the sturdy old strawboard boxes gave way to "window boxes" made of a cheaper cardboard. Although a cellophane panel in the top of the boxes permitted easy viewing of the figures inside, they lacked the charm and character of earlier types. (One English toy soldier dealer routinely refers to them in his lists as "cellophane-fronted monstrosities."). In 1987, Britains Ltd became part of the Dobson Industries Group and the name of the firm was changed to Britains Petite, stressing its links with Byron International Ltd, the makers of Petite Typewriters. By design or oversight, Britains had limited their range of United States soldiers to just two sets before the Great War. This was remedied in 1924 with a small deluge of United States cavalry, Marines, and natty West Point cadets in dress uniforms. Subsequent years saw a myriad of display set variations employing these basic models. New figures also appeared on a regular basis: sailors, both in blue and white uniforms, machine gunners, and infantry in battle dress with gas masks. There was also a khaki clad military band, available in either a 12- or a 21-piece set, based on a similarly attired British Army band and distinguished from the latter by subtle variations in painting (black shoes for the British, brown for the Americans). An interesting group of "U. S. Aviation" sets came out in' 1929, worth mentioning because new figures were created for them. In all, there were five sets: two of officers (one group in short coats, the other in overcoats), one set of marching privates, and two of aviators in flying kit. Of special interest are the aviators. One wore a jacket with fur collar, baggy pants, and puttees. The other, standing with left hand on hip, was dressed in a more up-to-date Sidcot flying suit, a one-piece neck-to-ankle garment with pockets on the front of the trouser legs. Both pilots wore aviator caps with goggles raised over the forehead. Not long after, Britains added its first aircraft, a monoplane, which could be had with either R.A.F. or U. S. Army Air Corps markings. (The monoplane came m a special box that could be refolded to form a hangar for the plane.) By the mid-1930s, Britains had fleshed out its United States military line to more than 50 sets, including two massive display boxes (Set Nos. 323 and 324) containing 73 and 81 pieces respectively. To these one might add two dozen sets of North American cowboys and Indians, and several sets of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, making the United States second only to Great Britain in the number of listings in the English toy firm's catalogue.Less
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