Hampshire was the birthplace of some famous 20th century toys. Scalextric was first made at the Minimodels factory in Havant in 1956. Minibrix, an interlocking construction toy and an important precursor to Lego was made in Petersfield between 1935-1976. Boscombe, which used to be part of Hampshire before 1974, was home to the Hayter factory which produced the well-loved Victory jigsaw puzzles, which were immensely popular both before and after the 2nd World War.
Evidence of Hampshire toy-making before 1900 is harder to find. A number of toys, models and games were made by Napoleonic prisoners of war, who were kept in forts and prison ships around the county during the early 1800s. They would spend their time making the toys (and other items) out of anything they could find, including old mutton bones, straw and wood. These were then sold locally and the prisoners received food and other necessities in return for their work.
Although not strictly playthings, pedlar dolls, with their trays and baskets of wares, were very popular during the 19th century. Children could look but not touch! C H White of Milton, Portsmouth was one of the few commercial producers of these dolls. The two examples in our collections date from around the 1820s.
Pedlars and hawkers were the main sellers of toys before the early 1800s. They often made the simple toys themselves and would travel around the towns and villages on foot. Local fairs provided them with much of their business. There is an account of Alton Fair, 1704 in the Hampshire Records Office which mentions a toy man and woman (as well as women selling gingerbread and sugar plums). The Museums Service has a pair of dolls, with feet made out of sealing wax, which were bought at Lymington fair in 1829.
Shops had become more of a feature of everyday life by the Victorian period. Toys were often sold alongside other items in general shops such as grocers or stationers. A typical ‘everything shop’ (as Coleridge referred to them) was that belonging to John Cootes of Gosport, who traded as a ‘Boot, Shoe, Toy and Fancy Goods Dealer’ at the turn of the century.
The toy industry expanded rapidly during the early 20th century as a result of new manufacturing processes and an increased demand from the burgeoning middle classes. Toy shops sprang up in most towns in the county and the newly emerging department stores in Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth also played their part in satisfying the demands of Hampshire’s children. In the 21st century, the local toy shop on the high street is facing increasing competition from large out of town stores and the advent of online shopping.
The Forest Toys, Brockenhurst
Frank Whittington (1876-1973) was an artist and wood-carver who set up a toy making business in the New Forest at the end of the First World War. The Forest Toys factory became renowned for its beautifully observed painted wooden toys. Whittington was particularly inspired by the animals, people and vehicles surrounding him in the New Forest. He also regularly visited London Zoo and the Natural History Museum so as to produce accurate scale models of exotic animals for his Noah’s Arks and Zoo sets.
Originally from Reigate, Whittington worked at a munitions factory in Redbridge, Southampton during the First World War. He moved to Brockenhurst and began by making toys on a small scale in his home. In 1922, unable to keep up with demand, he set up a small factory which eventually employed up to 16 people.
The toys were made in sections from deal wood (pine or fir) and then glued together. A horse for instance had one part for the head, body and tail and then each leg was added. Linoleum patterns were made for each piece and these were then cut out of large, thick boards by a jig-saw. They were then planed and finished by hand. The final process was the painting, which was carried out by female workers.
The Forest Toys came to prominence at the British Industries Fairs held between the wars. At one fair, the young Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) is said to have taken a particular fancy to Whittington’s Noah’s Ark, complete with all its animals. Queen Mary too was very impressed and, according to ex-employee Basil O’Donnell, ordered two dozen arks on the spot.
After this, the orders increased dramatically, with toys being sold to Harrods, Selfridges and other large department stores. Many customers turned up at the factory to buy toys, including passengers from the ocean liners who would take a coach from Southampton. O’Donnell recalled that there was no admission fee and that it was sometimes so crowded that it was difficult to get any work done.
Whittington often accepted commissions for pieces, including a near life-size figure of a horse for the film actress Elizabeth Bergner and numerous carvings of people’s dogs. He also made nativity sets for several churches in the area, including St. Saviour’s in Brockenhurst. In the late 1930s he carved a trio of musicians from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performing in a subscription concert at the Balmer Lawn Hotel, Brockenhurst. The piece is now in the collection of the Russell Cotes Museum, Bournemouth.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the closure of Whittington’s factory. He was unable to import the necessary wood from America and many of his employees joined up or became involved in the war effort. Frank Whittington died in 1973 aged 97.
Minibrix was a construction toy made in Petersfield, Hampshire from 1935 to 1976. The interlocking bricks look similar to Lego, but were first made 14 years before Lego’s plastic version appeared. Although other toy bricks (such as those made by Kiddicraft in the late 1930s) have been credited with inspiring the makers of Lego, it is possible that Minibrix too played a role in the creation of one of the 20th century’s most popular toys.
Minibrix was made by the Premo Rubber Company, which was part of the ITS Rubber Company, founded by Arnold Levy in 1919. It was known for its range of rubber goods, including shoe heels and brushes. It is uncertain why Levy chose to branch out into toy production. However, he made many trips to the USA and may have been inspired by the rubber Bild-O-Brik construction sets he saw there in the early 1930s.
Eight different sets were available initially, numbered 0 to 7 (0 was replaced by the ‘Junior’ set in 1936). Tudor Minibrix appeared in 1937 and included a range of different building elements, including individual tiles. There was a Minibuilders Club open to anyone who bought a set. Membership was free, but payment was needed to get the badge. Club members received a regular Minibuilders Bulletin and could send in new designs for publication.
Production of Minibrix was put on hold between 1942 and 1947 as the factory went over to making rubber tank treads and other items for the war effort. After the war, the price of rubber had increased sharply and the cost of Minibrix had risen to three times the 1939 prices. Sales however increased and in 1948 there were even plans to make special sets specifically for architects (these were later abandoned).
By the early 1950s the factory in Sandringham Road, Petersfield was employing about 250 workers and was the largest employer in the town. Premo’s profile was further enhanced by the production of a special set to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It came in the form of a cabinet containing 5000 Minibrix pieces and cost £82 plus purchase tax - a huge sum for the times.
Despite making economies in production, sales of Minibrix had begun to decline by the late 1950s. Premo tried to diversify by producing and marketing other toys, including a doll, ‘Miss Minibrix’ and tubular framed go-karts. A fire in the factory in 1961 put an end to these developments. Attempts were made to modernise the Minibrix product. Plastic accessories, such as trees and flowers, were introduced alongside the rubber bricks and the bricks themselves were made in brighter colour ranges. Unfortunately the changes came too late and the range of sets was gradually reduced to three.
The eventual failure of Minibrix, compared with the meteoric success of products such as Lego can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly Premo, along with many British toy companies of the period, suffered from complacency and a reluctance to develop and modernise its product. The surge in sales after the Second World War lulled it into a false sense of security. It failed to modernise its production techniques, as well as being complacent about the product itself. It was unable to compete with the influx of toys from the Far East and the USA.
Another reason for Minibrix’s demise was that it was made out of rubber. Rubber could not compete with its harder, shinier and more versatile competitor, plastic. It was heavier, smellier and had a less vibrant range of colours, It also tended to harden and shrink after a period of time. Although initially advertised as being hygienic, most children tended to lick the bricks to get them to stick together!
Premo finally stopped making Minibrix in 1976. The factory continued making other items until 1987. There is now a housing estate on the former site of the factory.
Scalextric was first made in Havant, Hampshire in 1956. Its inventor was Fred (B F) Francis.
Minimodels Ltd was founded by Francis in 1947. The company was based in London and made tinplate toys and models. Early products included the Startex toy car range and the very popular Scalex, which was introduced in 1952. Scalex was a range of toy racing cars with a clockwork motor which was activated by pulling out the steering wheel.
In 1952 Minimodels moved to a larger factory in New Lane, Havant to meet the growing demand for the toy cars. At the peak of its popularity, over 7000 Scalex models were being produced weekly. By 1956 the novelty of clockwork racing cars had worn off and sales began to fall. Eventually the future of the company and its 100 employees was threatened.
In an attempt to revive his company’s flagging fortunes, Fred Francis began to look at alternatives. He was inspired by seeing model car racing tracks, but wanted to develop the player’s control of the car so as to increase the sense of competition. He experimented by putting small electric motors into Scalex cars and running them on model railway track. Next he introduced rubber slotted track and gave the cars a ‘gimbal’ wheel to pick up the electric current in the groove of the track. Power was supplied by batteries hidden in a little cardboard hut, with players having their own on-off button to control their cars.
Scalex-electric had become Scalextric!
Scalextric was unveiled at the Harrogate Toy Fair in 1957 to immediate acclaim. It appealed to both adults and children, combining speed, competition and the glamour of Formula One motor racing. Demand for the toy was immense and the Minimodels factory struggled to keep up with the orders.
In 1958 Fred Francis sold the Minimodels company to Lines Brothers (who operated as Triang). The popularity of Scalextric continued. In 1960 plastic bodies replaced the original tinplate and in 1961 production moved to a new factory in the Leigh Park area of Havant. By 1964 Scalextric was being advertised as ‘the most complete model motor racing system in the world’.
Production of Scalextric was transferred to Rovex in 1968 (although the Minimodels factory remained open until the early 1970s). It is now owned by Hornby Hobbies.
Victory jig-saw puzzles
Victory jig-saw puzzles were a familiar sight in British homes from the 1920s to the 1980s. They were cut by hand from plywood and covered a wide range of subjects, including maps, famous landmarks, planes, ships and well-known paintings. Some, such as the best selling jigsaw of the coronation in 1953, had a patriotic theme; in fact the trademark ‘Victory’ had been chosen just after the celebrations marking the end of the First World War. Even the royal family had a passion for doing jigsaws and Victory puzzles were known to be a favourite at Sandringham, particularly with the late Queen Mother.
The inspiration behind Victory puzzles was Gerald Hayter. He began his working life as a bank clerk in Christchurch, but supplemented his income by making jigsaws out of old calendar pictures and scraps of plywood. His hobby grew into a business and, after a brief period working from premises in Bournemouth, he gave up his bank job and took on a factory building in Boscombe* in 1932.
By the 1950s, up to 120 workers worked at the Boscombe factory. The process of cutting the puzzles using jigsaws was very time-consuming. Some were extremely intricate and contained 1,000 pieces or more. One customer from Northern Ireland had a 10,000 piece puzzle made to order! To speed up the process a technique of ‘stack cutting’ was developed. This involved laying up to 8 jigsaws on top of each other, fastening them together and cutting them simultaneously.
As well as making complex jigsaws for adults, Hayter also produced simple jigsaws for young children and puzzles with an educational theme. By the late 1950s, the company had also branched out into making other products, such as table tennis bats and board games. The company continued to thrive throughout the 1960s. In 1970 the company was taken over by the famous games company J W Spear & Sons.
The 1980s saw Victory starting to lose its hold on the market. The wooden puzzles could not compete with the cheap punched card jigsaws being made overseas. Also the passion for making jigsaws had dwindled due to the lure of television and other innovative puzzles and games.
The Victory factory at Boscombe closed in 1988.
*Boscombe, Bournemouth & Christchurch were part of Hampshire until the county boundaries were changed in 1974