At the start of the 20th century, penny toys were very popular. They were cheap but attractive, providing all but the poorest families their first chance to buy non-essential goods. Their availability and affordability reflected developments in the mass-production of toys from the late 19th century.
Penny toys were imported from Germany, France and Japan by wholesalers in the Houndsditch area of London. They were often sold by ‘gutter merchants’, particularly on Ludgate Hill and in the City. The trade was at its height at the start of the century, and disappeared during the First World War.
Until the 20th century, most toys were manufactured in Germany and imported into Britain. During the 20th century, a number of toy manufacturers were founded in London. British toy manufacture improved after the First World War, and many new toy firms were established around this time.
One of the most successful was Lines Brothers Limited, established in 1919 by brothers William, Walter and Arthur Lines. Since three ‘lines’ make a triangle, they decided to trade under the name of Tri-ang Toys from 1924. The company later bought Meccano Ltd, formed Tri-ang-Hornby Railways, and bought Hamleys toyshop.
Henry Eagles and Arthur Schneider founded the Crescent Toy Company in the 1920s. The firm was based in Islington, north London. By 1950, the company was producing a range of cast metal toys including soldiers, racing cars, historical figures, model aircraft, warships and farm equipment.
Another company, Lesney’s, was founded by two ex-servicemen when they began making industrial die-castings in an old pub in Tottenham. In 1949, they produced a few die-cast metal toys as a sideline to keep sections of the small factory operating. The ‘Matchbox’ toys soon became hugely popular and, by 1970, 5.5 million toy models were being made each week.
Dean’s Rag Book Company, based in Elephant and Castle, was founded in 1903 as a printer of children’s cloth books. From 1908 the firm also produced sheets of cloth printed with the pattern of a doll to be cut out, stuffed with straw and sewn by hand at home. By the 1920s, the firm was one of Britain’s top doll manufacturers producing rag dolls that wore the latest fashions. In 1980, the company moved its production to Wales.
Paul and Marjorie Abbatt were pioneers of innovative educational toys in the 1930s. From 1932, they began selling toys to friends and by mail order from their flat in Tavistock Square. High demand led to the opening of a child-friendly shop at 94 Wimpole Street in 1936.
The Abbatts were concerned with the play needs of children, especially those with physical disabilities. In 1951, they were instrumental in founding the Children’s Play Activities Trust Limited to promote excellence in toy design and manufacture.
William Hamley opened his toyshop, ‘Noah’s Ark’, in 1760 in High Holborn. Renamed Hamleys, it moved to Regent’s Street in 1906. In 1921, the store reopened on six floors and became the largest toyshop in the world. When Hamleys went into liquidation in 1931, Walter Lines, chairman of Tri-Ang, bought it.
During the Second World War, Hamleys was bombed five times. The staff continued to serve at the front door, going into the store to collect the toys and bringing them out to the customers. However, during the war, toy production decreased, as factories began to manufacture munitions instead. At this time, many homemade toys were produced, using what few materials were available.
Holborn was also the home of Gamage’s, a department store with a large toy department and good selection of model railways. Gamage’s closed in 1972.