Britain's tin red line

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 26 May 1951.</strong>

This visit to a facto

From the cold ashes of the grate, you may recall, the housemaid retrieved next morning a little piece of metal coagulated into the shape of a heart: it was all that remained of the Constant Tin Soldier, whom petulant Fate and the mischief of a small boy had consigned to the fire. But then, so far as I know, Hans Andersen was not a metallurgist; and if this toy soldier was, as seems likely, a product from Nuremberg, he was made, not of tin, but of solid lead. It was not until 1890 that an English firm, which had started the manufacture of mechanical toys when the builders were busy with the Crystal palace in Hyde Park, developed a method of substituting hollow castings for the solid type used by the German makers of moulded metal toys. London then replaced Nuremberg as the centre of the industry; and today, after two world wars and “incidents” too numerous to chronicle, Britains Ltd. are busy, in the far reaches of Walthamstow, replenishing and augmenting a catalogue which the last war inevitably depleted.

The output of the firm is by no means exclusively "militaristic": for children whose parents are sternly pacifist there us the Farm Series, the Zoo Series, the Hunting Series, the Cowboys and Indians, and the glamorous Circus Display, with 23 pieces; but, since truth is our object, it must be recorded that these concessions to civilised sentiment appear to have done nothing to diminish the insistent demand for fighting men. It is the toy soldier which makes “Britains,” if not Britain, famous. Yet, lest I mislead Pravda into concluding that every British child is born a little chauvinist, let me add that there is one psychological factor in the Western democracies' toy soldier market which is perhaps encouraging. Immediately after World War II, as after its predecessor, troops dressed in purely functional khaki, equipped with gas-masks and hand-grenades, out to kill in the most efficient modern style, sold well; but the taste for utilitarian death-dealing is seemingly evanescent, and – Cold War notwithstanding – the demand is now once again for the colour of Victorian uniform, the cavalry-man rather than the tank.

So there they stand, neatly boxed in Britains' showroom, point-device and oddly endearing in their futility, all carefully scaled to the 5.4 cms. standing infantryman who still fires from the shoulders as he did at Waterloo and, I suppose, against the Mahdi. There are unfilled gaps in a numerical series which runs from No. 1 ("the Lifeguards, mounted at the walk, with officer on prancing hose"), past the spirited King's Troop, R.H.A., through foreign armies impartially to U.S. "Snowdrops" (2021) and (2027) red Army Guards; and the best toy soldiers – regarded, to a greater extent apparently than farmers and fauna, as earners of hard currency – are largely reserved for export. Even so, here is a child's dream of heaven – to say nothing of the adult collectors who run, I believe, an unofficial "exchange and mart" for sets whose production has not yet been resumed since the war.

The sad thing is that this mimic rearmament is a victim of the inflation of costs which besets the real thing. The type-metal (antimonial lead), of which the mouldings are made, now costs £200 a ton, a compared with £40 in 1938, and under £10 before those German infantrymen of Kaiser Wilhelm ("Service dress, Steel Helmets, marching at the slope with officer, 8 pieces") disturbed the toy industry and much else in 1914. Paint, too, now costs about four times what it did before the late war; and then there is purchase tax at 33⅓ per cent. So, with much higher labour costs to be taken into account, there is no real case for grumbling from the nursery if the box of eight foot-soldiers, which an unmonied uncle could provide for a florin ten years ago, now costs over eight shillings in the shops. Let me assure uncles – and nephews – that the craftsmen at Walthamstow are doing their best for them; but, if grown-ups will have real guns, non-ferrous metals and paint acquire a tiresome thing called "scarcity value" which plays the very devil with pocket-money and even avuncular Defence expenditure.

And though I should not suppose that Britains Ltd. are in the business purely for the love of the thing, the manufacture of toy soldiers strikes the visitor as being less an industry than a craft in which collective pride is taken. It begins at a long bench, on both sides of which sit the moulders, each with his small crucible of molten metal in front of him. The casting is made in what resembles a large-scale lemon squeezer, into which a ladleful of metal is deftly poured, allowed to set for a moment, and the residue poured off before the mould is opened and the object – cavalryman or crocodile – extracted, very hot, with a pair of tweezers. The operation has to be timed with precision, and it seems to produce in some of the workers a curious swaying rhythm of head, body and wrists. Next, the moulding is trimmed and passes to the painting floor. There, the basic coat is first applied, either by hand or in a mechanical dipper; and then your soldier moves, in an ascending scale of splendour, from bench to bench, where successive hands add red and black and silver; reins and belt and busby. For the more elaborate sets – Hussars and Horse Artillery – as many as fifteen separate painting operations may be required.

As I watched the girls at work, I could not help feeling a little sorry for those allocated to Zoo or Farm. There is, of course, no gainsaying that all this is repetition work. But there is something terribly repetitious about a sheep; and, even if you call him (as the catalogue does) No. 902, Macropus Giganteus, a kangaroo must pall in the end from the painter's point of view. How much luckier are those whose daily task is the production of those magnificent "Assorted Arabs" with their flashing cloaks and glittering scimitars, or even – if the Household Troops are beyond reach – the gallant Gordons or the Scots Greys. These surely, in their brave impeccability, would never stale.