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Illustration by Luigi Toiaiti of the first discovery of an early britains catalog

1I acquired a copy of Britains 1880 catalogue in a bundle of other toy soldier paper items from an auction, no chance of discussing with the seller if there was any background. I have taken the copied four pages as authentic, with a clear Senior Britains signature similar to that seen on various occasions elsewhere.

The copy was not the clearest for all descriptions to be read in full, so a strategy has been adopted to try and show each of the four sheets and then provide a clear set of words alongside.

The copy is annotated with the handwritten date of 1880 and with the Britain’s family member’s signature, presumably to denote his copy – do not pinch! The signature is that of L D Britain. I have accepted these handwritten additions at face value. Also, I judge that the date is about right, reflecting what might seem like the level of ingenuity and skill in these toys as might have been achieved in

L D Britain was the author of the article published in the August 1969 issue of the British Model Soldier Society Bulletin entitled ‘A Brief History of Britains’.2

What is clear is that a lot of these 1880 toys have moving parts and clockwork systems to animate them. Also, a fair number appear mounted on a wooden box for the clockwork motor, but there must be levers, axles and cogwheels coming up from the box inside the figure to operate the moving parts as described in the catalogue. I would guess that with Britains originating in Birmingham they had ready access to other manufacturers, skilled in using metal, who were producing motors, whether clockwork or electrical, as well as instrument and clock makers and the like making cog wheels, spindles, rods, etc, etc.

These working toys would also have to be hollow inside to accommodate the levers and rods coming up legs or gowns, which suggests either hollow castings or bodies cast in two halves. For the latter, after the inner workings have been assembled, the second half body is affixed and then painted. This aspect does suggest that Britains were thinking about hollow bodies and figures at least 10 years before they
launched their soldiers in 1893.

Britains did not stop their range of mechanical toys (as shown in the catalogue here) at the onset of toy
soldier production, but continued with them in parallel as is evidenced by such mechanical toys still being shown in the Britains catalogue ascribed to 1915.

The first toy in the catalogue is the Mechanical Foot Race. Reference is also made to the Mechanical Bicycle Race (not illustrated). The words read:

This justly celebrated walking match consists of a handsomely got up stand designed to represent a tent which two men (9 inches in height) richly dressed in silk and satin, are made to walk rapidly and pass and re-pass one another in such a manner that it is quite impossible for anyone to predict which will be the winner at the close of a number of predetermined rounds. The action of the men’s legs is quite natural, in fact a fair heel-and-toe race.

Packed in strong wooden box, carriage paid, 40/-.

(not illustrated)
This consists of the same stand and mechanism as the Foot Race, but instead of the men walking they are made to ride bicycles.

Packed in strong woode (sic) box, carriage paid, 45/-.

This is followed by descriptions of The Mechanical Dog and Bear. The words read;

The Mechanical Dog and Bear.
Page 1
Page of early britain catalog
Page 2

This is a handsome white poodle, that runs about or stands still at will and forms, a most interesting and amusing present for a child being strongly made and not likely to get out of order; goes by clockwork, and is also capable of carrying any little figure on its back, such as a doll.

Carefully packed. Post free, 18/6.

This is a similar article to the Mechanical Dog, but in addition to running along, it lifts its head up and down, and moves it from side to side, opening and shutting its mouth, and showing its teeth all the while in a most savage manner.

Carefully packed. Post free, 25/-.

Page 2 follows with 6 more toys: The Sailor Money Box, The Mechanical Scotsman and Chinaman, The Machine Gun, The Khedive and The Indian Juggler.

The text for each of these is as follows:

This is a figure of a sailor. 9 inches high, dressed in satin and standing on a handsome polished mahogany box, always ready to receive subscriptions, either as a children’s money box or for charitable purposes On placing a penny in the plate which he holds in front of him, he will immediately transfer it to the box at his side, at the same time raising his hat with his right hand and bowing gracefully. Strongly recommended for bazaars or collecting purposes.

Packed in strong wooden box.

Carriage paid, 17/6

This is a larger and better article on the same principle as the Chinaman. He stands 16 inches in height, and is dressed in velvet coat, plaid, kilt, shawl etc, and moves both arms. In his right hand he holds a bottle, and in the left a glass. He first pours out a glassfull from the bottle, and then drinks it off, throwing his head back at the same time. This movement goes for about half-an-hour with one winding. A capital figure for Wine and Spirit, or Grocery Store Windows, as an attraction.

Packed in strong wooden box.

Carriage paid, 35/-.

The Chinese Mandarin is a very clever and pleasing mechanical figure, richly dressed in satin and gold lace, and stands 12 inches in height. In his right hand he holds a cup and in his left a saucer. On winding the figure up he will raise the cup to his mouth, and, after tasting, will drink the whole cup right off, throwing his head back with evident satisfaction. It is very strongly made and will go for half-an hour with one winding. This figure has achieved great success as window attraction for shops, particularly grocery stores

Packed in strong wooden box.

Carriage paid, 21/-.

This makes a capitol toy for a boy, as with this weapon he can put to rout brigade after brigade of toy soldiers, as fast as they can be formed. The Gun is well made, and is capable of firing 200 shots a minute. The action is a follows: the cup on the barrel of the gun is filled with peas, and the handle turned rapidly; until all the peas are discharged, when it can be refilled, and the Gun is ready to resume operations.

Carefully packed, post free, 5/6.

The Latest and Best Smoking Figure. This strongly made figure goes by clockwork, and smokes cigarettes or a pipe in the most natural manner possible, puffing out the smoke in clouds, and being made on a new principle, without valves is not likely to clog with the juice from the tobacco or herbs which it may have to smoke. Handsomely got up, and sitting on a carpeted box; it forms a novel and attractive present; or if introduced at Christmas parties is sure to excite much admiration; and cause much amusement.

Post free, 5/6.

Performer of the Well-known Basket Trick. This represents a turbaned Indian, one and a half times as big in propoation as the Khedive, sitting on a box, handsomely covered in silk plush, with a basket in front of him, holding in his right hand a wand, and in his left the basket lid. On winding the figure up he proceeds to tap on the top of the basket with his wand, after which he raises the basket lid and a child is found sitting in the basket, after which he re-covers the basket with the lid, taps again with his wand, raise the lid, and to the surprise and astonishment of everyone the child is transposed into a horrid looking snake, and so on through a number of changes. This is the very latest novelty for the Christmas season, and as such is sure to please. No pains have been spared in its production, so that we can safely say that no better or handsome article has been offered at so low a cost.

Post free, 10/6.

Page 3 continues with 6 more toys: The Model Crane, The Walking Elephant, The London Road Roller, The Miniature Road Roller, Don Quixote and the Windmill, and the Equestrienne

A solid and instructive toy for boys, having all movements the same as the largest cranes now in use, and well and strongly made.

Post free, 2/6.

Page of early britain catalog
Page 3
Page 4

This is a well made model of an elephant with a rider on his back. On spinning of the parasol which the rider carries, and placing the elephant on a smooth table, he will walk along, moving his legs in a most natural manner.

Post free, 2/6.

This is an exact model of the large and heavy rollers used for rolling the London roads, and is as heavy for its size as the powerful engines from which it is copied it is made of solid castings, and not stamped tin, like most of the foreign rubbish that is now sold.

In strong box, post free 3/-

Is a cheaper form of Road Roller, and is a model of the smaller rollers used to roll suburban streets. Will run a long distance with one spinning.

Post free, 1/3.

This pleasing toy illustrates the old story of Don Quixote and the windmill, representing a knight clad in armour, mounted on horseback, who gallops round and attacks a gaily coloured windmill with his lance. This forms an amusing game by counting the number of times, or the different coloured fans of the mill he strikes, each player having chosen his colour beforehand.

Post free, 1/3.

This, as the name implies, consists of a horse galloping around a ring, as at a circus. Standing upon the back of the horse is a fairy, who, as the horse passes under the bar, stoops then jumps, clearing the bar in a most clever manner, alighting upon the horse’s back, and stands, balancing herself until the horse reaches the bar, continuing to ride until the horse stops.

Post free, 1/3

Page 4 concludes with 6 more toys: The Fountain Top, The Boomerang Top, The Mikado , the Four Horse Race, The Clown (not illustrated), the Waltzing Couple and The General. The latter two represent Britain’s very first
toy soldiers!

This consists of an elegant top which is wound up and spun in the ordinary way, but instead of placing it on the table it is stood in saucer-full of water. It immediately throws up a magnificent jet of water, varying in height according to the strength of the spinner.

Post free, 1/3.

This is a top which will throw up any number of fliers into the air. The top has simply to be spun in the ordinary way and the flier put on, then touch the trigger underneath and the flier is released and rises rapidly in the air. Another flier is put on and released in a similar manner, and so on till the top is down.

Post Free, 1/3.

Is a pretty little ornament for the mantleshelf, always amusing. When the umbrella is spun the figure will vigorously fan himself with the fan he holds in his left hand.

Post free, 1/3.

Consists of a stand supporting four jockeys on horses who, when the race is started, race round and round, passing and re-passing one another in such a manner that it is impossible to tell which will win the race until the race is over. With this game children can be kept amused for hours. It is strongly made and unlikely to get out of order.

Post Free, 3/9. Smaller size, with only two horses, post free, 1/3.

THE CLOWN (not illustrated)
This makes a charming companion ornament to the Mikado, being a well finished model balancing a plate and bottle on his nose, and when spun taps the edge of the plate with a wand which he holds in his right hand.

Post free, 1/3.

(not illustrated)
Represents a soldier and his lady waltzing. When spun and placed on a tray, or other smooth surface, the figures run about, turning round and round all the while. If spun strongly they dance most vigorously, causing much amusement.

Post free, 1/3; smaller size 71/2d.

This is a figure of a soldier, mounted on a hobby horse, and carrying an umbrella over his shoulder, which, when it is set spinning, causes the soldier to run rapidly along, and to use his sword vigorously as he goes.

Post free, 1/9.

Some of these early Britains toys come onto the market from time to time. The four pictures P 1 – P4 below were offered in 2017 at C & T Auctions in the UK and were a legacy from Jeanne Burley’s collection.

Those readers who would like to see more of these 1880 early Britains toys should refer to the November 2006 auction catalogue from the Christies South Kensington sale of Fine Toys and Toy Figures, which included pictures in colour.

fountain top
P1 The Fountain Top
walking elephant
P2 The Walking Elephant
Don Quixote and the Windmill
P3 Don Quixote and the Windmill
Don Quixote and the Windmill
P3 Don Quixote and the Windmill

1 Editor’s Note: The 1880 date has never been confirmed. According to Norman Joplin, the date was simply a guess made by Dennis Britain when he was caught off guard by Arnold Rolak (who presented it to him without notice at the Christies Britains Archive Sale on June 27th 1994). There have been a number of articles relating to this early catalogue published in previous issues, for example: Vol 5 # 6, Vol 11 #4, Vol 24 #3, Vol 42 #2, Vol 43 #1. Thanks to Norman Joplin for all this information.
2 The article is reproduced (with permission) in the Introduction to my book ‘Britains and other Interesting Toy Soldiers’ (currently with the publishers). The full ascription to the article was L D Britain, OBE DFC.

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