Back to the future

26 October 2022
There was once a time when outer space figures didn’t just revolve around Star Wars...
Back to the future Images

Hard though it is to divorce adventures in space from the huge merchandising exercise that accompanied the Star Wars explosion, the fact is that Star Wars was some two decades late to the inter-galactic party. Intrigued? Then read on...

Lead figure pioneers

Space, and everything appertaining thereto, has fascinated mankind for centuries. Even as I pen these lines, it still offers the last unknown, unexplored regions for us human beings. Small wonder, then, that novelists and later, cinematic experts, would tap into the mysteries of the solar system in order to entertain fellow earthlings.

Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, following it with Around the Moon some five years later. Go back to the works of HG Wells (he of The War of the Worlds fame) and you’ll come across two volumes of interest: The First Men in the Moon (published in 1901) and The Shape of Things to Come (published in 1933) both contained futuristic themes. Isaac Asimov with his I, robot (1950) certainly gave the whole concept of space and robotics gravitas, opening the floodgates for more of the same.

As for the cinema, Melière’s Le voyage dans la Lune, a very short film, dates from 1902; and everyone recalls The Forbidden Planet, which defined space and science fiction and robots back in 1956. The 1950s were arguably THE decade for space cinema: children thrilled to monochrome exploits in the matinees, although admittedly, there were also some truly awful efforts appearing at the local cinema.

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To boldly go

So, it didn’t all start with Luke Skywalker. What is less easy to assert is whether the cinema sowed the seed amongst toy manufacturers or not. Children in the 1950s would have associated with the Wild West, Robin Hood/William Tell and World War Two: since television was not as accessible then, comics and the local fleapit helped nurture these interests. And toyshops, naturally, had to come up with the goods.

If you were enthralled by the concept of space (and who wasn’t in the 1950s?), then you were faced with a somewhat finite choice when it came to acting out your fantasies upon the hearthrug. Remember: this was a time before Gerry Anderson; and a time when plastic as a widely-used medium was in its infancy. Thus it all came down to hollowcast lead figures - and in that decade the lucky child would have played with the products of either Johillco or Cherilea.


John Hill Company had its roots in the late 19th century and was actually founded by an ex-Britains employee, one Mr Wood. It is recorded that as a rival to the all-conquering Britains, Johillco differentiated its output by offering its figures and animals singly, and not in sets, as was Britains’ favourite way of merchandising. Originally manufacturing in London, post World War Two it relocated to Burnley.

Johillco’s output was quite comprehensive but it didn’t cling to the Britains rationale of lots of regimental types, both foot and mounted. Rather more bucolic, it opted for many rural subjects – and outer space. Initially hollowcast, by 1956, with the advent of plastic, Johillco switched media.

It’s not easy to pin down when the company first manufactured its space range but certainly the outer space theme was present in its 1953 catalogue.

If you are looking to collect the company’s output, then the astronauts are a good place to start. Each of the types came with a separate clear plastic helmet for added realism although, predictably, many of these have gone missing over the subsequent decades. There are several poses showing astronauts with a range of equipment. One chap appears to be carrying a harpoon gun (presumably bent on skewering any hostile marine life) whilst another holds aloft an anemometer (I guess that it gets windy on the moon). All except one space explorer is carrying some sort of tool or weapon. Finishes vary but silver or coppery gold are the most common. I don’t think you’ll find Johillco script on the figures but you will see the word England.

Aside from the astronauts are what I term aliens and robots. Aliens include a fellow with a television aerial atop his helmet and who carries a ray gun; he is backed up by another chap with antennae who carries some sort of rifle across his chest. The third alien holds what appears to be some chemistry apparatus. Typically, garish metallic colours were used in the painting process, which makes these futuristic entities stand out.

As for robots, there is one with raised hands (an extremely odd pose) and his mate, the chunky Suitcase Robot. This latter is very elusive and can be found in a standing or walking posture. Cherilea Designer Wilf Cherington left the employment of Johillco after World War Two (he also worked at Crescent) and in partnership with James Leaver, formed Cherilea. Burnley was again the manufacturing hub.

The big question is whether Cherington borrowed Johillco moulds or reproduced his own. Either way, the astronauts and the “hands aloft” robot are common to both makers. His other space output was more bizarre, reflecting, perhaps, an interest in wildlife. The Ant-Man is a weird, overgrown insect with a bird-like beak whilst the Giant Lizard does what it says on the tin. As for the Giant Worm, with its plethora of feet, he’s not something an astronaut would wish to meet on his travels. This lot could be bought as a trio on a card but also appeared in sets. Meanwhile, an oddball Intelligent Alien, with hands on hips, looks very satisfied with himself.

Eschewing any true-to-scale rule book, Cherington also produced a multi-coloured space rocket and a hollowcast launch ramp for same. For the wealthier clientele, several different Journey into Space sets were released and their contents reflected a selection of the above-mentioned spacemen, aliens and monsters.

It’s difficult to nail the demise of these lead figures but by the late 1950s both companies were moving to plastic. Versions of some of the astronauts have turned up in plastic that has embrittled with age: as recasts, they are consequently slightly smaller than their lead siblings.

Helpfully, all are still available, seven decades on. May the thought be with you...