Europe’s oldest farm toy maker - Part 1

09 November 2021
This year, Britains celebrates 100 years since launching its Home Farm series. In this first instalment, we trace the history of the firm and its farm range, from the beginning up to the 1960s
Europe’s oldest farm toy maker - Part 1 Images

There was much to celebrate when World War I ended in 1918.  However, for Britains, its end created a problem. The public had lost interest in all things military and this was impacting sales of the high-quality toy soldiers Britains had been making since 1893. To address declining sales, Britains decided to put more effort intomaking civilian models. One new civilian line the firm chose to develop was the Model Home Farm series. It would turn out to be the most important launch Britains made.

William Britain Jr had developed the hollow casting process that Britains used to make its toy soldiers and was responsible for sculpturing the new range. Thirty new individual models, including figures, animals, accessories and a tumbrel cart (4F) were released in time for Christmas 1921. To distinguish Home Farm from its military range, all models were given an F-suffix catalogue number and marketed in a blue box. Later, several other box styles would be used.

Produced in 1/32 scale, the farm models proved an unprecedented success and they even continued to be popular through the 1920s and 1930s when agriculture went through difficult times. Britains’ publicity material was soon noting that many adults were playing with the farm range. It’s something that continues to this day.

Ideas for Home Farm appeared from some unlikely places. Some of the Britain brothers were also directors of Nestlé UK subsidiary. This connection led to Britains making a special model cow for Nestlé to offer at its stand at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.  Known as the Nestlé World Cow, it had the world map cast on the body in relief. It was probably Britains’ first promotional farm model.

On another occasion, Queen Mary on Britains’ stand at the British Industries Fair in 1926 reportedly commented “You have everything from village life represented except for the village idiot". Britains soon rectified that (587).

By the early 1940s, Home Farm had expanded. Alongside new figures and accessories, it also included a farm waggon with carter (5F), general purpose plough with ploughman (6F), horse roller (9F), timber carriage (12F), farmer’s gig (20F), farm cart (40F).  Three lorries were also added and used in both the farm (59F, 60F and 61F) and military (1333, 1334 & 1335) ranges. All toy production stopped in 1941 and the factory turned over to war work.

Britains from 1946 to 1959

Model production restarted after the war with Britains reissuing many pre-war models and rebranding Home Farm as Britains Farm Models.  However Britains soon added new models including its first tractor. Launched in 1948, this was the Fordson E27N Major - the new tractor Fordson had introduced in 1946. It was the start of a long relationship Britains has had with the Fordson, Ford and New Holland brands that continues to this day.

During the war, Britains had acquired equipment to make zinc alloy castings and began exploring its use for making toys after production restarted. However, at the time, Britains must have considered creating the diecast tooling for the tractor’s body a step too far and used the hollow casting technique. It’s the only 1/32 scale tractor Britains made this way.

The E27N Major tractor was available with rubber tyres (128F) or steel wheels (127F). Reportedly, the latter was less popular - parents preferred the tractor to have rubber tyres as it caused less damage to the dining table. Early tractors were marketed in a green box, but later a Picture Pack box, often known as the Duck & Egg box, was used.

For the tractor, over the next four years, Britains released a timber trailer (129F), a tipping trailer (130F), a disc harrow (135F), a roll (136F) and four-furrow trailed plough (138F). To further increase the play value, the tractor was also available in a set (139F and 137F) with a clockwork trailer to push the tractor along.

After World War II, Britains formed an association with W. Horton to make its ‘OO’ scale model railway Lilliput series. It included a Fordson Major tractor.

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Although the 1950s is considered a golden age for Britains’ hollow-cast figures, the days were numbered as it could not compete with the plastic figures being sold. Plastic figures were cheaper, better detailed and safer. To address the growing competition from plastic figures, in 1954 Britains bought a controlling interest in Herald, one of the best plastic model makers. It has being suggested that Dennis Britain, Managing Director, bought Herald to gain the skills of Roy Selwyn-Smith. He would later become Technical Director, heading the design team responsible for new models and then as joint Managing Director at Britains.

Following the Herald investment, the first plastic farm figures and animals were released in 1954. At first, Britains continued to market its lead models separately, but the decision had been made in 1959 to replace Britains’ hollow cast figures and animals with those from the Herald range. For the first time, Britains’ catalogue included Herald models.

Britains dropped the 1/32 scale Fordson Major in 1958 in readiness for the release of its next tractor. This was probably the most important tractor developed by Britains, although not the most accurate.  Released in 1959, the model was sold as the Fordson Power Major, although Britains based it on the earlier E1ADKN Major Ford introduced in the early 1950s. The E1ADKN Major had side-mounted hand throttle, under-swept exhaust and Fordson Major rear wheel centres. While the Fordson Power Major, released in the same year as Britains’ model, had the throttle positioned against the steering wheel and scalloped wheel centres.

The Fordson Power Major was the first tractor Britains made using the diecast process and included plastic parts. Also it was the first to have a steerable front axle, front implement mounting points and a working two-point rear linkage - features other makers have since adopted. Like the E27N Major, it was available with either steel wheels (171F) or rubber tyres (172F). It was sold in a new sleeve and plinth box that Britains would use across much of the farm range in the following years.

For the new tractor, Britains developed two new implements - a three-furrow plough (173F) and a mule dozer (174F).  Although not branded, it is thought Britains based the plough on one produced by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, a leading UK agricultural machinery manufacturer.

Britains from 1960 to 1969

The 1960s saw big changes at Britains and to its farm model range. Early in the decade, it dropped the original Home Farm ‘F’ series numbering and began using numbers in the 9000 range. It introduced new branding using a big ‘B’ logo and brought manufacturing under one roof in a new factory at Blackhorse Lane, Walthamstow.

During this period, the farm range expanded rapidly keeping the design team busy. The Fordson Power Major tractor was updated in 1961, after Ford introduced the improved Fordson Super Major tractor.  Britains updated its model again two years later with the launch of the Fordson New Performance Major. Then, in 1965, when Ford replaced the Major with the 1000 series tractors, Britains introduced a newly-tooled model of the flagship Super Major 5000 tractor. Ford gave Britains access to its plans ahead of the real tractor launch, allowing Britains to release its model in the same year. The new tractor incorporated the same working features Britains had provided on the Major tractors. It proved popular with Britains’ works manager reportedly saying they were working at near capacity making 50 to 55 gross a week, but could sell double that number. Forty or 50 per cent were exported.

The Super Major 5000 remained in the catalogue until 1968 when Britains, like Ford, updated the model and released the Ford Force 5000 tractor. The year also saw Britains extend its tractor range with a model of the popular Massey Ferguson 135 tractor.

In the 1960s, Britains stopped making all hollow cast models in 1966, to offer horse-drawn farm equipment. The release was however overshadowed by figures, animals, accessories and equipment to use with its tractors that were now commonly seen on farms. During the decade, Britains released some iconic equipment models incorporating many of the working features found on the real machine. They included a battery-powered Lister multi-level elevator released in 1965 and, in 1967, a Bamford BL58 baler that discharged bales out of the bale chamber as it was pulled along.

In 1965, Britains also began expanding the farm range to include models of equipment more likely to be found on a construction site. The first of these models was a Shawnee-Poole rear dump trailer. It was supplied in a set with the Fordson New Performance Major tractor (9630). The set proved popular and remained in the catalogue for many years with many different tractors. A 22½ cwt dumper (9670), with tipping bucket and Ackermann steering, followed three years later. In 1968, Britains also released a long-wheelbase Series II Land Rover (9676). It had opening doors, opening bonnet and a steerable front axle, but at first was not supplied with a canopy. The model’s number plate, MAC 68F, gave credit to its developer Alotis Matecek, known as Mac, showed its release date. A single-axle horsebox was also introduced for use with the Land Rover.

In the next part we take Britains’ history from the 1970s to the current day.