Matchbox Toys: Best of British

04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Matchbox

Matchbox Toys: Best of British

As anyone who knows me will confirm, my hairstyle has never been one of my finest attributes. Visits to the barber are few and far between and usually as a measure of desperation rather than any form of vanity. This dislike of the barber’s chair dates back to my childhood during the 1950s when I was unceremoniously marched off into town by my mother for a short back and sides once a month. In order to make the ordeal a little less distressing for me I was promised a Matchbox toy chosen from the tempting display in the toy shop window a few doors down the road from the demon barber but only if I behaved myself. Choosing the toy was never that easy, however, as new arrivals were released alongside all the old favourites on display. From memory I think they cost 1/6d, one shilling and sixpence in pre-decimal currency – that’s around 7.5p in today’s money… who would have thought that these cheap toys would ever be worth the money they fetch today mint and boxed? The first thing to go was the box, often before we even arrived home, and the toy was soon in action alongside my growing Matchbox collection stored inside a large Jacobs Biscuits tin left over from a mid-1950s Christmas.

But who came up with the ingenious Matchbox toys? The answer was a man called Jack Odell, a toolmaker by trade, who had set up a business in premises shared with Lesney, the firm who manufactured Matchbox Toys. Odell’s eldest daughter and her friends were only allowed to take small objects into school and often put things into matchboxes – sometimes beetles or other small unfortunate creatures! This gave Odell the idea of putting a small toy into a matchbox for her. He made a brass prototype of a miniature diesel road roller with a roof canopy similar to the one Dinky Toys was making. When his daughter took it to school in her friends were highly impressed and they all wanted one, but Odell had already spent a hefty £5 making the toy and couldn’t make all the kids a brass road roller. He did, however create a mould at a further cost of £100 and was able to die cast the little road roller small enough to fit into matchboxes for his daughter’s school friends.

As a result of this good deed Matchbox Toys were born and Odell teamed up with Lesney to produce them. The diesel road roller became Matchbox No.1a and was released inside a box designed from a Norvic Match Company box made in Susice, Czechoslovakia.

This was to prove a massive change of fortunes for Jack Odell and Lesney Toys which had been in business since 1947, as British industry began to pick itself up from the ravages of the Second World War and was just beginning to find its feet in the tough world of industry.

While many ex-servicemen returned to jobs held open for them, others looked for new challenges using their skills and testing their initiatives. One such man was Leslie Smith, a lieutenant de-mobbed from the Royal Navy having seen action in North Africa and the D-day landings. Prior to the war he had been involved in shipping and exports, travelling widely throughout Europe.

During a chance meeting with old school friend Rodney Smith, also de-mobbed from the Navy, the two pals discussed going into business together. At this time Rodney Smith had returned to his old job producing diecastings and was employed by DCMT in the London suburb of Palmers Green. Pooling their war gratuities the Smiths purchased a die-casting machine from DCMT and set up in business together in the autumn of 1947 using the former saloon bar of a derelict pub called The Rifleman in North London rented for £2.00 per week.

Initially Lesney made industrial castings or small component parts for the motor industry although it also began making large-scale diecast toys in the late 1940s, including a Royal State Coach to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. However, a ban on the use of zinc as a result of the Korean War threatened the business, leading to Rodney Smith to sell his stake and walk away from Lesney to persue other interests. By this time the company had left the Rifleman and opened a new factories in Dalston and Hackney Wick.

Content continues after advertisements

A big breakthrough came in 1953, following the lifting of the zinc ban, when Lesney produced a miniature Coronation Coach as a commemorative souvenir of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. These little coaches sold more than one million units giving Lesney the capital for future development projects.

The tiny road roller arrived in shops in November 1953 and was quickly joined by three other construction vehicles. Although Christmas sales were initially disappointing the early months of 1954 saw Matchbox models quickly gain in popularity and Lesney’s manufacturing capacity was stretched to its limits. When the toys were exhibited at the British Industry fair held at Olympia orders were taken from countries overseas so to meet demand a new factory was opened at Stoke Newington alongside a disused church which was utilised as a warehouse.

It was at Hackney Wick where the legendary Matchbox Models of Yesteryear were developed and produced from 1956. Again Jack Odell was the brainchild of the project showing off his incredible engineering talent in producing highly detailed models of his favourite steam powered and horse-drawn vehicles.

Times became hard for Lesney during the late 1970s as the recession bit harder and it fought hard to halt declining profits. Jack Odell returned briefly in 1980 to attempt an emergency rescue but sadly the receivers were appointed in 1982. In September of 1982 Lesney was sold to Hong-Kong based Universal International with production moving largely to the Far East where labour costs were cheap.

A great British toy company was lost but will never be forgotten. My memories of Matchbox Toys will never fade as I am still as passionate about them now as I was as a five-year-old. They are still great little things to collect boxed or unboxed and still fascinate kids of all ages as they did back in the 1950s.