04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Meccano
Meccano: Best of British
It was a snowy Christmas day sometime back in the early 1960s that I remember excitedly ripping open the box of my first Meccano set, having been impressed by a massive Meccano model of a traction engine in the window of the local department store where I was taken to see Santa. With the help of my father we made a few excellent models with that basic set, dad being a dab hand at improvisation and adding a bit of extra flair here and there. His ‘extras’ included simulated hydraulic pipes on a digger (using black electrical wiring) and a pair of props for a WW2 fighter plane (expertly snipped out from a baked bean tin). My father was similar to Meccano inventor Frank Hornby in that respect, always finding time to make things to amuse his kids after a hard day at work rather than sitting and reading the paper.
When Frank Hornby got home from his job as a book-keeper at Liverpool docks he found relaxation in his small workshop making toys from scrap materials for his two young sons, Douglas and Rowland. Born in 1863 Hornby had grown up with a great love of trains and it was while making a railway journey in the late 1890s that he first conceived the idea of creating a constructional toy comprised of small regulated strips of metal with holes that could be bolted together simply with a spanner and a screwdriver. His aim was to build railway bridges and cranes like the ones operating at the docks where he worked. He developed the idea further making models for his boys to play with. Hornby saw great potential in this toy and, excited by its educational value, borrowed £5 to register a patent for it on 30th November, 1901. With financial support from his employer, David Hugh Elliott, Hornby found a factory willing to make the toy that he called ‘Mechanics Made Easy.’ The first set contained fifteen or so individual parts, which were sold in a small lithographed tin with a picture of a crane on one side and and a train crossing a bridge on the other. Initial interest was slow but Hornby maintained a resolute determination to succeed. Slowly but surely the popularity of the toy increased, aided by the launch of model building competitions which, by 1904, were attracting some interesting entries. The success of Meccano led Frank Hornby to give up his day job and concentrate entirely on his new venture in 1906. One of the first things Hornby modified was the name. He came up with the name Meccano which was adopted and registered in 1907 largely because ‘Mechanics Made Easy’ sounded too long and cumbersome for the new look boxes and advertising literature. Esperanto sounding, it was a name ideally suited to the expanding international market Hornby was aiming at. There is a line of thought held by some historians, however, that this catchy name was derived to reflect the words ‘Make and know’.
In May of 1907 Frank Hornby set up his that factory in Duke Street, Liverpool, using hand presses and lathes driven by overhead shafting that was powered by a small gas engine. This first factory was soon replaced by larger premises at an old carriage works in West Derby Road to cope with increased demand. The famous Meccano factory at Binns Road, Wavertree, Liverpool, was opened in 1914 and production continued there during World War One. Further factories were opened in Germany and France and in 1922 Meccano crossed the Atlantic to open a factory at Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA. Now Meccano truly was an international toy. Further factories were established in Spain and Argentina although the USA operation was to be short lived as it was taken over by the Gilbert Toy Company whose Erector construction sets dominated the American market. By 1925 there were more than 100 individual parts in the Meccano catalogue and models were now able to be brought to life with the use of a reversible clockwork motor made by Marklin enabling larger more exciting working exhibits to be constructed.
1926 saw the launch of the ubiquitous red and green colour scheme for which Meccano will always be best remembered. Until then parts had been unpainted and finished in nickel plate. There was a short lived departure from red and green between 1934 and 1937 when blue and gold sets were sold. This was largely a reaction to the depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s which had taken its toll on sales. Meccano thought that these bright new colours would give it a sales lift but they were not that well received with many Meccano purists considering the colours too brash. Thankfully Meccano rode the inter-war depression and flourished throughout the 1930s. In 1936 it launched ‘Dinky Builder’ which was a simplified version of Meccano requiring no nuts or bolts - ideal for small fingers. The number 2 Dinky Builder kit made dolls house furniture and was a direct attempt to get more girls interested in the hobby. Other Meccano products included ‘Kemex’ Chemistry sets and ‘Electron’ Electrical experiment sets, along with those marvellous constructor cars, aeroplanes and speed boats so highly prized by collectors today. Dinky Toys, of course, wre another product launched in the 1930s and produced at Binns Road.
With Hornby Trains also flourishing under the Meccano banner, the 1930s were busy times at the expanding Binns Road factory and two other sites at Aintree and Speke. By the time of Frank Hornby’s death on September 21st 1936, thirty-five years of growth and expansion had seen Meccano develop from a one man business in a tiny home workshop into a huge international company. Production, however, came to a standstill on January 1st 1942 when the manufacturing of metal toys was banned by the government and the Meccano factory was turned over to war duties. Products held in stock were distributed to retailers until Septembr 30th 1943 after which the sale of all metal toys was prohibited.
Following hostilities production of Meccano slowly returned to normal with the winners of model building competitions now receiving the grand sum of £1,000. By the late 1950s, however, other popular toys were providing stiff opposition for Meccano. The popularity of Corgi Toys, Airfix kits, Matchbox Toys and Scalextric racing tracks made by Lines Brothers were all eating into the market share. Space and TV related toys were also becoming popular with children and this slowdown in orders led to a change of ownership. It was Lines Brothers – also makers of Tri-ang Toys – which took over Meccano in 1964 and seven years later ownership switched once again, this time to the Airfix Group. Despite these changes of ownership the recession bit the British toy industry hard during the 1970s eventually forcing Meccano into receivership. Despite a sit-in staged by angry staff the Binns Road factory closed in 1979 ending seventy-eight years of Meccano production in Liverpool. The old Meccano factories have since been demolished and the site is currently used as a car park.
This was not the end of the road for Meccano however. In 1981 Airfix products was purchased by the General Mills Toy Group (USA) who already owned Meccano France. Production was continued and has since been maintained at the Calais factory where Meccano is still made today with some production also taking place in China. A great British invention, Meccano still has a massive following of enthusiasts to this day, both young and old from all corners of the globe.