04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Sutcliffe Boats
Sutcliffe Boats: Best of British
In 1885 John William Sutcliffe began trading as a sheet metal worker and tinsmith at the age of twenty, whilst also carrying out repairs to industrial equipment. There was plenty of work about in those days in and around Leeds where industry was thriving.
Initially sharing a workshop with a relative who traded as a joiner, in 1903 John Sutcliffe managed to acquire his own premises located behind the family home on Town Street, Horsforth. This workshop became known as Atlas House.
Small metal items made by hand at Atlas House included photographic equipment and oil cans and it was not until 1920 that Sutcliffe Pressings first began making toy boats initially just as a sideline.
A year earlier in 1919, Frederic Adolphus Lappin, who was a resident of Middlesbrough, had invented and patented the ‘Flash Boiler’ water circulation engine similar to the ‘Pop-Pop’ system of water propultion and it was this type of coil tube hot air system that Sutcliffe adopted for his first toy boats.
Prior to the First World War the tin toy industry in Britain, especially boats, had been dominated by German manufacturers who imported their goods in high volume, but the war altered this. Now there were fresh opportunities for British companies to enter the tin toy market and Sutcliffe realised the potential in self-propelled boats.
Sutcliffe’s first toy boats were based on World War One Dreadnought type battleships powered by methylated spirit fired burners. These became known as the hot air battleships. The series began with a 12” boat which was sold in a plain card box with a simple glued on label. The first battleships were branded as ‘Cliffe’ boats for a short period before a change was made to ‘Sutcliffe’. The name and address of the maker was stamped into the stern of the early ships prior to the arrival of the more familiar oval trade-marks.
Not long after the launch of the 12” battleship it was joined by a mighty 16” vessel of similar design. This ‘big brother’ boat was powered by a burner with two water coils and double wicks angled inwards towards each other with a pair of deck vents allowing heat from inside the hull to escape. Constructed from nearly fifty different parts and hand assembled at the factory the retail price of this toy boat was expensive at fifteen shillings. This was a lot of money in the 1920s placing the ships well out of the reach of the average working class man or boy. The early Sutcliffe ships were finished in a variety of colour combinations of grey, red and cream.
Around 1929 production of the hot air battleships came to an end and a switch was made to clockwork motors. The clockwork version of the 12” battleship was eventually given the name ‘Valiant,’ while the big clockwork 16” boat was given the name ‘Nelson’ and was also slightly reduced in height. They remained in production until the late 1930s and are very hard to find in good condition today.
One of the big problems with the early hot air boats had been the heat that inevitably built up inside them and despite the use of deck vents emitting this heat was a problem that usually led to severe paint blistering of the vessel and the occasional burning of fingers… these were not the safest of toys!
Alongside the battleships several other hot air boats were produced during the 1920s. Two were simple cruisers, the smallest being only 8” long, and these were aimed towards those who couldn’t afford the big battleships. The last of the hot air vessels was a chunky 16” Cabin Cruiser which, like most of the others in this range, has now become a rare collectors’ item.
An article placed in Meccano Magazine by Sutcliffe in the late 1920s suggests that a pennyworth of spirit would power one of the big boats for up to three hours. It also mentioned the fact that the workforce in the Sutcliffe factory at this time was mainly made up of girls. This was possibly due to the great loss of the lives of local men in the Great War.
After turning to clockwork propulsion Sutcliffe quickly abandoned the use of bought-in German motors and devised his own mechanism. Modifications were necessary to the boats to accommodate the new motors and the need for vents and the ability to enter into the inner workings of the vessel were now alleviated making the whole process of sailing the boats more simple, safe and clean… if a bit less fun!
Following the arrival of clockwork motors Sutcliffe launched three new speedboats in 1931 the smallest of which was 12” long and given the name ‘The Minx’. Next was the ‘Meteor’ which was 16” in length and the biggest was a mighty 20” boat which, for some reason, was never given its own name? All three of these boats were designed with windscreens and wooden hatches covering the motors and were easy to set on course once launched as the rudder/tiller could be pre-fixed and set in place by the operator. The pre-war speedboats are all rare nowadays with the big 20” vessel the rarest of the lot.
There was another big boat in this series that must be mentioned and that was a 24” electric-powered streamlined speedboat that never had a name. Painted red and cream it was powered by two 4.5 volt batteries and priced at a mighty 26/6d. Not a great seller, probably due to the price, it was only in production for a few years.
The next boats to be released by Sutcliffe Pressings were three rather pleasing new Cabin Cruisers which were given the names Swallow, Commodore and Empress respectively. They were loosely based on the speedboat designs with the addition of newly pressed cabins. The Cabin Cruisers were made until the outbreak of World War Two.
Sutcliffe became the market leaders in pressed-steel model boats throughout the 1930s and the company were great innovators. They pioneered the process of pressing the entire hull of the boats as a one piece component complete with stamped out holes for the rudder and prop shaft. The hulls were then attached to the decks with a single soldered seam. This technique would eventually be copied by Sutcliffe’s competitors, most notably, Hornby.
Streamlining the production process led the way for many new designs based on one simple 9” hull pressing. These included the Racer1 speedboat, The Snappy Sub Chaser and the Zip.
Following World War Two both the Snappy and the Zip were discontinued but the Racer1 lived on.
For a brief period from 1934-1936 Sutcliffe manufactured Sailing Yachts to keep up with the popularity of Pond Yachts. Three different yachts were made before Sutcliffe abandoned the project in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Tri-ang.
A Bluebird 1 boat was introduced in 1937 reflecting the success of the real Bluebird record breaking speed machine and a second version, Bluebird II followed in 1958. These are both highly desirable models today.
1934 saw the launch of the first Sutcliffe submarine the ‘Unda Wunda’ which was finished in grey and red until 1948 when it was changed to all yellow. Two more submarines were to follow starting with the Nautilus in 1955 and the Sea Wolf Atomic submarine which was made available from 1963. Nautilus was based on the feature film ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ screened in 1954.
Sutcliffe Pressings founder John William Sutcliffe died in the mid-1950s at the age of 89 after which the business was passed down to his three sons Kenneth, Harry and Ted. It was, however, Kenneth Sutcliffe who took the firm forward into a new era of production ably assisted by his wife Joan. They brought in new lines such as toy brush and pan sets, metal cranes and dumper trucks to sell alongside the boats. Many new boats were launched and Ken and Joan remained in business until 1984 when the Sutcliffe factory closed its doors for the final time. Ken and Joan, who died in 1999 and 2009 respectively, will always be fondly remembered by toy collectors’ as they continued to attend Swapmeet’s and Toy Fairs selling Sutcliffe products long after the closure of the Horsforth factory.
Though there is little space left in this article to detail every single boat made by Sutcliffe after the war we all have our own personal favourites. It might be a Victor or Fury Torpedo Boat, a Sprite Cruiser or a Hawk Speedboat? One thing is certain, however, Sutcliffe Boats will always be regarded as one of the Best toymakers Britain has ever seen.