Toy soldiers, whether they are plastic soldiers, lead soldiers, tin soldier toys or die-cast are perhaps amongst the most enduring and collectable of all antique toys.
From the late 19th century Germany was the leading producers of toy soldiers, with Heyde of Dresden being the most successful company with their solid metal figures. These were, however, somewhat expensive, meaning that there was a ready-made niche in the market for more competitively-priced soldiers to march in to...
William Britain, a skilled metal-worker from Birmingham, began his own manufactory in 1893. The company produced hollow-cast metal toy soldiers to an innovative 1:32 scale, meaning that an individual toy soldier would be around 54mm in height. Being hollow, obviously, they required less costly raw material than the solid-cast German versions, and could be priced at a lower level. Their first set was a box of mounted Lifeguard troopers, resplendent with their plumed helmets, tin swords and horses with gold-trimmed livery! The models were an overnight sensation, and Britains toy soldiers went on to dominate the market for small soldier toys in the UK and overseas.
Their main rival was Johill & Co, who had actually begun production three years earlier than Britain’s. Initially, they matched Britain’s hollow-cast method, and persisted with this until moving to plastic toy soldier production in the 1960’s. By this time the Herald company from Hong Kong had also begun the manufacture of plastic toy soldiers, and would go on to amalgamate with Britain’s. Their signature range were the ‘Eyes Right’ figures with their detachable arms and bodies, which were produced from 1961.
During the 1970’s Britain’s launched their ‘Deetail’ range of toy soldier figures, featuring plastic models on metal bases. Most of these were WW1 toy soldiers and WW2 models though many other periods were also included – cowboys and indians, knights and saracens, Napoleonic figures and solders of the American Civil War (ACW).
Our locally-based customers in Tunbridge Wells may remember the magnificent display cases, crammed full of these wonderful toy soldiers, at White’s Bazaar in Monson Road; the place was a veritable black hole for my own meagre pocket-money resources…
Britain’s also produced a range of articulated plastic toy soldiers under the Swoppet brand name, initially making a set to celebrate the Bicentennial of American Independence in 1976. They proved so popular that the company went on to replicate many of the Deetail models in the same style.
As time progressed the company decided to reposition their Britain’s toy soldiers as 'toy models', releasing new ranges and special editions in lesser numbers, rather cleverly creating their own sought-after range of collectable pieces.
Soldier toys remain enormously popular, with new suppliers such as Ducal, King And Country, Dorset Soldiers and Steve Weston continuing to make names for themselves alongside more established manufacturers such as Taylor & Barratt, Timpo and Crescent Toys. Collectively, they cater for all tastes and interests spanning every era of military history, and you’re sure to find a Roman toy soldier just as readily as army toy soldiers from other theatres – and, of course, we reflect this diverse range in our own curated collection.