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A Toy Soldier Primer: Britains Ltd.


Dirk

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Occasionally folks on the forum come across antique toy soldiers and struggle to identify them, or ask when were they made, or what is their value. So I thought I would start a thread highlighting at least one company that produced toy soldiers starting in 1893, and continuing to this day: Britains Limited. Originally, the company was located in London, England, and had been in the toy business since the 1850’s, initially producing mechanical toys.

 

Strangely, England at the end of the Victorian age, despite being a world leader in so many areas, was almost a non-entity in the toy soldiers market. In fact until late into the 1890’s, the market in the United Kingdom and continental Europe was dominated by German and French manufacturers. Figures from these two countries, exported worldwide, came in a variety of scales, mainly made of solid cast lead or flat figures made of tin, and finely painted.  Around 1893  Britains developed a “hollow cast” process that allowed the casting lead figures far more cheaply then their European rivals, because they used less lead to produce-as the figures were hollow inside. In addition, through smart marketing the company let the British public know these were British made soldiers, and not made by rival European nations. Needless to say in an age of nationalistic competition they were a domestic hit, and they expanded their product range every year until 1941. Early in their toy soldier history they gave each set a production number starting with set #1: The First Life Guards. So successful was Britains Limited, that they drove their German rivals out of the catalogue from one of London’s biggest department stores by 1906. Soon Britains opened a Paris office to take on the French market, and after WWI, began to heavily export to new markets such as the United States and Latin America. Their hollow cast lead soldiers remained in production until 1967 when soldiers made of lead were outlawed for safety reasons. Britains however, continued producing figures in plastic, and starting in 1973, figures with a non-lead based metal. They remain in production to this day with a number of different lines, painting and sculpting styles. Perhaps because the way they were marketed (usually by individual regiment), or because of their appealing box art, they are imho, the standard from which all antique soldiers are measured against by collectors in the United States and the UK. French companies produced far more elegant figures, and the Germans figures are more animated, found in a variety of poses and backed up by an amazing line of tin vehicles that surpasses anything Britain’s ever produced for realism. Yet Britains figures continue to have a fixed place in the toy soldier collector community and are more likely to be encountered in America far more then their French and German counterparts.

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Modern collecting category terminology.  The collecting community groups Britain’s lead figures into several distinct production eras. Ancients (figures made between 1893-1922), pre-war (1922-41), and post-war (1945-1967). Beyond that, Britains plastic figures, and post 1967 produced figures have their own categories and subcategories, but these won’t be initially covered in this thread. Shown viewers left to right: two Ancient era Royal Marines, center two Pre-War era Royal Marines, right two Post-War era Royal Marines.

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Size: All Britains standardized figures are 54mm or 2 1/8 inches high. Although, some very early figures were 52mm and Britains did around the turn of the century produce a range of smaller figures, these are seldom encountered by the average American collector, so won’t be covered here.

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Dating your Britains figures. With such long production run, it should be no surprise many of these figures were re-sculpted over the years multiple times, as well as changes to how they were painted and packaged. It’s painting style, packaging, and content that gives clues to production dates.

 

Here is the evolution of how figures changed over time using set set #35, Royal Marines at slope, from the viewers left to right is it’s most early version figure (c. 1897) thru to later figures (1954)….set 35 holds the record for the most variations of any set. The officer and the other ranks below him account for each modification. To the far left is the bemedaled officer with fixed arms. Below him is a Marine with the valise pack. Note they have round bases. Next are the 1905 figures. The officer now has a movable arm with sword, and has the new square base but the other ranks is still sporting a round base. He did however discard the old valise pack for the newer box pack. The next figures dates from around 1908 and the other ranks Marine carries a new rifle. The next figures sport white helmets and date from the early 1920’s. In 1934 the helmet changed again to the Wolseley pattern, although the Marines still retain the box pack and gaitered pants. By 1936 both officer and enlisted men were full trousers while still retaining the box pack. The officer no longer carries a sword. In 1937 the box pack has been removed as well as mustaches. The last four figures date from after WWII, with the final enlisted man on the lower right having a slightly different bayonet (1954).

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Boxes and content. The standard the company eventually settled upon after a few years of production was 8 infantry to a box, usually with one figure representing an officer. Mounted figures came 5 figures to a box with one figure being either a bugler or an officer.  Although they also produced some massive sets that had up to 273 figures in them, they are rare and most likely will not be encountered. But for all sets, over time, as materials became more expensive, figure numbers were cut from the boxes, particularly after WWII. So an 8 piece set might be reduced to 7 pieces and cavalry set reduced from 5 pieces to 4 by the early 1960’s. Here is a 8 piece set of Royal Marines at the present c. 1937-38 (front rank)….and the same set post-war, now reduced to 7 figures (rear rank). Notice the post-war figures have a different base and of a different color. This base color change was due to the figures now being used to simulate lining a road the Coronation route would take when accompanied by the Queens Coronation coach, footmen, and outriders.  It was probably because of the Royal Marines performing this duty during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation that the set was reissued after the war.
 

 

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Poses of Britains soldiers were heavily inspired by period artwork such as done by Richard Simkin, or from illustrations found in the Army and Navy Gazette. Here is a Simkin print with set # 206 the Warwickshire Regiment and another Simkin print of the sideways turned 5th Lancer officer, and it’s Britains counterpart found in set #33 the 16/5th Lancers, as well as a number of other lancer sets.

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Over the years, Britains changed box styles and packing styles for their figures which can further help date them. Early on Britains  followed the continental example and packed them in red  boxes with a label on top of the box. These early boxes, made of cardboard (and lighter then wooden boxes from the continental makers), were divided internally so each soldier sat cushioned in its own compartment. Later the figures were tied to a card inside the box. Also in the late 1930’s Britains tried slotting their figures in to the base of a box.  Britains standard boxes were rectangular, vice continental square boxes. Early Britains boxes have simple labels and are now called “Printer Label” boxes. Such a box usually had regimental battle honors on the label and a few other simple embellishments such as flowers or patterns. A box lacking Boer War or WWI battle honors means it dates the set to before the Boer War or WWI. The Worcestershire Regiment box is shown as it is pretty close to mint. The next image shows the original tissue paper that protected the figures. The next two images show how they were tied in the box. These figures have not been removed since they were placed in the box c. 1937. Below that is a mounted unit box showing the holes were the figures were tied and a multiple row box minus its contents.

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Starting in 1908 a local artist, Fred Whisstock was employed to give the boxes more appealing labels. Whisstock added images of soldiers of the regiment, although not always in the poses included in the box. He continued making new labels thru 1930. Whisstock labels will have the artist name printed on them. Whisstock boxes have their own appeal to Britains collectors. After Whisstock departed, Britain’s employed other artists to update old boxes or create new designs for new figures. In the late 30’s they came up with a generic box that was increasing used with Dominion and foreign troops.

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After WWII Britain’s developed a standardized universal box label that read “Regiments of All Nations”….these will always contain post-war made figures. In 1962 they “modernized” their packaging again, this time with clear fronted cellophane and cardboard boxes (cellophane box image from eBay)

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Standing up. Early standing infantry figures had round unmarked bases, followed around 1901 by round based figures with small round paper labels found underneath the figure contains copyright information. Followed around 1908 by figures with square bases that had embossed copyright information on its underside, stating the name of the company, after several rival company’s were sued for copyright infringement. Figures made at their Paris  office have the word “Depose” stamped on them. Although when the Paris office closed in the early 1920’s many of these French castings were sent back to England and used for years thereafter. Starting in the early 1900’s Mounted figures, Britains after experimenting with detachable lead copyright tabs, settled on embossing copyright information on to the bellies of their horses. Some general guidelines for dating the creation of a figures cast:

 

1901-12: “COPYRIGHT Wm BRITAIN” or “Wm BRITAIN JRN” and sometimes “MADE IN ENGLAND”

1913: “BRITAINsS LTD. COPYRIGHT PROPRIETORS”

1937: “MADE IN ENGLAND BRITAINS LTD COPYRIGHT PROPRIETORS”

1946: “COPYRIGHT BRITAINS LTD MADE IN ENGLAND “

1956: “BRITAINS LTD ENGLAND”

 

Below the shots of Britains bases are some photos of Britains in-country competitors….primarily the John Hill Company that was started by a former employee of Britains. There are others, but none of them come up to the standards Britains set.

 

 

 

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Another dating technique is looking at the boots of a figure.  Into the early 1930’s figures wore gaiters and are called half-booted by collectors.  By the mid 30’s soldiers wore full trousers, with the gaiters no longer being present. Also note the deep translucent blue of the trousers…this is a feature found on many of Britain’s figures ranging from the early 1900’s thru the 1930’s.

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Red Devil

Awesome collection and write-up, Dirk!  And a nice walk down memory lane.  Spent nearly 20 years collecting old Britains.  Collecting interests shifted, but still have them.  Always appreciated the diversity of conflicts represented and the history behind these.

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Painting styles. Each era has its distinctive painting style and their own charm. Britain’s standard figures were for the most part well painted. Britain’s put a premium on accuracy, something they accused the German producers of falling short on. Casting was done by men, and painting by women. At a penny a figure a Edwardian-age woman could make a good wage cranking out painted figures at the factory or at home. The company went through periods where painting was generally better executed then other periods. Take faces. Britain’s figure faces were a flesh tone with a circle of pink added to each cheek. Followed by mustaches or red lips for un-mustached figures, two black dots for eyes and possibly chin straps painted in.  During Britain’s “Ancient” period, figures tended to be well painted: neat without overusing paint, eye brows might be painted in above the eyes neatly. Mustaches aligning just below the nose. Later periods eyes might not be centered, mustaches might done diagonal across the face, lips may be thick in bold red making the figure looking like it’s wearing lipstick. One trick you can use for dating a Britains figure is sometime around 1937-1938, they stopped painting mustaches on their figures. Probably the nations leading authority on Britain’s is partial to the painting done during 1937-38 (yes, experts can sometimes narrow down a figures production by the paint style). To him this is the apex years of finely painted standard figures. 

 

Here is a compilation of faces from Ancient (top 6), pre war (middle 6), followed by Post-war (bottom 6). The early figures paint has mellowed and darkened around the faces, while the post war figures remain bright and more glossy. The post-war figures are almost a bit cartoonish to me. 

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Britains also made special castings and provided extra quality painting for collectors. This set of highlanders might fall within that range…or they could be collector embellished. Under black light period Britains paint should not glow. If it does, a collector has messed with the figure. However, more recent expert repairers/restorers usually use paint that does not always glow. Currently, there is rumored to be a group of sellers in England who buy old battered figures and repaint them flawlessly….but they tend to focus on Ancients and rare sets or create fantasy sets that were never produced. Here is a standard highlander (left) with possibly a special paint, or a more likely embellished figure (right). Note the highlander on the right has touch up paint of a different shade indicating it’s been messed with.

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The next series of photos will cover the evolution of the various sets. Britains was very robust in continuing to redesign their figures - always looking to improve them either for accuracy, or updating of equipment, or to make them more anatomically correct. Here is set # 80 White jackets. The figure on the left is as first issued (1897)with a oblong base and a somewhat smaller head in proportion to the figure. The second figure dates to around c1907 and has a square, but as of yet, unmarked base and an improved head. The third casting was created in 1910, and now has new head, and moves the rifle from slope to trail. The slope position being rather difficult to maintain while running. Because the neckerchief is a darker blue then the earlier powder blue, we can assume this particular figure dates from 1938-1941. This set was dropped from the Britains catalog after WWII.

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Proud Kraut

That´s a fantastic reference, thanks for sharing all these details! What an awesome collection.

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I'm enjoying this - please keep it going. I grab these toy soldiers when I see them. I remember an aunt who got me a set for Christmas long ago, in the 60's, and occasionally getting them reminds me of that great gift. Those are long gone however.

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Here are two versions of the highly popular mountain battery. On the top is the 1st version (first introduced in 1895). The officer is fixed arm on a spindly horse . The walking artillery man is a few millimeters short of their standard 54mm sized figure, is on a round unmarked base. The second version not shown here, provided a slightly redesigned taller artillery man on a square base and an improved officer. The bottom image shows the third version (reintroduced in 1952) with the officer having a movable arm and now riding the chunky aide-de-camp horse. 

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Seated figures. These are the type of figures one would encounter driving Britains supply wagons, artillery cassions, and horse drawn ambulances. The earlier figures have their feet together while the later figures have their feet apart. I believe the feet apart design change came around 1922.

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Artillery changes. In the top photo the gun on the left is the first version of the Royal Field Artillery Gun. The gun to its right the revised field gun of 1932. The second picture highlights the guns of the Royal Navy Land Party. The gun on the left dates from 1897, while the gun on the right is a post war example. Note the earlier gun has eight spokes per wheel, while the later gun has 12. There was an intervening period when the gun (not shown here), in the 1920’s had 10 spokes.

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