The die-cast model cars were generically called Dinky toys, but other makes were common too; Corgi, Matchbox and a rather less well-known brand called Spot-On. This was a brand-name of Tri-ang, itself a trade name of Lines Brothers Ltd, a long-gone name in toy manufacturing. There were three Lines brothers, and three lines make a triangle!
My own favourites were Dinkies, because only these included civil engineering equipment, the bulldozers, road rollers and dump trucks. With these I could carve roads out of the earth in the back garden. (As you may have guessed, I wasn’t the kind of child who put his toys carefully back in their boxes when I had finished playing with them.) The army vehicles were popular too, and these were also made by Dinky.
Related to army vehicles was another plaything, my bag of model soldiers. I arrived on the planet just too late to have many lead soldiers (I had a few), for which I am extremely grateful. The detail was much better on plastic soldiers, and they only bounced, and did not break or bend as soon as you dropped them. Toys made of lead would now be regarded as a toxic menace, but I doubt if anyone was ever harmed by playing with them. A lot of my plastic soldiers came from Woolworths. They were unpainted although moulded in a khaki colour, but they looked much more authentic if I painted the hands and faces pink.
Little balsa wood gliders with cardboard wings came flat packed in a greaseproof paper bag. They were good for a half hour or so’s play. If you adjusted the tail fin you could throw the glider so that it would return to your hand. (As if!) There were planes too that flew by twisting the rubber band which powered the propeller. The models that flew by little diesel engines or Jetex power plants were too advanced for children like me, and radio control was for teenagers or dedicated adults. The more elaborate gliders were also not really toys and required a lot of adult help as they were painstakingly assembled with balsa cement, tissue paper and dope. After completion they would make one flight, crash land, and then it was back to the drawing board!
So much for flying models; much more common were the static exhibits, and these were mostly Airfix kits. Airfix made kits of other things such as cars and ships, but it was planes that caught the imagination. They were painstakingly assembled with a tube of polystyrene glue, then painted and finally the decals were wetted in a saucer of water and slipped into place. This was the end of its play value; even if the end product was acceptable (and they were mostly covered in gluey finger prints or splodges of camouflage paint) there was nothing you could actually do with them. My Airfix kits were motly bought at Woollies. The small aircraft like the Auster or Spitfire came in plastic bags, and only the ambitious projects, like the Lancaster bomber, came in a cardboard box.
The basic model yacht was a solid wooden hull with a metal keel, but more detailed toy boats were made of plastic. All these model yachts had just two sails, a jib and a mains’l, and just one mast. There were other toy boats based on powered craft; a tug boat and steam drifter were made of tin plate, and were driven by a clockwork motor, but these I never possessed. I did have an Air Sea Rescue launch that had an electric motor, with a reverse gear. Unfortunately I sent if off backwards across the yacht pond and the water came over the transom, filled the cockpit and sank the boat. My father waded in to retrieve it.
I could not play Cowboys and Indians as a solitary child, but I could pretend to be a Cowboy or an Indian. As a Cowboy I had a revolver complete with a leather belt and holster. Some little boys even had two pistols. We were for ever practicing being ‘quick on the draw’. There were six bullets you loaded into the magazine and a pink roll of caps so you could shoot with a real explosive bang. As an Indian I had a wigwam, a feathered head-dress and a bow and arrows with rubber suckers on the ends. Whether Cowboy or Indian, it was all about fighting. There was also a shotgun to play with, which broke at the breech to load and out flew a cork on a string when you pulled the trigger. It was powered by a spring. It was all highly realistic.
I hardly dare admit that I was always playing with knives. We needed penknives to sharpen our pencils from a very young age, pencil sharpeners being an expensive luxury, but penknives were also playthings. I had a penknife that I used for carving my initials underneath the lid of the school desk when no-one was looking. Why this was such a popular pastime I do not know, for it would have been a simple task to discover who had done the deed. You just had to match the initials to the culprit. I even had a sheath-knife for whittling sticks of wood. Most boys had a sheath-knife, or hankered after one; stabbings however were unheard of, unlike today, when knives are supposedly kept well away from little hands. I never even cut my finger, or if I did I have forgotten.
My model railway – the one that I could play with rather than just watch – was Hornby O gauge. These were definitely toys not models, and when you picked up your 0-4-0 locomotive you definitely knew you were holding something of substance. These were 100% metal, and when fully wound up would circumnavigate the circle of track about three times. My loco started off at a great pace, but by the end it was crawling along.
Meccano was another toy from the Hornby factory. This was a highly detailed mechanical set of parts, from which one could, in theory, build a working model of Tower Bridge or a Ferris wheel. In fact nearly all of us lacked both the technical ability and the large number of girders required for such ambitious projects. I was reduced to making small models from tin-plate sheets and screws, which represented what I alone knew. For some reason my father was not over keen on Meccano. I think he was itching to get me working on real metal fabrication with drills, files and a hacksaw. Nevertheless Meccano was a popular hobby, with its own monthly magazine which was published all through my youth.
Apart from Teddies, girls played with completely different toys. Dolls came top of course. Barbie and Cindy dolls were after my time, although only by a year or two, and so these were entirely baby dolls. Toy prams came with baby dolls, and so did dolls’ houses. Toy kitchen sets and beds with bed-clothes were an extension of the dolls’ house. Some Airfix kits were made by girls; not the aeroplanes, but the historical figures. Over all though, I can’t resist the impression that a female toy box was much inferior to a boy’s; not in quality, but in variety.
Most of the toys we played with were realistic models of the real thing. In this respect toys are very different now. The toy pedal cars were all recognizable versions of vehicles you could see on the road; I particularly remember an Austin Princess. The most popular toy car that today’s toddlers push themselves about in is a red plastic monstrosity with a yellow roof that hardly looks like a car at all. It has four tiny wheels and that is about it as far as accuracy goes. This has been popular for many years, though for the life of me I cannot see why. All toys now seem to be exotic or bizarre, with little relationship to the adult world. Teddy bears were not that different in looks from a real baby bear; they never appeared in pink or blue fur when I used to cuddle up to one. Other toy animals existed – my sister had a toy panda, but that too was a just like a living and breathing panda. Monsters were not thought of as suitable subjects for play.
You must remember that I am referring to a time some 60 years ago, and many things have changed since then. Warlike games have migrated from the playground to the bedroom, where solitary computer gamers can indulge in ever more realistic fantasies. The strict gender divide between boys’ and girls’ toys has been blurred somewhat, although I think that girls are still more likely to play with eye make-up (for example) than boys. The radio controlled model aircraft have almost ceased to be regarded as toys at all and are now deadly or intrusive drones.
Toys are a Victorian invention; in earlier days the rich child may have had a hand-made doll or a rocking horse, but nothing mass-produced. Most children had to play with bits of wood or lumps of clay. By the time they were old enough to be more adventurous they were sent out to work, scaring crows or threading looms. I regard myself as very lucky to have lived through the golden age of toys. Electronics seem to have taken over many aspects of play, and have deadened the imagination.