|Founder||William Britain Jr.|
Britains is a toy company known for its diecast lead soldiers, but the company, with its factory in London, also diversified into other associated toys such as diecast zamac military trucks and agriculture vehicles.
The W. Britain brand name of toy and collectable soldiers is derived from a company founded by William Britain Jr., a British toy manufacturer, who in 1893 invented the process of hollow casting in lead, and revolutionized the production of toy soldiers. The company quickly became the industry leader, and was imitated by many other companies, such as Hanks Bros. and John Hill and Co. (Gibbs 2009; Joplin 1996). The style and scale of Britain's figures became the industry standard for toy soldiers for many years.
In 1907 the family proprietorship, William Britain & Sons, incorporated as Britains, Ltd. The Britain family controlled the firm until 1984 when it was sold to a British conglomerate, Dobson Park Industries. They combined the operations with an existing line of toys and renamed the company Britains Petite, Ltd. (Opie 1993). During the first half of the 20th century, Britains expanded its range and market. By 1931 the firm employed 450 at its London factory. The catalogue had expanded to 435 sets and twenty million models a year were being produced. (Wallis 1981).
In the early 1950s Britains was associated with W. Horton Toys and Games which made the diecast Lilliput ranges of small-scale rather generic cars and trucks and other vehicles. Later, Britains acquired Herald Miniatures, plastic figures designed by Roy Selwyn-Smith. The company was also known for its American Revolutionary War soldiers.
In the 1950s, besides soldiers, a variety of vehicles began to appear, mostly in the military field. One such detailed diecast vehicle was a Royal Artillery 4.5" Howitzer towable cannon that fired toy shells. For a toy, it was intricately designed, with a special threaded post with rotating knob to raise and lower the cannon. Also in early 1950s, one of the first Britains vehicles was a Bluebird land speed record car of famed driver Sir Malcolm Campbell. It had a removable body and the box showed a detailed cut-away illustration of the car.
In 1966 safety regulations in the United Kingdom combined with rising costs halted the production of lead toy soldiers. Britains shifted most production of Herald plastic to Hong Kong from 1966. In 1971 Britains started Deetail plastic figures with metal bases that were initially manufactured in England but later outsourced to China.
When production stopped, the range of catalogued lead sets exceeded 2200. In 1973 Britains introduced New Metal models, which are die cast in a durable alloy. Initially these sets were aimed at the British souvenir market. In 1983 Britains responded to a growing collectors' market by introducing additional models and limited edition sets. This range was greatly expanded over the next 20 years and included die-cast versions of their old toy soldiers, some made from original moulds. These, as well as their lines of Deetail plastic figures and accessories, and their older sets have become highly collectable.
Some diecast vehicles entered Britains production in the few years just following World War II, like the accurately painted no. 128f Fordson Major tractor in the "Model Farm" series (Rixon 2005, p. 123). It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that the company began regularly manufacturing military and agricultural vehicles and accessories, ostensibly to be used with figurines, but several lines of vehicles were made in their own right. Land Rovers, and later Range Rovers, were probably the most common offering (both traditional and newer versions), but farm tractors and a wide variety of farm implements appeared. Various commercial lorries — such as a 1:43 scale milk tanker, flat bed, tipper, and cement mixer — also appeared. A line of military vehicles was offered, and, rather oddly considering the previous military and agricultural orientation, a selection of racing motorcycles.
In 1997 Britains Petite, Ltd was bought by Ertl Company of Iowa, a maker of die-cast toys. Ertl was subsequently bought by Round 2 LLC, another American die-cast miniature and plastic kit maker. At this time, production of toy soldiers was moved to China. In 2005, the W. Britains brand was acquired by First Gear, an American maker of die-cast collectibles. This firm produces and sells mostly contemporary matte-style figures to the collectors market under the W. Britain brand. Kenneth A. Osen was the master sculptor for W. Britain until June, 2013 when he was appointed General Manager & Creative Director. Sculpting continues to be done by Ken Osen, Alan Ball and Graham Scollick. All figures are sculpted by hand, to scale, before duplication. On January 30, 2012 Bachmann Europe Plc became the sole distributor of all W. Britain figures in the U.K and Continental Europe (Britain 2013-2015).
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- Britains. 2013-2015. Collectors Club website.
- Gibbs, M. T. 2009. A Short History of Britains Toy Company.
- Joplin. N. 1996. Toy Soldiers. London: Quintet Publishing, Ltd.
- Opie, James. 1993. The Great Book of Britains. Great Britain: New Cavendish Books.
- Rixon, Peter. 2005. Miller's Collecting Diecast Vehicles. London: Miller's, a division of Mitchell Beasley. ISBN 1-84533-030-7.
- Wallis, Joe. 1981. Regiments of all Nations. Baltimore, Maryland: Waverly Press, Inc.
- W. Britain web site
- Britains on Planet Diecast's Catalog
- Old Britains Ltd. Lead Figures - information for collectors of pre-1966 Britains
- Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library - collection of over 6,000 miniature toy soldiers including many Britains figures
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