Soldiers under fire. Illustration from Little Wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.

Little wars on the floor

ATTEN-SHUN... PRESENT ARMS... QUICK MARCH! 

William Britain began to make hollow-cast lead toy soldiers in London in 1893, competing with German manufacturers of solid figurines.

The company initially created rival sets of armies to reflect contemporary world conflict, but expanded the range of civilian figures following the end of World War I. The soldiers and civilians on display in the new Toys Through Time exhibition come from a keen collector for whom advancing the troops or saluting on the march has been played by four generations. His display is called 'The Trooping of the Colours in one of Her Majesty's far flung British Colonies'. 

Our lender, Ross, tells the story of his collection. 

… in all ages a certain barbaric warfare has been waged with soldiers of tin and lead and wood, with the weapons of the wild, with the catapult, the elastic circular garter, the peashooter, the rubber ball, and suchlike appliances – a mere setting up and knocking down of men. Tin murder. 

Little wars by H. G. Wells, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.

This is a black and white drawing of a miniature soldier being hit in the back by a projectile
'Tin murder'. Illustration from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.
 

Ernest & Beryl

The collection began when my mother, Beryl, encouraged her father to purchase some of the Britain figures for her. She told him it was in case she had a son when she grew up and got married - she was very persuasive. Her parents, Ernest and Enid, bought her figures such as the Land Girls and nurses from the Royal Army Medical Corp. After World War I, the family moved from Orange to Mosman where Ernest opened a general store and purchased a range of soldiers to sell. Those that did not sell easily were given to my mother, and she even managed to persuade her father to put aside a State Coach with the State Coach attendants - a big ticket item in those days! These items were later given to me, though I could only play with them under supervision and indoors, usually on rainy days.


Ernest 1890 - 1930

West Indian Regiment (1910)

1st Madras Native Infantry (1916)

Manchester Regiment, 2nd version (1920s)


Beryl 1917 - 2006

Governor (1932)

Yeoman (Beefeaters) (1937)

Life guards (1940s)

Horse & cart (1950s)

Horse & sulky (1950s)

Women's Land Army (1948)

Royal Army Medical Corp stretchers (1940s)

Royal Army Medical Corp Nurses (1953)

Royal Army Medical Corp Nurses (1953)


 

This is a black and white drawing of a Scots guard with a drum
Scots Guard. Illustration from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.
 
This is a black and white drawing of miniature soldiers in bearskin hats advancing towards helmeted soldiers with their swords out
Soldiers on parade. Illustrations from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.
 

Jack & David

My paternal grandfather, Jack, joined up to fight in World War I and served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. Jack purchased a range of Britain’s soldiers such as the Camel Corp and French Regiments after the war to help him remember the kindnesses shown to him by some of the people of France and Egypt. For many years he added to this collection which was eventually shared between my father, David, and his brother. My father chose figures in costume similar to those given by his father to continue to grow his collection, such as those wearing pith hats.


 

Jack 1892 - 1931

Arabs marching (1914)

Egyptian camel corps (1920s)

Egyptian Army (1920s)

Royal Army Medical Corp stretchers (1920s)

Royal Artillery Mountain Battery (1920-31)

Royal Marines (Tropical Dress) (1937-38)


David 1925 - 2008

Royal Marine Band and Guard (1930s)

Infantry on Guard (Tropical Dress) (1930s)

Army supply wagons (1950s) 

 

This is a black and white drawing of a toy cannon firing at some toy soldiers
Fire! Illustration from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.
 

Ross

When my father’s collection also came to me as a child, I added to it with more marching troops, cowboys and Indians, and cannons that actually will fire a match stick a considerable distance. 

While living in the USA in the 1990s I was asked to put on a toy soldier display in the local library in Old Lyme, Connecticut, for Christmas. Twice a week I would pick up my son and daughter from school, and take them to the library where we would advance the troops in the display, gradually adding more to it. This proved extremely popular with children, as each and every one of them, young and old, would converge on the display to see what ‘The Guys’ were doing on that particular day.

A few years later I was approached by a local toy store owner, Richard, to put on another Christmas display, this time in the village of Mystic, Connecticut. I had met Richard when his father helped me restore some of the older items in my collection, primarily the 'amputees'. We were given an area equivalent to four full-sized billiards tables to use, and so we featured a war, of sorts, (in the centre), with troops continually arriving on either side and advancing into battle. Naturally, with my son and daughter, we changed and added to the display roughly once a week. Afterwards, the local Department of Commerce presented us with a handsome payment for our efforts, as the display was the most popular that year.

Freshly cashed up, I was now able to purchase items I could not ordinarily afford, and so once more the collection grew to feature some of the more modern styles, some of which are displayed at the Museum of Sydney in the Toys Through Time exhibition, 28 March - 9 August 2015.

These days, the collection augments a large model railway layout, and occasionally is on display at the Australian Model Railway Association’s New South Wales clubrooms in Mortdale during their open day weekends. Of course, on rainy days, my children and I would set up vast parades around the house, or engage in ‘Soldier Wars,’ firing match sticks from cannons at opposing armies, while our Australian Terrier sat by and barked his approval each time one of us gave the order to “FIRE !!!”

This is a black and white drawing of a miniature soldier on horseback under fire by projectiles
Fire! Illustration from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.

Various dates


Arabs Marching (1948)

Metal carriage and tank loco (maker: Trimmingham, 1950s)

11th Hussars (1950s) 

Railway staff (1960s)

Landau coach (1960s)

Royal Marines (Tropical Dress) (1937-38)


1990s

27th Light Cavalry Madras

Seaforth's Pipe band and guard

Pipers (mixed dress)

Royal Army Military Corp Nurses

Yeomen (Beefeaters)

NSW Lancers (maker: DB Figurines)


2000s

Horse guards (blue)

Life guards (red)

Market shop / House (maker: King & Country, 2014)

Women's Land Army tent

Fortification wall (maker: Town & Country, made from resin)

'O' scale 3-rail track (maker: Atlas)

Full band of the Scots Guards

Variety of civilians and Officers (makers: Britain’s, Imperial, Wilson Edward Toy Soldiers)

Ladies  in day/ walking/ afternoon dress

This is an advertisement for toy soldiers with drawings in blue of different soldiers, equipment and other figures such as cowboys and Indians with their model number
Join Up! with Britains, advertisement, Playthings catalogue, Walther & Stevenson, 1954-1955, p 97. State Library of NSW: 688.7207405/1
 

Changing of the guard

On 19 May I visited the Museum of Sydney and advanced the parade. I will be back in mid-July 2015 to update this display one more time. Will you spot the difference?

This is a black and white drawing of a general on horseback examining a map
The General on horseback. Illustration from Little wars by H. G. Wells, illustrated by J. R. Sinclair, 1913, facsimile edition Arms and Armour Press, 1970. University of Queensland Library.
 

About the Author

Colour photograph head and shoulders portrait of woman with long brown hair and glasses
Veronica Kooyman
Assistant Curator
Interpretation & Exhibitions
Veronica has worked in museums since 2009 and has been fortunate to work at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour and the National Motor Museum in the Adelaide Hills where she had far too much fun riding around in vintage cars. She now works with the exhibitions team at Sydney Living Museums where she is constantly learning new and fascinating stories from her home city.
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