William Britain was born in 1828 and founded the Britains company in the mid 1840s when he moved from Birmingham to London. Initially just the family members hand produced ingenious mechanical clockwork toys such as a walking bears and penny-farthing riders; but these toys were too expensive to be mass-produced.

The big breakthrough was in 1893 when William Britain (the son of the original founder) revolutionized the production of toy soldiers by devising the hollow casting production method, making figures that were cheaper and lighter than their German counterparts. The process of hollow casting involves pouring molten metal into an engraved two-part mould and then pouring the excess out through a small hole to leave a hollow shell that takes on the detail of the mould. This process uses much less metal than a solid figure and therefore produces a lighter and less expensive product. This gave Britains the advantage to become the world’s leading toy model manufacturer. In 1896, figures with moveable arms were added to the Britains range.

Over the next sixty years, the company dominated the market, producing several thousand different sets of uniformed model armed forces from around the world. They were set apart not only by their innovative production methods but also their attention to detail and emphasis on historical accuracy, using a standardised 54mm size.

Diversification from military saw models of football teams introduced in 1904, Salvation Army figures in 1906, civilians in 1908 followed by railway staff and passengers in 1909. A Wild West series devoted to North American Indians appeared in 1908 but cowboys did not follow until 1913. Similarly, a range of Boy Scouts was introduced in 1910 but it took until the 1930s to have a range of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

In 1921, as the appetite for miniature soldiers took an understandable dip after the First World War, Britains took the opportunity to introduce their Model Home Farm series that stylised agricultural production in the UK at the time. The models were all based on real people or animals, finely detailed and hand painted. Everything was sold individually to allow children to make up their own collections but there were also sets and picture packs produced for gifting occasions.

One rare piece was the village idiot (as seen on the Lilliput World logo). Queen Mary reputedly visited the Britains stand at the 1927 British Industries Fair and commented that the 'Britains farm set had everything but the village idiot!’ So the company made one. The Hunt series of lead horses, huntsmen and hounds was introduced in 1924; the colours of famous racehorse owners in 1925 and a police and road series in 1927. 1930 saw both a new Zoo series inspired by London's Regent Park Zoo and the introduction of the intricately detailed and highly collectable Miniature Garden series that continued in production until 1941. The Mammoth Circus range was introduced in 1936.

Britains recognised the huge overseas potential for their figures as far back as 1905, establishing distributors in the key markets of the United States, Europe and Australia.

The Britains phenomenon gave rise to a number of other manufacturers such as John Hill & Company, Taylor & Barrett, F. G. Taylor, Charbens, Pixyland / F. Kew and Company, Cherilea and Timpo lead figures, all of which are represented on this website in some form.

Young boys and girls in the first part of the 20th century were lucky enough to have access to these items as toys. The production of lead models in the UK ceased in 1966, when production switched to plastic and alloy materials. In more recent times, lead figures and soldiers have ceased to be toys and entered the world of collectables.

1 2 3 21 Next »