Ralph Finn had acquired a set of Meccano which disappeared when he was about eleven years old and was then rediscovered some years later as he and his widowed mother were preparing to move out of their slum home in Aldgate in the east end of London. Resolving to give the set to the first child he met, Finn thrust it into the hands of the astonished urchin, whose incredulity at his good fortune was such that his benefactor was moved to tears. ‘“For me, mister?” It was the “me” that did it. My eyes,’ recalled Finn, ‘brimmed with tears ...’ The boy’s astonishment was understandable, given that he had just been presented with what was then – and for long remained – the most successful brand name toy in Britain. After a stunned moment of disbelief, he clutched his booty to his puny chest and scampered off, disappearing from Finn’s sight and indeed from history.
The young lad’s unexpected gift had been the invention of Frank Hornby, a Liverpool businessman whose company was also responsible for the highly popular Hornby train sets and which was shortly to launch the even more successful range of Dinky model vehicles. All three products – Meccano, Hornby and Dinky – became eponymous terms, an achievement which probably no other toy company anywhere in the world has ever matched. Writing in the 1970s of his childhood fifty years earlier another Londoner, Louis Heren, recalled only one plaything by name – Meccano. Few other names are so calculated, even a quarter of a century or so after the company’s closure, to mist the eyes of the (mainly but by no means exclusively) male generations reared in Britain or its imperial territories during the twentieth century and whose childhood leisure hours were so happily passed in playing with the outputs of Binns Road, Hornby’s Liverpool factory.
Most of the existing books about Meccano are concerned primarily with detail, often highly technical. That the authors are in most cases amateur historians is in no way to belittle their achievements, since between them they have preserved much that would otherwise have been lost; they are usually historically aware, and they generally write with the passion of the enthusiast. Reading their work certainly helps develop a fuller appreciation of why the Christmas present of a Meccano set, a birthday Hornby train, or the pocket money Dinky prompted in their recipients such joy and delight.
Factory of Dreams draws from these works but offers the reader far more, providing for the first time a comprehensive history of the company behind the famous names. How exactly did Frank Hornby build his small Liverpool engineering firm into an international enterprise? Who were the men alongside him? How did Hornby’s legacy affect developments after his death? Why was the company unable to adjust to the more challenging trading environment of the 1960s? What effect did successive takeovers by Lines Brothers and Airfix have? Were the trade unions the ultimate cause of the company’s demise? Drawing on surviving company archives to an unparalleled extent, these are just some of the issues addressed in this lively survey, written by a leading economic historian who has published widely on the history of the toy business.
There is something for everyone in this book. For the enthusiast, there is the context to bring a fuller understanding of why particular products evolved as they did. For those interested in business, Meccano seems symptomatic of much of the British engineering industry in the twentieth century, more concerned with technical quality than economic efficiency and dogged by sour industrial relations. In adding to the growing list of company histories relating to Liverpool and the North West heartland of industrial Britain, the book has the further merit of focusing on a relatively neglected manufacturing sector.
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KENNETH D. BROWN is Professor Emeritus at Queen's University Belfast, former Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor of Economic and Social History.
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