Originally posted on 12/05/2018 by the Gardens Trust on their blog. Reproduced
here in edited form with kind permission from Dr David
Marsh, the author and a trustee of the Gardens Trust.
Sorry to disappoint you if you
thought you were going read a post about gardens in bottles, on saucers,
mini-flower pots or bonsai. Instead it’s a potential walk down Memory Lane
for everyone who grew up between the wars and had their first chance to turn
their hands to gardening. But not the hard way. You didn’t have to get your
fingers dirty, you didn’t have to do any backbreaking digging or weeding. You
didn’t have to deal with marauding slugs and snails, your plants didn’t get
munched by greedy caterpillars and you didn’t have to encounter any stinging or
biting bugs or noxious plant diseases. Indeed, you could garden on the kitchen
table or on your bedroom floor.
The opportunities stopped during
the war when you really did have to dig for Victory, but started up again for
another generation in the 1960s and 70s, although once again it didn’t last
How come all this gardening the
easy and blisterless way was possible? It was originally all thanks to a
man named William Britain whose company created the first mass-produced models
that allowed children (and consenting adults!) to create a miniature
version of their parents’ back gardens and to rearrange it all at will.
William Britain (1828 – 1906) was
a Midlands metal worker who moved to North London in 1847 to work as a ‘brass
clock maker’. By the 1880s he had started to manufacture a range of clockwork
metal toys and a decade later, turned his attention to the toy soldier market, then
largely dominated by German imports. In 1893 his eldest son, William Britain
Junior (1860 – 1933), invented a new production process of hollowcasting in
lead which enabled the company to both increase their output and sell their
figures at a lower price than their competitors. W. Britain was soon established
as a household name for toy military figures.
horrific effects of World War I saw demand for toy soldiers decline
dramatically and to stay in business, Britain’s responded by increasing its
‘domestic’ and ‘civilian’ ranges. In 1921 they introduced their Model Farm,
which was quickly followed by their Zoo. Over the next few years they added
more and more new lines: emergency services, horse racing, circuses, cars and
road traffic and, lest you think I’ve forgotten the topic of this blog, in 1930
they began Britains Miniature Gardens.
I should explain at this point, just
in case you think my punctuation is a bit awry, that the company name had what
Brighton Toy Museum call “a roving apostrophe”, as its name changed from W.
Britain to Britain’s to Britains’ when there were more than one member of the
family running it, before eventually settling on Britains without any
apostrophe at all!
Gardens were, according to the sales
catalogue, designed to enable “the gardener, amateur or professional, to plan
out his garden in a thoroughly practical manner from the laying out of the beds,
paths, crazy paving, arches, pergolas, etc., and last but not least filling it
with a large variety of plants in full flower and in Nature’s gorgeous
colourings, arranging and rearranging his design in miniature until a
satisfactory one has been achieved.”
At the same time Britains
changed their sales method, switching from large boxed sets to selling
single/small groups of items which could be collected over time to complete the
full range. This switch was clearly aimed at a new market: children with weekly
pocket-money to spend. All the models were made of lead and many of the smaller
pieces were often quite crude in their modelling. The garden range included not
just trees, hedges and individual flowering plants but features like rockeries,
ponds and flowerbeds, as well as buildings such as greenhouses. The smaller
features such as the plants had ‘pegs’ for trunks/stems which could be fitted
into ready-made holes in the flower beds. Bigger plants came ‘flat’ but because
the lead was soft they could be twisted into more natural shapes. Everything
could then be arranged to create a whole garden.
There is no way of knowing how
popular these miniature gardens were, but probably not as much as the company
would have liked because the 1940 catalogue doesn’t list the range separately,
with just a few pieces appearing as part of the Model Farm. Production stopped
entirely soon after that as the factory was turned over to the war effort and
it wasn’t revived in 1945.
So, were miniature gardens out of fashion as toys?
The short answer is yes, they probably were. Certainly lead was going out of
fashion, especially as a component of children’s toys, and with the
introduction of plastics it was disappearing even faster. Britains stopped
production of anything in lead in 1966.
However, in 1960
a new range – Britains Floral Garden – appeared on the market.
It was a re-imagining of the old lead range, this time in plastic and
re-designed by Roy Selwyn-Smith who had had a long and successful career
designing toys with another company which had been taken over by Britains. You might wonder why the garden items needed
redesigning at all but the main reason was because of the different properties
of lead and plastic. Whereas lead can be bent into shape and stays in it,
plastic cannot be manipulated in the same way, and simply tries to revert to its
Selwyn-Smith came up with an
ingenious plan to get round that. Many of the plants were moulded as flat
shapes – rather like a ‘net’ used to create 3-D shapes in geometry. As a result,
many looked a bit like elaborate snowflakes with everything radiating around a
central point/hub. This point could be pushed into a hole in the plastic
flowerbed using a simple spade-like “planting tool”. When this was done the
“snowflake” closed up and the “foliage” and branches bunched up relatively
realistically, bringing the plants “alive”.
The target audience was still
clearly children so the principle of selling in small packs was maintained.
There were a few starter sets and lots of accessory packs, with extra items
available to expand and diversify the garden layout. All the pieces fitted
together with relative ease, and could be reassembled and moved around allowing
a lot of variety and change that ensured children did not get bored when
playing. The various parts available were typical of a suburban plot of the
1950s. You could have a rockery and crazy paving, a lily pond, rustic walls
made of interlocking bricks and immaculate lawns, fuzzily textured and
perfectly striped. The range of plants was also very much of its day:
weeping willows and mini-conifers, delphiniums and asters, standard roses and
The following year the range was expanded with the introduction of Floral Garden People. No expense spared, they were
based on wax models created by a Royal Academician, Norman Stillman. This was
probably an attempt to revive interest because although I can’t find any
specific statistical information about sales figures, they can’t have
been good because Floral Gardens ceased production in
attempt, now very clearly aimed at girls, was made in 1976 when it was
relaunched as Lucy’s Little Garden. Despite
more accessory packs being released the following year, Lucy’s fared no better and
in 1979 the range was deleted altogether. Britains was sold by the family in
1984 and since then it has changed hands several times and is now part of
First Gear, an American manufacturer of “collectibles”, although the Britains
name has been retained for some of the ranges. Sadly, these don’t include miniature
gardens, and the Britains Collectors Club is only concerned with the toy
soldiers rather than toy gardeners and their flower borders.
it looks as if gardening just didn’t work as a children’s toy. While that may
be true on a mass-market scale, there’s no doubt that these miniature
gardens enthralled many children. The idea was different from other toys
of the period and those owners who spent many happy childhood hours, planting
and rearranging their plastic gardens, are now fiercely loyal with
blogposts and webpages devoted to adults reliving their gardening in miniature.