Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Gardening in Miniature

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 that long.

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.

A gardener with his barrow from the Britains Miniature Gardening range, c. 1930s.
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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.

Foreward to a 1958 Britains company catalogue.
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The 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!

Miniature 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 original form.
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 moulded plastic plant laid flat, top left, and the 3D effect seen when ‘planted’.
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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 marrows.

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 1970.

The Floral Garden People in situ.
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Another 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.

So, 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.

Dr David Marsh
Gardens Trust

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