Toys in Sheffield museum collection played a vital role in pre-war emergency planning

There was a time when Dinky toys and tin soldiers were found in the Christmas stockings of millions of youngsters.

Tuesday, 5th January 2021, 6:54 pm

Although it’s probably the case that not many children had them on their list for 2020, they remain fondly in people’s memories and highly sought after by collectors.

But when is a toy soldier not a toy soldier? The answer; when a world war is looming and it becomes a vital training aid to help Britain prepare for the terrifying ordeal of the Blitz.

In April 1937, in response to the growing threat of conflict in Europe and the aerial bombing of civilians in the Spanish Civil War, the government decided to create the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service. Its job would be to protect civilians from the danger of air raids as well as help those caught up in the bombing.

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Using lead figures such as these stretcher bearers helped with pre-war emergency planning and drill exercises

During the next 12 months this volunteer organisation swelled to over 20,000 members. Training was based on the experiences of both World War One and the Spanish Civil War, with aerial bombing and gas attacks seen as the main threats.

It also became clear that ambulance and other medical services would need to train with ARP wardens in advance of the predicted heavy casualties.

The best way to do this was through live exercises on the streets of towns and cities across the country.

However, it was thought that such exercises would have a detrimental effect on the morale of the civilians they sought to help and protect, bringing too close to home the fears of aerial bombardment.

Many different ARP and civil defence roles were captured in miniature

So the next best idea was to perform tactical exercises within the confines of offices, church and drill halls using miniatures.

At this point two toy companies entered the scene; William Britain, and Taylor and Barrett. Both were established and hugely successful manufacturers of lead model figures.

Indeed, by 1939 Britain was the biggest maker of toy soldiers in the world.

The National Emergency Services Museum in Sheffield has a large collection of toys that help tell the story of the emergency services

As part of the wider ARP education programme the Government had authorised the issuing of cigarette cards, to advise people about personal protection or to reassure them about the defensive plans in place.

Every tobacco company carried this unified set of cards to spread the message as widely as possible.

Both toy companies were asked to sculpt and produce figures based on the subjects that appeared on the cards. These figures would be used to help with emergency planning and drill exercises out of the way of public scrutiny.

Over the coming months anti-aircraft guns, firefighters in gas masks, women operating stirrup pumps, gas decontamination teams, medical evacuation teams and ARP wardens all appeared in miniature.

From 1938 until the middle of 1939 take-up of these figures by emergency planning departments throughout the country was high. However by that summer it was clear that war was inevitable.

The subterfuge intended to shield civilians from the prospect of conflict was unnecessary and live exercises became a staple of weekend life in most cities and towns.

At this point the figures were made available to the wider toy market, with many finding their way into Christmas stockings during the first festive season of the war in 1939.

By that time, however, both companies were already almost out of the toy business; their factories commandeered to produce die cast parts for grenades, mines and bombs.

For Taylor and Barrett its long history of toy production ended even more abruptly. In October 1940, at the start of the London blitz, its East Finchley factory was reduced to rubble by German bombing. The firm decided to relocate but abandoned toy making in favour of munitions work for the war effort.

Whilst the firm carried on post-war, the moulds for all of its ARP figures were either destroyed or deemed out of date by a company that embraced the much more modern plastic moulding from the 1960s onwards.

Similarly, William Britain deemed its ARP series to be obsolete and, along with khaki-clad medical personnel, they were consigned to the dustbin of history.

This is part of the reason why many of these figures are hard to find today. An acute lack of new toys being produced during the war years due to material shortages also meant most toys were played with until they fell apart. Soft lead castings such as toy figures fared particularly badly.

However, some of these figures are still out there to be discovered. Due to the sheer volume of production at the Britain factory, ARP stretcher teams are relatively easy to find.

In fact, these figures were still being cast post-war but painted as members of the armed forces. The rare figure in this set is a figure bent over with a gas detector stick.

Anything ARP-related by Taylor and Barrett is rare. A smaller production run and the loss of the moulds in the bombing has ensured that these figures have never been reproduced and are therefore highly sought after, fetching anything between £20 and £50 each. Not bad for a figure that, in 1939, would have cost you just a penny.

The National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) in Sheffield holds some of these figures in its collection, including firefighters in gas masks, women operating a stirrup pump and ARP wardens in decontamination suits.

They are part of a wider collection of lead and tin toys cared for by the museum, including a large selection of fire engines, that help tell the story of the history of the emergency services in peace and war.

These toy figures are a reminder of a desperate time in Britain’s history. ARP volunteers, alongside other emergency services workers, really were on the front line when the bombing began. Fortunately the widespread use of gas never happened but these toys reveal a story of what might have been. Who knows how many lives were saved because some emergency planning officers sat down for a couple of weekends and played with toy soldiers?