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 any backbreaking digging or weeding. You didn’t have to deal 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 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 at will.
William Britain was a Midlands metal worker, but in 1847 he moved to north London – in fact just round the corner from where I live – to work as a ‘Brass Cock Maker. He soon seems to have diversified from the usual run of plumbing and ironmongery items, and by 1880 had issued a catalogue of clockwork metal toys. In 1893 the company invented a new production process: hollowcasting in lead which made William Britain a household name – well at least in households where there were small boys- because he used it make replicas of the nation’s armed forces : ie he made toy soldiers.
William died in 1906 but his family continued the work, diversifying into other favourite things for lots of small boys – footballers & football teams & then figures of Boy Scouts, and things connected with the railways.The horrific effects of World War One put paid to much of the militaristic sentiment and demand for toy soldiers declined dramatically. To stay in business Britains responded by increasing its ‘domestic’ and ‘civilian’ ranges and in 1921 introduced another childhood favourite – 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 even figures for top of Christmas cake… and in 1930 lest you think I’ve forgotten this is a garden history blog ….
they began Britains Miniature Gardens [I should explain at this point lest 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 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.”
But at the same time Britains also 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. Their sales blurb was clear that this switch was clearly aimed at a new market: children with weekly pocket-money to spend.
“On the other hand, regarded purely as a toy, Britains Miniature Gardening has no equal, as the novelty of making a garden, the beautiful colourings, the realistic appearance, will hold children of all ages in keen enjoyment for hours on end, and the interchangeability of all parts which compose Britains Miniature Gardening has been given very careful consideration by the designers so that even with a small collection of pieces, very satisfactory results are possible.”
All the models were made of lead, although many of the smaller pieces were, as you can see, 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. Most were brightly coloured.
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.As the catalogue said: “Designs which may be made up from the various pieces are almost without limit and it is no exaggeration to say that whatever can be carried out in a full-size garden, can also be previously prepared in Britains Miniature Gardening, and simplicity being the keynote of the whole, there are no difficult parts to fit together, no messy glue, nothing that even the smallest child cannot carry out and thoroughly enjoy.”
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 with 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 they were 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. [Obituary in Guardian].
You might wonder why the garden items needed redesigning at all but main reason was because of the different properties of lead and plastic. Whereas lead can be bent into shape and stays in it, plastic can’t be manipulated in the same way, and simply tries to revert to it 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 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 the pieces fitted together with relative ease, and could reassembled and moved around allowing a lot of variety and change that ensured children didn’t get bored when playing.
Looking at the various parts and kits available, potential gardens were probably the sort of thing Percy Thrower would have liked: a typical 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.
“You can make an endless variety of Garden layouts with this wonderful series. These box sets show some of the arrangements you can assemble but with a simple system of “one price” packets of flowers and accessories you can extend your garden to any size. With no painting or gluing it has a unique appeal to girls as well as boys and can be of great assistance in domestic and professional planning. [Britains Catalogie 1966].
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 becasue Floral Gardens ceased production in 1970.
Another attempt, now very clearly aimed at girls, was made 10 years later, in 1976, when it was relaunched as Lucy’s Little Garden. Despite more accessory packs being released in 1977 Lucy’s fared no better in 1979 the range was deleted altogether.
Britains was sold by the family in 1984. 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 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…
Here’s just a couple of quotes from such enthusiasts…
“My youthful plastic gardening exploits were random and higgledy-piggledy. I knew which flower heads went with which plant, but beyond that, tended to plant them just anyhow, filling the beds with an exuberance of colour. I now realise why these models were made mainly for children, who surely had a lot more patience in the 1960s than they have today. These days, attaching the pinhead sized flowers to the stems is such a fiddly task, that I have to put my glasses on to even see them. Despite this, I wouldn’t part with my miniature garden for the world.” [Charlotte Philcox]
“My pocket money was a shilling (1/-) a week. I never had a big set, but the smallest sets cost 1/11, a penny short of two shillings. This meant that, every other Saturday, I would hop on my bike, cycle through the centre of town, over two bridges, to the bikes and toy shop on the very edge of town. There I would spend a good while poring over the choices. I hardly dared look at the larger, more expensive and so unattainable sets, but concentrated on those within my budget. My first set was a flower bed with sunflowers and hollyhocks.” [Celia Warren]
Given that, it’s unsurprising there is a thriving market for these miniature gardens and their accessories. John Ennals, who runs the website Tortoys.co.uk, told the Daily Telegraph in 2013 that Britain’s Floral Garden range was one of his collectible “specialisms” and sell to enthusiasts rather than investors. But Britains Miniature Gardens have also made their way into the V&A although the site that has the best collection is probably Brighton’s Toy Museum in the railway arches under Brighton Station.
These garden models seem to have investment value too – especially the original lead models in good condition or in their boxes. In 2000 Christies auctioned the Arnold Rolak collection of Britains toys which made, even then, well over £200,000. So stop reading and get up in your attics and maybe you could sell off your miniature garden to afford someone to do all the hard work for you in your real garden!
PS… had a message from my 90 yr old mum a few minutes after I posted this to say: “I liked the gardens today, had one years ago , sorry it was gone long before you came, great fun, made of lead. Got thrown out by grandma along with lots of other toys in one of her mad clean outs ” Oh well no chance of me getting rich then!