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Biggar & Upper Clydesdale Museum
156 High St
Biggar, ML12 6DH

Biggar Museum Trust SCIO, a registered charity in Scotland. Charity number: SC003695

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Toys Were Us!

Our grandparents counted themselves lucky to get an orange in their Christmas stocking. Or so they tell us! Their reminiscences used to make us laugh. If they got an orange and a six penny block of Cadbury’s chocolate, they thought they were doing well!!

In the past generation our concept of toys has had to expand. The Teddy bears and the Lego sets are still there and doing well, but a toy these days can be virtually anything that appeals to a child. Think funny noises, twinkling lights and good to hold! Even mobile phones fulfil all the acceptable criteria of a good toy. They confer status every bit as much as does possession of a Play Station 2, scooter or radio-controlled hit-rod. They annoy grown-ups and they’re the cause of endless one-upmanship and brand rivalry.

A Passion for Collecting Toys

So, what happened to all the old-fashioned toyshops ? Until the mid-seventies, most towns had one, or even two. I live in the town of Biggar and, in 1986, a newsagents and toy shop called Bryden’s was being sold to new buyers and I began to notice toys and games in the window for sale which clearly came from earlier period, the 1950’s and 1960’s. Reluctant as I am to admit it, I grew up in the 1950’s and have fond memories of the wide variety of magical toys of my boyhood, none of which, sadly, have survived my vintage years! When I spotted these toys and games in the window, my interest in them was re-kindled and, over the ensuing weeks, I regularly purchased two or three and Ruth Bryden, whom I knew, was so pleased that I was interested, that she very kindly offered me some free. Some toys were in pristine condition while others had, unfortunately, suffered damage through being stored for decades in a damp cellar beneath the shop. Thus began my passion for collecting old toys, games and children’s books, a passion which has kept me fascinated since and which gives me great pleasure in sharing the collection with other people. Word spread of my interest and it was not long before I was invited to give talks to local organisations including primary schools which included a demonstration of how some of the toys work

Clockwork Toys from “The Golden Age of Toys”

This brings me to the gems of my collection. Although I enjoy generally collecting toys, I have a particular enthusiasm for mechanical tinplate clockwork toys or “automata”, as they are otherwise called. The Victorians called them Novelty Toys. Southern Germany was the home of the first great toy producers of Europe.The majority were centred around Bavaria, famous for its clock-making. Nuremberg was to become the centre of the toy industry from the 19th. century through to the early part of the 20th. century. Toys produced from this period to the outbreak of the First World War are sought after by collectors who refer to it as ” The Golden Age of Toys.” It takes the Germans to use the imagination and ingenuity colouring their toys and by the end of the 1880’s the majority were mechanically driven either by live steam or a clockwork motor.

Britain’s great Victorian factories were not attuned to anything as flippant as toy making, though its model railways industry was to flourish in the late 1890’s with firms like Bassett-Lowke and Clyde and Steven Model Dockyard which obviously reflected the Victorian taste for engineering and later in the 1920’s with the famous Hornby range of trains.

Between the two World Wars, Germany remained the pre-eminent toy producer but it was at this time that a number of British and French toy producers such as Burnett, Wells and Triang started increasing the the share of the world toy market. The immediate Post-War period was indeed a time when we could proudly boast that a great variety of toys and games bore the long-lost words ” Made in Great Britain.”

From Toy Collection to Toy Museum

It had always been my ambition to establish a small toy museum in Biggar which would compliment the two other museums which existed until a few years ago. I was beginning to think that this was merely a pipe dream when, to my delight, Biggar Museum Trust decided to build a brand new museum which included a small toy shop in Gladstone Court, a typical Victorian street of shops within the new Museum itself. For me, this was not only an exciting development and a realisation of my ambition but also a prime opportunity to display a wide variety of toys in the toy shop and to give public demonstrations of my clockwork collection. Children were fascinated by the workings of the automata, and adults could be heard to say ” I had one like that. It’s a trip down memory lane!” It gives me great pleasure to demonstrate them as most children have never seen such toys from a different era.

My Favourite Clockwork Toy

I am sometimes asked if I have a favourite clockwork toy which is a difficult question to answer as they are all my favourites. However, there is one which I think edges above the rest and that is the Triang ” Cat and Butterfly ” with box. I attended a toy fayre several years ago and spotted this item along with another mechanical toy and, after some haggling with the seller, managed to acquire it for a reasonable price. It is my favourite because, of all the mechanical examples I have, it is the one which brings the biggest smile to people’s faces when it it is wound. The butterfly is attached by a wire to the front of the cat and the smiling cat wriggles itself forward in an attempt to catch the butterfly but never succeeds. It is an excellent example of a British clockwork toy made around 1948 and it is the star attraction.

Toy Collection Thank yous

This article would not be complete without a note of sincere gratitude to those people who have inspired my enthusiasm for collecting old toys. I must give thanks to Ruth and the late Harold Bryden for kindly donating a large number of toys, to the Trustees of Biggar Museum Trust for the consideration of The Toy Shop as part of the Museum and to Elaine Edwards, the current Curator and Manager for her generous donations of toys, games and books over the years which have greatly enhanced the collection and with whom I have enjoyed working, as well as all those people who have kindly donated a memento of their childhood.

Author: Stewart Houston
Date: 1st Oct 2021 Back to Blog
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