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30th May 2014
Location – Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Tracy Savage
Also present for some of interview: Chris Littledale, Andrea Dumbrell
(Audio only)

00.07 – Michael: By then, this of course tied with the fact that at that time he didn’t really have any … I hesitate to call them toy railways and yet at that time, we didn’t really call them model railways. But they certainly existed and in the late ‘20s, I began to have various Hornby trains and train sets.

One always looked at the advertisements in the Meccano magazine. I started with the Meccano magazine I s’pose quite early in 1929 or 30 but one looked in toy shops not thinking one would ever have one of these beautiful big engines. But one still had a fair assortment of at that time Hornby trains.

01.10 – And of course at that time, one also had various Meccano sets so I think there were always the sets 1 and 2. The idea of having anything more elaborate with gears or anything like that, at that time, no, one didn’t.

Tracy: So what could you make with the sets that you did have?

Michael: Well one made the rather more elementary things that were in the instruction book. The odd crane or I think again, the problem for the young at any time is, if you have a construction set, you suddenly find you haven’t got enough nuts and bolts to do what should be. And of course my later experience of Hornby and Meccano and later, don’t let’s ignore Trix, which I’m glad to say we have a splendid collection of Trix here but I remember in my experience, Trix was rather cheaper than Meccano and so by about 1931, or 32, you could buy little … there were sets A, B and C and they were all one shilling each, as I recall. But this enabled you in fact to build up things.

02.40 – And Trix, if you look at the case or are knowledgeable about it, whereas Meccano always had rather well cut gears and things, the Trix tended to have simple sprocket gears. Also they had train. No, one’s toy cupboard had a number of different things at that time.

03.10 – It was about this time too, about 1930, that I had my first wooden engine which came from … I think they were called Ransomes .. they were the best toy shop in Birmingham at that time was situated in the Great Western arcade, which is practically next door to Snowhill Station, which was a Great Western railway station at that time. And certainly, my big, I suppose it was about three or four foot long engine, which I forget, I didn’t know what colour it was because at that time and ever since, there’s only really been one railway, i.e. the Great Western. We had to … somebody had to paint this engine green. Again, I think the paint … I think it may have been my Irish governess, who got some paint and painted it for me and I don’t think it was the right paint and I don’t think it set properly and I do seem to recall odd smears of paint in various places.

04.22 – And so one never had anything very elaborate at that time and I suppose the majority of both children and adults, there was a longing or hankering for things one couldn’t quite afford.

RECORDING ENDS 4m 48s

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30th May 2014
Location – Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Tracy Savage
Also present for some of interview: Chris Littledale, Andrea Dumbrell
(Audio only)

00:05 – Tracy: Right so your name, date of birth

Michael: My name is Michael Jordan Gilkes. My date of birth 31.08.23, the first of August 1923 and actually I was born in Montreal, Canada because in fact my mother was in fact involved in a Canadian song recital tour at that time. But I soon and she soon came back to Britain, to England, what shall we call it? You know, to UK. I didn’t think I used any of those terms. But I did come back in 1926 in the Berengaria which previously had been one of the flagships of the great German pre-war, trans-Atlantic liners.

01:08 – and I grew up in Birmingham where my mother and father were both involved in lecturing and teaching. My father was in fact a classicist and used to have many workers’ association classes and my mother was a professional musician, singer and pianist. People always thought she was a singer only but in fact she won the gold medal of the Royal Academy of Music when she qualified, in about 1908. And we were always rather pleased that actually she beat Myra Hess to the medal at that time.

Stop? Give it a rest?

Tracy: I’ll just leave that running because it’s got batteries and a new card.

02:13 – Michael: If we’re going to come on to, put it on again. If we come on to the question of toys and play things, my first memory, actually it isn’t of a toy, it is I was in a little nursery school in the town of Thame which is just east of Oxford and I was in a little garret room upstairs and one of my very earliest memories is of waking up and there was a large owl perched on the end of my bed and I think that caused me a certain amount of disconcertment.

Anyway, otherwise it was a very happy little school, nursery and then about 1926, we actually moved over to Princess Risborough and I remember on that occasion, I didn’t have it but somebody had one of the large wooden Tri-ang pull along tank toys, tank engine toys and I also have a memory and I think it’s one of the reasons why I collected them later, of the early Bing table top, that was the very first double O gauge miniature railway. One of the other children had it and I certainly recall we played with it in the garden, a clockwork set at that time. And so I think those are my earliest sort of partly toy and play thing recollections.

03:57 – And then we moved to Saffron Down in Birmingham in the suburb of Selly Oak and in fact were in the Selly Oak vicarage because my father was a good friend of Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, who was fairly well known for his trenchant views on all sorts of things at that time and had been at Shrewsbury and Shrewsbury school, where my father had been a master and my grandfather had been a housemaster and so on. There was a very strong educational connection all through my first twenty years. Anyway, the interesting thing was, as I say, we were living … we had no religious practitioners in the family at that time, we were living in Selly Oak Vicarage.

05:04 – And again an early memory was … I must have been about 4 or 5 at the time, going with my Irish governess, walking across the Bristol Road down to Bourneville and watching the Bourneville Cadbury special liveried tank engines and trains shunting along the canal, where the canal and the Cadbury works are situated.

I think we’d better just stop there for a minute. Is this the sort of stuff you want?

Tracy: It’s all good, yeah. We’ll move on to how you sort of got into particularly the construction, you said lots of Meccano and that sort of thing.

05:58 – Michael: It was about this time, again about 1928, that one of my earliest toys which we have good examples in the Toy Museum here, were of baby tractors, which were interesting little things. You go and see them in the showcase here because possibly the only worldwide collection of animate toys is here and they were interesting because they said: ‘push slowly backwards, never push forwards’, because if you did, you upset the mechanism. If you did them the right way, they then moved nicely, slowly and will go up a small hill.

But of course inevitably 4 or 5 year old children would tend to push them forwards as well. But I would suggest it’s very worthwhile going to look at the appropriate showcase because they also produce toy tractors with rubber tracks, rather bigger and interesting the thing making the date is on the box is printed a certain amount of stuff about Lindberg; you know who had just done the first trans-Atlantic flight from America to Paris and this was part of their animate toys advertising.

07:27 – Animate toys are very interesting because you’ll see, if you go and look, there’s lovely little World War tanks and beavers and all sorts of other things, as well as the bigger things and you are looking, if you do go and look at what I believe to be a virtually unique collection which is not present anywhere in either the East or West hemisphere.

May I say some of them do work still, others I regret to say, were probably pushed forward, though not in my day.

08:25 – Background talk about the filming/recording.

Tracy: There we are.

08.45 – Michael: Right you want to go ahead? It was about this time I suppose, my father being particularly interested in trains, during the first war, after he’d been very badly wounded, he was kept in our islands and was occupied from about 1916-18 in inspecting the biscuit factories which were producing biscuits for the forces. This enabled him in fact to travel on practically every mainline, railway mainline in the country and possibly some of the smaller ones. And so whenever we went anywhere, almost for the rest of his life, if we went over or under a railway bridge, he would be able to say quite clearly where we were.

By then, this of course tied with the fact that at that time he didn’t really have any … I hesitate to call them toy railways and yet at that time, we didn’t really call them model railways. But they certainly existed and in the late ‘20s, I began to have various Hornby trains and train sets.

And of course at that time, one also had various Meccano sets so I think there were always the sets 1 and 2. The idea of having anything more elaborate with gears or anything like that, at that time, no, one didn’t.

10:12 – One always looked at the advertisements in the Meccano magazine. I started with the Meccano magazine I s’pose quite early in 1929 or 30 but one looked in toy shops not thinking one would ever have one of these beautiful big engines. But one still had a fair assortment of at that time Hornby trains.

Tracy: So what could you make with the sets that you did have?

Michael: Well one made the rather more elementary things that were in the instruction book. The odd crane or I think again, the problem for the young at any time is, if you have a construction set, you suddenly find you haven’t got enough nuts and bolts to do what should be. And of course my later experience of Hornby and Meccano and later, don’t let’s ignore Trix, which I’m glad to say we have a splendid collection of Trix here but I remember in my experience, Trix was rather cheaper than Meccano and so by about 1931, or 32, you could buy little … there were sets A, B and C and they were all one shilling each, as I recall. But this enabled you in fact to build up things.

12:09 – And Trix, if you look at the case or are knowledgeable about it, whereas Meccano always had rather well cut gears and things, the Trix tended to have simple sprocket gears. Also they had train. No, one’s toy cupboard had a number of different things at that time.

It was about this time too, about 1930, that I had my first wooden engine which came from … I think they were called Ransomes .. they were the best toy shop in Birmingham at that time was situated in the Great Western arcade, which is practically next door to Snowhill Station, which was a Great Western railway station at that time. And certainly, my big, I suppose it was about three or four foot long engine, which I forget, I didn’t know what colour it was because at that time and ever since, there’s only really been one railway, i.e. the Great Western. We had to … somebody had to paint this engine green. Again, I think the paint … I think it may have been my Irish governess, who got some paint and painted it for me and I don’t think it was the right paint and I don’t think it set properly and I do seem to recall odd smears of paint in various places.

13:51 – And so one never had anything very elaborate at that time and I suppose the majority of both children and adults, there was a longing or hankering for things one couldn’t quite afford. Stop, there we are.

It’s let me see, where are we now?

Tracy: Do you want a cup of tea?

Michael: Coffee

Tracy: Coffee? How do you have it?

More talk of coffee and biscuits and a break.

16.01 – Michael: What I was going to say was … Background talking about biscuits etc

Michael: That in giving these recollections,

Tracy: Hang on

Michael: I think everybody should realise that I was an only child and I cannot say that I ever regretted being an only child, and on the whole I think it is a happier situation to be in when you do not have to apparently contest with brothers and sisters. But maybe one can be slightly … I don’t know what the right word is … oh what’s the right word when you are given tolerance?

Anyway, as I say, the only child does quite well and of course gets quite a number of toys.

[Laughter]

16:57 And of course while we’re still at the vicarage in Selly Oak, again I had a lot of farm animals and they would of course have been Britains.

Tracy: Britains, hm.

Michael: And there was a nice little shop just down in the main street of Selly Oak on the south side, just before you went down the hill towards Edgbaston, where again, one used to go and spend the odd … I suppose … there wasn’t the pocket money concept I think but things did turn up and probably as with many only children, one probably had too many toys but I in no way regret them.

[Telephone rings in the background]

17:48 – So I certainly had a farm, like you’ll see in the Toy Museum here, but while in later years of course, there’ve been many other makers of farm animals and models of animals and zoos and so on. There’s no doubt that Britain today and ever since, have still been the prime one. Bearing in mind of course that it wasn’t only farm animals, there was a strong field of model soldiers at that time and model soldiers, Britains used to come in long, single width boxes and I certainly recall one relative of the family, except that we never really discovered that it really was him, that one Christmas a box of soldiers turning up and I can remember the question: who did this actually come from?

18:55 – So one had soldiers and of course then talking about Britains; Britains produced some very splendid model guns, army guns like the big Howitzer, which actually fired. You could load sort of leaden shells and put them into it. It was a sort of thing … I don’t know if we’ve got one here. Have we got one here? If we haven’t, I’ve still got one which I was thinking about selling and it really ought to come here.

They’re splendid. I mean, in the first war, this was the largest gun that you would see pictures of with big artillery wheels and I suppose about ten inch bore. Yes, we must look into that.

Tracy: Yes

Michael: Do we have model soldiers?

Tracy: Yes we do. The dioramas are in Belgium, on a special exhibition.

Michael: That’s right.

Tracy: But they’ll be back next year.

Michael: They will. Because we haven’t got any at the moment.

Tracy: We have got … that gentleman there’s standing next to a whole .. we have some

20:13 Michael: So long as the Peace Pledge Union doesn’t come after us. When I say, I’m not sure if it was the Peace Pledge Union but one of the backgrounds of the time I’m telling you about, was and one of the reasons we didn’t go to war when we should have, was in fact the Peace Pledge Union.

Oh no, we’ve had the war to end all wars and this is of course one of the reasons why 1938 and 39 happened.

Looking around, just once again, I see something that reminds me … there were of course various sets of building bricks and for the more junior, there were very much bricks that were boxes of wooden cubes that fitted into one another. I suppose those would be more for age 2-3. And I think I was always much too grown up to have anything like that.

21:13 But certainly again at this time, one of the great things was in fact Lott’s bricks which were still the best of all bricks and I certainly had a number of sets. Nothing like as prolific as you actually have in the cases here. The Toy Museum’s set of Lott’s bricks is superb. But the point is that they fitted into each other and one of the interesting things is that it’s only much later, several decades later, that I suddenly realised that the particular colouring of the roofs of Lott’s bricks building is in fact very reminiscent of Dutch ..

Tracy: Yes

Michael: Going to Holland and possibly northern Belgium and that’s where that came from I think because of course Lott’s bricks were made under licence from German brick manufacturers whose name I forget but we must get it from Chris who is. Righters? Or have we got them here? Actually the patent of Lott’s bricks.

[pause]

23:11 Well I’ll tell you why it is important actually to

Tracy: [looks at Lott’s bricks boxes] They all say Watford

Michael: They all say this. It will come back to me actually because, looking very much forward, when Audrey and I went on the trans-Siberian trans-Russian railway, in about 1980, one of our companions on that absolutely splendid trip from London to Hong Kong in various ways … was in fact a very splendid Dutch General Practitioner, Dr Charles who became and has remained a great friend, and we discovered that Charles in fact was a major collector of these German bricks. And at one time in fact we went over in fact because there was a major exhibition of some name like Rightus or Reutus.

Tracy: We’ll look it up. Chris will know.

Michael: Chris will know. Anyway that’s … so but to discover later, what fifty years later, even longer, that Lott’s bricks had this and of course magnificent structures have been made both from Lott’s bricks and these other ones.

24:53 I mean Lego is … I’ve nothing against Lego, in fact if Lego was the only thing we could have, splendid but it’s cheating a bit. It clicks together.

[Laughter]

So where have we got to? We’ve got to … we’ve got to ah well, yes, you see we … 1929, my father in particular, we acquired a car and we went travelling west to west of Worcester because this was in fact my father’s early ground when the Gilkes family came from. William Gilkes, Mayor and Ink Maker of Linster, who about 1850 had ten children of whom my father was the son of the eldest of those. We mustn’t put too much family history into this but you see his eldest son, Arthur Herman Gilkes, became the very great Victorian Headmaster of Dulwich College; who was later succeeded by his third son Chris Gilkes who in 1941 became headmaster of Dulwich College and the fourth son became the high master of St Paul’s so I have a rather strong sort of educational background and um … which probably hasn’t rubbed off on me but has been of interest. People come up to one and say: “oh, you know, your uncle or grandfather or somebody used to teach me”.

27:02 Because again my father as I say, after first war did become form master at Shrewsbury and then decided he didn’t … he got a bit fed up with teaching boys and preferred to be teaching adults, which is why we moved to Birmingham.

So anyway, back onto the toys so Lott’s bricks and as I say, we then moved down to a lovely old rectory, again a religious connection. This was some of our farmer relatives, you know just west of Worcester had a quite big farm. They were very famous, in fact they had the breeders of Hereford cattle. Again, I shouldn’t digress quite so much but again, John Walker’s father was Lawson Walker of Broadhurst who owned a horse called Team Willow which won the Grand National but that’s nothing to do with the Toy Museum.

Tracy: No, but that’s worth telling.

28:12 Michael: Anyway, we moved to the old rectory. Knightwick, 9 miles west of Worcester, and it was and is a splendid Queen Ann house, possibly Queen Mary, overlooking the valleys of western Worcester and amongst other things, I of course … it was three storeys and of course I and all my toys, which I had at that time were translated. But one of the nice things was that we had a sort of … oh what’s the word, kind of single storey school house, school room in the grounds and that became my plaything and nursery, adding of course to the fact that, amongst other things, living there, we had pupils for, particularly for my father but also my mother, teaching singers and of course I was … not exactly spoilt but exposed to family life which I didn’t have as an only child.

And certainly my recollections was, certainly by that time, had Bing table top, which again you’ll see a splendid collection of in the Toy Museum and an electric table top. And bearing in mind that at that time, west of Worcester, houses didn’t have electricity, I grew up there, the three years we were there, taking my own paraffin lamp up to bed with me. That was at the age of, this was a great, oh what was the word? Not an epiphany, another thing that can happen to you, when you were finally allowed to carry the paraffin lamp.

Tracy: A rite of passage almost?

Michael: Oh that’s right. And bearing in mind of course I had candles and I mustn’t digress too much but I must digress a little bit about candles because the interesting thing is that there’s a splendid book by what is her name? Flora Thompson is it? “Lark Rise to Candleford.” (Tracy: ‘Yes’, says the academic) Wonderful book. Everybody should read it. Grew up in Juniper Hill in a really rural .. just north of Oxford and about how she was growing up and so on, again without electricity or even modern sewage probably but one of the interesting things was that one learns that people … I say this as a one time practising eye doctor, people are very dubious about various forms of lighting and one particularly is about candles and particularly and I remember being told this, I think, you should not read in bed at night with a candle. Bad for your eyes, damaging your eyes. I might say in thirty years at the eye hospital here, numerous occasions on which I was told that. “Oh no, you know, you’ll damage your eyes.”

And it wasn’t until I read Flora Thompson’s book that she gives an account of how I think some adult says “Flora, you shouldn’t be reading in bed at night etc like that, you’ll damage your eyes and in any way, we don’t want to be burnt to death in our beds.” Because of course the actual fear is nothing to do with the eyes, but to do with that if you have a candle by your bed, in a half-timbered house like to some extent we were in the old rectory at night, you know, people did fall over and the candle did burn them. Anyway, that’s a digression but it’s a digression which should be recorded because I don’t think people woke up to the fact that it’s Flora Thompson who explained to us … there’s no harm in … in fact a candle light is a very good one, but just make sure you don’t knock it over on the bed.

Tracy: Or read under the covers. Maybe don’t read under the covers with a candle, like I did with a torch.

Michael: (laughing) How right you are, yes. Anyway, why did I get on to …?

Tracy: Because you moved to the rectory and you went upstairs and your paraffin.

33:45 Michael: Oh, the double O, the table top. Actually the table top is always … I’ve always loved it because A, I was first exposed to it at the age of what four or something? It was the very first practical double O and of course this electric version and one of the visiting families produced the electric double O where we had in this … oh not a shed, you know, much more than a shed … single story school room. That’s what. It was the school room in the garden. And we had … it was lovely, we had the Bing electric table top.

Unfortunately the engine of I think the only motor we had burnt out and so this was really rather sad ‘cause it ran from a little battery which you won’t find now, which was a little sort of rectangular thing about the size of a mug or tea cup and so we were deprived of that and again one of the sadnesses of my, of that age was that somebody else said, “that’s alright”, I was known as Mickle in those days, “we’ll get you another one when I’m up in London”. Well he went to London and he in fact went to … there’s a famous toy shop on the south side of Kensington High Street, just immediately opposite Olympia. I don’t think it’s there but Chris will know it, the toy shop opposite Olympia in Kensington High Street … (Chris: Chuff’s) Anyway, he called there. Anyway, he called there and bought a … don’t go, don’t go because what’s the name of the original of the Lott’s bricks? (Tracy: German)

Chris: Of Lott’s bricks? Anchor Richter.

35:53 Michael: Richter, that’s right because it is very important that they are large, continental, almost anywhere continental, Germany, France etc, you’ll find they have Richter bricks and as I say, I did go with this Charles doctor friend of mine, Dutch, particularly took us to a major exhibition of Richter blocks at Scheveningen it was fascinating to discover … to me bricks were the great thing but. Have we got Richter bricks here?

Chris: Yes

Michael: We have? Well, I have just been regaling how one discovered that you know Lott’s bricks were jolly good and I was also regaling, you know why the roof of Lott’s bricks are the colour they are? You should ‘cause I’ve told you.

Chris: Oh really? Oh Dutch roofs

Tracy: Dutch, well done! Go to the top of the class!

37:02 Michael: That’s easy. Um where were we? Richter bricks, that’s right. Because, as I say, Charles in his wardrobe in his flat in the Hague… when one suddenly one had shades lifted from one’s eyes and a whole number of things became apparent that hadn’t been.

While I’m looking at Chris, I’m looking at a showcase and of course this takes me back to 1930. We’ve moved to Worcester but eventually decided that I’d got to go to school and a prep school was found for me in Birmingham called Horfield in Edgbaston, Birmingham and so I wasn’t a boarder there, only for a very short while so in fact we acquired a flat in Bourne Brook which is in fact in Birmingham just opposite the university and so forth and I remember, I think it would be the Christmas, probably 1930, I had flu or something or the other and we had a very nice general practitioner and I … we were at that time in this flat. We still had the house in Worcestershire but um I and my governess were in the flat and what was rather nice was on Christmas day, that doctor came along to see me and I was in fact getting better and he had a present for me which was a Hornby aeroplane kit, just like I see in the window there.

I certainly made those and of course this was the time when Hornby were also producing their motor car kits and it is about two years later, just after we came back to Birmingham that I was in fact allowed Hornby Number One car Construction kit, which was very nice. It looked a bit like an MG, open tourer. But again, as always one wasn’t necessarily satisfied with it because one knew very well that one’s friends had a nice Hornby Number Two Construction set. Number two was a very much better and more powerful object which ran for much longer and trying to race my number one against the number two.

[NB At this point, there is a child looking at the toys in the museum which can be heard quite loudly in the background, making it difficult to hear what Michael is saying].

39:54 On the other hand, the number two … you’ll see them here, (there’s one around the corner.) The number two had many fewer variations. The number one had an open coupe and something else.

Chris: It had a boat back

Michael: That’s right, yes.

Michael: So (child screams excitedly) oh dear, dear, dear nobody thinks it’s me making that noise.

So, we’ve got … we’ve talked about table tops, we’ve about Richter, so anyway … Oh the interesting thing of course again, this splendid, big schoolroom, in the garden, not only a site for Bing table top but at that time, one had a rather assorted collection of old gauge tin plate. Nothing very high class and certainly no question of scenery or something but one did have odd stations. But one also had toy soldiers and at that time we had certainly two of the Britain’s howitzers which one was able to fire across the floor of this schoolroom. It had a nice block tile parquet flooring and it was interesting, the damage that those shells in the Britain’s Howitzers could do to model soldiers, quite extensive.

Which reminds me Chris, I think I’ve still got the last of those Howitzers at home. (Chris: have you?) Shouldn’t we have it here?

Chris: In a cabinet over there.

Michael: Is there one over there?

Chris: No, we should have it, yes.

Michael: Well I think probably you should have it, yes. But it’s actually worth money about a hundred quid.

Chris: Probably, yes.

42:13 Tracy: I think now, we’ve got some of these memories, you know, it’s jogged, if we go into the office and continue without the background noise, I can ask you some questions then without you having to filter.

Michael: Right, well, let’s see if there’s anything.

Tracy: Well you could maybe have a short walk around and a think and a break.

Michael: No, I don’t …

Tracy: No, that’s what I thought, yeah.

Chris: So you’ve talked about the table top…

Michael: I’ve talked about … I actually haven’t mentioned the word Tri-ang and I ought to mention the word

Tracy: He’s done Trix

Chris: Oh, you’ve done Trix

Michael: I ought to mention the word Tri-ang because Tri-ang is very important.

Chris: Do you mention animate toys?

Michael: We started off with them.

Chris: Oh that’s interesting, good.

Tracy: Very good but we carry on in the …

Michael: How’s it going? Alright?

Tracy: Yes, it’s lovely. We’ve got loads to work with but I want to ..

Michael: You’ll have to split it into bits won’t you?

Tracy: Take you away.

43.41 – Michael: not quite right to have coloured Meccano.

Chris: You go back to that Meccano

Michael: No I … red and green. The uncoloured one didn’t have at all but fundamentally was red green and all this colouring … no, you know.

Chris: Red green is the most classic.

Michael: That’s right. Yes, I must get the howitzer out because I think they’re amongst the best things ..

Chris: Oh, they were lovely.

Michael: Well again you see my recollection is of Britain’s, Britain’s farm toys, Britain’s soldiers.

Chris: Yeah.

44.38 – Some talk as they move into a quieter room.

45.34 – Tracy: This is Andrea and she is the consultant to the oral history project, which has paid for the recording equipment for the … and also we’ll be using some of your memories and other peoples to develop a book and a website. And the website will also have sign language on it. (repeats) All the interviews will be transcribed.

Michael: That’s fine. Well, as I say, well I think one has had an interesting life … so, did I make the point about being an only child? Yes.

There’s a tendency for people to rather think you shouldn’t be an only child. But as I say, occasionally people would commiserate with one but anyway, I was going to just … because it still fits in this period … the word Tri-ang I think is very important because amongst the sort of available toys at that time, one of the great ones were Lines Bros whose brand were Tri-ang and they made, as we have here, not exactly tin toys. What should one call them? They are A) Well, they certainly made prams, pushchairs, tricycles for children and also a range, oh of course we’ve got some here, up the top, splendid steam engines, tin plate, things made of tin plate.

47.39 – I might add that I talked about my very first pull along engine, which was this wooden one. That wasn’t Tri-ang and I think one probably actually had a slight feeling at that time, that it was a nice engine but one would have preferred to have a Tri-ang. Because the Tri-ang ones actually got up to a size where possibly a five or six year old could in fact sit it and I’m not sure if you aren’t dealing with the age of pedal cars at that time because there were certainly in 1929 or 30, that my birthday present did consist, involve a pedal car to sit in which was bought in Worcester, very near the Worcester Cathedral, very good toy shop there, which I think is still there.

48.40 – And Tri-ang as I say, made this very wide variety of tin plate things and I’m not sure that … there may have been continental … what’s the right word? Competitors but I think one never saw them in Britain. We were dealing in British things. Of course, again, another little aspect of these things is that while we often think of Bassett Lowke as one of the great model railway producers of the first half of the last century, a certain amount of stuff was truly British. But a considerable amount was in fact adaptations of the German toy makers like Bing and oh I forget the names of the others, it will come up.

So in fact there was the continental toy industry, rather typically of the British, not recognised etc but in fact when you discover how big it was in fact, this insularity that we have is quite interesting.

So anyway, Tri-ang toys, there are a number around here. I’m looking to see … that could almost be a Tri-ang except it’s nothing like good enough.

Tracy: What, the biscuit tin?

Michael: No, the bus.

Tracy: Yeah, it’s a biscuit tin.

Michael: It’s a biscuit tin … ah well, there again we have an interesting aspect … I don’t know if we’re going to get away from the late 20’s, early ‘30’s. But of course one of the aspects of toys of that type of my time is in fact in the grocer’s and splendid tin plate biscuit tins, including certainly which I think I did … I think like many children, I may have coveted something which in fact you couldn’t have, because we weren’t all that well off.

But certainly there was a flying Scotsman biscuit tin which I recall, with, in fact I think Huntley Palmer’s biscuits, the ones with little sort of icing things on them … you know, small, little roundels with … But in fact, the range at that time, if you went into a grocer’s of Birmingham or anywhere else, at that time around Christmas, there would be quite a range of biscuit tins and of course nowadays in fact they command really rather frightening values in auction. One was glad one didn’t have them.

So that’s as I say Tri-ang, I mean Tri-ang were a very, very major aspect of the toy scene … of the toy industry and I would say just recapitulating, talking of not only about children’s toys and pull along toys but prams and all sorts of things. And as I say, they had this big factory at Morden near Merton, in South London and of course they went on being a major factor in the toy industry, until sadly would have been the ‘60’s or 70’s, you suddenly discovered the people who made, the people, what’s the right word? They went into administration. Yes, that’s right and in fact they were quality. And in fact one of the aspects of that sort of period was toys, tinplate toys were very largely made with the fold over little tabs. You made them by having component bits which were then pushed over. And one of the things of course, you had to learn as a child, was if you started undoing tabs on your toys, you probably wouldn’t be able to put them back properly, or they broke off rather smartly and that was a pity.

The interesting … one of the first … there could really be an article on the mendability of toys over the period and right so where are we going to go now?

54.10 – Tracy: I wanted to ask you, going right back to the Meccano and your early experiences of Meccano, given all the knowledge you’ve obviously since acquired, how you think that would have helped you to learn in terms of your … I know you have an overview of engineering for example and that kind of … you know, how things are constructed in the big world as it were?

54.37 – Michael: I don’t think that Meccano and rail engineering have quite as tight a connection as people tend to think because I think, you know, railway engineering is about strains and stresses and calculus and various other things. No, I think actually Meccano and all the other construction sets, the Lott’s bricks, everything is more about manual ability. Not dexterity, manual ability… that it’s fun to discover that you can put things together and you make them etc. Indeed, one wonders, you know all the construction sets at any time have instruction books but to what extent those are followed by the owners who hopefully will have a .. what’s the right word? Not an exploration … will have a certain inventiveness and will try this way.

Certainly, learn that any gears have got to fit but nothing like they fit in the gear box of a car. So I don’t think, I don’t think it’s much more the broadening of the whole individual, rather than a specific learning thing.

56.20 – Of course the interesting thing is that in my time again, Trix construction appeared and again, there is some history. Well, there’s a lot of history here. If you asked in the average toy auction audience, “what about Trix?” I’m not sure you’ll find … you’ll always find one or two much more informed than yourself people but on the whole, people have heard of Meccano but they haven’t heard of Trix. And Trix of course came from Germany, I think in fact as early as the first war, basically, was launched by ‘Hobbies’ magazine.

‘Hobbies’ had been around since I think 1890 or thereabouts; I have a fairly complete run of it. A magazine of netting and carpentry and metalwork and various other things, by Hobbies Ltd of Deerham, Norfolk, who in fact one of their major products was in fact fret saws.

And of course fret saw, concept of the fret saw, relates of course to jigsaws which you could make jigsaws without a fret saw but it was the coming in of the fret saw which enabled the jigsaw, interlocking jigsaws… You see jigsaws certainly date from about 1750, 1760 but interlocking jigsaws are I think really a product from possibly the late ‘90’s onwards. I’m not quite sure.

There are books on the history of jigsaws. Tom Tyler, who founded the association, The Confraternity of Dissectologists, Tom Tyler being the some time Vicar of Henfield, also very, very collector mad of railways, model railways and so on and so forth. You find people doing all sorts of things there but I’m not wandering too far from Trix here, but ‘Hobbies’ Magazine you see went on and was dealing with all sorts of constructions.

The early Bassett Lowke for example, in the ‘20’s, took on ‘Hobbies’ and ran it for a while, as an advertising medium. ‘cause again, the background of all this, one has got to reflect, is people aren’t doing it because they loved toys, people are doing it to make a profit, hopefully and business is about making profit, irrespective of what you’re making.

And um but in fact, Trix and ‘Hobbies’ launched a British version of Trix and interesting that this was like Meccano, a construction set. And of course if you look at it, I think I’ve done a fairly detailed history of construction sets because in fact there are enormous numbers of them. For example, after the last war, when metal suddenly became available, we’ve got again … this is relevant to us here in the Toy Museum, if you look at the appropriate showcase, you’ll see just a small assortment of entrepreneurs in 1947, 48 finding bits of metal and they could then put together construction sets and sell them. And there is an incredible variety.

1.00.35 – To some extent, this may have eroded the established Meccano of course and of course again, you see, it’s an enormous field because one’s got to remember, you know, we’re talking about the Eastern Hemisphere and what’s happening in the Western Hemisphere? Erector, the American equivalent of Meccano. Don’t think that Erector is Meccano, no it isn’t. Because again, the trouble with so many of these is they didn’t quite match up.

Coming back to Trix, Trix had a variety of parts and girders and plates and curves and so on and they had rather more holes in each of them than Meccano had. But the trouble was, that you had to have the specific Trix gauge of screw thread to nuts and bolts. And if you already had a Meccano set and you splashed out your shilling on one of the Trix small envelopes, you took it home and you ran out of the Trix nuts and bolts and you went to your Meccano set and tried to use so you discovered that the Meccano bolts, which were 5/32 width worth, wouldn’t go through the holes of the Trix set. Hence, you know, oh dear, well. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Trix never quite took off because, as I say, I in fact have got here … I have a very, very large cupboard full of just Trix and they produced again instruction manuals and if you look at our big Meccano crane, which is about one of the finest models you can make with Meccano, you’ll discover that Trix made an equivalent one, and I’ve always wanted to in fact make a Trix block crane but I don’t think I’ve got time to do it. I probably have the bits to do it, but not the time.

So I went onto Trix construction sets we were talking about and again of course the interesting thing, looking at the history, is to move from simple bricks like Lott’s bricks, always when we think of Lott’s, think of Richter because the range of Richter bricks is …if you go to the Continent and see one of their collections, is quite remarkable. And, as I say, we have an interesting little sample of it here.

1.03.44 – But otherwise, construction sets, there’s a gap and of course a question of the gaps produced by war and the inability to make things such as for example, Meccano. Hornby had these major factories at Binns Road in Liverpool and of course, without those and all the others, we probably would have lost the last war because you know, everybody was busy making war like products.

And the question is, at the end of the war, so often they didn’t recover and it’s a question of the … this is partly your field I think of the economics of what’s going on. It’s splendid to come into a place like this and see absolutely splendid things but one should think behind it into, you know, who does this? Who produces it and why?

1.04.56 – And again, it took me a long time to come round to that. I think I went to one of the toy fairs at Olympia, I forget what the firm’s called … ooh in fact we used to, in the early … 25 years ago in this place, we in fact arranged for our things to sell in the toyshop here, came from this place, was in fact importing from China and other places things because they’re just not available.

I’ve forgotten what was … there was quite a variety of nice things but they weren’t being made here. What were they? Audrey would remind me. When we ran the little shop in the far, far corner ..

Tracy: Didn’t we have the lithographed tinplate stuff from China?

Michael: No, I don’t think we’ve had … I don’t think in fact the Chinese have ever produced much tinplate so there has been, for the past 10, 15 years, possibly more, a number of the established firms in this country, in Germany, to some extent in France have in fact turned their manufacturing to China and Marklin who of course are one of the oldest mainly model railway but other things manufacturers. I think Marklin dates from I think 1880 or 1860 and the whole town of Goppingen is just Marklin. But they in fact one suddenly discovered about 12, 15 years ago, that actually, they’re very fine models, particularly in 00 gauge.

1.07.04 – No Marklin were still producing up to 0, 1 and 2 gauge things were in fact being made in China because the Chinese are extremely clever at doing all sorts of things. I’ve been to China a couple of times and it is a truth that these Chinese, they’re clever. To me, in a nice way, in a productive way, they are clever. And they will take on things. It’s like you see currently, the best … you can get some beautiful binding. I bet some of these books were printed in China. Currently they are doing, you know, a tremendous amount.

If you have a really nice book to produce, get it out to China.

1.08.07 – Tracy: Michael collects books as well as lots of other things. We’ve got nearly an hour so I’m going to wrap it up in a minute. I think when we get the video equipment … when we get the video equipment, we’ll get you back and just do a ten, fifteen minute wander around the museum but I’ve got one more question before we wrap it up that we haven’t touched on at all that every … I think I’m still looking to find someone who says “no, I never had one of those”. Teddy bears. And I’ve never met anyone who says, “no, I never had one.”

Michael: Interesting. You didn’t have one?

Tracy: No, I did but I’m looking to meet the person that didn’t.

Andrea: (overlapping) Did you?

Tracy: Did you?

1.08.58 – Michael: I would think … let’s just think about being at the old Rectory, in rural Worcestershire and one of my little friends was called Gordon who lived in the black and white cottage, just near the entrance drive, agricultural labourer, Gordon was about my age, about 8 or 9, I wouldn’t think Gordon had a teddy bear. I wouldn’t think that the majority of agricultural labourer children had ever had a teddy bear.

Tracy: But I haven’t met Gordon. Did you have a teddy bear?

Michael: Yeah, well you see, I did and I think a teddy bear of my time, would undoubtedly be a middle class thing because I rather have a feeling that you’ll find more of so called aristocracy, so called upper class not having a teddy bear. I think a teddy bear was a more … it’s an interesting … I’m sure there is a good history of the teddy bear somewhere and it’d be interesting to look at that. But I certainly had a teddybearattheageof3andahalfor4anditwasquiteabigone. ItwasIthinka Chad Valley … I think it was a Chad Valley and it had a voice and it was called Banks. And why was it called Banks? Because my father felt it rather resembled one of his former form masters at Shrewsbury School.

1.10.57 – Tracy: That’s lovely (laughing). Well we’ll stop there for today.

Michael: Ok

1.11.07 – Michael Think about it much but the thought did occur to me? Collectors Gazette I think I occasionally wrote the odd thing and you know collectors? (hmn) Classifications of collectors?

Tracy: Go on

Michael: Jackdaws, magpies, squirrels and king squirrels. Jackdaws are just interested in the shiny object, magpies tend to store objects a bit, squirrels collect nuts for the winter but king squirrels rather may be particular about which nuts they collect or so on and so forth. But one day at a Christie’s sale …it’ll be up there in that list of catalogues, I was talking with Tony Manthos, who is of course a trustee of this establishment. He said “oh yes Michael, I do agree but you’ve missed one out. I said “ok Tony, tell me.” “Oh yes, bowerbirds who really go to town building a display.” And so there you are.

Tracy: So which is Chris? [Laughing]

Michael: Interesting

Tracy: I think he’s a hybrid – magpie bower bird.

Michael: I think that’s about right. [laughter]. I think that’s about right, yes. Yes. Bowerbirds do it and they do it elaborately and the rest of it but it has a purpose and king squirrels have a purpose but ordinary squirrels … well they collect but do they know what they’re doing? [Laughter]

And you see again, I’m not sure what I am but why do I have what I have? Particularly in terms of books and I’m quite clear that while I love books and will go on liking them, I have them for what is in them, not for their beauty of anything. It’s nice to have a nice book but you know, one isn’t . . .

RECORDING ENDS 1hr 13.54

Listen to the audio

Read the transcript of the audio track

30th May 2014
Location – Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Tracy Savage
Also present for some of interview: Chris Littledale, Andrea Dumbrell (Audio only – a few minutes of video)

RECORDING ONE

00:00 Tracy: Right so your name, date of birth

Michael: My name is Michael Jordan Gilkes. My date of birth 31.08.23, the first of August 1923 and actually I was born in Montreal, Canada because in fact my mother was in fact involved in a Canadian song recital tour at that time. But I soon and she soon came back to Britain, to England, what shall we call it? You know, to UK. I didn’t think I used any of those terms. But I did come back in 1926 in the Berengaria which previously had been one of the flagships of the great German pre-war, trans-Atlantic liners.

01:08 and I grew up in Birmingham where my mother and father were both involved in lecturing and teaching. My father was in fact a classicist and used to have many workers’ association classes and my mother was a professional musician, singer and pianist. People always thought she was a singer only but in fact she won the gold medal of the Royal Academy of Music when she qualified, in about 1908. And we were always rather pleased that actually she beat Myra Hess to the medal at that time.

Stop? Give it a rest?

Tracy: I’ll just leave that running because it’s got batteries and a new card.

02:13 Michael: If we’re going to come on to, put it on again. If we come on to the question of toys and play things, my first memory, actually it isn’t of a toy, it is I was in a little nursery school in the town of Thame which is just east of Oxford and I was in a little garret room upstairs and one of my very earliest memories is of waking up and there was a large owl perched on the end of my bed and I think that caused me a certain amount of disconcertment.

Anyway, otherwise it was a very happy little school, nursery and then about 1926, we actually moved over to Princess Risborough and I remember on that occasion, I didn’t have it but somebody had one of the large wooden Tri-ang pull along tank toys, tank engine toys and I also have a memory and I think it’s one of the reasons why I collected them later, of the early Bing table top, that was the very first double O gauge miniature railway. One of the other children had it and I certainly recall we played with it in the garden, a clockwork set at that time. And so I think those are my earliest sort of partly toy and play thing recollections.

03:57 And then we moved to Saffron Down in Birmingham in the suburb of Selly Oak and in fact were in the Selly Oak vicarage because my father was a good friend of Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, who was fairly well known for his trenchant views on all sorts of things at that time and had been at Shrewsbury and Shrewsbury school, where my father had been a master and my grandfather had been a housemaster and so on. There was a very strong educational connection all through my first twenty years. Anyway, the interesting thing was, as I say, we were living … we had no religious practitioners in the family at that time, we were living in Selly Oak Vicarage.

05:04 And again an early memory was … I must have been about 4 or 5 at the time, going with my Irish governess, walking across the Bristol Road down to Bourneville and watching the Bourneville Cadbury special liveried tank engines and trains shunting along the canal, where the canal and the Cadbury works are situated.

I think we’d better just stop there for a minute. Is this the sort of stuff you want?

Tracy: It’s all good, yeah. We’ll move on to how you sort of got into particularly the construction, you said lots of Meccano and that sort of thing.

05:58 Michael: It was about this time, again about 1928, that one of my earliest toys which we have good examples in the Toy Museum here, were of baby tractors, which were interesting little things. You go and see them in the showcase here because possibly the only worldwide collection of animate toys is here and they were interesting because they said: ‘push slowly backwards, never push forwards’, because if you did, you upset the mechanism. If you did them the right way, they then moved nicely, slowly and will go up a small hill.

But of course inevitably 4 or 5 year old children would tend to push them forwards as well. But I would suggest it’s very worthwhile going to look at the appropriate showcase because they also produce toy tractors with rubber tracks, rather bigger and interesting the thing making the date is on the box is printed a certain amount of stuff about Lindberg; you know who had just done the first trans-Atlantic flight from America to Paris and this was part of their animate toys advertising.

07:27 Animate toys are very interesting because you’ll see, if you go and look, there’s lovely little World War tanks and beavers and all sorts of other things, as well as the bigger things and you are looking, if you do go and look at what I believe to be a virtually unique collection which is not present anywhere in either the East or West hemisphere.

May I say some of them do work still, others I regret to say, were probably pushed forward, though not in my day.

08:25 Background talk about the filming/recording.

Tracy: There we are.

Michael: Right you want to go ahead? It was about this time I suppose, my father being particularly interested in trains, during the first war, after he’d been very badly wounded, he was kept in our islands and was occupied from about 1916-18 in inspecting the biscuit factories which were producing biscuits for the forces. This enabled him in fact to travel on practically every mainline, railway mainline in the country and possibly some of the smaller ones. And so whenever we went anywhere, almost for the rest of his life, if we went over or under a railway bridge, he would be able to say quite clearly where we were.

By then, this of course tied with the fact that at that time he didn’t really have any … I hesitate to call them toy railways and yet at that time, we didn’t really call them model railways. But they certainly existed and in the late ‘20s, I began to have various Hornby trains and train sets.

And of course at that time, one also had various Meccano sets so I think there were always the sets 1 and 2. The idea of having anything more elaborate with gears or anything like that, at that time, no, one didn’t.

10:12 One always looked at the advertisements in the Meccano magazine. I started with the Meccano magazine I s’pose quite early in 1929 or 30 but one looked in toy shops not thinking one would ever have one of these beautiful big engines. But one still had a fair assortment of at that time Hornby trains.

Tracy: So what could you make with the sets that you did have?

Michael: Well one made the rather more elementary things that were in the instruction book. The odd crane or I think again, the problem for the young at any time is, if you have a construction set, you suddenly find you haven’t got enough nuts and bolts to do what should be. And of course my later experience of Hornby and Meccano and later, don’t let’s ignore Trix, which I’m glad to say we have a splendid collection of Trix here but I remember in my experience, Trix was rather cheaper than Meccano and so by about 1931, or 32, you could buy little … there were sets A, B and C and they were all one shilling each, as I recall. But this enabled you in fact to build up things.

12:09 And Trix, if you look at the case or are knowledgeable about it, whereas Meccano always had rather well cut gears and things, the Trix tended to have simple sprocket gears. Also they had train. No, one’s toy cupboard had a number of different things at that time.

It was about this time too, about 1930, that I had my first wooden engine which came from … I think they were called Ransomes .. they were the best toy shop in Birmingham at that time was situated in the Great Western arcade, which is practically next door to Snowhill Station, which was a Great Western railway station at that time. And certainly, my big, I suppose it was about three or four foot long engine, which I forget, I didn’t know what colour it was because at that time and ever since, there’s only really been one railway, i.e. the Great Western. We had to … somebody had to paint this engine green. Again, I think the paint … I think it may have been my Irish governess, who got some paint and painted it for me and I don’t think it was the right paint and I don’t think it set properly and I do seem to recall odd smears of paint in various places.

13:51 And so one never had anything very elaborate at that time and I suppose the majority of both children and adults, there was a longing or hankering for things one couldn’t quite afford. Stop, there we are.

It’s let me see, where are we now?

Tracy: Do you want a cup of tea?

Michael: Coffee

Tracy: Coffee? How do you have it?

More talk of coffee and biscuits and a break. 1601 Michael: What I was going to say was … Background talking about biscuits etc Michael: That in giving these recollections, Tracy: Hang on

Michael: I think everybody should realise that I was an only child and I cannot say that I ever regretted being an only child, and on the whole I think it is a happier situation to be in when you do not have to apparently contest with brothers and sisters. But maybe one can be slightly … I don’t know what the right word is … oh what’s the right word when you are given tolerance?

Anyway, as I say, the only child does quite well and of course gets quite a number of toys.

[Laughter]

16:57 And of course while we’re still at the vicarage in Selly Oak, again I had a lot of farm animals and they would of course have been Britains.

Tracy: Britains, hm.

Michael: And there was a nice little shop just down in the main street of Selly Oak on the south side, just before you went down the hill towards Edgbaston, where again, one used to go and spend the odd … I suppose … there wasn’t the pocket money concept I think but things did turn up and probably as with many only children, one probably had too many toys but I in no way regret them.

[Telephone rings in the background]

17:48 So I certainly had a farm, like you’ll see in the Toy Museum here, but while in later years of course, there’ve been many other makers of farm animals and models of animals and zoos and so on. There’s no doubt that Britain today and ever since, have still been the prime one. Bearing in mind of course that it wasn’t only farm animals, there was a strong field of model soldiers at that time and model soldiers, Britains used to come in long, single width boxes and I certainly recall one relative of the family, except that we never really discovered that it really was him, that one Christmas a box of soldiers turning up and I can remember the question: who did this actually come from?

18:55 So one had soldiers and of course then talking about Britains; Britains produced some very splendid model guns, army guns like the big Howitzer, which actually fired. You could load sort of leaden shells and put them into it. It was a sort of thing … I don’t know if we’ve got one here. Have we got one here? If we haven’t, I’ve still got one which I was thinking about selling and it really ought to come here.

They’re splendid. I mean, in the first war, this was the largest gun that you would see pictures of with big artillery wheels and I suppose about ten inch bore. Yes, we must look into that.

Tracy: Yes

Michael: Do we have model soldiers?

Tracy: Yes we do. The dioramas are in Belgium, on a special exhibition.

Michael: That’s right.

Tracy: But they’ll be back next year.

Michael: They will. Because we haven’t got any at the moment.

Tracy: We have got … that gentleman there’s standing next to a whole .. we have some

20:13 Michael: So long as the Peace Pledge Union doesn’t come after us. When I say, I’m not sure if it was the Peace Pledge Union but one of the backgrounds of the time I’m telling you about, was and one of the reasons we didn’t go to war when we should have, was in fact the Peace Pledge Union.

Oh no, we’ve had the war to end all wars and this is of course one of the reasons why 1938 and 39 happened.

Looking around, just once again, I see something that reminds me … there were of course various sets of building bricks and for the more junior, there were very much bricks that were boxes of wooden cubes that fitted into one another. I suppose those would be more for age 2-3. And I think I was always much too grown up to have anything like that.

21:13 But certainly again at this time, one of the great things was in fact Lott’s bricks which were still the best of all bricks and I certainly had a number of sets. Nothing like as prolific as you actually have in the cases here. The Toy Museum’s set of Lott’s bricks is superb. But the point is that they fitted into each other and one of the interesting things is that it’s only much later, several decades later, that I suddenly realised that the particular colouring of the roofs of Lott’s bricks building is in fact very reminiscent of Dutch ..

Tracy: Yes

Michael: Going to Holland and possibly northern Belgium and that’s where that came from I think because of course Lott’s bricks were made under licence from German brick manufacturers whose name I forget but we must get it from Chris who is. Righters? Or have we got them here? Actually the patent of Lott’s bricks.

[pause]

23:11 Well I’ll tell you why it is important actually to

Tracy: [looks at Lott’s bricks boxes] They all say Watford

Michael: They all say this. It will come back to me actually because, looking very much forward, when Audrey and I went on the trans-Siberian trans-Russian railway, in about 1980, one of our companions on that absolutely splendid trip from London to Hong Kong in various ways … was in fact a very splendid Dutch General Practitioner, Dr Charles who became and has remained a great friend, and we discovered that Charles in fact was a major collector of these German bricks. And at one time in fact we went over in fact because there was a major exhibition of some name like Rightus or Reutus.

Tracy: We’ll look it up. Chris will know.

Michael: Chris will know. Anyway that’s … so but to discover later, what fifty years later, even longer, that Lott’s bricks had this and of course magnificent structures have been made both from Lott’s bricks and these other ones.

24:53 I mean Lego is … I’ve nothing against Lego, in fact if Lego was the only thing we could have, splendid but it’s cheating a bit. It clicks together.

[Laughter]

So where have we got to? We’ve got to … we’ve got to ah well, yes, you see we … 1929, my father in particular, we acquired a car and we went travelling west to west of Worcester because this was in fact my father’s early ground when the Gilkes family came from. William Gilkes, Mayor and Ink Maker of Linster, who about 1850 had ten children of whom my father was the son of the eldest of those. We mustn’t put too much family history into this but you see his eldest son, Arthur Herman Gilkes, became the very great Victorian Headmaster of Dulwich College; who was later succeeded by his third son Chris Gilkes who in 1941 became headmaster of Dulwich College and the fourth son became the high master of St Paul’s so I have a rather strong sort of educational background and um … which probably hasn’t rubbed off on me but has been of interest. People come up to one and say: “oh, you know, your uncle or grandfather or somebody used to teach me”.

27:02 Because again my father as I say, after first war did become form master at Shrewsbury and then decided he didn’t … he got a bit fed up with teaching boys and preferred to be teaching adults, which is why we moved to Birmingham.

So anyway, back onto the toys so Lott’s bricks and as I say, we then moved down to a lovely old rectory, again a religious connection. This was some of our farmer relatives, you know just west of Worcester had a quite big farm. They were very famous, in fact they had the breeders of Hereford cattle. Again, I shouldn’t digress quite so much but again, John Walker’s father was Lawson Walker of Broadhurst who owned a horse called Team Willow which won the Grand National but that’s nothing to do with the Toy Museum.

Tracy: No, but that’s worth telling.

28:12 Michael: Anyway, we moved to the old rectory. Knightwick, 9 miles west of Worcester, and it was and is a splendid Queen Ann house, possibly Queen Mary, overlooking the valleys of western Worcester and amongst other things, I of course … it was three storeys and of course I and all my toys, which I had at that time were translated. But one of the nice things was that we had a sort of … oh what’s the word, kind of single storey school house, school room in the grounds and that became my plaything and nursery, adding of course to the fact that, amongst other things, living there, we had pupils for, particularly for my father but also my mother, teaching singers and of course I was … not exactly spoilt but exposed to family life which I didn’t have as an only child.

And certainly my recollections was, certainly by that time, had Bing table top, which again you’ll see a splendid collection of in the Toy Museum and an electric table top. And bearing in mind that at that time, west of Worcester, houses didn’t have electricity, I grew up there, the three years we were there, taking my own paraffin lamp up to bed with me. That was at the age of, this was a great, oh what was the word? Not an epiphany, another thing that can happen to you, when you were finally allowed to carry the paraffin lamp.

Tracy: A rite of passage almost?

Michael: Oh that’s right. And bearing in mind of course I had candles and I mustn’t digress too much but I must digress a little bit about candles because the interesting thing is that there’s a splendid book by what is her name? Flora Thompson is it? “Lark Rise to Candleford.” (Tracy: ‘Yes’, says the academic) Wonderful book. Everybody should read it. Grew up in Juniper Hill in a really rural .. just north of Oxford and about how she was growing up and so on, again without electricity or even modern sewage probably but one of the interesting things was that one learns that people … I say this as a one time practising eye doctor, people are very dubious about various forms of lighting and one particularly is about candles and particularly and I remember being told this, I think, you should not read in bed at night with a candle. Bad for your eyes, damaging your eyes. I might say in thirty years at the eye hospital here, numerous occasions on which I was told that. “Oh no, you know, you’ll damage your eyes.”

And it wasn’t until I read Flora Thompson’s book that she gives an account of how I think some adult says “Flora, you shouldn’t be reading in bed at night etc like that, you’ll damage your eyes and in any way, we don’t want to be burnt to death in our beds.” Because of course the actual fear is nothing to do with the eyes, but to do with that if you have a candle by your bed, in a half-timbered house like to some extent we were in the old rectory at night, you know, people did fall over and the candle did burn them. Anyway, that’s a digression but it’s a digression which should be recorded because I don’t think people woke up to the fact that it’s Flora Thompson who explained to us … there’s no harm in … in fact a candle light is a very good one, but just make sure you don’t knock it over on the bed.

Tracy: Or read under the covers. Maybe don’t read under the covers with a candle, like I did with a torch.

Michael: (laughing) How right you are, yes. Anyway, why did I get on to …?

Tracy: Because you moved to the rectory and you went upstairs and your paraffin.

33:45 Michael: Oh, the double O, the table top. Actually the table top is always … I’ve always loved it because A, I was first exposed to it at the age of what four or something? It was the very first practical double O and of course this electric version and one of the visiting families produced the electric double O where we had in this … oh not a shed, you know, much more than a shed … single story school room. That’s what. It was the school room in the garden. And we had … it was lovely, we had the Bing electric table top.

Unfortunately the engine of I think the only motor we had burnt out and so this was really rather sad ‘cause it ran from a little battery which you won’t find now, which was a little sort of rectangular thing about the size of a mug or tea cup and so we were deprived of that and again one of the sadnesses of my, of that age was that somebody else said, “that’s alright”, I was known as Mickle in those days, “we’ll get you another one when I’m up in London”. Well he went to London and he in fact went to … there’s a famous toy shop on the south side of Kensington High Street, just immediately opposite Olympia. I don’t think it’s there but Chris will know it, the toy shop opposite Olympia in Kensington High Street … (Chris: Chuff’s) Anyway, he called there. Anyway, he called there and bought a … don’t go, don’t go because what’s the name of the original of the Lott’s bricks? (Tracy: German)

Chris: Of Lott’s bricks? Anchor Richter.

35:53 Michael: Richter, that’s right because it is very important that they are large, continental, almost anywhere continental, Germany, France etc, you’ll find they have Richter bricks and as I say, I did go with this Charles doctor friend of mine, Dutch, particularly took us to a major exhibition of Richter blocks at Scheveningen it was fascinating to discover … to me bricks were the great thing but. Have we got Richter bricks here?

Chris: Yes

Michael: We have? Well, I have just been regaling how one discovered that you know Lott’s bricks were jolly good and I was also regaling, you know why the roof of Lott’s bricks are the colour they are? You should ‘cause I’ve told you.

Chris: Oh really? Oh Dutch roofs

Tracy: Dutch, well done! Go to the top of the class!

37:02 Michael: That’s easy. Um where were we? Richter bricks, that’s right. Because, as I say, Charles in his wardrobe in his flat in the Hague… when one suddenly one had shades lifted from one’s eyes and a whole number of things became apparent that hadn’t been.

While I’m looking at Chris, I’m looking at a showcase and of course this takes me back to 1930. We’ve moved to Worcester but eventually decided that I’d got to go to school and a prep school was found for me in Birmingham called Horfield in Edgbaston, Birmingham and so I wasn’t a boarder there, only for a very short while so in fact we acquired a flat in Bourne Brook which is in fact in Birmingham just opposite the university and so forth and I remember, I think it would be the Christmas, probably 1930, I had flu or something or the other and we had a very nice general practitioner and I … we were at that time in this flat. We still had the house in Worcestershire but um I and my governess were in the flat and what was rather nice was on Christmas day, that doctor came along to see me and I was in fact getting better and he had a present for me which was a Hornby aeroplane kit, just like I see in the window there.

I certainly made those and of course this was the time when Hornby were also producing their motor car kits and it is about two years later, just after we came back to Birmingham that I was in fact allowed Hornby Number One car Construction kit, which was very nice. It looked a bit like an MG, open tourer. But again, as always one wasn’t necessarily satisfied with it because one knew very well that one’s friends had a nice Hornby Number Two Construction set. Number two was a very much better and more powerful object which ran for much longer and trying to race my number one against the number two.

[NB At this point, there is a child looking at the toys in the museum which can be heard quite loudly in the background, making it difficult to hear what Michael is saying].

39:54 On the other hand, the number two … you’ll see them here, (there’s one around the corner.) The number two had many fewer variations. The number one had an open coupe and something else.

Chris: It had a boat back Michael: That’s right, yes.

Michael: So (child screams excitedly) oh dear, dear, dear nobody thinks it’s me making that noise.

So, we’ve got … we’ve talked about table tops, we’ve about Richter, so anyway … Oh the interesting thing of course again, this splendid, big schoolroom, in the garden, not only a site for Bing table top but at that time, one had a rather assorted collection of old gauge tin plate. Nothing very high class and certainly no question of scenery or something but one did have odd stations. But one also had toy soldiers and at that time we had certainly two of the Britain’s howitzers which one was able to fire across the floor of this schoolroom. It had a nice block tile parquet flooring and it was interesting, the damage that those shells in the Britain’s Howitzers could do to model soldiers, quite extensive.

Which reminds me Chris, I think I’ve still got the last of those Howitzers at home. (Chris: have you?) Shouldn’t we have it here?

Chris: In a cabinet over there.

Michael: Is there one over there?

Chris: No, we should have it, yes.

Michael: Well I think probably you should have it, yes. But it’s actually worth money about a hundred quid.

Chris: Probably, yes.

42:13 Tracy: I think now, we’ve got some of these memories, you know, it’s jogged, if we go into the office and continue without the background noise, I can ask you some questions then without you having to filter.

Michael: Right, well, let’s see if there’s anything.

Tracy: Well you could maybe have a short walk around and a think and a break.

Michael: No, I don’t …

Tracy: No, that’s what I thought, yeah.

Chris: So you’ve talked about the table top…

Michael: I’ve talked about … I actually haven’t mentioned the word Tri-ang and I ought to mention the word

Tracy: He’s done Trix

Chris: Oh, you’ve done Trix

Michael: I ought to mention the word Tri-ang because Tri-ang is very important. Chris: Do you mention animate toys?

Michael: We started off with them.

Chris: Oh that’s interesting, good.

Tracy: Very good but we carry on in the …

Michael: How’s it going? Alright?

Tracy: Yes, it’s lovely. We’ve got loads to work with but I want to ..

Michael: You’ll have to split it into bits won’t you?

Tracy: Take you away.

Michael: not quite right to have coloured Meccano.

Chris: You go back to that Meccano

43.48 – Michael: No I … red and green. The uncoloured one didn’t have at all but fundamentally was red green and all this colouring … no, you know.

Chris: Red green is the most classic.

Michael: That’s right. Yes, I must get the howitzer out because I think they’re amongst the best things ..

Chris: Oh, they were lovely.

Michael: Well again you see my recollection is of Britain’s, Britain’s farm toys, Britain’s soldiers.

Chris: Yeah.

44.34 – Michael: That’s fine. Well, as I say, well I think one has had an interesting life… so, did I make the point about being an only child? Yes.

There’s a tendency for people to rather think you shouldn’t be an only child. But as I say, occasionally people would commiserate with one but anyway, I was going to just … because it still fits in this period … the word Tri-ang I think is very important because amongst the sort of available toys at that time, one of the great ones were Lines Bros whose brand were Tri-ang and they made, as we have here, not exactly tin toys. What should one call them? They are A) Well, they certainly made prams, pushchairs, tricycles for children and also a range, oh of course we’ve got some here, up the top, splendid steam engines, tin plate, things made of tin plate.

I might add that I talked about my very first pull along engine, which was this wooden one. That wasn’t Tri-ang and I think one probably actually had a slight feeling at that time, that it was a nice engine but one would have preferred to have a Tri-ang. Because the Tri-ang ones actually got up to a size where possibly a five or six year old could in fact sit it and I’m not sure if you aren’t dealing with the age of pedal cars at that time because there were certainly in 1929 or 30, that my birthday present did consist, involve a pedal car to sit in which was bought in Worcester, very near the Worcester Cathedral, very good toy shop there, which I think is still there.

And Tri-ang as I say, made this very wide variety of tin plate things and I’m not sure that … there may have been continental … what’s the right word? Competitors but I think one never saw them in Britain. We were dealing in British things. Of course, again, another little aspect of these things is that while we often think of Bassett Lowke as one of the great model railway producers of the first half of the last century, a certain amount of stuff was truly British. But a considerable amount was in fact adaptations of the German toy makers like Bing and oh I forget the names of the others, it will come up.

48:08 So in fact there was the continental toy industry, rather typically of the British, not recognised etc but in fact when you discover how big it was in fact, this insularity that we have is quite interesting.

So anyway, Tri-ang toys, there are a number around here. I’m looking to see … that could almost be a Tri-ang except it’s nothing like good enough.

Tracy: What, the biscuit tin?

Michael: No, the bus.

Tracy: Yeah, it’s a biscuit tin.

Michael: It’s a biscuit tin … ah well, there again we have an interesting aspect … I don’t know if we’re going to get away from the late 20’s, early ‘30’s. But of course one of the aspects of toys of that type of my time is in fact in the grocer’s and splendid tin plate biscuit tins, including certainly which I think I did … I think like many children, I may have coveted something which in fact you couldn’t have, because we weren’t all that well off.

But certainly there was a flying Scotsman biscuit tin which I recall, with, in fact I think Huntley Palmer’s biscuits, the ones with little sort of icing things on them … you know, small, little roundels with … But in fact, the range at that time, if you went into a grocer’s of Birmingham or anywhere else, at that time around Christmas, there would be quite a range of biscuit tins and of course nowadays in fact they command really rather frightening values in auction. One was glad one didn’t have them.

So that’s as I say Tri-ang, I mean Tri-ang were a very, very major aspect of the toy scene … of the toy industry and I would say just recapitulating, talking of not only about children’s toys and pull along toys but prams and all sorts of things. And as I say, they had this big factory at Morden near Merton, in South London and of course they went on being a major factor in the toy industry, until sadly would have been the ‘60’s or 70’s, you suddenly discovered the people who made, the people, what’s the right word? They went into administration. Yes, that’s right and in fact they were quality. And in fact one of the aspects of that sort of period was toys, tinplate toys were very largely made with the fold over little tabs. You made them by having component bits which were then pushed over. And one of the things of course, you had to learn as a child, was if you started undoing tabs on your toys, you probably wouldn’t be able to put them back properly, or they broke off rather smartly and that was a pity.

The interesting … one of the first … there could really be an article on the mendability of toys over the period and right so where are we going to go now?

52.35 – Tracy: I wanted to ask you, going right back to the Meccano and your early experiences of Meccano, given all the knowledge you’ve obviously since acquired, how you think that would have helped you to learn in terms of your … I know you have an overview of engineering for example and that kind of … you know, how things are constructed in the big world as it were?

Michael: I don’t think that Meccano and rail engineering have quite as tight a connection as people tend to think because I think, you know, railway engineering is about strains and stresses and calculus and various other things. No, I think actually Meccano and all the other construction sets, the Lott’s bricks, everything is more about manual ability. Not dexterity, manual ability… that it’s fun to discover that you can put things together and you make them etc. Indeed, one wonders, you know all the construction sets at any time have instruction books but to what extent those are followed by the owners who hopefully will have a .. what’s the right word? Not an exploration … will have a certain inventiveness and will try this way.

Certainly, learn that any gears have got to fit but nothing like they fit in the gear box of a car. So I don’t think, I don’t think it’s much more the broadening of the whole individual, rather than a specific learning thing.

Of course the interesting thing is that in my time again, Trix construction appeared and again, there is some history. Well, there’s a lot of history here. If you asked in the average toy auction audience, “what about Trix?” I’m not sure you’ll find … you’ll always find one or two much more informed than yourself people but on the whole, people have heard of Meccano but they haven’t heard of Trix. And Trix of course came from Germany, I think in fact as early as the first war, basically, was launched by ‘Hobbies’ magazine.

‘Hobbies’ had been around since I think 1890 or thereabouts; I have a fairly complete run of it. A magazine of netting and carpentry and metalwork and various other things, by Hobbies Ltd of Deerham, Norfolk, who in fact one of their major products was in fact fret saws.

And of course fret saw, concept of the fret saw, relates of course to jigsaws which you could make jigsaws without a fret saw but it was the coming in of the fret saw which enabled the jigsaw, interlocking jigsaws… You see jigsaws certainly date from about 1750, 1760 but interlocking jigsaws are I think really a product from possibly the late ‘90’s onwards. I’m not quite sure.

There are books on the history of jigsaws. Tom Tyler, who founded the association, The Confraternity of Dissectologists, Tom Tyler being the some time Vicar of Henfield, also very, very collector mad of railways, model railways and so on and so forth. You find people doing all sorts of things there but I’m not wandering too far from Trix here, but ‘Hobbies’ Magazine you see went on and was dealing with all sorts of constructions.

The early Bassett Lowke for example, in the ‘20’s, took on ‘Hobbies’ and ran it for a while, as an advertising medium. ‘cause again, the background of all this, one has got to reflect, is people aren’t doing it because they loved toys, people are doing it to make a profit, hopefully and business is about making profit, irrespective of what you’re making.

And um but in fact, Trix and ‘Hobbies’ launched a British version of Trix and interesting that this was like Meccano, a construction set. And of course if you look at it, I think I’ve done a fairly detailed history of construction sets because in fact there are enormous numbers of them. For example, after the last war, when metal suddenly became available, we’ve got again … this is relevant to us here in the Toy Museum, if you look at the appropriate showcase, you’ll see just a small assortment of entrepreneurs in 1947, 48 finding bits of metal and they could then put together construction sets and sell them. And there is an incredible variety.

59.00 – To some extent, this may have eroded the established Meccano of course and of course again, you see, it’s an enormous field because one’s got to remember, you know, we’re talking about the Eastern Hemisphere and what’s happening in the Western Hemisphere? Erector, the American equivalent of Meccano. Don’t think that Erector is Meccano, no it isn’t. Because again, the trouble with so many of these is they didn’t quite match up.

Coming back to Trix, Trix had a variety of parts and girders and plates and curves and so on and they had rather more holes in each of them than Meccano had. But the trouble was, that you had to have the specific Trix gauge of screw thread to nuts and bolts. And if you already had a Meccano set and you splashed out your shilling on one of the Trix small envelopes, you took it home and you ran out of the Trix nuts and bolts and you went to your Meccano set and tried to use so you discovered that the Meccano bolts, which were 5/32 width worth, wouldn’t go through the holes of the Trix set. Hence, you know, oh dear, well. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Trix never quite took off because, as I say, I in fact have got here … I have a very, very large cupboard full of just Trix and they produced again instruction manuals and if you look at our big Meccano crane, which is about one of the finest models you can make with Meccano, you’ll discover that Trix made an equivalent one, and I’ve always wanted to in fact make a Trix block crane but I don’t think I’ve got time to do it. I probably have the bits to do it, but not the time.

1.01.30 – So I went onto Trix construction sets we were talking about and again of course the interesting thing, looking at the history, is to move from simple bricks like Lott’s bricks, always when we think of Lott’s, think of Richter because the range of Richter bricks is …if you go to the Continent and see one of their collections, is quite remarkable. And, as I say, we have an interesting little sample of it here.

But otherwise, construction sets, there’s a gap and of course a question of the gaps produced by war and the inability to make things such as for example, Meccano. Hornby had these major factories at Binns Road in Liverpool and of course, without those and all the others, we probably would have lost the last war because you know, everybody was busy making war like products.

And the question is, at the end of the war, so often they didn’t recover and it’s a question of the … this is partly your field I think of the economics of what’s going on. It’s splendid to come into a place like this and see absolutely splendid things but one should think behind it into, you know, who does this? Who produces it and why?

And again, it took me a long time to come round to that. I think I went to one of the toy fairs at Olympia, I forget what the firm’s called … ooh in fact we used to, in the early … 25 years ago in this place, we in fact arranged for our things to sell in the toyshop here, came from this place, was in fact importing from China and other places things because they’re just not available.

I’ve forgotten what was … there was quite a variety of nice things but they weren’t being made here. What were they? Audrey would remind me. When we ran the little shop in the far, far corner ..

1.04.14 – Tracy: Didn’t we have the lithographed tinplate stuff from China?

Michael: No, I don’t think we’ve had … I don’t think in fact the Chinese have ever produced much tinplate so there has been, for the past 10, 15 years, possibly more, a number of the established firms in this country, in Germany, to some extent in France have in fact turned their manufacturing to China and Marklin who of course are one of the oldest mainly model railway but other things manufacturers. I think Marklin dates from I think 1880 or 1860 and the whole town of Goppingen is just Marklin. But they in fact one suddenly discovered about 12, 15 years ago, that actually, they’re very fine models, particularly in 00 gauge.

No Marklin were still producing up to 0, 1 and 2 gauge things were in fact being made in China because the Chinese are extremely clever at doing all sorts of things. I’ve been to China a couple of times and it is a truth that these Chinese, they’re clever. To me, in a nice way, in a productive way, they are clever. And they will take on things. It’s like you see currently, the best … you can get some beautiful binding. I bet some of these books were printed in China. Currently they are doing, you know, a tremendous amount.

If you have a really nice book to produce, get it out to China.

01.06.32 – Tracy: Michael collects books as well as lots of other things. We’ve got nearly an hour so I’m going to wrap it up in a minute. I think when we get the video equipment … when we get the video equipment, we’ll get you back and just do a ten, fifteen minute wander around the museum but I’ve got one more question before we wrap it up that we haven’t touched on at all that every … I think I’m still looking to find someone who says “no, I never had one of those”. Teddy bears. And I’ve never met anyone who says, “no, I never had one.”

Michael: Interesting. You didn’t have one?

Tracy: No, I did but I’m looking to meet the person that didn’t.

Andrea: (overlapping) Did you?

Tracy: Did you?

Michael: I would think … let’s just think about being at the old Rectory, in rural Worcestershire and one of my little friends was called Gordon who lived in the black and white cottage, just near the entrance drive, agricultural labourer, Gordon was about my age, about 8 or 9, I wouldn’t think Gordon had a teddy bear. I wouldn’t think that the majority of agricultural labourer children had ever had a teddy bear.

Tracy: But I haven’t met Gordon. Did you have a teddy bear?

Michael: Yeah, well you see, I did and I think a teddy bear of my time, would undoubtedly be a middle class thing because I rather have a feeling that you’ll find more of so called aristocracy, so called upper class not having a teddy bear. I think a teddy bear was a more … it’s an interesting … I’m sure there is a good history of the teddy bear somewhere and it’d be interesting to look at that. But I certainly had a teddybearattheageof3andahalfor4anditwasquiteabigone. ItwasIthinka Chad Valley … I think it was a Chad Valley and it had a voice and it was called Banks.

And why was it called Banks? Because my father felt it rather resembled one of his former form masters at Shrewsbury School.

Tracy: That’s lovely (laughing). Well we’ll stop there for today.

Michael: Ok

Michael Think about it much but the thought did occur to me? Collectors Gazette I think I occasionally wrote the odd thing and you know collectors? (hmn) Classifications of collectors?

Tracy: Go on

Michael: Jackdaws, magpies, squirrels and king squirrels. Jackdaws are just interested in the shiny object, magpies tend to store objects a bit, squirrels collect nuts for the winter but king squirrels rather may be particular about which nuts they collect or so on and so forth. But one day at a Christie’s sale …it’ll be up there in that list of catalogues, I was talking with Tony Manthos, who is of course a trustee of this establishment. He said “oh yes Michael, I do agree but you’ve missed one out. I said “ok Tony, tell me.” “Oh yes, bowerbirds who really go to town building a display.” And so there you are.

Tracy: So which is Chris? [Laughing]

Michael: Interesting

Tracy: I think he’s a hybrid – magpie bower bird.

Michael: I think that’s about right. [laughter]. I think that’s about right, yes. Yes. Bowerbirds do it and they do it elaborately and the rest of it but it has a purpose and king squirrels have a purpose but ordinary squirrels … well they collect but do they know what they’re doing? [Laughter]

And you see again, I’m not sure what I am but why do I have what I have? Particularly in terms of books and I’m quite clear that while I love books and will go on liking them, I have them for what is in them, not for their beauty of anything. It’s nice to have a nice book but you know, one isn’t … but compare this of course with Anthony …

INTERVIEW ENDS 1hr 12m

Michael

The son of a classicist and a professional musician, Michael was born in Canada in 1923 but grew up in Birmingham. A founding trustee of the Brighton Toy and Model Museum, in the short version (4m 48s) of his interview Michael discusses Meccano, Trix and his trian sets. In the full version (1hr 13m 54s) he also talks about Animate Toys, Bing, Anchor, Hornby and Tri-ang. Michael died in December 2014.