My apologies for resorting to cheap double entendres this month, sounding like Kenneth Williams or Sid James when I recount mammaries (geddit?) of my early years in the toy industry, even if I am doing so to make a point that is pertinent to 2013. (As a brief aside, my teenage band in 1980 was produced by Sid James’ son when we were asked to do a demo at Polydor Records. Needless to say, my career path took a different route into toy publishing/journalism.)
With LEGO locating its factories close to core markets in Europe and North America, there is much talk of other toy firms trying to become less dependent on Chinese production and I am reminded of the UK toy factories, long closed, that I once visited.
The decline of UK manufacturing was well underway by the time I started writing about toys, but I got to see the dying embers at first hand. Casdon tills were produced by Cassidy Brothers in Blackpool, Scrabble rolled off the production line at JW Spears in Enfield, as did Monopoly at Waddingtons in Leeds. At the height of its success, Trivial Pursuit was manufactured and marketed by UK distributor Serif Games of Ipswich.
Heavier industry came from die-cast vehicle manufacture by Corgi in Swansea, snooker tables were being made by Pot Black in Bideford and Arrow was still die cutting puzzles by hand in Hampshire in the most antediluvian process I think I ever witnessed.
American toy players also had a UK presence: Crayola colouring products were churned out by Binney and Smith in Bedford, Fisher-Price had a manufacturing facility at Peterlee in Durham; Little Tikes blow moulded Cozy Coupes outside Dublin.
One British manufacturer still producing its products in the UK since the 1980s is Games Workshop, with the Warhammer fantasy figures made in Nottingham to this day. We mustn’t forget to give special mention to proud UK toy makers Orchard Toys and Merrythought.
Hornby has moved some production of Airfix and Humbrol back home and Trunki is moving all of its manufacturing to the UK, but there is little evidence yet of a max exodus from China. On the other side of the Atlantic, K’Nex boasts that it manufactures its product “cheaper than China at globally competitive prices with the elimination of offshore risks”. The dilemma for toy manufacturers is equating cheaper manufacturing labour costs versus the inconvenience and expense of freight.
One industry that seems at home in the UK is movie production. Less than a mile away from my house are the Warner Bros. studios where all the Harry Potter movies were made.
A production line of great actors and cinematic technicians all contributed to making the UK such an attractive proposition. Cheaper venues like Eastern Europe could be a false economy as China might become for toys in the future.