Farm toys have long been collected, especially within rural communities; the most prominent manufacturer of agricultural machinery, farm animals and related items in late Victorian times was the William Britain Company.
Britain’s produced a huge variety of agriculture-related lead items including livestock, carts, trees, machinery and figures and they also branched off into military items such as soldiers and vehicles.
Britain’s success prompted many other manufacturers to become involved in the farm toy market – with names such as Crescent, Charbens, Timpo, Salco, Taylor & Barnett and Wendall producing agricultural items, but none with quite the same fine quality and detail as Britain’s.
The only company to present a challenge to the accuracy and detail of Britain’s toys was John Hill & Co, a company founded in London in 1900. John Hill had previously worked for Britain’s and his designs closely emulated those of Britain’s.
The William Britain Company employed home workers who were paid, per figure, to paint the items. Some rarities produced at the time included the village idiot, a Jersey cow with a bell and a dairy cow with a map of the world painted over her.
In common with many others, Britain’s switched from using lead to plastic and today, of course, lead is banned from toy manufacture because of its toxicity.
Nevertheless, pre-war and late 1940’s lead toys are highly collectable today, many of which capture the nostalgia of a long-forgotten era in farming in Britain – shire horse-drawn ploughs, hay carts, milk maids, land girls etc, – all of which can be seen at the Toy Museum.