Many millions of people across the globe have lost themselves in the pleasure of Meccano, Dinky Toys and Hornby model railways - perhaps billions. I was of them, can remember many of the Dinky cars and a small star of affection explodes in my mind whenever I see a few dusty models on a shelf in an antique shop.
The titan of toys behind it was Frank Hornby and being a staunch Northerner I was heartened to read he never moved far from Maghull near Liverpool where he lived and died. One a sunny Sunday I packed a flask and thought I would go and seek out his homes and grave.
Frank was born in Liverpool in 1863 in Liverpool. Aged 16 he left school to work for as a cashier for his dad’s business. At 23 he married a schoolteacher Clara and they had three children. At 36 the family business closed when his dad died and Frank became a bookkeeper for a meat-importing business.
His conventional life told nothing of the astounding success to come in later years. He spent his evenings in his shed making toys for his sons (their daughter died aged 14.) Though he had no engineering training he kept cutting metal off a sheet to make model bridges, trucks and cranes. The problem was that the parts didn’t fit together - a crane was a crane and a truck was a truck. The magic moment that struck him was that he needed to make interchangeable pieces. He mastered this and this was the key to later global sales. The only tools a child needed to assemble the models were spanners, a screwdriver and imagination. Frank was poor and had to borrow £5 to patent the idea (patent number GB190100587A.)
He was 38 by the time he considered the parts he’d tinkered with in his shed were worth selling. He found a company to manufacture the parts but they were poorly made and there was little interest. He was relatively poor and had a family to support so he was a little stuck - until his employer saw potential in the product and offered Frank some vacant premises next to the office in exchange for a partnership.
"Mechanics Made Easy" (now Meccano) was made for public consumption - a set of 16 parts and a leaflet showing how to make 12 models. Frank was almost 40 and hoped they’d make a profit. Only 1,500 sets sold and they made a loss. Within four years the range broadened and a crumb of profit was made.
Frank was 44 by the time he was able to resign from his normal job. Sales were high. They set up a workshop in Liverpool to manufacture more parts more quickly. Frank registered his famous "Meccano" trade mark and his name was put on all boxes sold. To raise big money to invest in a larger factory a company had to be created. This became Meccano Ltd. Frank’s partner was probably frightened by the burden of responsibility and didn’t join the new company (big mistake). Aged 47 the company sold £12,000 worth of sets.
Aged 50 Frank was exporting across the world and a new factory was built in Binns Road, Liverpool. Kids across the world loved the toys and Meccano Magazine was formed for geeks to further indulge themselves. In his late sixties Frank was a millionaire and living in a huge home, Quarry Brook, in Maghull. Every day he was chauffeured to the factory in Liverpool. He left the running of the company to his co-directors, entered politics and was elected as a Conservative MP for the Everton constituency (but resigned quite quickly.)
Aged 64 he brought out the hugely famous Hornby model railways which meant many boy could carry model-building into adulthood (and convert their attics to contain vast toy townscapes.) My favourites were the Dinky Toys (die-cast miniature model cars and trucks) but Frank was 71 when these were released to the world.
Despite roaring global success he died aged 72 at his huge home in Maghull. He’d had a bad heart for many years but this, complicated by diabetes, brought the end.
I soon found the church that Sunday morning and had a frothy coffee in the car while listening to the end of a brill drama. It was frosty and a robin landed outside the car with an appropriate red-breast. I dove into my bag of sandwiches and tossed it some buttered bread. It looked at it as though to say, “I’m not touching that, I prefer my bread heated in the microwave for 12 seconds.” I went to find the Hornby family grave and walked up to the church. The vicar must be running two churches as he passed by in a car and I saw it parked outside another church later on.
The cemetery at the rear of the church looked brill under a patina of frost though the road nearby marred the deathly atmosphere somewhat. I found the white Hornby headstone. I was looking for something as tall as a giraffe but it was medium sized, not showy. The toy king is buried here with his wife and the daughter. When I was playing with the Thunderbirds Dinky Toys in the 1970s I couldn’t have guessed I’ve been now stand by the bones of the man who invented them. Even now I can easily picture the Dinky Johnston Road Sweeper 451, how the doors opened and you could see the steering wheel and dashboard.
When I returned to the car the jammy bread had gone. From here I would first visit The Hollies, the first home the Hornby’s bought when some money started coming in. I needn’t have drove there as it was a ten minute walk. The Hollies is opposite a row of shops and wood fence doesn’t look to invite blue-plaque-spotting nerds like me. As I was taking a photo over the fence a girl of about 16 said the best view of the house was from the top deck of a bus and she “always looked into the house.”
The Hornby family must have liked this area as a five minute walk took me to Quarry Brook, the final home when they were financially rich. The “Tresspassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign was a beckoning finger to me so I just went up the drive. Blimey, it was a huge home but oddly this red-brick pile is shared between a Catholic school and a convent. Nobody was there except one nun who whizzed down the drive in a Ford Fiesta, not even stopping to ask what the geek wanted. I didn’t see a soul in the fifteen minutes I walked round the place. I went to the main front and back doors knowing Frank had stood. He died here of a heart attack and I wondered which of the many rooms witnessed this.
He wouldn’t have wanted to witness what became of his beloved Meccano factory after his death. As the Second World War raged it was converted to manufacture goods for the war effort. Also the Korean War in 1950 disrupted production due to a metal shortage. Worse followed: in the early 1960s Meccano Ltd experienced financial problems and was purchased by Lines Bros Ltd. They went bust in 1971 and Airfix Industries purchased the Meccano business. Though some divisions were profitable money needed to be saved and jobs were threatened. The unions threatened all out industrial action if a single job was lost. As usual the unions messed up everything: Airfix shut down the factory and manufacturing of Meccano in England was over. Frank would have been spinning in his grave.
I went behind the church and just knew Frank’s grave would be the one with the white headstone…
Touching Frank’s name while pointing to his factory….
Despite the wealth they lost a daughter aged 14…
Touching a bit of a genius…
The first home at The Hollies, Station Road…
Stuff the sign I’m going to look at Frank’s final home, Quarry Brook…
Nice place Frank…
These toys bought this house…
I assume Frank died in bed. Was one of these his bedroom?