The Man Who Made Meccano (& Hornby Dublo trains and Dinky Toys)

President Chris Perkins with speaker John Hollands

Everyone in the room put their hands up to the question – who had played with some of the brand names in this heading?

The man behind such world famous products, Frank Hornby, was the subject of a talk given by John Hollands to the Probus Club of Basingstoke. A teacher for over thirty years and then involved with museums, he is today one of the volunteers at the Willis Museum in the Market Place. He has been an active collector of Hornby trains for many years.

Frank Hornby was born in 1863 and was the 7th child of 8 children.  Liverpool was his lifelong home ending up as Conservative MP for Everton. He started as a cashier for a wholesale food business and had a small workshop at home that allowed him to progress some of his ideas. Having been impressed by a book about inventors and their many failures before successfully achieving their aim, Frank Hornby appreciated that perseverance was the key to eventual success.

He founded a branch of the Band of Hope around 1900. This was a temperance organisation with several million members throughout the country. He wanted boys to take up useful trades and started to develop a construction kit which he patented in 1901. By showing interest in construction he hoped it would encourage boys to find suitable engineering employment locally and in the ship building industry on the Mersey.

Initially called Mechanics Made Easy the name changed to Meccano in 1907 and by around this time it was exported to over 40 countries. Perhaps it was because of his early involvement with wholesalers that he also sold directly to retailers, and some were not obvious outlets for his toys. The manufacture of Meccano kits had initially been outsourced. They were of plain metal and not finished to the highest quality. Eventually the product was refined and then painted red and green then blue and yellow. Supplementary kits made it possible to expand a specific set to the next level.

Starting production himself and after moving into two larger work units it became clear that because of the success of Meccano that even larger premises were needed. The famous Binns Road factory in Liverpool was opened in 1914 employing up to 2000, mainly women. After WW1 Hornby introduced model trains to compete against resurgent German toy manufacturers. The locomotives were driven by clockwork motors and then by 1925 mains electricity. Export markets had decals on the trucks and passenger coaches pertinent to their own countries.

Examples of Meccano, a Meccano Instruction book, clockwork Locomotives and some Dinky Toys brought by the speaker

So successful were overseas markets that manufacturing plants were set up in France and eventually after a nine years legal case to protect his patents in America, Frank Hornby opened a factory in New Jersey.  Over the years some assembly also took place in Hong Kong, South Africa and Chile to overcome restrictive import tariffs on completed products.

Meccano magazines became required reading. Published monthly and originally aimed at boy Meccano builders they featured articles on Meccano construction and new Meccano developments. Frank Hornby was the editor for many years. Over time Meccano Magazine became a general hobby magazine aimed at “boys of all ages”. Aside from Meccano related articles, they also featured Hornby trains, Dinky Toys and other products of Meccano Ltd, plus a wide variety of general interest articles, including, engineering, aircraft, trains, modelling, camping, photography and philately.

The factory started to make model figures and equipment to complement the train sets. Built to the same scale as the trains they were called Dinky Toys. Road vehicles were added to add authenticity to the railway layouts and thus began the third string of this toy manufacturer. No doubt every boy of a certain age, and many girls, enjoyed playing with Dinky Toys.

Increasing competition in the 1960s and 70s for die cast toys came from Mettoy’s Corgi in Northampton and from Match Box toys made by Lesney Products in East London. Over one million Match Box toys were made weekly which sold for the pocket money level of only 2 shillings each. Mattel developed their “Hot Wheels” which with thin axels made for easy and fast running. Dinky Toys partly responded by introducing their Dinky Supertoys range which included the Mighty Antar transporter made by Thornycroft in Basingstoke.

Meccano Ltd was taken over by Lines Bros in 1964 with Hornby Dublo trains sets combing with the Triang name and production was moved to Margate in Kent where it continues to this day.

The high cost of manufacturing in Britain took its toll and the Binns Road address closed in November 1979. Within a few years their competitors suffered the same fate.

Today Dinky Toys, especially with original boxes, command extraordinary prices at auction.


Dinky Mighty Antar
Thornycroft of Basingstoke Dinky Supertoy Mighty Antar with original “yellow” box prior to the adoption of the thin blue striped box. Asking price today – £100
Dinky USS Enterprise Capture
Star Trek’s USS Enterprise in the later windowed display carton produced by the writer’s company in the late 1970s

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