World-famous Hackney toy cars remembered

A Matchbox Maserati Bora toy car. Pic: Giles Chapman/Britain's Toy Car Wars

A Matchbox Maserati Bora toy car. Pic: Giles Chapman/Britain’s Toy Car Wars

Matchbox will certainly bring back memories for a lot of people. Its name is synonymous with the little toy cars that represent childhoods from all over the world. Little do most people know that the famous manufacturer was based in the midst of Hackney and that the local women played a crucial role in delivering the popular toy.

Author Giles Chapman is the motoring writer and enthusiast behind Britain’s Toy Car Wars: Dinky vs Corgi vs Matchbox. Having written some 30 books on the subject of cars and motoring he has now taken on the history of three world famous toy car manufacturers – one of which boasts a remarkable piece of Hackney history.

As with many children, his fascination with toy cars began at an early age. It was his favourite thing as a little boy. “It was like holding your dad’s car in your hand”, Chapman said.

Factory workers in Hackney put together the small toys that were to become iconic childhood pieces. Two demobbed soldiers, who were looking for something to do after the war, founded Lesney Products, the company behind the Matchbox name.

“They started to make little toys that you cold buy for a few pennies – it was the beginning of impulse shopping”, Chapman said reminiscing about how there would be Matchbox cars next to the counter in the corner shops where the grown-ups would go to buy cigarettes. They were there and they were cheap, so it was something the parents would just pick up as a treat for their children.

When the 60s came, Lesney products could be found all through Eastway in Hackney Wick. By 1963 a massive concrete building on Lee Conservancy Road had been turned into a Matchbox factory that was instantly a notable site in the area. 3600 people found work with the company.

”Lesney was easily the largest employer in the borough of Hackney, as well as being one of the biggest post-war industrial start-ups in the whole of Greater London”, Britain’s Toy Car Wars reads.

And they found manpower in, well… women.

Women at work in a Lesney factory in the mid 60s. Pic: Giles Chapman/Britain's Toy Car Wars

Women at work in a Lesney factory in the mid 60s. Pic: Giles Chapman/Britain’s Toy Car Wars

In fact the Matchbox factories on the Hackney Marshes were filled with women whose hands were perfect for putting together the tiny cars. It was too expensive and difficult to get machines that could do the tricky work.

“They couldn’t automate the production, with the explosive growth of the company they were in need of thousands of workers and this way they were never short of employees”, Chapman said.

Matchbox had found a new source of workforce and they went out of their way to attract the female workers. London Transport buses that were out of use were bought and painted yellow and blue – like the iconic Matchbox packaging. The workers were given free travel to and from work, and so were their children. The women could hop on the bus with their little ones who would get off at school.

Matchbox also offered family-flexible shifts so if the employees preferred they could work in the evenings. In Britain’s Toy Car Wars, Chapman lets Alan Anderson tell the story of his mother who worked in the local Matchbox factory. Anderson said how she would set off to work after he’d come home from school. “I think it broke up the drudgery of being at home”, he told Chapman.

In 1969 the women of Hackney helped Matchbox produce a million units a day. “They brought a lot of prosperity to Hackney”, Chapman said.

The Matchbox name was soon on most young boys lips, and the miniature cars reached the hands of children over the world. Or as Chapman puts it in his book: “In about fifteen years, two dabbling blokes working from a pub basement had transformed themselves into Europe’s fourth largest toymakers.”

Matchbox is one of the earliest examples of the entrepreneurial success that yet to this day characterises Hackney. It is an interesting piece of history that Chapman hopefully has made sure is not forgotten anytime soon.

Britain’s Toy Car Wars: Dinky vs Corgi vs Matchbox is out July 4.

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