Wednesday 20 September 2023

Frank Hornby, toy inventor - by Susan Brownrigg


Meccano, Hornby Trains, Dinky Toys – these beloved classic toys were all the creation of one man – Frank Hornby!

Frank Hornby

There is a bit of mystery about when Frank was born, his birth certificate says 15th May but the Hornby family bible records the date as 2nd May! But it is known that he was born in Liverpool in 1863.

Frank was the 7th of eight children and his family were working class. His father was a porter at the docks, and Frank preferred to help him at work rather than go to school!

From a young age Frank knew he wanted to be an inventor, but he had a few setbacks along the way. Frank though was heavily influenced by a self-help book he was given as a young man written by Samuel Smiles by his mother, which encouraged resilience.*

He knew to persist, and when he went on to have a family of his own, he had a breakthrough.

Frank's idea was for a construction kit that could be
 made into a crane, bridge or truck
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Playing with his sons he came up with the idea of creating a construction kit using strips of copper which he drilled holes into at regular intervals. These strips could then be fastened together using nuts and bolts to become bridges, trucks or cranes!

Convinced that his idea would make a successful business. With a loan of £5 (£1000 today) he patented his invention with the title Improvements in Toys or Educational devices for Children and Young People! After a bit of a false start and the support of his employer who became his partner, in 1902 Frank began to produce his Mechanics Made Easy construction kits. The sets had 16 parts and an instruction booklet for making 12 models and cost 7s 6s (£80 today). It was a hit – though the name was later changed to Meccano!

An early Mechanic Made Easy kit
at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

More components were made available and there were even competitions for new design suggestions with big prize money up for grabs!

In 1908 Frank’s family moved to a house in Maghull very close to the railway station. His house, The Hollies, was the first outside of London to be given a blue plaque by English Heritage.

Maghull railway station
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

In 1920 Frank started making clockwork toys (Hornby O Gauge). Originally these were in the form of construction kits too, but after five years all Hornby Trains came already fully assembled.

Hornby Trains at the Frank Hornby
Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Frank realised it would be great fun for children if they could create railway layouts – lifelike scenes, not just track. The first set of ‘modelled miniatures’ were six tiny station worker figures, and the story goes that when he showed them to his daughter-in-law she said ‘they are dinky little things’ so they were renamed Dinky Toys!

Dinky Toys included people, signage and a host of vehicles.

Post boxes made by Dinky Toys at the
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Other transport produced were speedboats, aircraft and motor car kits.

Motor Car toys on display at the
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Other, perhaps less known, Hornby toys that were produced were The Meccano Crystal Radio Receiving Set, Cassy dolls and doll houses and Kemex chemistry sets.

Kemex Chemical Experiments kit at the 
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

While Meccano was marketed as engineering for boys, other products were advertised to appeal for girls too. Examples include Bayko (seen below) Dinky Builder and Dolly Varden dolls houses and furniture.

Bayko toys were advertised as gifts for girls and boys 
as seen here at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Frank went on to become an MP but had to retire due to ill health. He died in 1936 and was buried in the family grave at St Andrew's Church, Maghull. 

His toys have provided children with many, many happy hours playing and creating inventions of their own, just like Frank.

Writing Challenge: Can you write a story about a child toy inventor?  What type of toy will the create and what will it do? It might even have magical properties!

Susan Brownrigg with her own Dinky Toy car
at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, a treasure hunt adventure with pirates and lemurs, and the Gracie Fairshaw mystery series set in 1930s Blackpool.
Find out more at

* Interestingly this book was also lauded by William Lever (the soap king who was the subject of another Time Tunneller blog and video)

With thanks to Tony Robertson, Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull, for filming/photography permission 

1 comment:

  1. A great piece of work Susan which helps bring the Hornby story to life for younger generations in particular. Tony Robertson - Trustee - Frank Hornby Heritage Centre Maghull


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