May The Toys Be With You… Palitoy returns to Coalville in new exhibition

Action Man, Pippa, Tressy, Tiny Tears, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, the stars of Star Wars and many more have returned to Coalville, Leicestershire – once home to toy maker Palitoy, as part of the free The Many Faces of Palitoy exhibition, part of a much wider project celebrating the heritage of the fondly-remembered British toy company.

The Many Faces of Palitoy Exhibition

The Many Faces of Palitoy, a free exhibition which celebrates 100 years of Cascelloid and Palitoy, opened earlier this month and runs until Sunday 10th November and is located at the old Palitoy factory on Jackson Street, Coalville, now the Heartwood Conference Centre, Rothley House.

The exhibition is part of The Many Faces of Palitoy – A Century of Toys project led by the Coalville Heritage Society through a partnership with North West Leicestershire District Council, the National Trust (Museum of Childhood), Leicestershire Museums Service and Leicestershire Promotions as well as individual donors. It’s been made possible with a £68,300 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and celebrates the centenary of Alfred Pallett founding the Cascelloid Company in 1919, which in turn led to the formation of of the fondly-remembered toy company Palitoy in 1935. 

The project aim is to gather information on the Palitoy in Coalville and the people that worked at the factory there, the iconic toys produced, the children who played with the toys – and the collectors who have kept the name alive.

Cascelloid was founded by Alfred Pallett in Leicester in 1919, and he made his first doll in 1925. The company made ‘Diddums’, an early example of a licensed brand, for example – a then popular children’s book character licenced from the illustrator Mabel Lucy Atwell.

The company was bought by plastic firm BXL in 1931, who built a new factory in Leicester’s Abbey Lane to make toys and other plastic products, with Cascelloid introducing many new forms of plastics to improve their look and safety, including their first safe non-combustible plastic dolls, which were given to Queen Mary for her grandchildren, Princess Elizabeth, the present Queen, and her sister Princess Margaret.

Toy manufacture grew, and the brand name ‘Palitoy Playthings’ was registered in 1935. Two years later, a boxing club/billiard hall was bought on Owen Street in Coalville to take the pressure off the Leicester factory. Both factories were used for the World War Two war effort and after the conflict ended, a new purpose-built factory was built on 3½ acres of land at the rear of Owen Street , which became known as “the factory in the garden”.

When the BXL Toy Division split from the other products in the early 1960s, the Palitoy brand and staff moved to Coalville. The Palitoy brand was bought by General Mills in 1968 and over the following years, the name Palitoy became synonymous with Coalville and the company made and marketed many iconic toys, including dolls such as Tiny Tears and Pippa, action figures such as Action Man and a Star Wars range, and games such as Merlin and Trivial Pursuit.

During the 1970s Palitoy grew to be the biggest toy company in Britain, holding between 10-15% of the entire British toy market in 1983 by then also owning Airfix (later sold to Humbrol, owned by the Borden Group, a North American corporation).

Sadly, General Mills decided to stop making toys in 1985 and Palitoy in Coalville became Kenner Parker. This, in turn, was acquired by Hasbro in 1991, which led to the re-launch of Action Man in 1993.

The Coalville factory, also acquired by Hasbro, finally closed in June 1994, although there had been no production there for some years, and the site was converted into a business park.

The Many Faces of Palitoy exhibition tells the story Cascelloid and Palitoy story the company’s iconic toys, which include Girl’s World, Discovery Time Treehouse, Action Man and Action Force, and Tiny Tears as well as Tressy and Pippa, Care Bears and Star Wars. It features 100 toys representing a 100 years, presenting a selection of iconic toys including pre and post war dolls, Girl’s World, Tiny Tears, Care Bears, fashion dolls such as Tressy and Pippa, action figures such as Action Man, Star Wars and Action Force, early years toys from the Discovery Time range such as the Discovery Treehouse, games and hobby toys such as Mainline Railways.

PALITOY IN COMICS

Star Wars aside, the best known characters produced by Palitoy who appeared in comics include Action Man, who had his own long-running comic from Panini, launched in 1995, and appeared as a set of illustrated paperback books in 1967.

As we’ve previously noted, the Action Force characters initially guest-featured in a comic strip in the weekly comic Battle in July 1983, which proved so popular, a further five promotional mini-comics were included free with every IPC publication in the weeks to follow. “Action Force” joined the pages of Battle full-time with the Issue cover dated 8th October 1983, the comic retitled Battle Action Force. The strip continued until 1986, cancelled after Hasbro acquired the various intellectual property rights to the Action Force toyline. (Battle Action Force was subsequently merged with Eagle in 1988).

Marvel UK’s Action Force #1, published in 1987, cover by Geoff Senior
Marvel UK’s Action Force #1, published in 1987, cover by Geoff Senior

Marvel UK subsequently launched a weekly Action Force comic in March 1987, combining new UK-exclusive short strips and reprints of the US G.I. Joe comics, adjusted to fit into the UK strip’s continuity with all references to G.I. Joe replaced with Action Force. (And Lew Stringer‘s “Combat Colin” from #5, of course!).

The UK-exclusive strips maintained a separate continuity from the US G.I. Joe comic. The title ran for 50 issues as a weekly, becoming Action Force Monthly, in 1988, which was then merged with Transformers comic in 1989 after running for just 15 issues, which ran “G.I. Joe: The Action Force” to conform to the toyline. The reprints changed back to “G.I. Joe” until they were dropped in 1991.

Palitoy’s Pippa. Image: Vectis
Palitoy’s Pippa. Image: Vectis

SURVIVING ON THE WHIM OF AN EIGHT YEAR OLD…

The free Many Faces of Palitoy exhibition also includes how the company was established, the growth and popularity of each of the toys plus historical dolls and toys from the 1920s up to when production stopped in 1985.

There’s also the opportunity to hear some of the key people at Palitoy telling their story of the work they did, oral history gathers as part of the wider Many Faces of Palitoy project, and there’s an activity area for children to play with modern representations of the historic toys.

Bob Brechin, the exhibition’s Historical Advisor and Co-curator, who was Palitoy’s Chief Toy Designer between 1967 and 1984, is over the moon that this important toy company is at last getting the heritage recognition it deserves.

“Palitoy cannot be over-estimated in its forward thinking approach to children’s toys,” he says. “In the early years Pallett and BXL, owner of Cascelloid, introduced many toys using new plastic materials such as Bexoid, which meant that previously dangerous celluloid dolls could be replaced with safe new plastic dolls.

“After the Second World War, they introduced into the UK innovative ways to make dolls, and bottles, using blow moulding, and later injection moulding machines and other technologically advance in construction techniques.

“But the 1960s was the making of Palitoy,” he continues, when it acquired licences from the United States to make Tiny Tears, Tressy and, of course, Action Man in 1966. Palitoy never looked back and after being acquired by the American General Mills Company, in 1968, went onto introduce many other great toys and games such as Stars Wars.

“It was sad that due to globalisation the company changed and eventually Palitoy ceased in 1985. We had a wonderful time working at Palitoy and it was like a family but as a designer, we had one main focus in mind, a toy company only survives on the whim of an eight year old”.

“This is a major exhibition telling the story of Palitoy and what more of a fitting place to tell that story but at the factory site where the dreams and magic was created,” notes Stuart Warburton, Curator. “The starting point was a 100 toys for a 100 years showing the variety and types of playthings which came out of Palitoy.

“The exhibition is grateful to Leicestershire County Council Museums Service for access to their extensive Palitoy collection. The exhibition will also include important toys from private collectors, which will include the very first doll ‘Diddums’ an early example of a popular children’s book character licenced from the illustrator Mabel Lucy Atwell in the 1920s.

The Many Faces of Palitoy

Steve Duckworth, Chairman of the Coalville Heritage Society, who are leading on the project in partnership with North West Leicestershire District Council, Leicestershire County Council, the National Trust Museum of Childhood and Leicestershire promotion said “We are extremely grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and their grant assistance towards the £86,500 Many Faces of Palitoy project.

“The exhibition is one part of the overall project, which includes archiving the Palitoy story and creation of a new website, working with schools and colleges, creating a film and radio play as well as gathering oral history recordings of the people who worked at the factory and bring the former workers together in a series of ‘staff reunions’ which to date have been very successful.

“Coalville people are really proud of the town’s heritage and in particular, Palitoy.”

• The Many Faces of Palitoy Exhibition runs 10.00am – 4.30pm until Sunday 10th November, 2019 at the Heartwood Conference Centre, Rothley House, Coalville Business Park, Coalville Business Park, Coalville, Leicestershire LE67 3NR | Admission Free | More details here on the Coalville web site

WEB LINKS

Victoria and Albert Museum – A History of Palitoy

Read a 2010 interview with Bob Brechin (PDF)

• Palitoy Chief Designer Bob Brechin hosted a presentation on the History of Palitoy on 4th May 2019 at the Echo Base Live event in Redditch, recorded by the team at Fantha Tracks

Palitoy tagged items on Vintage Toy Advertiser

Read Luke Williams article on Battle Action Force comic here on downthetubes

Read Lew Stringer’s article on the 1967 Action Man paperbacks on Blimey!

Leicestershire La La La: Who killed Leicestershire’s most famous son? By Catherine Turnell

• Vectis regularly offer Palitoy toys at auction: www.vectis.co.uk

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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