Memories Of Matchbox Cars At Hackney Museum

By Liza Laws | 14 April 2004
Shows a photograph of lots of different Matchbox cars on shelves. They all have a number tag.

Photo: by 1966 Lesney were selling 100 million Matchbox cars per year. Courtesy Hackney Museum.

Liza Laws took a trip down memory lane at Hackney Museum.

Matchbox Memories is an exhibition at Hackney Museum, running until August 28.

This exhibition should provoke a wide range of emotions for a huge number of people, particularly residents of Hackney, where Matchbox cars were made for decades.

According to museum staff, people have even travelled from as far as New Zealand to see the show.

It all started in 1947 when two school friends, Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith, combined their Christian names to create Lesney Products. Their intention was to make die cast products for industrial use. By 1949, the company had moved to a factory in Hackney.

It was not long before the third member, John (Jack) Odell joined the company as a specialist engineer and it was he who invented the first Matchbox toy. The company started experimenting with toys when the demand for industrial products was slow.

Shows a black and white photograph of two men, Jack Odell and Leslie Smith, standing at the end of a long table covered in Matchbox cars.

Photo: Leslie Smith was one of the co-founders, but it was not until engineer Jack Odell joined the company that it produced its first toy. Courtesy of Hackney Museum.

The exhibition speaks volumes about the success the company had after it switched its attention from industrial products to toy cars.

On one of the museum’s walls, there is a large, clear timeline explaining the highs and lows of the company, from when it began to when it was taken over.

In the centre of the room, there is a glass case full of Matchbox cars. Lesney were selling 100 million Matchbox cars per year by 1966 - a success which got the company into the Guinness Book of Records and provided Leslie Smith and Jack Odell with OBE's.

Shows a photograph of a box, like a matchbox. On the box is a picture of a red car on a yellow background with the words 'Matchbox Series' written at the top.

Photo: Matchbox cars were sold to Woolworths in boxes of 12 for a bargain price making the toys available to a larger market. Courtesy of Hackney Museum.

Keith Smith, 46, from Romford was happy to see the exhibition. He said, "it has brought back so many happy memories of my childhood. I went to the factory on a careers visit in 1970 and it was absolutely lovely."

On the walls around the room are vivid and lively murals painted by local artist, May Ayres. She has captured working life at the factory and made it look like a happy and fun place to be. It is easy to imagine the benefits of having a job there.

Shows a photograph of the former Lesneys factory at night. It is lit up and there is a river running in front of it.

Photo: the former Lesney factory at night. The plant opened in the borough in 1949. Courtesy of Hackney Museum.

Erica Davies, Head of Hackney Museum said, "there are no official archives of Lesney: these have come from a collector. We have made an oral archive and focused on the community around Hackney, recording the memories of the factory workers. It was such an important part of Hackney."

There are two screens in the room, playing filmed interviews of local people who worked in the factory. It is moving and amazing what a huge impact one company can have on a community. There is a sound dome suspended from the ceiling opposite one screen and when you stand directly below it, it seems as though the people on the screen are addressing you personally.

Hackney Museum’s Helena Wetterberg made the films. "She advertised in the Hackney Gazette and also on the Matchbox websites," explained Erica. "She had a good response and went to people's homes and listened to their stories."

Shows a photograph of a matchbox version of the Queen's golden carriage. It is being pulled by eight white horses with guards, dressed in red, riding them.

Photo: Lesney made Matchbox Toys between 1952 and 1982. Courtesy of Hackney Museum.

Listening to the employees, they are all enthusiastic about their old employers and go into great detail about life in the factory, about their jobs, what they did and how they did it. It would seem that Lesney were very good employers who really looked after their staff.

Simon Goff, visiting the exhibition, listened to the entire film and was touched by the words he heard. "It’s a sad story of urban decline," he said.

"People lost their jobs, they were bought out and production was too expensive. It must have been a real blow to the local community - they employed 3000 people. I think it's great that now they are honouring a company that brought pride to Hackney."

That is exactly what the exhibition highlights, the pride of Hackney. Yes, it is a sad story, but also a happy one because it created so many memories for so many people.

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