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  THE RIFLEMAN - UNION ROW - TOTTENHAM

BIRTHPLACE OF LESNEY PRODUCTS AND

'MATCHBOX ' TOYS  

 

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Hoare & Co. brewery had been the off-shoot of a city banking firm that traces back to the 1600's and it was a sizeable brewery by all accounts... eventually being taken under the wings of Charrington, hence the Toby Ale advert you can see displayed on the front of the pub in the photo.

The Hoare & Co Ltd, Red Lion Brewery, Lower East Smithfield, London closed in 1934.

On looking into things further, and with considerable help from Alan Robinson, one of our regluar contacts, we could not have been more surprised by what we then came across about The Rifleman pub ..........

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At the end of a dank alleyway near the northern most boundary of Tottenham stood the abandoned Rifleman Public House. It had closed during the war, its heavy pint glasses no longer in need of a polish, its pumps no longer worthy of the name. Since then its piano had been wheeled away, its frosted window panes had been broken by little boys' stones and its bar top chopped up for firewood. On 19th June 1947, two men made The Rifleman their headquarters, their office and their factory floor. Pooling their savings of 600 Leslie and Rodney Smith, no relation to one another, bought a second hand die-casting machine and installed it in one of the rooms of the old pub. When they had done that, they die cast their Christian names at Companies House and became Lesney Products.
The Lesney partners both had engineering experience from serving with the Navy during the war and their vision was to manufacture small parts for industrial and domestic process made from die-cast metal. From the old parlour bar of The Rifleman they did just that. John William Kendall who worked with them in the very early days described the scene: 'The building was in a bad state of repair. I had a big pot about 3 feet by 2 1/2 feet full of molten metal. We kept a small one on a gas flame and we used to pour metal from the big one into the small one to keep it full. Even on a winter's night we only wore singlet’s and had all of the doors open as it was very hot work'. In addition to ceiling hooks they made toy pistols modelled on a real Luger which toolmaker Don Rix had taken from a dead German soldier in Normandy. Rix had kept the real model loaded to warn off local thieves who took great interest in the goings on at the abandoned pub.
Production at the Rifleman grew at a steady pace until it was held up by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 when the British government imposed restrictions on the use of zinc for non-essential products. During the two years of conflict the only item to leave the Edmonton premises was a clockwork tin elephant whose body was hollow and whose legs were die-cast. Rodney Smith, sensing an imminent reduction in profits left for Australia and was replaced by local maverick John 'Jack' Odell, a man so keen on amateur casting that his exploits had landed him with a council ban on casting at his home long before the Korean War had broken out. Odell was a die-cast designer extraordinaire and bored of coat hooks and hinges he set about modelling small replicas of vehicles and casting them. In 1953 the year after the Korean War had ended and with zinc restrictions lifted Odell designed a miniature replica of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation carriage. Lesney Products sold one million of them and The Rifleman had suddenly become a goldmine.

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Odell was oblivious to the financial implications of his million-selling carriage and when his daughter returned home from school one day complaining that the only toys she could take into the playground where ones that fitted inside a matchbox he set about making a replica of a diesel road roller that would fit the spec. Smith saw the commercial possibilities and the Matchbox Series was launched

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Under the stewardship of Jack Odell the company went on to become one of the world's leading manufactureres of childrens toys. The following extracts are from his obituary that was pubished in 'The New York Times' in July 2007:

Jack Odell, a self-trained engineer whose daughter’s mischievous habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox prompted him to make her a tiny steamroller as a substitute — an invention that led to Matchbox Toys, maker of 3 billion Lilliputian vehicles in 12,000 models — died on July 7 in London. He was 87

The steamroller, made of brass and painted shiny red and green, satisfied Mr. Odell’s daughter, Anne, and so impressed her friends that Mr. Odell raced to meet their demand. It seemed a dandy toy: just right for a child’s hand but hard to swallow, no batteries, violence-free, quiet and costing just pennies to make. By 1962, he told The New York Times in an interview, Matchbox was knocking out a million toy automobiles a week, more than the number of real ones made by all the world’s major automakers combined.
“We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history,” he said.

At its peak in the late 1960s, when it released its Superfast line of toy autos to compete with Mattel Incorporated’s Hot Wheels cars, Lesney operated more than a dozen factories. In 1982, it fell into receivership and was sold to Universal Toys. It was later picked up by Tyco Toys, which was acquired by Mattel in 1997.

Well, well, who would have thought that, a link to the Lesney Match Box toys we grew up with as kids, all tracing back to this very pub?  Many children in Tottenham during the Coronation year in 1953 owned one of these Coronation   Coaches all purchased from Tottenham Toy shops. It is incredible to find out after all these years that they were assembled locally at a run down pub on the Tottenham boundary!  "You just couldn't write stories like this!".

Article prepared by Alan Swain: February 2015

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