The museum of models is not models as for female clothing but models as toys, mini-size railways, racing cars and aeroplanes. These fun collections are located in an unpretentious warehouse in an industrial estate off the Ramsgate–Margate main road, called the Hornby Visitors’ Centre, with a convenient car park and bus stop nearby.
You enter the museum via the shop, with shelves stacked high with boxes of models and kits, and avid, mostly male, customers looking eagerly for what they came for. I had timed my visit for Saturday afternoon and asked the salesman if it was always so busy. He said yes, but especially during school breaks. But, even during the week, there is a flow of older customers, fathers and especially grandfathers. This is unsurprising because the trade in models taps into nostalgia.
I was amused to see the landscape model on the counter near the door to the museum: it consisted of a railway winding around hills on which sheep were grazing, alongside a few plastic coloured mini-dinosaurs, a toy assemblage to appeal to the toddler imagination rather than teach about past epochs.
‘O’ gauge clockwork
However, once through the door, one can swiftly get educated about the various epochs of railway and model development. So getting the dinosaurs out of my head, I studied the posters about the various companies which merged to form Hornby International.
It started when Frank Hornby in 1901 patented his Mechanics Made Easy toy, the foundation of Meccano, the metal construction toy pieces, which were then manufactured in Liverpool for the next 60 years. Hornby became the trading name of a company that first launched clockwork trains at ‘O’ gauge in 1920, followed by electric in 1925.
‘Hornby Dublo’ – ‘OO’ gauge electric
Hornby Dublo, at ‘OO’ gauge, was started in 1938, paused during the war and resumed in 1947. These systems used a third rail for the electric power. In 1959 they started with 2-rail track, as they were in competition with Tri-ang. Both companies started using plastic models. By 1964, Tri-ang had bought out the company, and plastic models dominated, but the name survived, eventually to become Hornby Hobbies, a plc in 1986.
By the 1990s it became uneconomic to produce the models in the UK and manufacture shifted to China, although design is still done in the UK. In 2003, Hornby produced a model with live steam, and motion controlled electronically. They also started to produce a range of model buildings in cast resin which were an immediate sales hit.
Embracing other companies
But I was still asking the question – why locate near Margate? The answer comes with the merger of ScaleXtric. This company, started by Bertram Francis in 1947 originally for clockwork racing car models, by 1957 began making 2-lane tracks for electronic controls, all manufactured in Havant. In 1968 this production transferred to the Rovex site in Margate. Controls went digital in 2004 allowing multiple cars to run on the tracks and from 2010 progressing upgrading screens to measure lap-time etc.
Another company, Airfix, was started by Nicholas Kove, a Hungarian in 1939, initially for rubber toys, but by 1949 it became expert in moulded plastic, contracted for Ferguson tractor promotions. In 1953 it produced its first Supermarine Spitfire airfix kit. Later it produced a kit model of Drake’s historic ship, ‘Golden Hind’, and by 1963, of Ferrari cars for slot racing.
In the 1970s it accounted for 75% of the British market for scale model kits but, following financial pressures, production of plastic kits moved to France in 1981. Under the name of Hornby Hobbies in 2006, manufacture moved to India. However a new range “Quick build” is manufactured in the UK. Since 2019 a Vintage classic range has also become popular.
Corgi Toys, “the oldest die-cast manufacturer”, was launched by Mettoy in 1956 to compete with Dinky Toys produced by Meccano. Manufactured in Swansea, they produced a full range of models of British cars and also, from 1957, some European models such as the Citroën. From 1957 it linked to Grand Prix and Formula 1 cars. Design moved towards having movable parts (opening doors etc) to appeal to children, as well as by 1964 into attracting adults fascinated by detailed models of vintages such as a 1927 Bentley or Daimler 38. They were eventually subsumed into Hornby Hobbies in 2008.
Humbroi started in Hull supplying oil for cyclists and eventually became part of Hornby because of its proven expertise in producing paint for model kits.
Then there is an exhibition space devoted to models from various other European firms. Karl Arnold in Nürnberg, Germany, like Frank Hornby, started manufacture of models before the first World War. Le Jouet, later Jouef, started in France in 1944. Rivarossi in Milan in 1946; Electrotren in Barcelona in 1951, later becoming Markfin in Madrid. Lima, originally a railway carriage repair firm in Vicenza Italy, started making model railways in 1953 In 1966 Pocher launched its first super detailed 1:8 vehicle kits. By 1980 Lima listed 700 models in its catalogue, the largest in the world: it sold 1.3m of its models of the French TGV.
After various mergers, all this production eventually came under Hornby International in 2004. It occurs to me that the models on display from these EU companies deserve to be better marketed to tourists from the EU. It is not only our older Roman or mediaeval links to the continent that should be of interest, but also more recent European industrial collaboration and mergers.
From all this detail, some broad lines of industrial development are apparent. The trade has followed not just the trends of the industries it models (railways, cars, aircraft) but also the technology of what is possible in model-making: die-cast, resin-cast, plastic moulding, paints for plastic, clockwork, electronic and then digital controls, 3D printing etc. There is also a section which shows how the manufacturing process works today, starting with designs produced in the UK and then going to workshops overseas for the actual making.
I will not describe the actual models. Most of them had a push-button which one could press to set the model transport in motion. Some families were also having fun with the ScaleXtric.
Museum of Models: a reasonably-priced family outing
All in all, this is a remarkably cheap family entertainment, (Family ticket £12.50, pensioner or child £2.50 each) compared to some of the expensive heritage sites of our region. Should it be upgraded to superior premises? Compared to the pretentious Margate Turner Gallery, its exhibits have far more of interest to the average family or tourist, but it is important not to upgrade it beyond the price of the ordinary. Let it stay as a hidden gem in Westwood Industrial estate.
And don’t forget Father’s Day
Meanwhile, note it has a special attraction for Dads on Father’s Day 18 June. It is also a partner in the Kent Children’s University (KCU), part of a charitable network run by KCC that gives children credits for exciting learning activities outside the normal school day.