A History of Palitoy

Palitoy

Palitoy is synonymous with Coalville where Cascelloid began making soft-bodied dolls in 1937 in a former billiard hall situated on Owen Street.

Cascelloid, Palitoy’s owner, was founded in 1919 in Leicester by Alfred Edward Pallett from Humberstone. Barely 18 years old, from a farming family, he had failed his accountancy exams and was trying to make a living selling typewriters. Thinking that this was not a career that would excite him he started a business of his own in the developing world of plastics. Making a trip to London with an example of a plastic container to hold a bar of soap, which he had bought in a shop on the way, he came back to Leicester with a substantial order from Woolworths. He then had to make them. Renting a former boarding house on Britannia Street in Leicester, first he had to de-louse the building before ploughing all his savings into buying sheets of celluloid and some presses. He completed the order for Woolworths, then began making other products. His first toy in 1920 was the Flitafast Windmill, a hand-held toy windmill that children would blow or hold into the wind to turn the ‘sails’. This was just a summer line, so he moved on to baby rattles, with little care to child safety as the first rattle contained Laburnum seeds which are poisonous. In 1925 he produced his first doll, Diddums, based upon the illustrations of quirky characters created by Mabel Lucy Atwell. This was one of the first examples of character merchandising in the toy industry and many other character dolls followed.

By 1927 his workforce had grown, and the turnover was £10,000 (equivalent to £500,000 today), but he was almost put out of business when a disastrous fire occurred at the Britannia Works. Celluloid is extremely flammable and, if not the cause, would have certainly stoked the flames. Fortunately he was insured so, undeterred, he opened up another factory nearby on Cobden Street in Leicester. During 1931 Pallett sold the business to the large plastics concern based in Woolwich, London called British Xylonite Limited (BXL). BXL kept the Cascelloid name and, to move the business forward, built a new factory on Abbey Lane in Leicester, also called ‘Britannia Works’. The Cobden Street factory was retained for doll moulding.

In 1935 BXL registered the brand name ‘Palitoy Playthings’, in homage to the founder Alfred Pallett, for its growing range of toys, although the company was still producing the soap containers and many other household items such as hair brushes, mirrors, suspender fittings and collar studs. The name was not used by Cascelloid until 1937 when a former billiard, dance and boxing hall on Owen Street in Coalville was purchased to make the new soft-bodied dolls. At the same time 3½ acres of land behind the hall was also bought and in 1938 a new factory was built for the toy division on part of the land. A year later Cascelloid also built a new factory at Stamford on West Street with a mock Georgian frontage. This factory was managed by Noel Pallett, one of Alfred Pallett’ three sons, and also produced toys and inflatable playthings. The factory expanded in the 1960s and continued to make toys until the Palitoy brand was sold by BXL. It closed during the 1980s when the government encouraged firms, including Cascelloid which was now making items for the cosmetics industry, to relocate to hard-hit Corby nearby due to the steel plant closure in 1980. The old Stamford factory is now a residential site.

Within a few years toy manufacture came to an abrupt end due to the outbreak of World War II and the factory was converted to manufacture of Spitfire undercarriage legs and parts for gas masks and other Perspex components. Before the war Cascelloid became pioneers in injection moulding with the company introducing the first production injection moulded machine into the UK from Germany. After the war, and as a result of joining one of the first British industry’s visits to the USA since the conflict to study new developments, the Cascelloid management requested that a company there should copy its only industrial blow-moulding machine and send it to Leicester.

Injection moulding, in its basic mode, involves two steel moulds, a cavity side and a core side, which, when held together under pressure, has moltern plastic forced in to the cavity created by the two moulds creating plastic items of uniform thickness. Blow moulding, it its simplest form, also involves two moulds, usually made in a cheaper material such a kirksite. In this case a hollow soft plastic tube, known as a parison, is trapped by the moulds as they come together, and air is forced into the plastic tube forcing it to the inside of the mould.

By the end of the 1940s, Cascelloid introduced “petal-skin vinyl” a soft natural-feeling plastic, which led to the introduction in 1953 of the Palitoy doll Yvonne, which the Daily Mirror and the Palitoy catalogue called “the doll of the century”. Previously dolls either had painted hair or a separate wig was glued on. Cascelloid pioneered “real” hair which was nylon plastic filaments stitched into the soft vinyl dolls head that could be washed and styled.

BXL employed Miles Fletcher who was headhunted from Fisons at Ipswich. Fisons also had a Scientific Equipment Division in Loughborough. Fletcher was an Oxford University graduate who had been working as an overseas sales representative for the fertilizer company. To help transform the Palitoy brand Fletcher took on, as marketing manager, Bob Simpson.

In the early 1960s, BXL, now Bakelite Xylonite Limited after a buy-out, came to the conclusion that Cascelloid should concentrate on its growing industrial products sector. Over the years, because of developments in blow-moulding, the factory on Abbey Lane was producing all sorts and sizes of polythene bottles, from washing up liquid bottles to 20-gallon carboys. Their most iconic ‘bottle’ design from this time was the ‘Jiff lemon’ in the shape and size of a real lemon. Consequently, it was decided to sell off BXL’s Toy Division, but first the Palitoy brand had to be transformed into something that would attract buyers. BXL employed Miles Fletcher who was headhunted from Fisons at Ipswich. Fisons also had a Scientific Equipment Division in Loughborough. Fletcher was an Oxford University graduate who had been working as an overseas sales representative for the fertilizer company. To help transform the Palitoy brand Fletcher took on, as marketing manager, Bob Simpson, who had worked his way up within the Cascelloid sales department. Simpson was a native Scot who had joined the Edinburgh police force in order to get transferred to Leicester to marry his sweetheart whom he had met when completing his National Service. He soon left the police and joined Cascelloid as a ledger clerk. Their task was to turn a basically manufacturing/sales operation into what could potentially become a modern toy marketing company with up-to-date manufacturing facilities.

Fletcher and Simpson started with the manufacture, under license from the American Character Doll Company, of Tressy in 1964. This move was inspired by Barbie, Mattel’s fashion doll, with accompanying pocket-money outfits, which had been selling phenomenally well since 1959. Pedigree Toys had copied the concept in the UK with Sindy. Tressy was also a fashion doll, but with a difference, as her hair ‘grew’. Girls could draw her hair out of the head and with a key in the back use a ratchet mechanism inside the doll to pull the hair back into the head. The following year, from the same American company as Tressy, Tiny Tears was introduced but the Palitoy design team made a radical redesign by adapting the tear to trickle from her eyes, whereas the American doll had two small holes on either side of her nose below the eyes where tears appeared. The doll was manufacture in the soft vinyl and the arms and legs joints were cleverly designed so the limbs ‘flopped’ like a real baby. At the same time some of the old products that were looking jaded were cleared out of the catalogue, but Fletcher and Simpson realized that what was missing was something for the boys. Enter Action Man in 1966, licensed from Hassenfeld Brothers, also in the USA.

Initially, Action Man was basically G. I. Joe in Palitoy packaging. G. I. Joe, the first ‘action figure’, had been revealed to American boys at the New York Toy Fair in February 1964 and was selling like the proverbial hot cakes. Bob Brechin joined Palitoy in 1967 as a young toy designer and as the years progressed was involved in transforming Action Man into a British concept, with the introduction of British outfits, including sports and adventure outfits such as the Household Cavalry and the SAS, and vehicles such as the Land Rover and Scorpion Tank. There were many variations of figures with ‘real hair’, ‘talking commander’, eagle eyes, and gripping hands. The idea for a ‘gripping hand’ came about when Design Director Bill Pugh was unable to get Action Man to hold his rifle when helping his team dress the display at the British Toy Fair in Brighton in January 1972 and Chief Designer Brechin was asked to sculpt the hand based upon his left hand.

In 1968, Fletcher had achieved what he had been appointed to do and Palitoy was sold to the US consumer food giant General Mills and by the close of the 1970s, with Simpson now at the helm, turnover had increased, from what had been £300,000 before Tressy (1964) to a massive 30 million. This was realized, despite the economic problems during the 1970s, by the introduction of new products from sister companies, such as Kenner Toys and Parker Brothers (games) in the General Mills Toy Group, from sourcing from other companies around the world, and brand-new designs coming out of the expanding design department at Coalville – products such as Striker, Girls World, Action Force, and Pippa. Marketing also put together ranges such as Discovery Time (toys for pre-schoolers), Pocketeers (plastic mechanical pocket games from Tomy in Japan) and a wholesale sales division called Bradgate. Parker Games was introduced in 1971 with a comprehensive range from the sister company in USA, and this was expanded with new games designed and developed at Coalville. The company even took on the mighty Hornby with its own Palitoy Mainline Railways, which was fully designed and developed from scratch by the Palitoy design team, with an emphasis on detail and authenticity.

A turning point in the fortunes of General Mills Toy Group, and therefore Palitoy, came in 1978 with the launch of the ‘Star Wars’ film. Star Wars would change the business of toy marketing worldwide. Kenner, a part of the General Mills Toy Group, had negotiated a license with George Lucas, the producer and Director of ‘Star Wars’ to produce a range of action figures based on characters seen in the film, with accompanying toys based on the vehicles. In the UK the ‘Star Wars’ toys were marketed and distributed by Palitoy. Palitoy would tool up for the first three vehicles following Kenner’s blueprints but later would borrow Kenner’s injection moulding tools when available. Some of the American toys were redesigned in Coalville such as the printed card Death Star. Many toy collectors around the world now regard the Palitoy version to be more interactive for children’s play and a much sought after item, superior to the more expensive Kenner plastic Death Star.

With the release of the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980, the demand for the toys rose substantially. Production of the ‘Star Wars’ toys at Coalville was important both financially and for increased employment. Because of the interest, the BBC Newsnight team visited the factory and described Palitoy as “a goldmine on top of a coalmine”. Yet within a few years both the coalmine and the ‘gold mine’ would be consigned to the annals of history. The end of Palitoy in Coalville began with General Mills Toy Group deciding to pursue the policy of ‘global branding’ which had begun with the popularity of Star Wars toys. The toys and films had excited children all over the world. Many of Palitoy’s other toys, games and craft ranges that didn’t fit this policy were sold to other companies or dropped. Tiny Tears that had been such a popular ‘baby doll’ since 1965 gave way to Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears from America. There had been however new acquisitions and in 1980 Airfix became part of Palitoy but this was subsequently sold to Humbrol. The highly respected and profitable Mainline Railways was dropped and later came back to the UK produced by Bachman.

What of Action Man, voted the ‘Toy of the Decade’ in 1980. This toy had taken a battering from ‘Star Wars’ even though both were major ranges in the Palitoy portfolio. One of the outcomes of the popularity of ‘Star Wars’ was a new scale in action figures, 3¾” instead of Action Man’s 12” scale. Palitoy had attempted to offset this production cost and marketing problem with the development of Action Force by the Palitoy design team. Action Force was a range of 3¾” action figures based on the most popular Action Man outfits, and was introduced at the 1982 British Toy Fair. Consequently, with the new policy of ‘global branding’ Action Man was ‘demobbed’ and the license returned to Hasbro in 1984. Shortly before the Palitoy Design Department was closed down in August that year and the creative and innovative Palitoy design department and team were made redundant. Consequently, and sadly, that was the end of new product development at Coalville; all new product development would now take place abroad.

In 1985 General Mills decided to divest itself of its Toy Group. Two years previously, over-production, falsely-confident marketing plans, and too many inferior products from too many companies, saw the boom and hype of video games turn into a slump, This became known as the ‘Great Video Games Crash of 1983’ and General Mills Toy Group took a tremendous hit. It was decided to spin off the Toy Group, and in November that year a new company traded on the New York Stock Exchange called Kenner Parker Toys, and consequently the Palitoy name finished. The factory site at Coalville remained in operation as Kenner Parker from 1986, employing some of its former Palitoy staff, whose numbers had already fallen significantly. Within two years the factory site was owned by Tonka, who would later sell to Hasbro. The factory was finally sold in 1994, with the last manufacturing machine for Playdoh moving to Ireland. Today the site is a business park with a variety of industries, offices and a conference/training facility.

The closure of Palitoy in Coalville was a major blow to the town, as the factory employed around 1,000 people at its peak, and although Palitoy products, such as Action Man, Pippa and Star Wars toys are today highly collectable the name Palitoy has been consigned to the toys of yesteryear. In 2015 Bob Brechin (former Chief Designer) and Stuart Warburton (Secretary to the Coalville Heritage Society) collaborated on devising a plan to celebrate the company with a series of events leading up to a Centenary Celebration in 2019.

The celebrations began in 2016 by inviting the Action Man Convention to hold its annual event in the Heartwood Conference Centre at the former Palitoy factory site to acknowledge fifty years of the toy. The AMC attracted collectors from around the country and is now a bi-annual event at the factory site. That same year Action Man was launched into near space by high altitude helium ‘weather’ balloon. Dressed in his astronaut costume, and sat in an Action Man Mercury space capsule made by Palitoy in the late 1960s, the plan was to monitor his accent and when the balloon exploded, due to the loss of atmospheric pressure on the edge of space, to collect him from his landing site, hopefully in one piece, as the only Action man to have been to the edge of space. Unfortunately due to the extreme cold the capsule became too brittle to withstand the impact of an exploding balloon and he fell back to earth without his tracking devise only to go, as termed in military circles, AWOL. He has never returned from the mission. However if you search on YouTube it is possible to see the event as the mission camera was found by a farmer in Northamptonshire.

The programme of celebratory events continued in 2017 when a Leicestershire County Council Green Plaque was unveiled on the former factory building to commemorate 80 years since toys were first made in Coalville. In 2018 another anniversary event was staged in the Heartwood Conference Centre, at the former factory. In November that year ‘May The Toys Be With You’ an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of Palitoy marketing the Star Wars toys opened. The exhibition was produced in partnership between the Coalville Heritage Society, North West Leicestershire District Council and a private collector Matt Fox. During the summer Fox’s exhibition had been on display at New Walk Museum in Leicester and it was a golden opportunity to ask him to curate a ‘pop-up’ museum exhibition on the site from which the toys originated. The exhibition was open to the public for nine days in which time over 2,500 visitors came to see the exhibition and the toys that excited a generation of children, and still do.

In the same year Brechin and Warburton started to plan a centenary project for 2019/20 and, with assistance from North West Leicestershire District Council, submitted a grant application for £85,500 to the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The project called ‘The Many Faces of Palitoy’ would be led by the Coalville Heritage Society in partnership with North West Leicestershire District Council, Leicestershire County Council Museums Service, the National Trust’s Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall and Leicestershire Promotions. The project is to celebrate the story of Palitoy through its products and the people who worked at the factory. The project objectives are:

  • Create an oral history of people who worked at the factory, collected the toys or simply played with them.
  • Launch a Coalville Community Archive website to enable the Coalville Heritage Society’s Palitoy collection and other Coalville and surrounding area archives to be posted on line
  • Work with local schools to create classroom activities, produce a ‘Palitoy Comic’ and an animated film ‘Your Palitoy Family Tree’, based on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ with the ‘toys’ telling their own story of evolution.
  • Create a documentary film of the history of Palitoy and to work with film producers to create broadcast quality programmes, e.g. 40 years of Star Wars toys BBC 4 programme broadcast in December 2019.
  • Give talks about the history of Palitoy and guided tours of the factory site.
  • Collate a catalogue of Palitoy related archives around the country and to enable the digitization of non-accessible archives for posting on line, e.g. the Leicester Mercury photographic archive held at the University of Leicester.
  • Curate two exhibitions; one at Heartwood Conference Centre on the former factory site and another at the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall.

The application for a NHLF grant was successful and in August 2019 ‘The Many Faces of Palitoy’ project began with a series of luncheon gatherings at the Heartwood Conference Centre for former staff to meet old work colleagues and reminisce about their time at Palitoy. Oral history recordings were started and names of people who would allow the Coalville Heritage Society to record their memories were gathered.

‘The Many Faces of Palitoy’ pop-up exhibition opened in October 2019 telling the story of Cascelloid and Palitoy with a display of toys that Palitoy/Cascelloid made during the hundred years since Alfred Pallett founded his small plastics factory in 1919. During the four weeks the exhibition was open it attracted over 5,500 visitors and 600 school children from Coalville schools. It was opened by the former Managing Director Bob Simpson, who was approaching the grand age of 90, and had a visit from Alfred Pallett’s only surviving son, Tony. The exhibition also attracted many hundreds of former employees who relived their days at Palitoy, and collectors who just marveled at the scope of toys the company made.

So what of the future? Sadly due to the Coronavirus ‘The Many Faces of Palitoy’ project, like many other projects, is suspended until it is safe for social contact and public gatherings to resume. The activities and events over the last four years have proved that there is a great deal of interest in Palitoy’s heritage and that interest will be continued with ‘The Many Faces of Palitoy’ and the Coalville Heritage Society. It is hoped that one day there will be a permanent heritage centre in Coalville, and visitors will remember fondly such toys as Action Man, Tressy, Tiny Tears, Pippa, Mainline Railways, Girls World, Parker Games, Care Bears, Striker, Star Wars and so many more, with future generations learning about Coalville and in particular the story of one local company that was world famous.

During the unveiling of the green plaque in 2017 Councilor Pam Posnett, (Leicestershire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Green Plaques), said, “Palitoy not only helped to stoke children’s imaginations with its classic toys, dolls and games, it also helped to put Coalville on the map”.

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