Death of Frank Hornby

The creator of Meccano, Hornby model railways and Dinky toys died on September 21st, 1936, aged 73 and a millionaire.

Frank Hornby
Frank Hornby

The genius who created Meccano, Hornby model railways and Dinky toys and died a millionaire at the age of 73 was born in Liverpool in 1863. Frank Hornby’s father worked in the wholesale provision trade, the family straddled the divide between upper working class and lower middle class and Frank spoke with a Scouse accent all his life. He disliked school, often played truant and left at 16. Years later he recalled that he had read Self-Help by Samuel Smiles over and over again and it inspired him, but for the moment he made little progress and after various clerking jobs he became a bookkeeper at a Liverpool meat importing firm run by a man named David Elliott.

By the late 1890s Hornby was married with two small sons. He made toys for his boys at home in his garden shed, building metal models of bridges, cranes and lorries. An inspired moment came when he thought of making them out of identical parts that could be fastened together with screws and nuts to assemble whichever model was wanted. The separate parts were metal strips half an inch wide with holes for the fastenings at regular half-inch intervals. They came in three standard lengths. The only tools a boy needed to assemble the models were spanners and a screwdriver.

Early in 1901 Hornby took out a patent after borrowing £5 from his boss for the fee. David Elliott saw the possibilities and backed Hornby. They set up a separate business and in 1902 the first ‘Mechanics Made Easy’ sets went on sale at 7s 6d (equivalent to £30 or more today), each with an instruction leaflet explaining how to make 12 models. They began to sell and in 1906 the enterprise made a profit for the first time.

The toys were educational as well as enjoyable and the business went from strength to strength. The ‘Meccano’ trademark was registered in 1907 and in 1908 Meccano Ltd itself was formed. Elliot was a sleeping partner, leaving Hornby in command. Meccano sets were exported to numerous countries and offices were opened in Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and the United States. Hornby had never imagined for a moment that girls would be interested in Meccano and the product was aimed entirely at boys.

In later developments the firm introduced the monthly Meccano Magazine in 1916, Hornby clockwork model trains in 1920 (by 1930 they were outselling Meccano) and Dinky Toy cars, lorries and buses in 1933. A rich man in his later years, Hornby owned a grand mansion in Maghull outside Liverpool. He was also Conservative MP for Everton in the 1930s, but his greatest impact was on the generations of children who loved his toys.