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Playful Pasts: Our Journey With Toys

Playful Pasts: Our Journey with Toys is a celebration of toys and play on the Isle of Man. This popular exhibition at the House of Manannan looks at toys and their development over thousands of years.

Now the beauty of the thing when childher plays is
The terrible wonderful length the days is.
Up you jumps, and out in the sun,
And you fancy the day will never be done;
And you’re chasin’ the bumbees hummin’ so cross
In the hot sweet air among the goss, 

In the hot sweet air among the goss,
Or gath’rin’ blue-bells, or lookin’ for eggs,
Or peltin’ the ducks with their yalla legs,
Or a climbin’ and nearly breakin’ your skulls,
Or a shoutin’ for divilment after the gulls,

Or a thinkin’ of nothin’, but down at the tide
Singin’ out for the happy you feel inside.
That’s the way with the kids, you know,
And the years do come and the years do go,
And when you look back it’s all like a puff,
Happy and over and short enough.

From: “Betsy Lee” by T.E. Brown


Childhood Treasures

If you lost a marble, penny or anything we played with, you invoked the Fairies to find it. Yes! We spit in the palm of our left hand and, with right hand raised said “Fairy, fairy, find my marble………….           

Mrs Watterson   Folk Life Survey (1950-51)


Pockets stuffed with marbles and string, collections of tiny treasures, have been an enduring feature of our childhoods.

Historically, children’s toys were often miniature examples of practical everyday things used by adults. Not only would these small toys connect children with their elders, but would also prepare them for adult life.

Image ref: A Helping Hand Isle of Man Tourist Board competition entry, 1953.  Photograph C.E. Jackson

Image ref: Time for Tea. Susan Connor with her tea set, c.1950-60. Photograph E.S. Webb



Simple building blocks and factory made kits have always been popular, empowering children to build structures to a given plan, or create to their own designs.

One of the most popular construction kits was engineered by Liverpool born manufacturer Frank Hornby, who invented one of the oldest construction systems, Meccano, in 1898.

Lego, has constantly reinvented itself to remain the construction building toy of choice for generations. It was created in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen a Danish toymaker.

Together they demonstrate the ways technology, materials, and marketing have shaped popular building toys over more than a century.

Image ref: Constructing Play. Simon and Peter Stockbridge with constructed toy plane, c.1950-60. Photograph E.S.Webb.

Image ref: Lego Building Champions. Lego building competition prize winners, Toymaster, c. 1980.



 Powered by pulleys, springs, or flywheels, automated toys have the power to mesmerise with their mechanical movement.

The first mechanised toys were sold as engineered marvels to privileged children. These toys were hand-built by skilled craftsmen and usually powered by wind or water.

During the late 1880s European toy makers created and mass-produced the first windup tin toys.

The fascination of hidden mechanisms, cogs, wheels and motors has forever ignited the imaginations of children and toy manufacturers.




Our toy companions have shared in our joy, laughter and occasional tears, with many toys cherished into adulthood.

From teddy bears, talking toys, dolls, trolls and action figures our choice of playmate is vast.

Our toys often bear the physical record of our childhood days. The best loved toys often carry the scars of play. Restyled, scribbled upon and faded, imagine if they could speak.

Image ref: PG/1669/8. Victorian Doll. Louise Rycroft Harrison sits for her portrait with her doll, 1892. Johnson Photographic  Studio, Douglas. 


Image ref: Pram Ride. Denise Simpson and her teddy bear in pram, c.1950-60. Photograph E.S.Webb.



“We had hoops of thick wire, bent for us at the smithy, with crooks made by him too.  We would run it over a large stone so it would jump the Corony gate.  Our marbles were from ginger pop bottles, and these bottles seemed to get broken very easily so we could get the marble in them”

Mr Mylecraine, Ballaugh Manx Folk Life Survey


Passed on by word of mouth to siblings and playground peers, traditional games have always been at the heart of childhood.

In the absence of commercially manufactured toys, children created their own playthings, using whatever was at hand and reflecting the seasons.

Games played required elements of physical skill, creativity and an overall ability to remember the rules passed on by repetition and rhyme.

Image ref: PG/8224/18/209. Urban Play. Children playing with hoop and sticks, Union Mills, undated. Photograph John James Frowde. 

Image ref: PGN 00383. See-Saw. Children in Douglas playing with a makeshift see-saw, c.1890. Photograph John Miller Nicholson.

Image ref: The Mudlarks. Isle of Man Tourist Board competition entry, 1954.Photograph W. Burrows.



The long stretch of beaches, rugged cliffs and concealed glens that drew many visitors to the island’s shores also provided the perfect playground for local children to explore.

The sounds of whirling merry-go-rounds and smells of boating lakes signalled the height of holiday season.

Sandcastle building contests were a regular feature and competition was fierce. Beaches at Peel, Port Erin and Douglas hosted children laden with buckets and spades   on a mission to win with their fantasy fortresses and fairy tale castles.

Image ref: PGN 01063. Seaside. Children playing on Douglas beach, c. 1900. Unknown photographer.

Image ref: PG 13606_1954_1-3  A 201-203. A Young Builder. Isle of Man Tourist Board competition entry, 1954. Photograph D. R Killip. 



For decades, toy trains have appealed to both child and adult collectors.

From live steam engines, expensive and only for the wealthy, to pull along trains, clockwork engines and penny toys in lead and tin, there was something to suit all budgets

In 1891 German company Märklin launched standardised track gauges. This meant that collectors could gradually add to their railroad, knowing that the pieces would all fit together.

Today the toy locomotive industry is firmly on track and the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine introduces younger tech savvy generations to the delights of rail.

Image ref: Toy Train Assembly. Interior of the Meccano factory, Binns Road, Liverpool, 1932. Photograph commissioned by Meccano Ltd. Copyright Liverpool City Library.

Image ref: Hornby Trains Stationed. Manufacturing Hornby toy trains, Meccano factory, Binns Road, Liverpool. Unknown date. Copyright Liverpool City Library.



The earliest evidence of board game play on the Isle of Man is a merrel board left behind by the Vikings from AD 900.

Whether the game is one of chance or strategy, life lessons and social skills come into play with the mere throw of the dice.

The 1900s saw a rise in the popularity of table top board games, cards and parlour games. Mass production fed the demand created by more middle class leisure time. Many of these games continue to be popular today.

Image ref: PG/7870-38828. Whiling Away the Time. Playing games with fellow internees was a way to pass the time.  Here men gather around a table to play cards and chess. Knockaloe,  c.1917. 




Following the arrival of the first real cars in the 1800s, wooden copies soon hit the toy market.

Later, toy cars were assembled or cast from metals including tin, steel and iron.

Miniaturising cars was big business for iconic British die cast modellers Dinky Toys, Matchbox and Corgi Toys from 1933 for over 30 years.

As the top trio of British toy manufactures raced for pole position in seeking attention, many Island toy retailers advertised the latest models to eager enthusiasts.

Over time the range of toys extended from toy cars to trucks, tractors and tankers to include aircraft, hovercraft and battle ships.

Image ref: L22854/6. Scalextric. Presentation of popular Scalextric set and cars to prize winners in Toymaster toyshop, Duke’s Road, 1980s. Fred Powell, shop owner is positioned far right. 



NO GERMAN TOYS! The Manx newspapers roared, to halt enemy toys invading Manx shores.  Our wartime toys show the perseverance of play through times of conflict.

1914 signalled the outbreak of the First World War. Until this time Germany exported most of the toys around the world.

In both World Wars ordinary people living in the British Isles, but originating from countries allied with Germany, were sent to the Isle of Man and kept as prisoners in designated ‘internment’ camps. To stay occupied, many interned prisoners made handmade toys.

Some toys remained on the island and were sold or given as keepsakes to Manx children. Other toys were exported to England.

Image ref: PG-7826-5. Precious Things.Brigitte Jedermann and her doll. Brigitte was interned at Rushen camp with her family during WW2. 

Image ref: PG-7826-2. Wartime Play. Children interned at Rushen Camp played on Chapel Beach in Port St Mary during WW2. Brigitte Jedermann (girl) and David Hess (boy).




Douglas Market Place- ‘There was an old tin man (tin plate worker) there selling tins, his name was Dawson. My mother remembers him. They used to buy toy painted horses and carts and wheelbarrows for 1d’.

Mrs Kinvig, Ronague, Manx Folk life Survey


Natural born salesman, Fred Powell (1946-2017) and his wife Joan managed the well-known toyshop Playground later renamed Toymaster.

Joan recollects toys ‘stacked from floor to ceiling’ together with visiting fisherman from Llandudno and Fleetwood buying ‘big box dolls’ for children back home.

“The demand for toys from these fishing trips was vast and we required more help to staff the shop!

Fred is not only remembered with great affection locally, but was awarded Toy Retailer of the Year for the North West of England during his 30 years trading.

Image ref: Toy Maker Steve Allen with one of his Fraggle creations and Miss Piggy whom he was repairing.  Photograph by Ben Boardman. Miss Piggy © The Jim Henson Company.

Image ref: PG/7870/37952. Toy Workshop. Toy workshop at Knockaloe Camp, c. 1917, where internees made toys to sell and to pass the time.



‘I fondly remember wandering into Aldridges on 54 Bucks Road as a kid. I then ended up working there in my late teens for a number of years-when all of the kids piled on in during their summer holidays to play games!

 Matty Cunningham


The 1980s saw a huge surge in the popularity of video games with the release of more affordable personal computers such as the Spectrum ZX and the Commodore 64.

The ZX Spectrum for a number of years was the world’s most popular computer, which spawned a generation of excellent British computer programmers.

The current popularity of retro game emulators demonstrate the fond nostalgia people still have for the games of their youth.

Image ref: Colebourn’s Computers. The computer department of Colebourn’s, c.1983. Teenagers spent many hours here, playing the range of demo games available.


Do you have any favourite toys, or toy memories you’d like to share? Email exhibition curator Anthea Young at We’d love to hear from you.

Playful Pasts: Our journey with Toys is a free exhibition open at the House of Manannan from 2nd December 2017 until 1st April 2018.