‘Matchbox® Memories’ at Hackney Museum

Flyer for Matchbox memories at the Hackney Museum

Mention the name Matchbox® Toys and for thousands of enthusiasts throughout the world memories of childhood come flooding back.

Hackney Museum’s exhibition of ‘Matchbox® Memories’ celebrates the extraordinary history of this childhood favourite, and its unique place in the history of Hackney.

For over 50 years Matchbox Toys have enthralled children and adults alike with their vast range of models and careful attention to detail.

In the Matchbox world in miniature all children could fantasise about being a fireman, a steamroller driver, construction worker, farmer or speed ace.

When school friends Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith formed Lesney Products in 1947 they had no plans to become toy manufacturers, their intention was to make die cast products for industrial use. By 1949 their firm had expanded into factory premises in Shacklewell Lane, Hackney. When demand for industrial products was slack they experimented with making toys. In 1953 they scored their first great international success, their tiny Coronation Coach sold over 1 million. The stage was now set for their most famous creation.

Company tradition maintains that their 3rd partner, Jack Odell, made the first miniature steamroller for his daughter because her school insisted that pupils could only bring objects to school that were small enough to fit into a matchbox. All her friends wanted a steamroller too, and the Matchbox brand was born. In Lesney’s heyday fourteen factories worldwide were making over 5 million cars a week, and was one of the largest employers in Hackney. Sadly the glory days were not to last, and by 1982 the company was hard hit by the recession and cheaper manufacturing costs in the Far East. The Hackney factories closed and today the Matchbox Toys brand is owned by Mattel and is a companion to Barbie.

‘Matchbox® Memories’ conjures up the atmosphere of the factories through the voices and memories of former workers. Their stories highlight the dazzling ingenuity and inventiveness used to get model cars speeding across race tracks or jump down obstacle courses using balloons and ball bearings. Local artist, May Ayres, has transformed the gallery with vivid illustrations of factory life at Lesney’s.

Text and images: Hackney Museum