Britains Swoppet Knights: History.

The Story of Herald, Britains and the Swoppet Knights.

  It would be most inappropriate to attempt a history of any Britains toys without acknowledging a debt of gratitude to James Opie's comprehensive tome "The Great Book of Britains" (New Cavendish Books, 1993, ISBN 1-872727-32-8) or Peter Cole's insightful critique of the Britains / Herald era "Suspended Animation" (Plastic Warrior, 1997, ISBN 1-90898-01-2).

  The story of the Swoppet Knights has as its hero the pioneering British toy designer Roy Selwyn-Smith. Working for the legendary entrepreneur Myer Zang at Modern Packages in the late 1940s, Selwyn-Smith had taken part in some of the earliest experiments with producing models in plastic, before leaving to join Willmore & Sons. In 1950, Selwyn-Smith and the financier Otto Gottstein started Selwyn Miniatures, the company which gave the world the original lead Knights of Agincourt. However, after the untimely death of Gottstein, and the collapse of this embryonic venture, Selwyn-Smith rejoined Zang in 1951. The moulds for the Knights of Agincourt, as part of Gottstein's estate, were sold to William Britains, and the figures revived under the Britains name in 1954. The heraldic detail in the shields may not have corresponded with those of any famous Knights who actually fought at Agincourt, but the figures demonstrated an attention to anatomical detail many years ahead of their time, and possessed a grace and beauty all their own. To this day they remain some of the most collectable toys in the world.

Knights of Agincourt

  At M.Zang's company, later to be known as Herald Miniatures, Selwyn-Smith and another former Modern Packages designer Charles Biggs produced a memorable range of "unbreakable" plastic figures that soon grew to rival the more old-fashioned metal toys which had been the hallmark of the larger manufacturers such as Britains for many years. Guardsmen and Highlanders, figures from the Wild West and the American Civil War and others were made with great attention to detail, hand-painted, and above all much safer and less fragile than their metal rivals.

Herald cowboys Herald indians
Herald ACW Confederates

  But Britains had been in the business a long time, and they were never frightened of embracing change, nor of taking a commercial risk. In 1955 they bought a controlling interest in Herald, bringing the best plastic toys on the market under their own control and in the process acquiring the services of Selwyn-Smith. In return, Herald, which became an "associate company" of Britains, could avail itself of all the production and marketing resources of the longer-established company. And presumably Mr Zang received a large sum of money.

Herald Robin Hood figures, 1957   At a time when the days of the lead toys were coming to an end, the golden age of plastic soldiers was beginning, and Herald were well and truly at the leading edge of this revolution. In 1957, they produced the fondly recalled "Robin Hood" set, Selwyn-Smith's first major creation for the merged firm. As well as demonstrating their creator's penchant for all things medieval, the sheer quality of these figures raised the standards of toys still further. The anatomical details were lifelike and convincing, the creases in the clothes uncannily realistic, the sculpting of the finer features a work of art. Friar Tuck even looked suitably inebriated.

  The credit for the basic idea of the Swoppets - figures that can be swivelled or even swopped based on suitable joints at the neck and waist - is claimed by just about everyone who worked for Herald or Britains around about this period. At the time, Herald designers were growing increasingly vexed by the cheaper copies of their work being flooded onto the market by unscrupulous competitors, all too often obviously resembling Herald figures which had been cut in two and reassembled. The anecdote which is most often repeated has the inventor of the Swoppets suggesting that Herald might dissect their own models and send them to Timpo (or whomever) to save them the trouble of pretending they were designing their toys themselves. The ownership of the idea of "Swoppet" toys may be disputed, but the patent taken out by Britains lists Selwyn-Smith as the inventor, and it seems fair to say most people give him the major share of the credit.

  The launch of the Swoppet series took place in March 1958, with the first set of Cowboys. There were six figures on foot and six mounted, and, if some of the models bore a certain resemblance to their Herald predecessors, you could hardly criticise Selwyn-Smith for plagiarising his own work. Each figure had three distinct sections: head, torso and legs, which could be swivelled at the waist and/or the neck to give a variety of poses (some credible, others of course not), and swopped with the other models in the series to give similarly varied results. The sections were made of plastic in the "main" colour of the piece, with minor colours for grass, flesh, hair, gunmetal, etc hand-painted on by the Herald army of home workers. The cowboys' torso sections came in four colourways: red and black; sky blue and cream; yellow and blue; and green and brown. The legs were either light grey, dark grey, navy blue or brown. Each cowboy had a necktie (in red, royal blue, sky blue or yellow), and a soft plastic gunbelt coloured brown round his waist. Except for the models who held a gun in their hands, the belt contained tiny plastic pistols, which were removable, though in these pioneering Swoppets they could not actually be swopped with the figure's original weapon, which was fixed in position.

Swoppet Cowboys, first series, 1958

  The mounted models used the same range of heads and torsos, but were attached to horses (the old Herald steeds originally) through a suitably shaped legs section. The foot figures sold for 1/3 (1 shilling and 3 pence), the mounted ones for 2/11 - just over 6p and nearly 15p respectively in today's money. (Confused by old British money? You're not alone. Click here for a quick explanation).

  The figures were attached at the waist through a bulbous protruding bead at the top of the legs which was attached to the underside of the torso by means of an opening at the base of the latter section. This was not in itself a new invention, but similar to the idea of "poppet" beads which were in vogue at the time, small round pins from one bead fitting tightly into a hole in the next. The Swoppet brainwave was that the opening in the torso section was double-grooved, and the thin layer of plastic between the two grooves would part easily when the pin was inserted into the torso, but would only allow removal of the bead when the owner purposely pulled the legs and torso apart. This feature, unique to the early Britains Swoppets, gave them effective 360-degree movement coupled with a certain robustness, a quality lacking in the rivals which soon, inevitably, sprang up. The attachment between the head and the torso was by means of a similar - but of course smaller - bead on the head, though the opening was not double-grooved.
Legs and torso sections... ...clip together to give a model which can rotate through 360 degrees

  The following year, Britains produced the Swoppet "Indian" series (political correctness had not yet been invented!), which followed the successful format of the Cowboys with six figures each on foot and on horse, and again the mounted figures used the same torsos as the dismounted ones. The torsos took the native American "flesh" colour as their basic shade, while the leg sections were the colour of the brave's trousers, which could be red, orange, yellow, grey, green or sky blue. Each figure had a belt in which was stored a knife, though again this was not "swoppable" in the true sense of the word as there was no other weapon with which to swop, nor any free hand to hold the blade.

Swoppet 'Indians', 1959

  It was in July of 1959 that the Swoppet Knights first went on sale. Bobby Darrin's "Dream Lover" was top of the singles charts, soon to be overtaken by Cliff Richard's "Livin' Doll", while the "South Pacific" soundtrack was the best-selling LP of the time. The name "Beatles" had yet to be invented. Juke Box Jury was the nation's new favourite television show. Wolverhampton Wanderers were league champions for the second season in a row, while Nottingham Forest had just won the FA Cup. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister in Britain; Eisenhower was the US President.

  Once more, Britains issued six figures on foot, though at first the Knights had no mounted companions. The retail price was 1/6 (1 shilling and 6 pence, or 7½p in today's money). All three sections of all the figures were moulded in grey plastic, and extra colours overpainted, including the grass, flesh, weapons, etc, and also the pikeman's, archer's and crossbowman's tunics. More details of the individual Knights are available on the Models page, but for now here is a brief summary:

#1470 -
With Lance

#1471 -
With Sword

#1472 -
Longbowman

#1473 -
With Pike

#1474 -
With Axe

#1475 -
Crossbowman

  It may seem churlish to pick fault with the Cowboys and "Indians" Swoppets, but it does seem that, in designing and producing the Knights, certain lessons had been learned. Most obviously, none of the Knights were made to stand on one leg, a feature which had weakened several of the preceding ranges. There were no "casualties" in the set, a Herald trait which too often meant the range of playworthiness of one of the figures had been limited, the wounded cowboy being a case in point. Also, the Knights did not include any figures that were lying down, although perhaps making the Crossbowman kneel was slightly restrictive.

  Anyway, the Knights quickly became established as the jewel in Britains' crown, and it's not hard to see why. The attention to detail, shown most clearly in the early years while the moulds were still new and sharp, made even the wonderful Swoppet Cowboys look inferior. And the weapons were truly "swoppable", as several of the figures looked equally convincing holding a sword, lance, axe or dagger. No sales data from this period is available to the amateur researcher, but it seems certain that the Britains/Herald partnership was already proving a economic success for the merged firm.

  Along with the single Knights, there were also two carded sets: number 4470, which contained figures #1470, #1471 and #1472; and number 4473, which contained figures #1473, #1474 and #1475. The yellow and black cards bore the distinctive arrowed Swoppets logo, with the legend "models that swivel and swop" on the front, and Herald named as the manufacturer (though the rear of the card said "a Britains Ltd product").

Carded set #4470, 1959-63

Carded set #4473, 1959-63

  In time for the Christmas season, a window boxed set was issued, number 7470, containing five of the six figures - it seems "With Axe" (#1474) was most often the unlucky one to miss out. Though the illustrated example, somewhat disfigured, hardly does justice to the imposing nature of this set, you can clearly see the familiar arrowed "Swoppets" logo and rose badge alongside the "Wars of the Roses" inscription, the imaginative and evocative medieval backdrop, and the distinctive yellow and black packaging. The balance between the "Herald" and "Britains Ltd" badging can also be seen to be shifting in favour of the latter.

Boxed set #7470, 1959-68
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Figure #1470 on stand

  The packaging of individual foot Knights was to change over the years, and it's something I've found hard to chronicle with any degree of accuracy - any factual assistance with this subject would be gratefully acknowledged. At first, they were on display in shops mounted atop a striking pink and white card stand, with the original legend "The Wars of the Roses" taking second place only to the arrowed "Swoppets" legend and rose motif. Note that neither "Britains" nor "Herald" were mentioned on the stand.

  Perhaps it was concurrent with this stand, or perhaps it was a bit later, that the Knights - and other Swoppet foot figures - had a 1½ inch black and white card attached to their ankles. Note that even these actually came in two variations over time, an original which gave greater prominence to the Herald name than to Britains, and a later version with the Britains large B logo, and no place at all for the word "Herald".

Figure #1471 with later Britains label
Original Herald label Later Britains label
Old style Swoppets Knights box, 1 dozen

  Even more obscure is the history of the boxes. The foot Knights were issued to toy shops in cartons containing twelve figures, all of the same pose, and quite often very similar in terms of colours and other variations. So, in those days at least, a shopkeeper who quickly sold out of one model, could replenish his stocks easily: there was no problem if one figure outsold the others. I think the example shown opposite is of an earlier box, though the pink and off-white packaging refers to "Britains Ltd", and "Toy Models", and carries the Britains large B with the guardsman at attention logo.

  This pink, white and black box, however, bears the earlier(?) arrowed Swoppets logo, and states that the contents are "Wars of the Roses" Knights. I'm fairly certain that Britains issued all the Swoppets series, and the Eyes Right figures too if memory serves, in cartons like this from about the mid-1960s, but I'm truly not sure whether this type of box was earlier or later than the one above - any information gratefully received.

Later Swoppets knights box, 1 dozen

  In the early months of 1960, the four mounted Swoppet Knights were issued, in the original "tent" boxes, along with a boxed set of two mounted and two dismounted Knights (#7475). The new mounted figures retailed at a whopping 4/6 (22½p), significantly more than the equivalent cowboys, but few could deny they were worth either the price or the wait.

#1450 - With Standard

#1451 - Charging

#1452 - Attacking

#1453 - Defending

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Mounted Knight box, red, 1959-62

Mounted Knight box, blue, 1959-62   The original mounted Knights came in a tent-style box, available in at least two imaginative designs. While adding considerable "play value" to the Knight, and serving only to enhance the reputation of the toys as being a cut above the competition, the tent device had the major disadvantage that it did not display the contents. This was a common complaint about the earlier Swoppet mounted figures. The boxes bore the Herald trumpeter logo at this stage, though they claimed to be "made in England by Britains Ltd", a sign that the merger between the companies was still ongoing. The figures were described as "15th Century Mounted Knights", signifying perhaps that Britains already realised tying the Knights to the specific period of the Wars of the Roses had been too restrictive.

  As mentioned above, another window boxed set was issued, number 7475, with a selection of mounted and foot figures. Note that, in the illustrated example, the "Herald" badging has been replaced by "Britains" logos, in contrast to the #7470 shown earlier. It also should be mentioned that, according to catalogue representations of this set, the dismounted figures were #1474 "With Axe" and #1473 "With Pike" rather than the examples included in the photo.

Boxed set #7475, 1960-68


Boxed set #7480, 1961-66

  The year 1961 saw the release of a boxed set comprising all the four mounted Knights, and (for reasons unknown) all but one of the dismounted Knights. Like all the Britains boxed sets, the layout of the contents was prone to change over the years, and according to the country of point of sale, but it seems fair to state that the "Attacking with Sword" figure (#1471) was usually the one omitted. Beyond any reasonable doubt, however, this was one of the greatest sets Britains ever produced, the Jewel in the Crown of their early 1960s range.

  In a distinctive blue and yellow window box, the set was numbered 7480, and is probably among the most sought-after collector's items in the world today, fetching many hundreds of pounds on the rare occasion one is auctioned. (The example illustrated above is from a later period, when the Herald logo had been omitted altogether in favour of the Britains "B" badge.)

Rear of Boxed set #7480, 1961-66


  During 1962, the Swoppet range was enhanced further with the "modern" British Infantry sets, a puzzling combination of three pretty much unswoppable standing figures, and two themed sets: one with a mortar and two crewmen, the other with a couple of stretcher-bearers and a wounded soldier. The last set was something of an eye-opener, and does give the lie to the myth that Britains and other toy makers were only intent on glorifying war. It was perhaps meant as a reminder to young make-believe soldiers everywhere that war is a dangerous business, and that combatants do sometimes end up killed or maimed.

Swoppet British Infantry, 1962

  In many ways this was a bit of a sideways step for the Swoppet genre. The soldiers were of course all the same colour (khaki), had uniform green helmets and shoulder-packs, and carried similar rifles. The only significant variant was that some carried pick-axes on their backs and some spades. Though the attachment of the legs to the torso was still by means of the spherical "poppet" type bead, the legs were now connected to a separate self-coloured green base by thin cylindrical sprockets. Excellent figures though they were, they had no officers, and no credible opponents from within the Britains catalogue. However, in later years, they would be reinforced by a Dispatch Rider on a motor cycle and a very commendable Military Landrover set.

  The presentation of the mounted Swoppet Knights changed in 1962, the tent boxes being superseded by the window box design which seems to be synonymous with the memory of these figures. Glorious in their cod-medieval design and brightly-coloured in the best tradition of Sixties packaging, they could hardly fail to catch the eye in any toy shop, and the cellophane cover now ensured the noble Knight and his horse were strikingly visible to the would-be purchaser. The legend "15th Century Knight" was prominent on the front of the box, although the back contained a rather abbreviated (but virtually incomprehensible) written summary of the events of the Wars of the Roses. Inevitably, there were two colour variations, the stripes being red or blue.
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Mounted Knight, red box, 1962 Mounted Knight, red box, 1962 Mounted Knight, rear of box

  This year also saw the release of the "Eyes Right" American Civil War mounted figures, four each from the Union and Confederate sides, to complement the 1950s Herald footsoldiers. These figures, the work of sculptor George Ford, boasted superb new horses (Ford had created much of the Britains Zoo series), and with their lifelike poses and realistic sidearms, the variety in their faces, and above all those memorable detailed flags, were soon rated as one of Britains' greatest creations ever. They were issued in similar style boxes to the Swoppet Knights, and took their place alongside their cousins, both literally on toyshop shelves across the land and figuratively in the hearts of their owners.

Britains American Civil War Union figures, 1962

  A further release in this busy time was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police set. Comprising just one mounted figure holding a pennant, to be joined in 1966 by a marching figure on foot, unarmed of course, this was possibly the least interesting series Britains has ever produced, though, as with all the models featured on this page, it remains popular with collectors.

  There is some confusion as to whether either of the above sets could be called "Swoppets". Although the mounted ACW figures were branded as "Eyes Right" at the time, and the RCMP figures were listed under that heading in Britains catalogues from 1966, it seems that many collectors refer to both sets as "Swoppets". Yet they did not bear the arrowed "Swoppet" logo on their bases, only the heads and arms could swivel, and the attachment at the waist was cylindrical, not bulbous.

The Swoppet Knights in the Britains Catalogue of 1963.
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Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1963 Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1963

  The following year, 1963, the Swoppet Knights carded three-piece sets #4470 and #4473 were replaced by window boxes containing the same figures and known by the same numbers. By now the Herald logo had disappeared from the packaging, and the yellow and black style had been displaced by a white box with red and black writing - and, incongruously, a rather fierce-looking "Indian" glaring at the would-be purchaser from the cover. This later style window box was to become common to most of the three-figure window boxes of Swoppets (including Cowboys, Indians and British Infantry) by the mid 1960s.

Carded set #4470, 1963-68

Carded set #4473, 1963-68

Britains Swoppet Range, 1964, with the Knights at the bottom left.
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Britains Swoppet Range Leaflet, © Britains Ltd 1964

  There were more changes in 1965, with the introduction of the last two series of Swoppets. The American War of Independence figures comprised two sets of six dismounted soldiers, British redcoats and Americans in blue (with one buckskin-clad scout). Though much sought-after collectors' items in the US, their appeal to other markets was always going to be limited by the relative historical obscurity of the period they represented. In the UK, for example, this war is not at all well remembered - if for no other reason than because the British lost! Only marginally capable of movement around the waist (where they used the Eyes Right cylindrical pin rather than the poppet bead), and scarcely "swoppable", the AWI figures were listed as "Swoppets" in the Britains catalogues but did not bear the Swoppet logo on their bases. Once again, the sets featured no officers, to which omission must be added a lack of cavalrymen and (until, incredibly, after the infantry had been discontinued) artillery.

Britains American War of independence figures, 1965

  The second series of Swoppet Cowboys were rather better received, in the UK at least, with the six new dismounted poses complementing the by-now perhaps somewhat tired-looking originals. The following year, a matching set of six mounted figures was also added. The colours were a bit more vivid, including cream and orange in the range, the newly-designed horses a touch more realistic, and they had the added innovation that their hats were now removable and swoppable. The bases were a brown colour, and separate, attached to the legs by the cylinder method as per the British Infantry.

Britains Swoppet Cowboys, second series, 1965-

  Around this time, Britains also introduced a series of Wild West buildings, and of course what is generally held by collectors to be their ultimate achievement - the Concord Overland Stage Coach. Realism and playworthiness combined superbly in this model, bringing out the best in the Herald, Britains and Swoppet traditions in a toy which was durable and captivating in equal measure.

Britains Concord Overland Stagecoach, 1964 - toys just weren't meant to be this good

  Though the Stage Coach itself was - to a kid - prohibitively expensive at 27/6 (1.37½ in today's money), the buildings were generally priced at a relatively modest 14/11 (approximately 75p), meaning a substantial Wild West town could be built up by a determined collector. It's a shame the Swoppet Knights never had such a range of paraphernalia designed around them - a toy castle designed by Selwyn-Smith, for example, would surely have been the stuff of which dreams are made, but Britains didn't bother with medieval fortresses until the Knights of the Sword era in the 1970s, and then the results were disappointing in the extreme.

The Swoppet Knights in the Britains Catalogues of 1965 and 1966.
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Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1965-66

  There also occurred in 1965 a fundamental change in Britains' philosophy, that would ultimately spell the end for the Swoppets. Although the Herald range had at first thrived under its new ownership, the static figures bearing their logo were signally less "interesting" than their Swoppet counterparts, but only slightly less expensive, and by the mid-1960s their selling power was on the wane. So Britains decided to split their product appeal. The Swoppets and Eyes Right series would continue at the top end of the market, but henceforward, at the lower end of the scale, the prices of the "Herald" figures had to come down, and that meant using cheaper type of plastic (ie, p.v.c.) and moving production to Hong Kong. Now, it would be quite wrong to ascribe the decline in quality entirely to the new location, as it was the decision to use the cheap plastic that was the direct cause of all those droopy spears and bent standards that are associated with the Hong Kong Herald years, but it seems clear the decision to allow production quality standards to slip at least coincided with the move. In fact, most of the traditional Herald ranges had been deleted from the Britains catalogue at this point, and it seems the famous old name was reactivated solely as a somewhat blatant marketing ploy rather than for revivalist purposes.

  During 1966, the Swoppet Knights' reign continued unchallenged, the only event of note being the discontinuation of boxed set #7480, to be replaced the following year by a new set, #7481. This consisted of three of the mounted Knights (#1543 "Defending with Lance" the casualty), and the same five dismounted figures as before. The individual foot Knights now cost 1/9 each, their mounted counterparts 5/-, so the retail price of this new set (25/-) was actually 3d more expensive than the total price of its components. You did, however, also get a couple of boxes with spare parts for your money. A correspondent advises that the contents of these boxes were as follows: two swords, a belt, a scabbard, two different crests, two different plumes, a shield and a set of reins - but sadly no visors (thanks Luiz).

 
Boxed set #7481, 1966-72 (yellow logo, pale green tray) - thanks Eddie

  A feature which is worthy of comment at this juncture is the variations in the colouring of this set's packaging. At least three colour schemes have been spotted in recent times, the examples shown above and below, although some of them are imperfect, illustrating the Britains logo in yellow, green and red (possibly a magenta shade too?) and the plastic tray in pale green, pale blue or brown. Just when you thought you had the set eh?
Insert to boxed set #7481, 1966-72 Boxed set #7481 (red logo, pale green tray), 1966-72
Boxed set #7481 (green logo, pale blue tray), 1966-72
Boxed set #7481 (magenta logo, brown tray), 1966-72

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  The Britains catalogue of the time described the Swoppet Knights thus: "Here's perfection in miniature. Magnificent models of Fifteenth Century Knights to relive the Wars of the Roses. Made in the Swoppet tradition, all parts fitting firmly, yet easily detached. Lifting visors, removable swords, swivelling bodies, all brightly coloured and adorned with their heraldic devices. Available singly or in the handsome window boxes illustrated". By the end of the Knights' lifespan, the write-up had been amended, with the first sentence being removed and one additional piece of information included, which presumably they felt was important: "Made in the Swoppet tradition which Britains originated, ... ".

Britains Catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1967.

Britains Catalogue cover 1967:
a Swoppet Knight charging a group of Eyes Right Scots Guards who seem blissfully unaware of their peril.

  The year 1967 also saw the release of the Ancient Siege Engines, the sole attempt by Britains to build upon the Swoppet Knights series in the way that the Wild West range was expanding. This well-intentioned set deserves a section in its own right, and will be discussed on the Siege Engines page. The Catapult and Balista survived until 1976, and were revived in the 1980s as part of the "Knights of the Sword" range.

#4675 - The Catapult

#4676 - The Balista

  It should perhaps also be mentioned that it was in 1967 that the new dismounted American Civil War figures were first made available, six figures for each side as was customary. Though they followed the same basic pattern as the AWI figures, they were not officially described as Swoppets (until 1970 anyway), but their main importance to history is that they replaced the old but fondly-remembered Herald American Civil War infantry, signalling the end of the British-made Herald plastic range.

Britains Catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1968.

Britains Catalogue 1968, with Swoppet Knight in pride of place on front cover.

  Many of us would trace the decline of the Britains we knew and loved back to this period, and certainly 1968 saw several changes that were not for the better. The "second series" Swoppet Cowboys were discontinued, as were the Swoppet British Infantry. The Swoppet Knights didn't get by unscathed either, boxed sets #4470, #4473, #7475 and #7470 getting the axe this year. Mounted Hong Kong 'Herald' Knights, 1968-76 The introduction of the Herald Knights was another ominous development. Manufactured in Hong Kong, they retailed at less than a third of the price of the Swoppets (6d dismounted and 1/6 mounted). Even the boxed sets in the Britains catalogue positively exuded cheapness: the knights were crammed in, looking like they were designed to be bought in bulk, in marked contrast to the stately aura of nobility given off by the Swoppets on the opposite page. This was of course an era when many toy soldier enthusiasts were turning to war-gaming as a vehicle for their hobby, and this trend lent itself to the marketing of soldiers that were designed for quantity rather than quality. Foot Hong Kong 'Herald' Knights, 1968-76 This in itself was not necessarily a bad thing, as there was no reason why Britains couldn't dominate both ends of the toy soldier market with Swoppets and Eyes Right at one extreme and the Hong Kong Heralds at the other, but it was not to turn out thus, and few would look back on these figures with anything like the affection reserved for the true Herald and Swoppet eras. The Hong Kong Herald figures did, however, outlast the Swoppets, struggling on till 1976, by which time the Deetail models had totally eclipsed them.

Miniset #1081, 'Knights in Combat', 1968-72   It was also in 1968 that the "Minisets" series was launched by Britains, a fair enough basic idea but featuring toys which, because of their scale, would be incompatible with the remainder of the range, and, because of the wide-ranging scope of the series ("footballers", "frogmen and octopus", etc), were largely incompatible with each other. Miniset #1082, 'Knights in Ambush', 1970-72 There were two "knights" sets in this series, and, although Selwyn-Smith admits to having been involved in the design, the quality is far inferior to the Swoppets. The Miniset concept was an expensive aberration from the start - and perhaps a miscalculation from the designers that allowed the accountants to step in and persuade the management that the time for change was at hand?

  In 1969, Britains moved their head office from Kings Cross Road to Blackhorse Lane, in Walthamstow, a north-eastern suburn of London. Selwyn-Smith was now spending most of his time carrying out his new role as joint Managing Director of Britains, following the retirement of Dennis Britain. Peter Cole informs us that, around this time, the moulds from which many Herald / Britains figures were made had started to show signs of wear, and states that from this point many of the models were of inferior quality, being somewhat thinner than they were designed to be. He also points out that, due to the switch to p.v.c. production, Britains severed relations with their old paint supply company, and, while the p.v.c. paint they brought in may have been suitable for the new Herald range, the replacement polythene paint from the new suppliers was of poor quality. This, he claims, caused flakiness in the paint on late-1960s models, presumably including the Swoppet Knights of that era.

The Swoppet Knights in the Britains Catalogue of 1969.
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Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1969

Boxed set #7479, 1969-72

  The last new addition to the Swoppet Knights range came in 1969, when the only surviving boxed set (#7481) was augmented by a new addition. Given the catalogue number #7479, this at last brought all six foot Knights under one (cellophane) roof.

Insert from set 7475, 1970-72


Counter pack 7475, 1970-72   From this point, there could be no doubt the Swoppet series was on the way out. After 1970, the foot Knights were no longer available to retailers individually, but only as a counter pack of 36 (six of each figure), confusingly given the same number, #7475, as an earlier boxed set. This essentially meant a shop had to sell all the models in roughly the same quantities, or else face the prospect of having surplus stock of one relatively unpopular figure. I'm not sure if any of the individual Swoppet Knights were more in-demand than the others, but this restrictive ploy can hardly have helped overall sales. The American Civil War infantry, hitherto listed as "Eyes Right" in catalogues, were also confined to counter packs, which, from this point in time, were labelled "Swoppets", and it is perhaps this belated rebranding which gave rise to the popular belief that they were the seventh species of Swoppet.

  In 1971, the Swoppet Cowboys and "Indians" were finally withdrawn from sale, and, at the end of 1972, it was the end of an era as the Swoppet Knights followed them into glorious but unforgotten extinction.

The Swoppet Knights make their last stand in the Britains Catalogue of 1972, flanked by their long-term allies the Ancient Siege Machines.
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Britains catalogue, © Britains Ltd 1972

Early 'Deetail' Knights, 1973   For Britains, the flagship product was now the "Deetail" range, essentially plastic figures with metal bases, giving the models the stability of lead coupled with the intricacy of sculpting allowed by plastic. That was the idea, anyway: some of the models were scarcely more convincing than their Herald forebears. In 1973, the Deetail series was enhanced by Knights and "Turks". The latter black-clad warriors may or may not have borne any resemblance to the Seljuk Turks who fought the Crusaders, but really only existed to give the good (silver) guys some credible opposition. Deetail 'Turks', 1973 This new range, sculpted by Ron Cameron, soon swept aside the Hong Kong "Herald" Knights to become Britains' leading Middle Ages series for many years.

  It would perhaps be less than proper to end the tale without giving a brief overview of the Deetail years. The "Turks" were edged out in favour of the less politically-incorrect Black Knights in 1983, and the whole range was re-launched as "Knights of the Sword" in 1986, when the Silver Knights and "Storm Knights" (who were strikingly similar to the "Turks") were complemented by rediscovered Siege Engines and - at last - toy forts, the Lion (1987) and Sword (1991) Castles doing little to enhance the company's reputation. In 1987, we were assailed by the gold-garbed Shield Knights (yes, they had large shields), who looked more like rejected monsters from Dr Who than anything remotely authentic, and the following year by their mounted equivalents, the Banner Knights (they were like the Shield Knights except that they, er, carried banners). The Siege Tower that accompanied this series was perhaps its most aesthetically pleasing feature. The Champion (or "poseable" ) Knights of 1993 were an interesting departure in that they seemed to be an attempt to revive the Swoppet tradition of non-uniformity, with varieties of form and colour that made every figure more or less unique, but their awkward poses and blatantly unconvincing lack of detail meant that they were soon all but forgotten. All that is, however, another story...

  The final demise of the Swoppets has been blamed in some quarters on growing concerns about child safety, as in the early 1970s there were many stories in the press about young children choking on small parts from easily disassembled toys. The practice of labelling toys with the targeted age-range was not yet widespread, and it seems that very young children were getting hold of their older brothers' and sisters' toys and swallowing detachable parts. This is of course ironic, in as much as, a generation before, it had been growing awareness of the health risks associated with lead toys that had opened the door for the rise of plastic figures and the advent of manufacturers like Herald.

  But, I guess, by 1972 the world had changed out of all recognition from the 1950s, when the Swoppet Knights had been conceived. Peter Cole talks lovingly of an era of Eagle comic, Ladybird books and so on, memories with which those who were alive in the 1950s and early 1960s will readily identify. I'd been 3 years old when the first Swoppet Knights had been sold, a primary school kid during their rise in the early 1960s, but now - well, for one thing, I'd collected the set, and, for another, I was 16, and inevitably my world had changed too. By this time, it seemed there were more important things in life, such as football matches, Roxy Music records, Monty Python on the television, school dances and (I suppose) A-levels. My old toys were not discarded, they were still treated with the respect they deserved, but they were consigned to my parents' attic, where they were to remain for some years. No doubt many others who had grown up with Swoppets and other Britains toys felt the same way, and, equally likely, the 7-to-10-year-olds of 1972 have other things from which to remember their childhood, such is the way of the world. Like all toys (and it must be remembered, that is essentially all they were), the Swoppets were very much things of their time. And their time had been a memorable one, and also - by the standards of today's toys - a long one.

  By way of a footnote, in recent years, Britains (now of course under different ownership) have produced a very collectable set of metal Knights originally known as the "Tournament Knights" but mutating into a reappellation of the historic "Knights of Agincourt" name. With the wheel having turned full circle in that respect, there are many who wish out loud that Britains would also revert to manufacturing high-quality plastic toys of the (early) Herald, Swoppet and Eyes Right standard. But that seems about as unlikely as the House of York regaining the throne of England.