Toy Boats and War Games

September 25, 2010 at 9:04 am | Posted in Fun and Games, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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In Five on Kirrin Island Again the cousins pay a visit to the jolly ‘red-faced, barrel-shaped’ coastguard. He’s singing a sea shanty while busy making wooden toys in the little shed behind his whitewashed cottage. Given the combination of his occupation and this hobby, the coastguard would no doubt be interested in the Toy Boats exhibition that is currently running at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibition follows the social, technical and industrial history of the toy boat, from the hand-made wooden boats of the 1800s through to the steam and battery powered vessels of the 20th century.

Both educational and fun, early boats were made largely to instruct boys (sorry George), stimulating their curiosity and introducing them in the ways of life at sea. Germany soon emerged as a leader in the field and developed a large export industry. By the 1910s toy boats had become powerful propaganda tools and the Kaiser himself took a special interest in toy boat production, encouraging manufacturers to make more submarines in order to demonstrate Germany’s underwater strength.

Toys were played with in the bath or on seaside holidays, but civic planning in the late Victorian and Edwardian era led to the creation of a large number of ‘miniature oceans’ – boating lakes in parks. Grown-ups got in on the act and toy boats became more serious and impressive (and expensive). This yacht (above right), for instance, is absolutely huge. It’s nearly 6 and a half feet high and would have been difficult for an adult to handle, let alone a child. While elegant boating lakes further developed the market for toy boats, they also became graveyards for the becalmed, broken down and abandoned. The first boat you see as you enter the exhibition is a decrepit and rusty boat found, along with another 150 or so, when the Kensington Round Pond was drained in 1923.

The other examples on display are in far more pristine condition. Many are on loan from the Musée National de la Marine in Paris and several are from the private collection of Ron McCrindell. Sections are devoted to key manufacturers from European nations and the patriotic Kirrins would no doubt have had a boat like one of these (left), produced by a British manufacturer such as Meccano, Sutcliffe and Hornby.

Like the boats themselves, the exhibition is both instructive and entertaining. Alongside examples of clockwork (right), steam and battery-powered boats, you can explore cross sections of each to discover their inner workings. There are also examples of old boating catalogues, posters and maritime-themed games including a ‘Russia vs Turkey’ boardgame (below left) produced around the start of the Crimean War in 1853.

It seems that the premise of recent controversial (computer) games like Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor, is nothing new and that nineteenth century children and adults were also eager to embrace warfare, albeit precariously. Elsewhere in the National Maritime Museum, the realities of naval warfare are brought home, not least through the display of the blood-stained and musket ball-damaged uniform worn by Admiral Lord Nelson when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free and the Toy Boats exhibition runs until the end of October.

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