Miniature Figurines
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Miniature Figurines began life in Newark, Nottinghamshire as Alberken. Albert Horsfield and Ken Watkins, whose main business was selling pie-heating machines to cafes and canteens, founded the company in 1964. One of the pie-machine salesmen was also Alberken‚€™s designer, Peter Gilder. The initial Alberken range ran to about fifty figures. Many were sold ready painted in boxed sets, which increased the scope of the range substantially ‚€œSome of the figures such as the French Napoleonic Fusilier were given about eight different paint jobs,‚€Ě Neville Dickinson remembers.

Alberken figures are thin in build, a bit static in pose, sometimes lacking in detail and stand around 22mm high. They are also noticeably flat, a common characteristic of early figures, while the horses vary alarmingly in size and style (Odd this, since in his later work with Hinchliffe Gilder excelled at sculpting cavalry). To some eyes these early releases bear a strong resemblance to those of Marcus Hinton, of which more anon.

In 1965 Bert Horsfield was killed in a car accident. Ken Watkins was reluctant to carry on alone and sold out to Neville Dickinson, then running a financial business in Southampton. Alberken was soon re-christened Miniature Figurines and relocated to the south coast port.

Neville Dickinson had become interested in wargaming after reading Don Featherstone‚€™s ‚€œTackle Model Soldiers This Way‚€Ě. ‚€œI wanted to get a copy of Don‚€™s book ‚€œWargames‚€Ě,‚€Ě Dickinson says, ‚€œbut the local bookshop was out of stock. The chap who ran it said, ‚€œWhy don‚€™t you pop and see if the author‚€™s got a spare one? He only lives round the corner‚€Ě. 

The two men soon became firm friends, fighting regular wargames with another pioneer of the hobby, Tony Bath, who would later help with admin at Miniature Figurines.

Dickinson wanted to extend the Alberken range and initially asked Peter Gilder to continue as designer. ‚€œI waited for the new masters and waited and waited,‚€Ě Dickinson recalls, ‚€œbut I never got them‚€Ě. Gilder, whose colourful life reads like something Jeffrey Archer might have made up (or indeed lived), later went to work for Frank Hinchliffe.

In the meantime Dickinson was designing some new ACW figures himself. John Braithwaite, later of Garrison, also helped out with a range of 20 or so Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. ‚€œThen one day in 1966 this student from Portsmouth Art College came to buy some figures and he said, ‚€œYou know, I reckon I could make some of these myself‚€Ě. I said to him that when he had done so he should bring them and show me, ‚€œ Dickinson says of his first meeting with the man who would be his main designer for the next thirty years, Dick Higgs, ‚€œWell, a few months later I was round at Tony Bath‚€™s house and there was a knock on the door and there was Dick with his first figures: one piece cavalry castings of Teutonic and Burgundian knights‚€Ě.

‚€œDick was living in this typical student house in Portsmouth with about eight other blokes and their world revolved around wargaming and sex, basically. Anyway he carried on designing figures for me and I used to pay him in castings. Eventually he left college and worked for a year as a wallpaper designer and when he got sick of that he came to work for me full-time‚€Ě.

By now Minifigs (the name was adopted as a trademark when Miniature Figurines became a limited company in 1968 ‚€œWe wanted to be Mini Figs,‚€Ě Dickinson says, ‚€œbut they wouldn‚€™t let us have it as two words!‚€Ě) were a major force in the wargames world and one of its few professional concerns. Dickinson had handed over the financial business to his wife to run and he, Higgs and three others were working at the company full time.

In autumn 1967 Minifigs purchased it‚€™s own mould making machinery, which greatly speeded up production and some of the original Alberken figures were replaced with new designs.

The 20mm scale Minifigs were some of the cheapest figures on the market (10 old pence per infantryman compared to Rose‚€™s one shilling and four pence and Les Higgins‚€™ one shilling and sixpence). Minifig‚€™s advertisements boasted that it was ‚€œrun by wargamers for wargamers‚€Ě and in terms of mail order the company outshone its competitors, sending out figures within 24 hours of receipt of an order, a revelation in the days when the phrase ‚€œplease allow 28 days for delivery‚€Ě was appended to most ads in the wargames press and sometimes rather liberally interpreted too.

Success had generated controversy, however. In 1966 some of Miniature Figurines‚€™ main rivals started The Guild of Model Soldier Manufacturers. The founder members were Marcus Hinton, Edward Suren (Willie Figures) and Roy Belmont-Maitland (Tradition). The Guild‚€™s main aim was to stamp out breaches of copyright. One manufacturer in particular was firmly in their sights.

In a letter to Tradition magazine a year earlier Edward Suren had spelled out his views in no uncertain terms under the heading  ‚€œPirate Figures‚€Ě:-

‚€œA certain enterprise calling itself Miniature Figurines, has recently advertised in a reputable War Gaming publication (Slingshot: May 1966: Issue No.5) that they are prepared to mould ‚€œany 20mm or 30mm solid figure which anyone wishes to reproduce at a cost of 15s per figure, and to supply figures from the mould at 6d for infantry and 1s for cavalry, plus postage‚€Ě. From the phrasing of this advertisement the method of production can be guessed at. The original provenance of some of their figures, however, is known to more than one manufacturer.‚€Ě

Other wargames personalities of the day were quickly drawn in to the row. In a Wargamers‚€™ Newsletter editorial Don Featherstone claimed that this new organization was begun with the express intention of putting Minifigs out of business.

In 1969 the Guild took the decision not to advertise in any publication that carried adverts for Dickinson‚€™s company, a strategy apparently designed to starve his firm of publicity. Wargamers‚€™ Newsletter refused to bow to the pressure of what Featherstone described as ‚€œa small but powerful group‚€¶.using what amounts to blackmail‚€Ě and Hinton and Suren never advertised in Newsletter again (Though, bizarrely, five year later Belmont-Maitland would begin publishing the magazine!)

Newsletters‚€™ more commercial rival Miniature Warfare (first published in 1968 by John Tunstill, a former Tradition employee) did refuse to carry adverts for Minifigs [When asked, John Tunstill says that he knew nothing about the Guild or any controversy involving it]. It was a decision that added fuel to a dispute between what might be termed the Southampton faction and the London Wargames Section (‚€œThose self-appointed supreme arbiters on all that is right and realistic in wargames rules‚€Ě as Don Featherstone sarcastically referred to them in a WN editorial around this time).

Part of the impetus for this, well, miniature warfare came from Marcus Hinton who felt that the initial Alberken inspired run of figures ¬≠ based on Gilder‚€™s earlier efforts - were a little too close to his own designs for comfort. These allegations were bandied about so freely that it is rumoured Neville Dickinson actually sought legal advice about taking an action for slander. (Ironically, Minifigs themselves would later suffer heavily from pirating. In the early 1970s one model shop in the north of England was found to be turning out ‚€˜S‚€™ range pirates on a professional centrifugal casting machine. In the US, Triangle of Southern Carolina was one amongst many who produced copies).

Asked about the Guild Neville Dickinson replied: ‚€œI never had any knowledge of a dispute with the so called ‚€œguild‚€Ě. I was never invited to join nor ever applied for membership. From friends like Don Featherstone I understand that the similar size of my models, developed from those on the Alberken listings, meant they were able to be mixed with those of Hinton Hunt. [Peter] Gilder worked on the basic Alberken and I improved as well as extended the ranges from these. The line was the HO/OO scale that Hinton Hunt used‚€Ě.

However, in a letter in the December 1974 issue of Wargamer‚€™s Newsletter Dickinson commented, ‚€œWhen Minifigs first started producing figures there was a situation which suggested cause for concern about their parentage‚€Ě. The 20mm range was discontinued in May 1971. 

Whatever, by the late sixties Higgs (‚€œThe Poor Man‚€™s Michelangelo‚€Ě as Minifig‚€™s ads styled him) was stamping his own personality on the ranges. The HO/OO had gradually extended to cover a wide range of periods and ran to over 300 figures. These were, as Dickinson says, about the same height and build as Hinton Hunt though they sometimes didn‚€™t carry as much detail. Cavalry figures were one-piece castings.

In 1968 Dick Higgs began work on the ‚€˜S‚€™ range (S stood for ‚€œspecial‚€Ě) of figures, now considered by many to be the first ‚€œtrue‚€Ě 25mm figures ¬≠ though they are actually nearer the 24mm mark. Thicker set than their predecessors, but by no means as chunky as the later 25mm figures, the ECW range is shown off to good effect in the photo section of Charles Wesencraft‚€™s ‚€œWith Pike And Musket‚€Ě. The first figures, ancient and medieval subjects, appeared in May 1968. At first cavalry were one-piece castings but this was changed in 1971 when a new ‚€œdismountable‚€Ě series was introduced.

The ‚€˜S‚€™ range figures too were originally sold and advertised as 20mm and it wasn‚€™t until a year later that they came to be officially tagged 25mm. The S range figures were priced at three old pence more than their smaller foot-slogging brethren, one shilling more in the case of cavalry. The figure code, traditionally scratched on the base of the figure, is the same as that of the earlier models with an ‚€œs‚€Ě added after the number (for example, FN47S). When the HO/OO ranges were discontinued this suffix was dropped.

Dick Higgs designed the vast majority of the ‚€˜S‚€™ range figures, but occasionally others helped out. Bob O‚€™Brien of the Wargames Research Group, for example, designed the MFA range of medieval artillery and equipment.

While wargamers bought Minifigs by the thousands the reviewers were rarely impressed. ‚€œIn all honesty it cannot be said that, even with careful painting, they more than just hold their own as individual pieces,‚€Ě sighs Garratt. John Cross of Scale Models meanwhile takes the faint-praise tack noting that the company‚€™s output is, ‚€œIn all quite a worthy selection‚€Ě.

This seems to us a harsh judgement. While Minifigs ‚€˜S‚€™ range are not of the same quality as the figures of Les Higgins or Charles Stadden they hold up well against those of other designers of the period. En masse they are effective and the comprehensiveness of the rages has rarely been matched. As Tim Richards of Phoenix Model Developments observes ‚€œWe used to see their adverts and every month there‚€™d be another 20 or 30 new figures. We couldn‚€™t keep up with them!‚€Ě

Certainly Minifigs‚€™ early-seventies output is impressive in its scope. As well as the ‚€˜S‚€™ range the company was also producing 30mm figures, a 54mm range designed by Major Bob Rowe, micro-armour and buildings, 15mm and 5mm ranges and a house magazine ‚€œMinimag‚€Ě.

The Minifigs ‚€˜S‚€™ range Ancients range was gradually replaced around 1972 with the new Phil Barker inspired PB range. Though some of the later PB figures are on the chunky side this range is generally a good match with the earlier output.

The gradual process of phasing out the ‚€˜S‚€™ range in favour of the new 25mm standard, which had been given impetus by Gilder at Hinchliffe, began in summer 1973 and was completed a couple of years later. Dave Higgs (Dick‚€™s brother and now Minifigs‚€™ owner), Neil Butcher and Dave Hutchings were also designing for the company at this stage. The PB range, meanwhile, lived on until the late-seventies.

Notes:

1) The name of the catering supplies company that gave birth to Alberken was Kesteven Catering Equipment of Sleaford, Lincolnshire.

2) The first of the 20mm Ancient range were issued in 1966. Like all of Minifigs early ranges they were available in painted boxed sets of twenty. In 1967 the price for these sets was ¬£2.2s.6d including purchase tax.

3) The range of 20mm ancient figures made by John Braithwaite around 1966 was known as the "JB" range and coded accordingly. The figures appear to have been Airfix conversions. The only figure from the range we have seen, a very nice Assyrian heavy archer, is plainly based on one of the bowmen from the Robin Hood set.

4) The Special or S Range was launched in May 1968. The first figures were ancient and ECW cavalry.

5) In 1969 Wargamers Newsletter reported that Minifigs were seeking legal advice about an "emerging firm in the North of England" that was pirating s range figures. No further details were given

6) The S range dismountable series of cavalry in which the rider, saddle and saddlecloth were cast separately from the horse was launched in January 1970. According to the advert announcing the new figures the idea was that wargamers would be able to use their herd of horses in all different periods by simply swapping the riders over and so wouldn’t need to buy as many.

7) The process of ‚€œrestyling‚€Ě the old S range figures in favour of the new chunky 25mm standard began with the ECW range in 1974. The ACW range followed in that year. The overhaul of the Napoleonic range began with French cavalry in January 1975. The PB range was the last range to be redesigned. This was done in 1978.

 

 
 
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