Memorial to Frank Hornby, the Liverpool inventor of Meccano, Hornby trains and Dinky Toys
Born in Liverpool on 15 May 1863 at 77 Copperas Hill, Frank Hornby was the son of a provision merchant. Growing up, he didn’t like school much and often played truant, finally leaving altogether aged 16 to work at his father’s company. When this firm closed on his father’s death, Frank was recruited as a bookkeeper at a meat importing business in James Street, Liverpool. David Elliott, his boss, was to become instrumental in Frank’s later success.
Hornby married Clara Walker Godefroy in 1887 and they went on to have two sons and a daughter: Roland, Douglas and Patricia. Although he had no formal training, Frank enjoyed pottering about in his home workshop making toys for his sons. He soon came up with idea of manufacturing separate interchangeable parts that could be bolted together to make different models. By including holes punched at regular intervals on each separate component, he could see the potential for the toy, which would allow children to incorporate axles and shafts and so create a wide variety of models with just a few pieces.
Short of money, he borrowed £5 from his employer, David Elliott, to patent his invention in 1901. The next difficulty was in sourcing a manufacturer, but luckily, Elliott came to the rescue again, and they entered into partnership. They used the building next to Elliott’s business for Frank to work on developing his invention and found companies to manufacture the parts. The product was called “Mechanics Made Easy” and slowly gained ground on the market. By 1907, demand had outstripped what his manufacturers could supply, and Frank felt able to quit his job and open his own factory. To help secure funding, he created a company, coming up with the Meccano name, which is thought to be derived from the phrase ‘make and know’.
Sets became increasingly intricate and colourful and with the help of his son, Frank opened further factories and franchises overseas, ensuring that the Meccano name was known worldwide. Production continued during the First World War and the company grew. In 1920, Frank introduced the eponymous Hornby model trains, bringing them to life by incorporating clockwork mechanisms imported from the German company which held a license to manufacture Meccano there.
In the 1930s, he introduced Dinky toys to his range of products. By this time, he had become a millionaire and lived in a grand mansion in Maghull, chauffeured to the factory daily by limousine. He took a back seat in the company affairs from 1931 when he was elected as Conservative MP for Everton, only resigning just before the General Election in 1935.
After a busy, active life, Frank died at the age of 73 on 21 September 1936. He is buried in the grounds of St Andrew’s Church, Maghull. His son took over chairmanship of the company and the Meccano, Dinky and Hornby names live on all over the world.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.