British LEGO Ltd. - The Early Years (1960-65)

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I am honoured to publish what I hope is the first of many articles on the early years of LEGO history written by Gary Istok. Gary is a world renown expert on the subject who has published a 2000-page LEGO Collectors' guide, which can be purchased and downloaded from here. You can also download a sample chapter.

The date of January 25, 1960 was a Monday. And rarely do we know what happened on a particular day in LEGO history. But that was the day that LEGO sales started in Great Britain and also Ireland by British LEGO Ltd., a licensee for LEGO, and a subsidiary of British Chemical/Textile company Courtaulds Co. This date is confirmed in a Silver Anniversary set of glassware that was a souvenir at a January 25, 1985 reception at a London hotel.

British LEGO Ltd. had its beginnings like so many LEGO endeavors, via a North Sea ferry ride between LEGO Chief Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, and a Courtaulds executive in the late 1950s. LEGO was fast expanding into new countries in continental Europe, and it was expanding almost too rapidly for such a small company that only had about 300 employees back then. After the production of the plastic construction toy started in Denmark in 1949, by 1956 Norway and Sweden were online with LEGO sales, when the largest market to date started LEGO sales in March of 1956, that being West Germany. That was such a large endeavor that it took another year before Switzerland, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Portugal followed suit in 1957. Then Italy followed in 1958, and France and Finland in 1959.

So by 1960, TLG was very busy expanding and producing LEGO sets for so many countries, that Britain and Ireland were too large for the Danish company to handle alone, so the licensee route was an easier way for TLG to handle the fans expansion. By 1961, TLG had over 11,000 independent toy stores on the continent that they were producing LEGO sets for, that they were very busy indeed.

Even though Britain and Ireland started LEGO sales in 1960, it took until 1962 that a production plant could be fully operational to handle the full product line of LEGO sets and spare parts packs. So from 1960 until early 1962, TLG shipped Danish produced LEGO sets and parts packs to Britain and Ireland, until the Wrexham, Wales Courtaulds Co. plant (as British LEGO Ltd.) was fully functional for producing LEGO sets for those markets. And 1962 was also the year that British LEGO Ltd. started LEGO sales for export to Australia.

Although British LEGO Ltd. could produce a wide assortment of LEGO products by 1962, there were some items that were still produced elsewhere. All of the small 1:87 HO Scale Town Plan cars and trucks continued to be produced in Denmark, and the large cardboard bi-fold left driving UK style Town Plan board was contracted out to be produced by Waddington’s, a UK game board maker. And although a few other LEGO specialty items, such as LEGO trees/bushes were still produced in Denmark, the Wrexham Wales LEGO plant was pretty much self sufficient for LEGO set production for many years.

In 1960, there were only six LEGO model sets introduced by British LEGO Ltd. These six sets were a 306 VW Service Set, a 307 VW Showroom Set, a 308 Fire Station Set, a 309 Church Set, and a 310 Esso Service Station set. All of these sets could be purchased to fill the different 200 Town Plan board blocks, if buying an entire 810 Town Plan set was too expensive.

When the first LEGO sets were introduced in 1960 by British LEGO Ltd., there were over 100 different spare parts packs introduced. This was common for continental Europe as well. These spare parts packs were originally imported from Denmark, but by 1962, almost all were produced by British LEGO Ltd., and had the “Made in Great Britain” stamp on the side of the boxes. These box styles continued production until 1966.

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Early British LEGO Ltd. spare parts packs were marked “Made in Denmark”, and had reflected that in the ink stamp on the spare parts pack boxes. Then starting in 1962, most of the spare parts packs were marked “Made in Great Britain” and mentioned so on the boxes.

The first basic sets produced from 1960-65 (imported at first) for Great Britain and Ireland were these five sets, largest to smallest numbered 700/0, 700/1, 700/3, 700/3A and 700/5. Some of the sets produced for the continental European market were not produced for or by British LEGO Ltd.

The largest of the sets introduced by British LEGO Ltd, in the 1960s was the 810 Town Plan set of 1962-67, with over 700-pieces. It was contained a Town Plan board, and enough bricks and specialty parts to build a very attractive town setting.

The bi-fold 200 Town Plan board, had the same image on the front as did the 810 Town Plan set box. This left driving board was produced for British LEGO Ltd. by Waddingtons, a UK game board maker.

These were the first of the LEGO model sets introduced by British LEGO Ltd. in 1960. These sets were all part of the Town Plan system, and would build individual blocks for the Town Plan board layout. Within a few years there were many other LEGO model sets introduced.

One of the more interesting of the first British LEGO Ltd. sets was the 700K wooden box set, produced from 1960 until 1967. Although it looked like the most expensive of the UK LEGO sets, it cost only about ¾ of the price of the cardboard 810 Town Plan set, and contained fewer specialty pieces. This set may also have been meant for institutional uses.

Of the over 100 different spare parts packs available from British LEGO Ltd., six alone were for 2x4 bricks. These six were for bricks in either trans-clear, black (starting in 1963), blue, white, yellow, or red. All the spare parts boxes had a sliding drawer inner box, and an outer sleeve. The picture below shows the ten different random sleeves that could be found with any of the inner boxes.


Let us know if you enjoyed this article and would like to see more...

26 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

More please! I remember some of those boxes from my early years at school - I'm getting old :-)

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By in United Kingdom,

This was a very enjoyable read, and yes, I would like to see the history continued. This was such a professional view that I could hardly believe it was real. Gary has done a great job with the history of TLG and I hope he will not give it up any time soon. ;-)

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By in United Kingdom,

Really enjoyable:) Thanks for posting.

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By in United States,

Excellent article. Love learning about ol' LEGO history :)

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By in Netherlands,

Great article. I'll pitch for Gary and say that his Collector's Guide is awesome. If you have any interest in Lego sets, parts, printed material or anything else Lego related before 1978 (I believe the version I have goes to 1993) it's the best source of information. The is one of the best purchases I've ever made. Gary's research is detailed and meticulous. I simply can't say enough good things about it.

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By in United Kingdom,

As a young child (around 79-81), I desperately wanted to go to Legoland. I have a recollection of my dad taking me to stand at the Lego sign outside the Lego factory in Wrexham, some 10 miles away from home at the time. I'm sure we had a photo...
When did the Wrexham factory close? I guess by this time it was just a distribution point?

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By in United States,

I wouldn't like more of these articles; right now, I'm totally fine with reviews, 2015 images, and Collecting Old Sets. And to be quite frank, some of Istok's guide is really boring. And then the rest of it is rather fascinating, so it balances itself out.

Why do all of these things share the same number?! 700 this, 700 that, 700/A, 700/327.... And all those 218 variants above.

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By in United States,

Keep 'em coming!

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By in United Kingdom,

What, the article's finished?!? Ok, yes, more please :)

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By in United Kingdom,

>Why do all of these things share the same number

That's one reason we don't go further back than the mid-1960s in the database -- it's all too complicated...

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By in United Kingdom,

Great article, we had that town base plate in my school in the mid 1980's

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By in Switzerland,

Wonderful - the history of the brand is just as important as building it.

Keep them coming!

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By in United States,

I have to apologize up front for this comment, as this is going to sound really nitpicky. I really like the material, but I found the writing style of this piece to be really awkward and distracting in parts. For example, the sentences:

"Even though Britain and Ireland started LEGO sales in 1960, it took until 1962 that a production plant could be fully operational to handle the full product line of LEGO sets and spare parts packs. So from 1960 until early 1962, TLG shipped Danish produced LEGO sets and parts packs to Britain and Ireland, until the Wrexham, Wales Courtaulds Co. plant (as British LEGO Ltd.) was fully functional for producing LEGO sets for those markets."

would read smoother to me if written as:

"Even though Britain and Ireland started LEGO sales in 1960, it wasn't until 1962 that a local production plant was fully operational and could produce the full product line of LEGO sets and spare parts packs. So, from 1960 through early 1962, TLG shipped Danish-produced LEGO sets and parts packs to Britain and Ireland, until the Wrexham, Wales Courtaulds Co. plant (operating as British LEGO Ltd.) was fully functional and producing LEGO sets for those markets."

There are lots of other instances that I noticed like this throughout the piece. I was an editor in a previous life, so it probably bothers no one else but me, though it bugged me enough that I had to mention it, since I feel it isn't up to the Brickset standard of quality.

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By in United States,

Also, regardless of my commentary on the writing style, I would very much like to see more articles like this from Gary.

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By in United Kingdom,

Dare_Wreck, sounds like you are volunteering to sub Gary's articles if he's interested. I think that would be good for all.

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By in United Kingdom,

Awesome to see a Gary Istok article on the front page. Here's to many more!

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By in Italy,

Wonderful article, keep them coming! I always love reading articles by Gary Istok, either in his book or in its Facebook page.

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By in United States,

@richselby - yes, sorry. :) I hope that didn't come off sounding mean-spirited. There's a nice story underlying this narrative, but I found the wording a bit stilted. As a sometimes theatrical performer, I found it distracting and felt the need to mention my critique in case it helped for future articles. As I said, though, I still would love to see more on this topic!

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By in United States,

Hi, thanks for all the feedback folks! Much appreciated. And thanks Huw!! Now for some replies.... Dare_Wreck I do appreciate your comments on my writing style. Doing a collectors guided is not like doing a novel.... hehehe.... but when I create new chapters to my guide (a continuous process)... I often think to myself... "why did I phrase it like that?"... and will go back and rewrite an entire page to a more logical flow. This particular history (gleaned from my collectors guide)... was something I worked on until 4AM this past weekend... so I fully agree with your assessment about my logic flow here! ;-)

And PicnicBasketSam.. when you said that part of my guide is rather boring.... you are certainly not far from the truth!! There are entire genre's of LEGO collecting that bored the heck out of me when I was researching and writing about it... but none of us like all of LEGO's Systems. The Duplo chapters are a real snooze to me... and so are some other ones (educational sets, mail order brown box sets, etc). But then there are the chapters that I really enjoyed researching and putting together... such as the sample chapter shown here on LEGO printed bricks, LEGO trains, and my crown jewel chapter "wooden box sets (no online inventory has more than 10... I have 89 different).

For those of you who have my old physical DVDs or the current downloads... the nice thing is that as rare LEGO items are newly discovered.... I will be updating my collectors guide and shipping out annual upgraded versions into the future... and those will be FREE to you!

Thanks for the feedback everyone!
Gary Istok

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By in United States,
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By in Netherlands,

@PicnicBasketSam
The reason for the sets numbers like 700/0, 700/1, 700/3A, etc. has to do with Lego's catalog and numbering practices in the late 40s and early 50s. Items with minor variations from one another were numbered as XXX/1, XXX/2 and XXX/3. And this what the first sets were. You need to remember in 1949 the first bricks were a minor part of the total Lego portfolio and would continue to be only a part until 1960.

As for sets like 218, historically parts pack of different colors always share same set number. It's only "recently" that has changed.

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By in United States,

Thanks LusiverSam! Yes all the early LEGO sets started with 700/x from 1949 until as late as 1964 for the basic sets.

Besides just regular LEGO items that you may find in places such as the Brickset, Bricklink, Lugnet, Peeron and Brickfactory LEGO databases... I also include newly discovered LEGO items that were unknown to LEGO collectors (and also at times even to TLG Collections)...

Here's one example.... called "OLO".... it's produced by TLG in Denmark, and exported to Japan to sell at a low price, because LEGO sales there were relatively poor in the earlier decades...
http://www.youblisher.com/p/601177-CHAPTER-75-OLO-EARLY-TLG-PRODUCED-LEGO-FOR-JAPAN/

I also cover other items... such as how the LEGO/Maersk collaboration got started....
http://www.youblisher.com/p/665550-MAERSK-EARLY-LEGO-MODELS/

And here are some highlights of rare LEGO items... you probably never knew about.... (nice blue boxed LEGO set from Australia!!)....
http://www.youblisher.com/p/659767-LEGO-DVD-Download-Sample-of-Images/

Or here's a work on LEGO Stores thru the ages (this version is shown as incomplete, but it's finished with more images)....
http://www.youblisher.com/p/789575-LEGO-Retailer-Store-Chapter/

And here's a favorite chapter of mine.... LEGO blue track era (1966-79) LEGO Trains and accessories chapter.... (thanks to my friend "Ben" Beneke for help on this one!)...
http://www.youblisher.com/p/687291-LEGO-DVD-Chapter-19-LEGO-TRAIN-SYSTEM-1966-79/

Note: Youblisher is not the viewing format of my collectors guide... that's done via scrolling thru large image pages. This format known as Youblisher is just for small plage sample viewing. Generally I find using Youblisher cumbersome.... unlike my collectors guide! ;-)

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By in Belgium,

Is one of the sets in the picture below the Town Plan board a church (middle row, the one on the right)?

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By in United States,

I just wanted to thank everyone who did indeed order my Unofficial LEGO Sets/Parts Collectors Guide, you will also be receiving in an Email my 70 page Unofficial LEGO 1:43 Chevrolet Trucks/Wagons Collectors Guide (1952-57) as a freebie (I usually sell these for $7.95).

And as an additional thank you, anytime you have a problem with a Paypal claim or USPS insurance claim, just let me know... both Paypal and USPS now include me as an Expert (I helped 4 people with their claims).... something they don't seem to do with online LEGO databases. Also, you can ask me about auction items, and I'll be glad to give my opinion on them! Thanks, Gary

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By in United States,

Great article Garry, how many new people ordered it?

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By in United States,

Yes one of the sets is Church set 309/1309. This set was produced from 1957-61. It was briefly sold in Britain and Ireland, but when LEGO was introduced in Australia in 1962, it was missing from the model set images/list. When this set was first introduced in 1957, there is a not yet found version made for Norway (as set 1309) with a lighting device to light up the inside of the church. That will be part of my next LEGO article on Brickset... LEGO introduced in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Exo-Suit... how many new people ordered my Unofficial LEGO Sets/Parts Collectors Guide?? A nice number... but not quite enough to pay for my roof damage from a September storm when my tree in the back yard fell on my house.... it was more than I can spare... and less than my insurance deductible... :-( Pics on Facebook.....
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=716125855143822&set=a.266113693478376.61759.100002392426546&type=1&theater

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