Andrews of Arcadia

Vintage Fishing Tackle For The Soul

5th Jun 2011

The Hackney Cut Casting Club

by John Andrews

originally published in the Spring 2007 edition of Waterlog Magazine

 

At the end of a dank alleyway in the north London suburb of Edmonton stood the abandoned Rifleman Public House.  It had closed during the war, its heavy pint glasses no longer in need of a polish, its pumps no longer worthy of the name.  Since then its piano had been wheeled away, its frosted window panes had been broken by little boys' stones and its bar top chopped up for firewood.  On 19th June 1947, two men made The Rifleman their headquarters, their office and their factory floor.  Pooling their savings of £600 Leslie and Rodney Smith, no relation to one another, bought a second hand die-casting machine and installed it in one of the rooms of the old pub.  When they had done that, they die cast their christian names at Companies House and became Lesney Products.

The Lesney partners both had engineering experience from serving with the Navy during the war and their vision was to manufacture small parts for industrial and domestic process made from die-cast metal. From the old parlour bar of The Rifleman they did just that.  John William Kendall who worked with them in the very early days described the scene: 'The building was in a bad state of repair.  I had a big pot about 3 feet by 2 1/2 feet full of molten metal. We kept a small one on a gas flame and we used to pour metal from the big one into the small one to keep it full.  Even on a winter's night we only wore singlets and had all of the doors open as it was very hot work'.  In addition to ceiling hooks they made toy pistols modelled on a real Luger which toolmaker Don Rix had taken from a dead German soldier in Normandy.  Rix had kept the real model loaded to warn off local thieves who took great interest in the goings on at the abandoned pub.

Production at the Rifleman grew at a steady pace until it was held up by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 when the British government imposed restrictions on the use of zinc for non essential products.  During the two years of conflict the only item to leave the Edmonton premises was a clockwork tin elephant whose body was hollow and whose legs were die-cast.  Rodney Smith, sensing an imminent reduction in profits left for Australia and was replaced by local maverick John 'Jack' O'Dell, a man so keen on amateur casting that his exploits had landed him with a council ban on casting at his home long before the Korean War had broken out.  O'Dell was a die-cast designer extraordinaire and bored of coat hooks and hinges he set about modelling small replicas of vehicles and casting them.  In 1953 the year after the Korean War had ended and with zinc restrictions lifted O'Dell designed a minature replica of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation carriage.  Lesney Products sold one million of them and The Rifleman had suddenly become a goldmine. 

O'Dell was oblivious to the financial implications of his million-selling carriage and when his daughter returned home from school one day complaining that the only toys she could take into the playground where ones that fitted inside a matchbox he set about making a replica of a diesel road roller that would fit the spec.  Smith saw the commercial possibilities and the Matchbox Series was launched.

Throughout the next decade O'Dell used his skills to cast replicas of every classic British vehicle from the Land Rover Safari to the Thames Trader Wreck Truck, from the Vauxhall Cresta to the Commer Ice Cream Van and the Routemaster Bus.  In 1955 The Rifleman was abandoned once more for premises in Stoke Newington which in turn were given up in 1957 when Lesney moved to Hackney Wick.  In September 1960 the public were offered four hundred thousand shares at the price of £1 each.  The offer was oversubscribed fifteen times.  

Lesney was now the biggest employer in Hackney.  Over three thousand people, most of them local women worked the production line and twice in the 1960's the factory premises expanded until in 1969, a three storey 'ultra modern' plant was opened on Lee Conservancy Road.  From the design department on the top floor of the factory O'Dell looked out over the glorious grassy waste of Hackney Marshes, an area which had been designated 'common land' by the London County Council in 1894 and had since become the largest conglomeration of amateur football pitches in Europe.  Between Lesney and the Marshes flowed the newly christened River Lee Navigation a dark stretch of slow moving water that crept down from the confluence of the River Lea at northerly Lea Bridge Road.  It too was a new arrival in some sense, its official re-naming - the creation of the Lee Valley Regional Park in 1967 - marking the canal's transition from working waterway to empty heritage vessel of the future. Once it had been used by barges to ferry flour, bricks and hops north and south.  These barges now stood still, rusting great iron hulks harbouring every uncrackable safe and drowned villain from the East End under their hulls whilst shoals of dace and roach flitted amongst them.  In pursuit, Jack-hatted anglers fished their days away using a bait that had its origins in the Lesney factory.  Not content with fashioning milk floats and Saracen personnel cars O'Dell gave London anglers their own Lesney legacy, a die-cast thumbscrew known more formally as the Bread Bait Press.  The Bait Press was an inch high and came in its own matchbox.  The instuctions read:

Peel off the crust from a sliced loaf, leaving three eighths of an inch of bread on the crust.  Place bread in the Bait Press and screw down.  This will give you two pellets of crust ready with a hole for your hook.  On entering the water this will quickly swell to the size of a cube of sugar.  if a larger piece of bait is required fold the length of crust in two before placing in press.

Pressed bread became a killing bait for roach, dace, chub and even the big carp which lived in the pads that abounded in the cuts up and down the Navigation.  Bait Presses, in their formal colour of pillarbox red sold by the thousand.  They were exported to Germany and France helping the company to the Queen's Export Award in the process.

As the 1970's dawned Lesney started to go into decline, even though it owned six factories in Hackney, Homerton, Leyton, Harold Hill, Abbey Wood and as far north as Peterborough where the Angling Times was produced.  From these factories it ferried its employees for free to and from the workplace in a fleet of actual-size Routemaster Buses proudly done out in the company livery.  But Lesney's market share was being eaten by the foreign toy giant Mattel and no amount of Bait Presses could save it.  A deal was even struck with Milbro in Scotland to take over the licensing of the Bait Press but in 1982 with debts of over £10 million the receivers were called in, four hundred thousand share certificates were torn up and the gates were locked.  Windows were broken by the grandchildren of the same boys who had thrown stones at The Rifleman, weeds grew in the summer to the height of men whilst outside on the Lee Navigation a dying breed of angler continued to take roach and dace on pressed bread.

Then in the 1990's a swarm of cormorants settled on an island at nearby Walthamstow Reservoir.  Their daily sorties took them over the Lesney kingdom and they stripped the Navigation and the Lea of its silver fish.  In their absence the empty canal was soon colonised by another unwanted, the American Signal Crayfish, which crawled down from the upper stretches of the Lea.  The anglers that were left put their bait presses back in their seat boxes, swore at the water for one last time and went home.

Today the 'ultra modern' Lesney Matchbox Factory of 1969 stands derelict (NB: it has sadly been demolished since this article was published) and empty above the banks of the Lee Navigation, a brick carcass boxed in by the Kingsmead Estate and the Landmark Heights.  It is a place loved by locals, remembered for the employment and philanthropy it brought as much for the fame of its products.  Lesney Bread Bait Presses, their paint scuffed and worn, their handles occasionally broken, trade for a tenner in car-boots along the length of the A13, a cockney currency as quinessential as the cockle.  Boxed versions with the original paintwork intact fetch as much as forty quid further afield on E-Bay and if you don't think a piece of die-cast metal is worth that much just wait until you catch your first roach on Lesney pressed bread.  The chances are it won't fit in a matchbox.

(John Willam Kendall quote courtesy of www.matchboxmemories.com)