Mike Neighbour


Many children of my age were affected by the non-availability of toys of any kind during the years immediately after the second world war. Most materials, especially metals were in short supply during the war and plastics were not the sophisticated materials they are today. Until the mid 1950s so much manufactured product was exported that it continued to be difficult, if not expensive, to acquire playthings in the UK. There was a continued reliance on the second-hand market, often pre-war toys in various states of condition. Most of the toys I had up to the age of ten or eleven came into this category.

I think there was a short period when I was reluctant to attend the Cub Scout meetings. One week mother bribed me in this fashion: “ If you go to cubs this evening we have a new toy which you can have.” Of course, new did not mean new. New was second-hand as usual but new to our family.  I went to cubs and on my return there was a large flat rectangular box with a picture of a rather impressive house on the top. This was Bricklayer made by Lotts Bricks. Upon lifting the lid inquisitively I discovered a substantial collection of tiny brown, smooth clay bricks, not rough like the real thing. Not all of the bricks were the standard shape. There were half-bricks and bricks with angled corners. But each one had slightly rounded vertical edges, while the tops and bottoms were bevelled. There was a range of white metal windows, including bays, doors, which I think were green and beams which could be used to span across walls rather like RSJs. However, a most disappointing element of Bricklayer, from my memory, were the roofs, which were card-based tile sheets. Oh, and there were no instructions; disappointing in one way, but at least it gave me the opportunity to use my imagination. The best construction kits have some element of reality about them. Meccano uses real nuts and bolts and metal elements to make realistically engineered structures and devices. Bayko uses building blocks held in place with a form of internal scaffolding, rather like reinforcing rods. Bricklayer literally teaches you how to lay bricks in the most effective way to provide strength to a building.  And as with any other construction method you needed patience. Each little brick was cemented in place with a paste made up from powder, rather like today’s wallpaper paste. As with real bricklaying the knack was to ensure all bricks on a given course were set level and with an even gap between each brick. Yes, it was rather messy, but once that session’s bricking was given time to dry the structure was really quite solid – and heavy.

I remember setting some of my buildings – houses, garages and anonymous designs which could have been almost anything – in little gardens or to use with model cars. One building was used extensively as a railway station even though its scale was far too small for the Hornby O gauge train set which I had at the time. That didn’t seem to matter.  I had no idea whether it was possible to extend the kit, buy elements individually or add on supplementary sets. So there was inevitably a practical limit to what I could construct before the big soak. Everything in Bricklayer was re-usable except the cement paste. To deconstruct, everything except the roof was lowered into a bowl of warm water and left for a short while for the paste to dissolve. This was a decisive moment;

there was no turning back. All that hard work was about to collapse. All the elements were then rinsed and laid out to dry. This was a kitchen job and had to be completed before the next meal could be prepared or the washing up attended to.

Today, I can say I’m not a brickie and never have been. I can, though, lay bricks and have built various garden walls over the years. I work slowly and carefully and can produce a decent finish – just as I did in my apprenticeship with Bricklayer.

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