Minibrix: Made in Hampshire
Minibrix was a construction toy made in Petersfield, Hampshire from 1935 to 1976. The interlocking bricks look similar to Lego, but were first made 14 years before Lego’s plastic version appeared. Although other toy bricks (such as those made by Kiddicraft in the late 1930s) have been credited with inspiring the makers of Lego, it is possible that Minibrix too played a role in the creation of one of the 20th century’s most popular toys.
Minibrix was made by the Premo Rubber Company, which was part of the ITS Rubber Company, founded by Arnold Levy in 1919. It was known for its range of rubber goods, including shoe heels and brushes. It is uncertain why Levy chose to branch out into toy production. However, he made many trips to the USA and may have been inspired by the rubber Bild-O-Brik construction sets he saw there in the early 1930s.
Eight different sets were available initially, numbered 0 to 7 (0 was replaced by the ‘Junior’ set in 1936). Tudor Minibrix appeared in 1937 and included a range of different building elements, including individual tiles. There was a Minibuilders Club open to anyone who bought a set. Membership was free, but payment was needed to get the badge. Club members received a regular Minibuilders Bulletin and could send in new designs for publication.
Production of Minibrix was put on hold between 1942 and 1947 as the factory went over to making rubber tank treads and other items for the war effort. After the war, the price of rubber had increased sharply and the cost of Minibrix had risen to three times the 1939 prices. Sales however increased and in 1948 there were even plans to make special sets specifically for architects (these were later abandoned).
Loading up the van with Minibrix 1951
Photo Petersfield Museum
By the early 1950s the factory in Sandringham Road, Petersfield was employing about 250 workers and was the largest employer in the town. Premo’s profile was further enhanced by the production of a special set to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It came in the form of a cabinet containing 5000 Minibrix pieces and cost £82 plus purchase tax - a huge sum for the times.
Gordon Treagus packing boxes of Minibrix 1951
Photo Petersfield Museum
Despite making economies in production, sales of Minibrix had begun to decline by the late 1950s. Premo tried to diversify by producing and marketing other toys, including a doll, ‘Miss Minibrix’ and tubular framed go-karts. A fire in the factory in 1961 put an end to these developments. Attempts were made to modernise the Minibrix product. Plastic accessories, such as trees and flowers, were introduced alongside the rubber bricks and the bricks themselves were made in brighter colour ranges. Unfortunately the changes came too late and the range of sets was gradually reduced to three.
The eventual failure of Minibrix, compared with the meteoric success of products such as Lego can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly Premo, along with many British toy companies of the period, suffered from complacency and a reluctance to develop and modernise its product. The surge in sales after the Second World War lulled it into a false sense of security. It failed to modernise its production techniques, as well as being complacent about the product itself. It was unable to compete with the influx of toys from the Far East and the USA.
Another reason for Minibrix’s demise was that it was made out of rubber. Rubber could not compete with its harder, shinier and more versatile competitor, plastic. It was heavier, smellier and had a less vibrant range of colours, It also tended to harden and shrink after a period of time. Although initially advertised as being hygienic, most children tended to lick the bricks to get them to stick together!
Premo finally stopped making Minibrix in 1976. The factory continued making other items until 1987. There is now a housing estate on the former site of the factory.