(Editor's note: I have left this interview/story in John's words, without editing. Models from his collection are shown. This provides a first-hand account of the earliest days of the diecast toy car industry and of the Beginnings of Lesney and Matchbox.)
I, John William Kendall of Edmonton, now living in Glen Eden, Auckland, New Zealand is believed to be the only original (Lesney) die castor left alive.
What did you do there?: Die caster (my original trade was a "grainer" which is the carving of grain in timber similar to today's sandblasting, so precision to detail is a must.
What can you remember making?: Cars, Trucks, Guns, Cement Mixers, Electrical fittings for GEC Electrical
Describe the Rifleman?: A very small pub about 6m x 4m plus one room upstairs, I believe the pub was located in "Pound Lane or Chancery Lane" but not 100% sure.
Who else did you know?: Bob, 3 brothers - the Allsops,
What did you get paid?: 12-15 Pounds a week
Memories of Smith and Odell?: Odell was the brains behind the business whilst Ron was for living it up.
What about Rodney Smith - what was he like and what happened to him?: He moved to Enfield where he is still die casting toys we believe on a smaller scale. We can probably find him as one of my sisters still works for him
When did you leave and what did you do then?: Left to join the army around 1948 when I returned the business had grown and was no longer my cuppa tea.
Have you any old pictures of work or the Rifleman?: No
When Lesney first started myself and 3 Allsop Brothers and a guy by the name of Bob and two women were employed. Originally there was 2 hand operated machines but not only for the production of toys but also for the production of electrical fittings for GEC Electrical.
After making the toys we had to pull them up through a trap door in the
ceiling to the ladies who used to break off the 'progs'. Then they were
sent down again to be put in the rumbler to knock of any sharp pieces.
The toys were never finished there, they went away to be painted and have the wheels and axles put on elsewhere. As we were only subcontracting at that time.
Don Rix, the tool maker, worked in a small room where he had a real German Lugar that he copied exactly.
There was a couple of times when they couldn't afford to pay us wages but they always paid us without exception when ever they got paid, they looked after their staff well.
The starting contract which really got them flying was through a 3rd party with Woolworths later to contract directly. This in my view was the point of contact which really got the company flying into mass production. And I made thousands of the cement mixers toys amongst others.
We have several boxes of toys from different eras, which I should sort out one day though a friends son helped himself to a fair number of them recently. We also have a number of later model cars, which of course you won't be interested in. Though probably none from that era anymore.
You know of course if you spell Odell backwards, that's where you get Ledo toys from (kinda). Rodney was known as Ron Smith Yes I knew Leslie.
At 4pm on a working day, 2 people would work till midnight and we made what we were told to make on that particular day. A lot of the work was for GEC Electrical, but that was only one machine, the other was for the toys.
I lived about 15 minutes away from work, at 29 Montagu Gardens, Edmonton. The pub was in Waggon Lane, not the ones I mentioned before. It was like Oliver twist days, one man went home for dinner and a cuppa of tea. The toilet was outside. It was a very old building, we always said it was haunted, it was in a very dark Lane with no lights.
Don Rix was a nice guy and very good at his work. I don't know anymore about the gun, lugar, except that we felt safe with it when it got dark.
My job was die casting all the time. We had a big melting pot about 3 foot high and 2 foot 6 inches wide. Behind our machine was a small pot about 1 foot square with a gaz flame under it and we spooned from the big one to the small one to keep it full. It was very hot work which even in winter we only wore singlets and had the doors open despite the outside temperatures. There was no such thing as Personal Protective Equipment, such as breathing apparatus gloves eye glasses etc. All there was, was one glove that we would share. I guess I'm lucky not to be poisoned from the fumes that I must have inhaled, now in my mid 70's and still fit.
If the die didn't close properly it was spit out a slight spray, of Mosak, and we would get hit often by the mosak metal. Mosak being what the lead cars are made from, a combination of metals which the main being the lead, zinc and alluminium from memory but I'm not totally sure of the ingredients of Mosak.
Even today in New Zealand when my son, Ray, is outside making his lead
sinkers for fishing I can't keep away, I just have to grab one of the moulds
and work at it with him, whether it be casting or changing moulds, it still
intrigues me and I still enjoy it.