Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine
THE moment the envelope dropped through The Herald’s letter box, I knew it was from Philip Hamilton. Most of the mail I receive falls into one of two categories: turgid wedges of council agendas or fulminations from fantasists with a Crayola set and the unshakeable belief that their milkman is in the pay of MI5. Few of them have a Paddington Bear stamp.
Hamilton is, I should point out, a manchild. A grandfather in jumper and slacks with a wavy thicket of snow-white hair, he does not hold much truck with adult ways. He’s the missing link between Willy Wonka and Father Christmas. Together with his family, the 72-year-old runs the Hamilton Toy Collection, a cubbyhole of childhood esoterica based in a converted guest house in Callander.
Having digested Hamilton’s A5 pamphlet on the collection, I arrive in his tranquil Perthshire enclave on a Monday afternoon to be greeted by a plastic tray bearing coffee and – bliss – caramel wafers.
The collection, along with two shops (one for boys, one for girls), spans two floors and several rooms containing thousands of die-cast soldiers, vintage bears and dolls, toy cars and trains, and stacks of sci-fi and television memorabilia.
Edwardian dolls sit alongside Action Man figures (rare George Best and Argyll and Sutherland Highlander editions among them); beautifully restored Picot puppet theatres nestle next to refurbished merry-go-round horses; and moth-bitten Sooty hand puppets rub shoulders with antique Armand Marseille dolls. It is an exciting, if overwhelming, rag-tag of rarities.
The collection began in the 1970s, when Hamilton, his wife Patsy and children Cris and Catriona started frequenting jumble sales, fetes and car-boot sales. “Sometimes it’d get near the end of a sale, ” Patsy remembers, “and the stallholders would just let us fill a black bag with great items for 50p. Real bargains.” The Hamiltons even rummaged through skips and dumps for discarded gems.
Come the 1980s, the family home in Croydon, south London, was fit to burst. Toys were stuffed in every nook of the three bedrooms, loft, lounge, garage and two garden sheds. Patsy issued a matriarchal ultimatum: either the toys went or the family opened a dedicated museum. The choice was made, and 11 years ago nine 250 cubic-foot containers were moved to Callander.
The cloth-eared specimens have their own histories, which make the family fascinating curators. Patsy’s childhood doll Yvonne, for instance, was rescued from an obliterated shop in France during the Second World War and bought by her father from servicemen’s stores as a Christmas present. To this day, it wears the same shawl her mother knitted in the 1940s.
Gerdhart, meanwhile, a bedraggled Steiff bear, dates from 1919 and was the toy of a German girl afflicted by scarlet fever. Decades later the owner, then in her seventies, advertised her bric-a-brac in the classifieds. Now a patched-up Gerdhart has retired to Callander, alongside a faded 1924 black-and-white photograph of the little girl who cherished him so.
A childish wooden plane, on the other hand, was hand made by a German prisoner of war in Oxford in the early 1940s. A friend of Hamilton traded the PoW a packet of cigarettes for the simple sculpture.
“The toys are a social history, ” reasons Hamilton. “You’d be lynched if you made them now, but we need to document these things. They show us who we were, and who we are.”
A fine point, and a covert reference to the golliwogs. The Hamiltons have hundreds of them, scattered around in all shapes and sizes: dolls, soft toys, die-cast figures, plates, mugs, the famous Robertson’s marmalade jars.
It is, in truth, more absurdity than obscenity, much like a dubious curio of Hanna Barberaendorsed merchandise dubbed Smoking Animals. “Put a cigarette in the mouth, ” hollers the packaging blurb, “light it, blow out the flame and watch the animals blow smoke rings!” Action figures of Yogi Bear, Deputy Dawg and Huckleberry Hound all suck on the demon weed.
Over the past decade, the collection has remained beneath the public radar, despite attracting about 4,500 tourists a year. There have been changes, of course. The children flew the nest, with Cris working in model and toy shops, and Catriona, a psychiatric nurse, getting married to a work colleague, John Hunter, an avid hoarder of sci-fi merchandise.
It was like that for a while, but this year the extended Hamilton clan – including Catriona and John’s son, Calum – is united once more. Three-year-old Calum, according to his grandfather, is “quite blase” about growing up in a home dedicated to childhood playthings.
The collection will be bequeathed to Cris and Catriona, and there is talk of finding larger premises. Pesky grown-up matters such as rising insurance premiums threaten to get in the way of the play. But then, change is unavoidable. After all, these days Yogi, Deputy Dawg and Huckleberry have to pop outside for a fag.