Dinky Toys and H. Hudson Dobson (1891-1975) – Part I

By Terry Hardgrave

Most American boys who collected Dinky Toys in the 1950’s had seen the name H. Hudson Dobson Inc., either on the front of catalogs, or printed on the side of Dinky Toys boxes. Many probably just assumed that was the name of a company, without any regard of who H. Hudson Dobson really was. There are two H. Hudson Dobson’s…..the company, last located in Kenilworth, New Jersey, and the man it was founded and named for……also H. Hudson Dobson.

Trying to find out much about either the company or the man is somewhat difficult, both due to the passage of time, but also just the fact that scant information survives. For someone who had a history with the parent company, Meccano Ltd., of Liverpool, England, for about 40 years, it is both odd and strange almost nothing of him is even mentioned in books written about Dinky Toys, leaving us to piece together the history from extant records and documents that survive.

From England to New Jersey

Henry Hudson Dobson was born on April 9, 1891, in Liverpool, England. His father passed away when he was a young boy, and by the 1911 British Census, he is listed as working as a “ledger clerk” for a photography supplier (likely Eastman Kodak, as was later learned). The very next record of him is arriving on a ship in 1913, in New York City, as a “commercial traveler”. This is followed by another arrival in New York City in Sept. 1914, also listed as a traveler, but with a destination of Chicago. Then, a big break, as in August 1916, he again arrives, but this time his occupation is listed as “Secretary”. I was then left to wonder what “Secretary” meant for a young man?

Then another clue came when in June of 1917, he registered for the U.S. military draft, due to World War I. This document asks for much more specific information on each individual, so now he lists his occupation as “Secretary/Treasurer”, and his employer as “Meccano Incorporated”. So now we know he has been working for Meccano Ltd. since at least 1916, and Secretary or Secretary/Treasurer is normally an officer position within a company…..interesting!

A brief interlude from his employment at Meccano Ltd., was his enlistment in the Royal Flying Corps, in Toronto, Canada, on October 2, 1917. He was then discharged on May 22, 1918, to accept a commission in the Royal Air Force. No other information was found on his service, and World War I ended on November 11, 1918, so would assume he left the service around that time.

In the 1920 U.S. Census, he is listed as living in New York City, single, and working as a “Sales Manager for Toys”. Shortly after this, he marries Helen Fowler, an American born woman, working as a secretary….did he marry someone from their office? Then, in short order, he starts a family, with son Henry Hudson Dobson Jr. born in 1921, followed by daughter Marian Barbara Dobson in 1923, and finally son James Dobson, born in 1935. All of the children were born in New Jersey, so he has moved from New York, to New Jersey by 1921.

Meccano and the Start of Dinky Toys

In the meantime, I have found out that the Meccano Company of America Inc. was formed in 1913, in New York, but not producing anything, just an office and warehouse that also imported Meccano Construction sets (Meccano Construction sets are very similar in design and purpose to the American Erector Sets). Then in 1922, Meccano set up a factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for the express purpose of manufacturing Meccano construction sets in America. So it now appears that H. Hudson Dobson was initially involved with the New York office, then likely was instrumental in setting up and managing the factory in New Jersey, and this also explains his move from New York to New Jersey. Around 1928, Frank Hornby (founder and owner of Meccano Ltd.) made a decision to sell or transfer the American production rights for Meccano to A.C. Gilbert (the American manufacturer of Erector Sets, and later, American Flyer trains), so that plant was not used by Meccano after that, but Gilbert did for some time, then moved his operation to Connecticut.

This likely explains why the 1930 U.S. Census shows H. Hudson Dobson as President of a pottery works named Fleuron Pottery, located in Tonawanda, New York. A newspaper article from North Tonawanda in 1933 states that his family is now moving back to New Jersey, where apparently he is once again either working for or representing Meccano Ltd. During this period from 1928 to 1933, there were no Dinky Toys yet, and Meccano construction sets were no longer being manufactured there, so apparently, he had to temporarily find employment elsewhere. In 1937, he again sails to England, now listed as Toy Manufacturer. Since Dinky Toys were introduced around 1934-1935, it would be natural for him to manage the imports to the U.S.

The first recorded instance of there being an H. Hudson Dobson Co., is in the 1938 Meccano catalog, where that name is shown on the front cover, but my assumption is he was back with Meccano Ltd around 1933, as new products were being rapidly developed, and they would need his services again. So I am also guessing that around that time, he ceased being just an employee of Meccano, and started his distribution company, H. Hudson Dobson, based in New York City. A newspaper article from May, 1939, states that, as a member of the Volunteer Speaker’s Committee of the New York World’s Fair, he will speak before the Rochester Ad Club, his topic “The World’s Fair—Its inner significance”. This article also states that he was educated at Stonyhurst College, in Blackburn, England, and had previous business experience with Eastman Kodak Company in London, and Meccano Ltd. in Liverpool, and had served in the Royal Air Corp in England.

From 1940 through 1959, he will make seven trips by ship and one by airplane, to visit Liverpool, England, presumably to visit Meccano Ltd. and discuss or plan business operations. On one of those trips, in 1956, he took his wife along, but normally he traveled alone, and was gone 4-6 weeks each time. His very last recorded trip to England was in January, 1959, and by then, Meccano was already beginning to experience sales problems with all of their products, including Dinky Toys, Hornby model trains, and the Meccano Construction sets, which ultimately led to their demise only a few years later. At this time, Henry Dobson was about 68 years old, and for those times, an old man indeed. We can only guess that this trip was likely about him winding down his business with Meccano and retiring, but there is no written record of what actually transpired as to closing his business.

There are surviving letters from his firm dated in mid to late 1960, so my guess is that H. Hudson Dobson, Inc., ceased to exist by the end of 1960. Further proof of this is the fact that the 1959 U.S. Dinky Toys catalog was the last one listing him as the distributor. Just a few years later, in 1963, the A.C. Gilbert Company is briefly listed as the new distributor. But we do not really know exactly when the business was closed, or the exact reason. Another newspaper clipping concerning his oldest son, H. Hudson Dobson, Jr., mentions that he “ran” his dad’s company from 1951-1960, which leads one to wonder why this son did not continue the company, even if his father was ready to retire. A possible reason was that H. Hudson Dobson, Inc., with declining Dinky Toys sales, really was not doing that well by the end of 1960, and closing it the only option. One another note, we also do not really know the exact relationship between Henry Dobson and Meccano Ltd. It is very possible that Meccano Ltd. owned part of H. Hudson Dobson, Inc., meaning decisions could have come from Liverpool, England and not just New Jersey.

Please continue reading the rest of the story  in Part II.

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