Discover: Brighton’s Toy & Model Museum

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A detailed miniature model scene with a stone bridge over multiple train tracks. Two vehicles, a white van and a green truck, are on the bridge. Surrounding the scene are hills, trees, and miniature buildings, capturing a quaint, rural town setting.
Anna Asanova

All aboard the toy train as we take a tour of Brighton’s Toy & Model Museum – the exhibition that takes playtime seriously.

The Toy & Model Museum is one of Brighton’s foremost attractions, and has one of the widest collections of classic toys in the world. Located beneath Brighton station, this cosy display houses over ten thousand toys in its archive. Exhibits include miniature trains, cars, airplanes, boats, as well as dolls and figurines, dating from the 18th century to modern day. There are also two working model train sets, and a range of specialist train “running” showcases throughout the year. The museum hosts regular events for kids and adults, and their ever-growing online index provides a vital resource for students and academics of toy culture.

One thing is for sure: The Toy & Model Museum isn’t lacking for toys. Everywhere you look there is a display case brimming over with boats or cars or model soldiers. Every possible space is devoted to some delicate specimen, and every shelf stacked two or three items deep. You couldn’t squeeze another miniature mini in here if you shrunk it to more than half its reduced size. With this multitude of models come an extraordinarily broad variety of makes and designs. The renowned train collection includes examples from British manufacturers such as Bassett-Lowke and Meccano, as well as the German Marklin, Bing and Carette, each exhibiting their own individual style. The models also have a wide assortment of sizes. The Hornby-Dublo trains span just a few inches across, each deftly painted and embroidered. Turn around, however, and you almost fall over the giant Patrick Stirling - the recreation of a classic coal locomotive stretching four-foot across.

Photo Credit: Anna Asanova

The other displays present similar diversity. For planes, three-foot Messerschmitt replicas dangle menacingly from the ceilings and tiny navy blue Grumman Hellcats sit static in the back-galleries. The boat exhibit features hulking steamers - probably still sea-worthy in their (relative) miniature state - alongside little red and white Penguin Cabin Cruisers, lifted straight from a sleepy Dorset coast. The stuffed toys will be a particular highlight for many visitors. A Noah’s arc menagerie of bears, dogs, camels, ducks, monkeys, and a particularly nonchalant elephant relaxing in a wicker chair: it’s the childhood cupboard you wished you’d always had. Remarkably, many are antiques, some stuffed pre-WWI: the stitches somehow still keeping those pebble eyes and padded paws in place.

At times the overwhelming quantity of the exhibits can outweigh the explanation they are given. A label accompanies each specimen outlining its name, date and manufacturer. How the toys might have been used or whom they might have been used by often goes unexplained, however. It’s a shame and does leave those who didn’t tinker with trains growing up a little intellectually lost. For such uninitiated parties, we recommend the more playful recreations. Two model train sets chug away in the museum’s back gallery: one an idyllic Sussex town and countryside, the other a busy Trumpton-esque station. A recreated circus also supplies a tidy scene-scape bouncing with colourful clowns, elephants, ring-masters, ponies and a big top. It’s the kind of muck-up you might have created as a child (except vastly larger) and provides a little creative relief from the mass jungle of static exhibits.

Photo Credit: Anna Asanova

Final attractions worth searching out are in the shop. Lots of toys are available to buy, along with a selection of postcards and books - “A Pictorial Survey of Railway Signalling” anyone? The gift shop also houses a beautiful array of old photographs from the Brighton front of yesteryear. A delightful 19th century drawing from G. Durant entitled “Holiday Time at the Seaside” depicts a crowd of Victorians tumbling over each other to reach the beach. A tan, it seems, has always been in demand. The Toy & Model Museum is a truly bizarre and unique attraction, and one well-worth seeing. It’s not always as fun as its subject matter might indicate, but you will find at least one toy (and probably ten or twenty) that brings back childhood memories- and that is never a bad thing.

For more information on the Brighton Toy & Model Museum’s events and opening times, see online.