Obituary: Hubert Lansley

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The Independent Online
Hubert Lansley's writing was eagerly looked for every month in the late 1920s by the many thousands of intelligent boys (and a few girls) who were "hooked" on the Meccano hobby. In his articles in Meccano Magazine he showed new ways of using all those gears and strips and other parts with half-inch-spaced holes, held together with small nuts and bolts, to build working cranes, steam lorries, windmills . . . all driven (if pocket money allowed) by clockwork, steam, or even mains electricity.

Frank Hornby, while working in the Liverpool office of a wholesale butcher, had invented the principle of using interchangeable modular parts to construct models and toys for his sons. He soon built the famous Binns Road factory, in order to manufacture parts by the million; and even by 1920 he was spending an incredible pounds 1,000 for a front-page advertisement in the Daily Mail.

Hubert was still a boy when his enthusiasm for Meccano inspired him to publish his own little magazine on the subject. This came to the notice of Ellison Hawks, who had come back from the First World War to establish himself as a writer of non-fiction books for boys. Having answered a job vacancy advertisment in the Liverpool Echo, Hawks became the august editor of Meccano Magazine, while also in charge of the firm's advertising.

In 1923, seeing Hubert Lansley's knowledge and flair, he gave the 16- year-old a job as the expert writer in the main subject of his magazine. After a trial period in the London office, not too far from his Barnet home, he was summoned to work at the Liverpool headquarters. To start with, he shared digs (paid for by the firm) with the capable W.H. McCormick, formerly on the Yorkshire Post newspaper, and, who, years later, succeeded Hawks as MM editor.

Hubert's brief from Hawks was wonderful for a boy: with his own corner in the advertising department, he had freedom to make Meccano mechanisms and models, with unlimited access to as many parts as he needed. He was to write for the magazine under the pen-name of "Spanner", giving details of the models he built, with photographic illustrations.

Meccano was led forward by his original ideas and good writing, which his teenage readers enjoyed. They turned to his pages first, and only afterwards to Ellison Hawks's general engineering articles. It would seem that Hawks deliberately kept the readers hungry for more from Hubert about actual Meccano model building.

Perhaps it was just as well that Hawks was not a man to co- operate. There was already a department in the factory which devised new models to illustrate in the manuals enclosed with sets of parts, but Hubert Lansley was better able to explain principles and reasons. He opened up thousands of young minds. In 1925, Hornby paid for him to spend a week at the great Wembley exhibition. At other times, he conducted visitors round the works. In 1926, aged 19, and then on the excellent wage of pounds 5 a week, he married his fiancee, Violet Wright.

When Norman Moyes (a friend) visited him in 1989, he related how all the works and office staff were given a hotpot supper every year in a Liverpool restaurant: but the aloof Frank Hornby never attended. And Ellison Hawks was dictatorial in his manner; he was adept at lifting existing information and rewriting it; his relations with Hornby were cool. Lansley, a humble genius, was supported in his work for them by his own enthusiasm for Meccano. Moyes was also told how George Jones, Meccano's business manager, was known as "Felix the Cat" from his habit of wearing rubber shoes and standing behind employees silently, observing, before moving on.

But marketing was wisely orientated towards customer goodwill. Any boy who wrote in with a model-building problem would receive a full reply from an expert, perhaps Lansley himself, in a friendly style.

In 1930, still aged only 23, Lansley (surprisingly) left to set up his own Meccano shop in Muswell Hill, with the firm's help, and with his wife as assistant. Only five years later, Hawks also left Meccano; Hornby himself died in 1936.

It was never the same after that. Nickel-plated parts were replaced with red and green enamel, then there were gold-coloured enamel parts and others in blue, criss-crossed with a pattern of gilt lines. With the Second World War, Meccano supplies were no longer available; Lansley had to close his shop. He made a second career: first, in accountancy and legal work; then, in the 1950s, he managed a London employment agency, Phillips Staff Bureau, with success until he retired.

In 1973 he found that Meccano enthusiasts were building better models than ever; he became the first Life President of the Society of Advanced Meccano Constructors, and enrolled as a member of the International Society of Meccanomen, which has members in 25 countries world-wide.

Meccano is still made, but Meccano Magazine ceased publication in 1981. Its place has been taken by independent journals, such as International Meccanoman and Constructor Quarterly, produced by the enthusiasts who were sparked off by Hubert Lansley all those years ago, and who now build computer-controlled and radio-controlled models of fascinating complexity.

A surgeon in Israel uses Meccano for prototypes for new surgical tools. And Lansley himself made new friends only a year or so ago, when he brought his model printing machine to the present-day Mecca of Meccano, Henley-on-Thames, and set it working at the annual exhibition there. Enthusiasts of all ages revere his memory.

John Westwood

Hubert Henry Lansley, journalist: born Barnet, Hertfordshire 25 September 1907; married 1926 Violet Wright (died 1993; two sons, one daughter); died Colchester, Essex 7 August 1997.