Insurance salesman John D "Jim" Johnston began making 54mm model
soldiers for his own pleasure around 1965. In 1967 he met wargame enthusiast
and rule writer Trevor Halsall in the Apex Craft Shop in Leicester. Together
the two men founded the Leicester Wargame and Model Soldier Society. The group
met weekly in a converted attic above a knitwear factory. Johnston was also
a regular at the Wellingborough BMSS meetings were he got to know Les Higgins.
An occasional gamer Jim helped members of the Leicester club with conversions
of Hinton Hunt and Airfix soldiers.
Douglas Miniatures was launched the same year as the Leicester club started
up. The companys logo of a highland warrior was created by John Catt and
based on an illustration from William Semples 1945 book The Scottish Tartans.
One of the first issues was the 20mm Crimean War Russians and British, which,
adverts boasted, were free of flash and made from a tin alloy that could be
"bent to different postures". Initially the figures were sold through
Bill Pearces shop The Garrison.
Douglas Miniatures was quite literally a "cottage industry", with
Johnston sculpting the figures in his own kitchen in Glenfield using an apparently
evil smelling concoction of plasticene and bees wax layered on a wire dolly
and then casting them in a barn behind the house. The figures were drop cast
until the ever-resourceful Johnston built his own centrifugal casting machine
quite a feat of engineering.
According to a friend, Derek Bolton, Jim cut costs by using recycled metal
made from melting down old wheel balance weights, though whether this was what
gave the figures their renowned flexibility were not sure.
Douglas figures were sold in boxes of five infantry or two mounted figures
at six shillings a box and came with painting instructions. Painted sets were
also sold. After The Garrison dropped the range in favour of its own John Braithwaite-designed
figures they were distributed through Ernest Berwick Models of Kettering and
Michaels Models of East Finchley.
Douglas Miniatures figures are slender and nicely proportioned. Slightly taller
than Hinton Hunt they are a good match with Les Higgins 25mm and Minifigs
S range. The horses are particularly fine, perhaps not surprising
since Johnston had worked in an equestrian supply shop and his first wife was
a keen horsewoman.
Douglas also produced a range of 54mm figures some of which he designed himself
and some of which were done by Cliff Sanderson, later of Greenwood and Ball.
Derek Frost, a friend of Jims who lived in Canada distributed Douglas
Miniatures in North America. Frost made regular forays to the UK swapping US
made figures for Douglas models.
Jim Johnston was an avid collector of old toy soldiers and Douglas soon took
over the Skybird (Holloday) range. Dating from the 1930s these are considered
by many to be the first ever 1/72nd scale figures. Skybird focused
on WWI subjects with particular emphasis on the Royal Flying Corps and made
a number of attractive metal aeroplane kits as well as ground crew and other
In 20mm a range of Napoleonic figures and further additions to the Crimean
War range were made before, in the summer of 1970, Douglas launched a new Seven
Years War and Marlburian Range. Reviewing these the July 1970 issue of Airfix
magazine noted, "In our view these are the best Douglas figures yet".
In The War Game, Charles Grant comments "The Crimean list is an extensive
one and the Seven Years War series, although not numerous at the moment, has
a number of attractive little figures".
Unfortunately Johnston had struggled with his health for a number of years,
suffering a heart attack in 1968 possibly as the result of stress caused by
the break up of his first marriage.
In the early 1970s the emergence of the bigger 25mm figures and a general loss
of enthusiasm put an end to Douglas Miniatures.
Jim went on working as a mould maker and caster his skills were highly
regarded in both - for various firms, however, and remarried. By 1977 he was
sufficiently rejuvenated to set up a new model company MJ Mode (the M stood
for Marie, the name of Johnstons French wife) the Douglas Miniatures
tag having been taken over by Derek Frost in Canada.
MJ Mode concentrated on producing 54mm figures and "traditional"
toy soldiers some of the latter painted by Marie. The company also made
a range of larger 25mm figures. Mounted on rectangular bases these were roughly
the same build as modern Garrison figures. We believe the range was confined
According to Sean Wenlock, who worked for MJ Mode from the early 1980s, the
original Douglas 20mm were put to use at least once more, filling a large order
for Marlburian figures. Wenlock recalls several Marlburians that do not feature
on our Douglas listing, including grenadiers in bearskins and various artillery
pieces and crews.
As well as making his own figures Johnston also cast figures for a number of
other manufacturers in scales from 1/300th to 120mm and made replacement
parts for Dinky toys for a local company. One customer was John Tunstill, owner
of the famous Soldiers shop in Kennington, south London, whose range of "traditional"
toy soldiers was cast by Johnston and transported to London by Sean Wenlock
once a week in a pair of old ammunition boxes.
"Jim was a lovely man," Tunstill recalls, "but whenever we
asked him to make a new figure for us he would always hum and hah about how
difficult it was going to be. He had a strong northern accent and we used to
try and arrange things so that at some point hed say, "Ill
haf ta cast a plaster master" then wed all cheer!"
MJ Mode thrived until 1986 when Johnston was struck by another heart attack
and died. He was just 48.
The moulds past on through one owner whose name nobody seems
able to recall to Sam Murray of Carcroft near Doncaster. Many
of the 20mm figures were built into the moulds for the larger
figures (another Jim cost-saving device) so separating them
is a problem. Sam is a nice fellow and he did cast a few figures
for us but unfortunately he found it extremely time consuming
and declined to cast them on a regular basis. Sam has now sold
the business to our good friend John Cunningham. John hopes
to have the figures back in production at some stage. We eagerly
wait to announce their availability.