Douglas Miniatures
Home | History | Listings | Reviews | Gallery

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 company’s logo of a highland warrior was created by John Catt and based on an illustration from William Semple’s 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 Pearce’s 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 we’re 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 Michael’s 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 Jim’s 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 personnel.

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 Johnston’s 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 to Napoleonics.

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 he’d say, "I’ll haf ta cast a plaster master" then we’d 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.

  Crimean War Figures, from left to right:
Russian Infantry Firing, British Guard Advancing and Russian Infantry Advancing.
  Douglas Miniatures packaging: 5 foot or 2 cavalry per box.  
The site has been created by Richard Black and Harry Pearson