Miniature Figurines began life in Newark, Nottinghamshire
as Alberken. Albert Horsfield and Ken Watkins, whose main
business was selling pie-heating machines to cafes and canteens,
founded the company in 1964. One of the pie-machine salesmen
was also Alberken‚€™s designer, Peter Gilder. The initial Alberken
range ran to about fifty figures. Many were sold ready painted
in boxed sets, which increased the scope of the range substantially
‚€œSome of the figures such as the French Napoleonic Fusilier
were given about eight different paint jobs,‚€Ě Neville Dickinson
Alberken figures are thin in build, a bit static
in pose, sometimes lacking in detail and stand around 22mm
high. They are also noticeably flat, a common characteristic
of early figures, while the horses vary alarmingly in size
and style (Odd this, since in his later work with Hinchliffe
Gilder excelled at sculpting cavalry). To some eyes these
early releases bear a strong resemblance to those of Marcus
Hinton, of which more anon.
In 1965 Bert Horsfield was killed in a car accident.
Ken Watkins was reluctant to carry on alone and sold out to
Neville Dickinson, then running a financial business in Southampton.
Alberken was soon re-christened Miniature Figurines and relocated
to the south coast port.
Neville Dickinson had become interested in wargaming
after reading Don Featherstone‚€™s ‚€œTackle Model Soldiers This
Way‚€Ě. ‚€œI wanted to get a copy of Don‚€™s book ‚€œWargames‚€Ě,‚€Ě Dickinson
says, ‚€œbut the local bookshop was out of stock. The chap who
ran it said, ‚€œWhy don‚€™t you pop and see if the author‚€™s got
a spare one? He only lives round the corner‚€Ě.
The two men soon became firm friends, fighting
regular wargames with another pioneer of the hobby, Tony Bath,
who would later help with admin at Miniature Figurines.
Dickinson wanted to extend the Alberken range
and initially asked Peter Gilder to continue as designer.
‚€œI waited for the new masters and waited and waited,‚€Ě Dickinson
recalls, ‚€œbut I never got them‚€Ě. Gilder, whose colourful life
reads like something Jeffrey Archer might have made up (or
indeed lived), later went to work for Frank Hinchliffe.
In the meantime Dickinson was designing some
new ACW figures himself. John Braithwaite, later of Garrison,
also helped out with a range of 20 or so Greeks, Persians
and Egyptians. ‚€œThen one day in 1966 this student from Portsmouth
Art College came to buy some figures and he said, ‚€œYou know,
I reckon I could make some of these myself‚€Ě. I said to him
that when he had done so he should bring them and show me,
‚€œ Dickinson says of his first meeting with the man who would
be his main designer for the next thirty years, Dick Higgs,
‚€œWell, a few months later I was round at Tony Bath‚€™s house
and there was a knock on the door and there was Dick with
his first figures: one piece cavalry castings of Teutonic
and Burgundian knights‚€Ě.
‚€œDick was living in this typical student house
in Portsmouth with about eight other blokes and their world
revolved around wargaming and sex, basically. Anyway he carried
on designing figures for me and I used to pay him in castings.
Eventually he left college and worked for a year as a wallpaper
designer and when he got sick of that he came to work for
By now Minifigs (the name was adopted as a trademark
when Miniature Figurines became a limited company in 1968
‚€œWe wanted to be Mini Figs,‚€Ě Dickinson says, ‚€œbut they wouldn‚€™t
let us have it as two words!‚€Ě) were a major force in the wargames
world and one of its few professional concerns. Dickinson
had handed over the financial business to his wife to run
and he, Higgs and three others were working at the company
In autumn 1967 Minifigs purchased it‚€™s own mould
making machinery, which greatly speeded up production and
some of the original Alberken figures were replaced with new
The 20mm scale Minifigs were some of the cheapest
figures on the market (10 old pence per infantryman compared
to Rose‚€™s one shilling and four pence and Les Higgins‚€™ one
shilling and sixpence). Minifig‚€™s advertisements boasted that
it was ‚€œrun by wargamers for wargamers‚€Ě and in terms of mail
order the company outshone its competitors, sending out figures
within 24 hours of receipt of an order, a revelation in the
days when the phrase ‚€œplease allow 28 days for delivery‚€Ě was
appended to most ads in the wargames press and sometimes rather
liberally interpreted too.
Success had generated controversy, however.
In 1966 some of Miniature Figurines‚€™ main rivals started The
Guild of Model Soldier Manufacturers. The founder members
were Marcus Hinton, Edward Suren (Willie Figures) and Roy
Belmont-Maitland (Tradition). The Guild‚€™s main aim was to
stamp out breaches of copyright. One manufacturer in particular
was firmly in their sights.
In a letter to Tradition magazine a year earlier
Edward Suren had spelled out his views in no uncertain terms
under the heading ‚€œPirate Figures‚€Ě:-
‚€œA certain enterprise calling itself Miniature
Figurines, has recently advertised in a reputable War Gaming
publication (Slingshot: May 1966: Issue No.5) that they are
prepared to mould ‚€œany 20mm or 30mm solid figure which anyone
wishes to reproduce at a cost of 15s per figure, and to supply
figures from the mould at 6d for infantry and 1s for cavalry,
plus postage‚€Ě. From the phrasing of this advertisement the
method of production can be guessed at. The original provenance
of some of their figures, however, is known to more than one
Other wargames personalities of the day were
quickly drawn in to the row. In a Wargamers‚€™ Newsletter editorial
Don Featherstone claimed that this new organization was begun
with the express intention of putting Minifigs out of business.
In 1969 the Guild took the decision not to advertise
in any publication that carried adverts for Dickinson‚€™s company,
a strategy apparently designed to starve his firm of publicity.
Wargamers‚€™ Newsletter refused to bow to the pressure of what
Featherstone described as ‚€œa small but powerful group‚€¶.using
what amounts to blackmail‚€Ě and Hinton and Suren never advertised
in Newsletter again (Though, bizarrely, five year later Belmont-Maitland
would begin publishing the magazine!)
Newsletters‚€™ more commercial rival Miniature
Warfare (first published in 1968 by John Tunstill, a former
Tradition employee) did refuse to carry adverts for Minifigs
[When asked, John Tunstill says that he knew nothing about
the Guild or any controversy involving it]. It was a decision
that added fuel to a dispute between what might be termed
the Southampton faction and the London Wargames Section (‚€œThose
self-appointed supreme arbiters on all that is right and realistic
in wargames rules‚€Ě as Don Featherstone sarcastically referred
to them in a WN editorial around this time).
Part of the impetus for this, well, miniature
warfare came from Marcus Hinton who felt that the initial
Alberken inspired run of figures ¬≠ based on Gilder‚€™s earlier
efforts - were a little too close to his own designs for comfort.
These allegations were bandied about so freely that it is
rumoured Neville Dickinson actually sought legal advice about
taking an action for slander. (Ironically, Minifigs themselves
would later suffer heavily from pirating. In the early 1970s
one model shop in the north of England was found to be turning
out ‚€˜S‚€™ range pirates on a professional centrifugal casting
machine. In the US, Triangle of Southern Carolina was one
amongst many who produced copies).
Asked about the Guild Neville Dickinson replied:
‚€œI never had any knowledge of a dispute with the so called
‚€œguild‚€Ě. I was never invited to join nor ever applied for
membership. From friends like Don Featherstone I understand
that the similar size of my models, developed from those on
the Alberken listings, meant they were able to be mixed with
those of Hinton Hunt. [Peter] Gilder worked on the basic Alberken
and I improved as well as extended the ranges from these.
The line was the HO/OO scale that Hinton Hunt used‚€Ě.
However, in a letter in the December 1974 issue
of Wargamer‚€™s Newsletter Dickinson commented, ‚€œWhen Minifigs
first started producing figures there was a situation which
suggested cause for concern about their parentage‚€Ě. The 20mm
range was discontinued in May 1971.
Whatever, by the late sixties Higgs (‚€œThe Poor
Man‚€™s Michelangelo‚€Ě as Minifig‚€™s ads styled him) was stamping
his own personality on the ranges. The HO/OO had gradually
extended to cover a wide range of periods and ran to over
300 figures. These were, as Dickinson says, about the same
height and build as Hinton Hunt though they sometimes didn‚€™t
carry as much detail. Cavalry figures were one-piece castings.
In 1968 Dick Higgs began work on the ‚€˜S‚€™ range
(S stood for ‚€œspecial‚€Ě) of figures, now considered by many
to be the first ‚€œtrue‚€Ě 25mm figures ¬≠ though they are actually
nearer the 24mm mark. Thicker set than their predecessors,
but by no means as chunky as the later 25mm figures, the ECW
range is shown off to good effect in the photo section of
Charles Wesencraft‚€™s ‚€œWith Pike And Musket‚€Ě. The first figures,
ancient and medieval subjects, appeared in May 1968. At first
cavalry were one-piece castings but this was changed in 1971
when a new ‚€œdismountable‚€Ě series was introduced.
The ‚€˜S‚€™ range figures too were originally sold
and advertised as 20mm and it wasn‚€™t until a year later that
they came to be officially tagged 25mm. The S range figures
were priced at three old pence more than their smaller foot-slogging
brethren, one shilling more in the case of cavalry. The figure
code, traditionally scratched on the base of the figure, is
the same as that of the earlier models with an ‚€œs‚€Ě added after
the number (for example, FN47S). When the HO/OO ranges were
discontinued this suffix was dropped.
Dick Higgs designed the vast majority of the
‚€˜S‚€™ range figures, but occasionally others helped out. Bob
O‚€™Brien of the Wargames Research Group, for example, designed
the MFA range of medieval artillery and equipment.
While wargamers bought Minifigs by the thousands
the reviewers were rarely impressed. ‚€œIn all honesty it cannot
be said that, even with careful painting, they more than just
hold their own as individual pieces,‚€Ě sighs Garratt. John
Cross of Scale Models meanwhile takes the faint-praise tack
noting that the company‚€™s output is, ‚€œIn all quite a worthy
This seems to us a harsh judgement. While Minifigs
‚€˜S‚€™ range are not of the same quality as the figures of Les
Higgins or Charles Stadden they hold up well against those
of other designers of the period. En masse they are effective
and the comprehensiveness of the rages has rarely been matched.
As Tim Richards of Phoenix Model Developments observes ‚€œWe
used to see their adverts and every month there‚€™d be another
20 or 30 new figures. We couldn‚€™t keep up with them!‚€Ě
Certainly Minifigs‚€™ early-seventies output is
impressive in its scope. As well as the ‚€˜S‚€™ range the company
was also producing 30mm figures, a 54mm range designed by
Major Bob Rowe, micro-armour and buildings, 15mm and 5mm ranges
and a house magazine ‚€œMinimag‚€Ě.
The Minifigs ‚€˜S‚€™ range Ancients range was gradually
replaced around 1972 with the new Phil Barker inspired PB
range. Though some of the later PB figures are on the chunky
side this range is generally a good match with the earlier
The gradual process of phasing out the ‚€˜S‚€™ range
in favour of the new 25mm standard, which had been given impetus
by Gilder at Hinchliffe, began in summer 1973 and was completed
a couple of years later. Dave Higgs (Dick‚€™s brother and now
Minifigs‚€™ owner), Neil Butcher and Dave Hutchings were also
designing for the company at this stage. The PB range, meanwhile,
lived on until the late-seventies.
1) The name of the catering supplies company that gave birth to Alberken was
Kesteven Catering Equipment of Sleaford, Lincolnshire.
2) The first of the 20mm Ancient range were issued in 1966. Like all of Minifigs
early ranges they were available in painted boxed sets of twenty. In 1967
the price for these sets was ¬£2.2s.6d including purchase tax.
3) The range of 20mm ancient figures made by John Braithwaite around 1966 was
known as the "JB" range and coded accordingly. The figures appear
to have been Airfix conversions. The only figure from the range we have seen,
a very nice Assyrian heavy archer, is plainly based on one of the bowmen from
the Robin Hood set.
4) The Special or S Range was launched in May 1968. The first figures were
ancient and ECW cavalry.
5) In 1969 Wargamers Newsletter reported that Minifigs were seeking legal advice
about an "emerging firm in the North of England" that was pirating
s range figures. No further details were given
6) The S range dismountable series of cavalry in which the rider, saddle and
saddlecloth were cast separately from the horse was launched in January 1970.
According to the advert announcing the new figures the idea was that wargamers
would be able to use their herd of horses in all different periods by simply
swapping the riders over and so wouldnt need to buy as many.
7) The process of ‚€œrestyling‚€Ě the old S range figures in favour
of the new chunky 25mm standard began with the ECW range in 1974. The ACW range
followed in that year. The overhaul of the Napoleonic range began with French
cavalry in January 1975. The PB range was the last range to be redesigned. This
was done in 1978.