LEGO, the Danish manufacturer of those little interlocking coloured bricks, is a household name. Rather less well-known is its connection to the town of Wrexham. A link that the town’s museum explore in their latest exhibition.
Ole Kirk Kristiansen established his carpentry and joinery business in Billund, mainland Denmark, during the First World War. When work dried up during the Great Depression, he started making wooden toys. In 1934, he came up with the brand name, LEGO, inspired by the Danish words for ‘play well’. His company started making plastic toys soon after the Second World War.
Meanwhile just outside Wrexham, a former munitions factory was being converted into a new industrial estate. Among the companies attracted to the enormous site was British Celanese Ltd who manufactured artificial fibres and plastics.
The 1950s saw the end of rationing and people had more money to spend on luxuries, including toys. LEGO were keen to enter foreign markets. In 1959, the company approached British Celanese to form a new subsidiary, British Lego Ltd. Among the employees at British Celanese was draughtsman, Kenneth Jones. He was sent over to Billund for a five week LEGO company training course in model making and design.
The new firm started distributing LEGO products from 1960 and brick manufacture commenced at Wrexham in 1962. If you have an old LEGO set that says ‘Made in Great Britain’ on the box, it was made and packed by hand on Wrexham Industrial Estate.
The bricks were manufactured using injection moulding plant, with coloured plastic beads (in a limited range of primary colours) going in one end and little bricks appearing out the other. Many local teenagers and also college students spent their summer holidays working on the packing line as the company ramped up production ready for Christmas.
The design team at British Lego Ltd – Kenneth Jones, David Lyall and Brena John – specialised in designing and making models for exhibitions and point-of-sale promotions.
In 1978, LEGO decided to return the production of bricks in-house so the last British bricks left the production line probably in early 1979. The company planned to move its distribution centre to Northampton (boo!); however following a campaign from the workers in Wrexham and some financial assistance from the Welsh Office, LEGO decided to locate their new distribution centre in Wrexham. Many local people still fondly recall the outsized iconic LEGO bricks on the Ruthin Road between the town and Coedpoeth.
The new building became the distribution centre and the base for LEGO UK’s model makers. A team of creative men and women created more models for the company and as private commissions. These models included Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Irish Houses of Parliament, Michael Jackson, sports cars and also cartoon characters. The LEGO children’s club and the spare parts service were all run from Wrexham.
Sadly in 2000, LEGO decided to close the site at Wrexham. The fate of the big bricks has long been the subject of much speculation; however an inside source revealed to us recently that the bricks are now at LEGOLAND Windsor. Keep an eye out for them if you visit!
Brick Built: See The World Made From LEGO Bricks by Warren Elsmore is on show at Wrexham Museum until May 7th. You can also find the opening times of the museum here or, for more history articles, click here.