Far from a trivial topic, the post-war train spotting craze swept most boys and some girls into a passion for railways, and for many, ignited a lifetime's interest. This book traces this post-war cohort, and those which followed, as they invigorated different sectors in the world of railway enthusiasm. Today Britain's now-huge preserved railway industry finds itself driven by tensions between preserving a loved past which ever fewer people can remember and earning money from tourist visitors. It was Hamilton Ellis and Philip Unwin who were the joint pioneers of the 'Railway Book Mania' which ran from 1947 to the dwindling of popular and mid-depth railway history writing in the 1970s. British railway enthusiasts suffer from an image problem. Standing forlorn on station platforms, train spotters are butts for every stand-up comic's jokes. Like some other collectors, train spotters collect ephemera: locomotive numbers are signs unconnected to any marketable commodity. Train spotting had its own rich culture. As British railways declined from their Edwardian peak, enthusiasts' structure of feeling shifted steadily from celebrating novelty to mourning loss. Always a good hater as well as a skilled engineer, more than seventy years ago Curly Lawrence identified issues which still bounce around modelling sections of the British railway fancy. The book discusses toy trains, model engineering and railway modelling. British railway enthusiasm remains a remarkably varied activity today, articulated through attachment (of whatever kind) to prototype railways' life-world.
By the late 1970s railway modelling alone was judged to be male Britons' premier indoor leisure activity. British railway enthusiasm is a social phenomenon. Many other nations can proffer examples of railway enthusiasm then, but Britain gave the modern steam railway to the world. Though widely disparaged, the British railway enthusiast's life-world remains stubbornly lively and commodious. Beyond the crudely economic, a fascination with railways forms the cultural frame through which huge numbers of twentieth-century British men came to apprehend the world. In 1994 Matthew Engel told The Guardian's readers that 'The British have a unique sentimental attachment to their trains. For Britain's railway fancy remains surprisingly populous. In the mid-1990s informed estimates judged that between three and five million Britons entertained a significant interest in trains and railways: a figure inferior only to fishing and gardening as broad leisure activities.
This chapter shows that postwar Britain saw not a Railway Book Mania but a Book Mania tout court, with railway books a tiny proportion of all tomes published. Early book publishing houses serving the railway enthusiast were founded by men with a private enthusiasm for railways. This remains true for railway magazine editors and journalists. 'Not in Ottley' is the proudest claim any British railway bibliophile can slide among his text's footnotes, for George Ottley's work is a major peak in British railway scholarship's eccentric range. Though no prior enthusiasm drew him to this task, in 1952 he began 'Ottley's Folly', trekking through British railway literature's trackless wastes. Supplemented twice in the forty years since his first huge volume appeared, Ottley remains the railway fancy's bookish arbiter.
Existing cultural forms guided early associations in both halves of the British railway life-world. The Electronic Model Railway Group is one of several functional associations linking geographically separated enthusiasts sharing interests in a particular aspect of railway modelling. Evidence about local societies serving enthusiasts for the prototype railway is fugitive, but what can be found reveals intriguing patterns. The trend line for Railway Modeller's register shows that the number of local British model railway clubs rose at least until the early 1980s. National railfan clubs like the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society (RCTS) articulate enthusiasts sharing broad interests in the modern prototype and/or preserved lines. Competing with a flourishing undergrowth of commercial rail tour companies, one major RCTS activity always has been to organise rail tours carrying members to places of particular railway interest.
OED traces the word spotter from a target practice marker in the 1890s through an observer identifying a target on the racecourse or above an early twentieth-century battlefield, to the postwar train spotter. As a Reuters journalist told a New Zealand audience, 'Trainspotters occupy a unique place in British society, the butt of jokes, abuse and, ultimately, social concern'. Like some other collectors, train spotters collect ephemera: locomotive numbers are signs unconnected to any marketable commodity. As the Second World War ended, British railways were just the right size and shape to encourage collecting; for the total number of locomotives was neither so small as to wither interest nor so huge as to daunt the tyro. Spotting's domain was wider than railway enthusiasm.
James Kenward's 1937 novel The Manewood Line described local people resuscitating an abandoned branch line. In Britain, modern steam railways' birth generated huge and novel demands. Building and running these gigantic enterprises required vast capital resources. Though by 1960 the British railway preservation movement could flaunt only four lines: the Talyllyn, the Festiniog, the Middleton and the Bluebell. On the brutal bottom line all preserved railways are businesses. Running a small business efficiently means getting embroiled in the labour process. Located in prime holiday spots, the reborn Talyllyn and Festiniog railways could coin money from train services in a short summer season. The Middleton's antithesis, Bluebell trains trundled deeply rural rather than industrial territory, running through soft southern England rather than the flint-hard West Riding.
In the nineteenth-century, millennial hopes have arrived for neither combatant in British preserved railways' most notorious struggle. A light railway order permitted the company to build a three-quarter-mile track along an abandoned standard-gauge formation from their new station to meet the Croesor Tramway's historic trackbed at Pen-y-Mount. This chapter shows that in 1990 Welsh Highland Railway passenger traffic presented no threat to Festiniog Railway prosperity; but it also shows that by then the Festiniog's best traffic years lay well in the past. The Welsh Highland Light Railway's brief and inglorious interwar existence might be expected to inspire no enthusiast to propose the doomed line's revival; but new times bring new opportunities. Though the old 1922 Company's attempt to commodify scenery crashed spectacularly, postwar success in packaging Welsh narrow-gauge steam for a booming tourist market suggested a second turn round this whirligig.
Norman Simmons insists, 'railway modelling is the art of creating in miniature a working replica of a full-size railway.' As Martin Evans notes, model engineering is 'very closely allied to full-sized mechanical engineering, and the problems involved in the design of working models are similar to real practice. Viewed from outside the railway fancy all attempts to miniaturise the full-sized railway's machine ensemble may seem much of a piece; but within that fancy attempts split into three activities, each marked by its own aesthetic. Curly Lawrence identified two of these: toy trains and model engineering. Lying between these two, and by no means always comfortably, lies the third practice: railway modelling. Experienced workers always advise newcomers to moderate expertise. A model railway's Gestalt works best when different elements display common standards. Model railways' key artifice, low-voltage electric motors powering steam- or diesel-outline models, presuppose high-grade electrical competence.
Britain's twentieth-century proprietary model railway trade resembles marine ecology, with many small fish trailling in a couple of barracudas' wake. Developing an integrated 0 gauge model railway system, in 1925 Frank Hornby bandoned Meccano components. As Kenneth Brown documents in ghastly detail, by 1985 the British toy industry, so profitable two decades earlier, had almost ceased to exist. Down with its parent bodies went the British toy train trade. Although a commercial failure, the toy-train system laid groundworks for Trix-Twin's startling success after 1935. Imported to Britain by Bassett-Lowke anglicised in appearance and manufactured in Northampton by Winteringham Ltd, one twig in Bassett-Lowke's ramified model engineering empire, Trix-Twin sold very well when he helped the German company's Jewish principals to evade Nazi anti-Semitic property laws. Today's railway modellers demand an astonishing range of peripheral items. 'The cast whitemetal kit has revolutionised railway modelling in Britain,' Cyril Freezer insists.
Standardisation's first shoots appeared in the late nineteenth century. Fired by widespread hopes that a new world would rise from war's ashes, The British Railway Modelling Standards Bureau (BRMSB) sprang to life in 1948. Thirteen years earlier, the National Model Railway Association (NMRA) began the task of persuading American toy train manufacturers to adopt consistent dimensional standards. If 00 gauge railway modelling was a broad church, with members stretching across a spectrum from those who played with toy trains to expert modellers scratch-building exquisite models, then EM was a schismatic sect. Hard pounding over three decades has given them victory's demographic palm; for as the model railway hobby's youth wing withers, these expert brethren bulk ever larger. Scale causes enough semantic difficulty in railway modelling; but cross this word with gauge and wild confusion spills out.