On a wet and windy Saturday in October a few regulars of the Ian Allan Book and Model Shop gathered inside the premises for the last time. The shop – on Lower Marsh, behind Waterloo Station – would soon be a memory, like many things to do with the railway hobby. One or two customers chatted to the soon to be redundant staff. Others encouraged a yappy terrier to chase a tennis ball across the stretches of empty carpet where the display cases used to be. Most of us did as we had always done and leafed through books and put them down again: men who, perhaps like those in the fetish shop across the street, had deep and almost unreachable reasons for their interests.
A couple of shelves held volumes on steamships or planes and tanks, but no books at all were left about railways. Steam across the Pennines, The Woodstock Branch, LMS Sheds on Camera, even BR Main Line Gradient Profiles: all gone, snapped up during the closing-down sale, together with the model trains that over my lifetime have become steadily more faithful in their detail and splendid in their variety. Stretches of track, curved and straight, 00 gauge and N gauge, lay stacked and abandoned. A cardboard box marked ‘Mixed Deciduous’ held tiny trees, waiting for a modeller to plant them on his little hillsides, where their straight trunks and neat crowns would add a Swiss orderliness to a pretend English landscape. The star attractions, the locomotives and their coaches, had already left for new homes where even now their purchasers – ‘grown men’, as women used to say – might be watching them go round and round in the attic.
I used to come to Ian Allan’s shop with my children after our excursions to the Imperial War Museum. That sentence may say more about my childhood than theirs – and about the retrospective mood of Britain more generally – but I look back on that time fondly. A bright winter’s day, the journey south across the Thames on the top deck of a number 4 bus, the walk along Lower Marsh towards the great naval guns at the museum’s entrance. The afternoon would be darkening on our way back and fairy lights would light the little trains in Ian Allan’s window. Who wouldn’t be tempted? We would step inside, to inspect Hornby’s new streamlined LNER 4-6-2 and peer into the Pullman coaches, a table lamp in each window; and, in my case, to browse in Lost Railways of the Scottish Borders and similar titles, all illustrated with photographs of polished locomotives standing at rural platforms littered with milk churns, or suburban stations where enamel signs advertised Virol (‘Growing children need it’) and Sunlight Soap.
Ian Allan once had shops in Birmingham, Cardiff and Manchester as well as London; Glasgow had the Clyde Model Dockyard in the Argyll Arcade; Edinburgh still has Harburn Hobbies in Elm Row; and London, Manchester and Edinburgh all had branches of Bassett-Lowke, their windows filled with the finest and most desirable model locomotives ever made in Britain. They included steam engines big and powerful enough to haul children around public parks and private gardens, and 0 gauge clockwork and electric model trains that could be laid out over the carpets of suburban villas – I used to imagine Just William had a Bassett-Lowke. All of them came out of the firm’s factory in Northampton, where the owner, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, an early convert to modernism, had an office decorated in the Vienna Secession style and a home designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
In the 1960s Bassett-Lowke went out of business and a rival firm, Beatties, took over its London shop on High Holborn, with its railway signal above the door sticking into the street like a barber’s pole. Beattie’s was another destination for our excursions. It displayed the best German brands, Märklin and Fleischmann, as well as Hornby, the British company that in the postwar decades made electric 00 gauge train sets (Hornby Dublo) affordable to average-income families. We seldom left without a truck or a carriage – or even, at Christmas time, a locomotive.
Toyshops such as Hamley’s still sell model trains, but casually, irreverently – as toys. After Beatties closed in 2001, Ian Allan’s was the last shop of its kind in central London, but in another way it was the last of its kind in the country. Stocked with books as well as models, Lower Marsh offered both forms of railway worship – textual and idolatrous – and in the most fitting location, within the squeal and scrape of the trains arriving and departing at Waterloo. It was at that station in 1942 that Ian Allan, then a young clerk in the offices of the Southern Railway, invented – or, more accurately, enabled – the hobby that became known as trainspotting. It made him a fortune, and popularised an affectionate interest in railways matched by no other country.
In 1942, the cult of the locomotive wasn’t new. As a group enthusiasm, the technophile’s equivalent of butterfly collecting or birdwatching, it began in the last years of the 19th century. The Locomotive Magazine, founded in 1896, knew the new hobbyists as ‘loco-ites’, and by 1900 there were enough of them to sustain a circulation of 25,000 copies a month. But an ingredient was missing. What the loco-ite needed was a more complete knowledge of the locomotives he saw, some kind of taxonomy to indicate the families and classes each individual engine belonged to, and how many similar engines remained to be seen. The railway companies had no interest in helping out – they believed their engine fleets were their business and nobody else’s – which left loco-ites to their own resources. In 1898, a group in Birmingham began to publish a part work detailing the locomotives of the London & North Western Railway – ‘the Premier Line’, as it styled itself, a boast justified by the excellent standard of its track and its extensive network, stretching from London to Carlisle and South Wales to Yorkshire, with the West Midlands at its centre. The next year the publications were collected in a handsome volume that claimed to be ‘the first and only book ever devoted entirely to the locomotives of one railway company’. The L&NWR had roughly three thousand locomotives, and those that pulled passenger trains were often equipped with names as well as numbers. While several of its rival companies – the Midland, the Great Northern, the North Eastern – sent their engines unbaptised into the world, their L&NWR counterparts bore brass plates with a capricious nomenclature: Oregon and Apollo would find themselves in the same class as Velocipede and Germanic; Phosphorus would belong to the same family as President Lincoln; Tamerlane would sit next to Stork.
This intriguing variety helped explain the Birmingham enthusiasts’ next project, a sixpenny paperback entitled A Register of All the Locomotives Now in Use on the L&NWR, which stressed in its preface that it had been ‘no light task to gather together and correct the list of numbers’. But no name-and-number collecting craze followed. Instead, the Birmingham loco-ites started a journal and formed the Railway Club, open to anyone who could be certified by two existing members as ‘a locomotive enthusiast’, on payment of a five-shilling sub. The club was a success and attracted members from London, who soon found an excuse to move it to new headquarters in Victoria Street, beginning a long history of schism of the sort that characterises recreational clubs and learned societies. Annual subscriptions were raised to a guinea – evidence of its new social ambition – while some members complained that others had abandoned an interest in locomotives ‘to concentrate their attention on the study of timetables and so forth’. In 1909, ten years after the club’s foundation, a breakaway group met in Croydon to form the Stephenson Locomotive Society, which stressed scholarship over trackside excitement and timetables. Birmingham’s loco-ites fell from prominence. Their Register of All Locomotives remains an obscure provincial precursor to the great achievements of Ian Allan forty years later.
Allan’s story illustrates two propositions that self-help gurus like to preach. One, adversity exists to be vanquished. Two, the simplest ideas work best. Allan was the son of the clerk at Christ’s Hospital, a school in West Sussex with its own railway station. But he himself was sent to St Paul’s in London, where as a 15-year-old recruit to the Officers’ Training Corps he lost a leg in a camping accident. His subsequent failure to pass the School Certificate exams ended his hopes of taking up a traffic apprenticeship with the Southern Railway, the first step on the road to higher management, so he became a clerk in the publicity department instead. He loved trains, and in handling inquiries from the public about trains and engines he realised that many people, boys in particular, felt the same. He suggested the Southern publish a booklet that listed their locomotives by class, name and number, as well the location of their engine shed. The company rejected the idea, but agreed that Allan could go ahead himself. The ABC of Southern Locomotives appeared in November 1942 and quickly sold out two thousand copies at a shilling each. The next year the booklet went through four editions, while Allan and his printer rushed out ABCs for Britain’s other three big companies: the Great Western, the London Midland and Scottish, and the London & North Eastern.
My brother, Harry, who was nine at the time, spent the summer of 1943 in hospital with diphtheria. Writing to me recently, he recalled that his classmates at his Lancashire primary school had changed in his absence. Previously, he had been one of only two boys in his class interested in trains. ‘The big hobby then was stamp-collecting, and there was a general interest in planes, with postcards of aircraft types on sale, so we could all tell a Spitfire from a Hurricane, and would have recognised Junkers, Heinkels, Focke-Wulfs & Dorniers if we’d ever seen any of them, but we only heard them at night. So plane-spotting wasn’t much of a hobby.’ When he went back he found his class completely obsessed with railway engines:
It was strange … suddenly they all knew much more than I did – the names [of LMS loco engineers] Stanier, Fowler, Hughes, and class names and tractive efforts were being trotted out constantly. I caught up pretty quickly … every afternoon after school a crowd of us wandered down to Green Lane Bridge [on the Manchester-Bolton line] to jot down numbers and – sometimes – names. Boys who were lucky enough to have an ABC underlined the number of every new engine they saw, satisfied that their day hadn’t been wasted.
When we were young, he took me to that bridge. What I remember is the jargon. New numbers were ‘copped’. A cry of ‘Manny peg’ meant a train had been signalled for Manchester. ‘Coffee Pots’ were elderly Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway goods engines. ‘Ju-Jubes’ were Jubilees, a class that entered service during the 25th anniversary of George V’s accession and whose engines were named after imperial possessions, famous warships and English heroes. The jargon made you part of the country’s largest and least violent gang, the drifts of boys of all ages and social classes who gathered at the edge of cuttings, the ends of platforms and the mouths of tunnels: the fellowship of the number and the name. By 1955, the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Club had 230,000 members, and Allan was publishing lists of almost every mechanical moving object (I’m not sure about tractors) that could be seen on land, sea and air, devoting ABC booklets to British Liners, British Tugs, British Warships, British Airliners, British Buses and Trolleybuses, sometimes narrowing the field to sub-groups such as London Transport, Clyde Pleasure Steamers and the Battleships of World War One. There were specialist magazines – Trains Illustrated was one – as well as more ambitious books that had narratives rather than lists. He took over other small publishers; he started a travel business and took over a car dealership; he moved into offices at Shepperton in the West London suburbs, where he installed a vintage Pullman car as the company boardroom. His publishing output now had unusual specialisms that included masonic rituals: Allan was a member of three local lodges and an officer in the United Grand Lodge of England, where he served as Past Junior Grand Deacon from 1992 until his death in 2015, a day before his 93rd birthday.
In his Guardian obituary, Jonathan Glancey described Allan as ‘the world’s best known and probably its most successful railway publisher’. The only books now published by his successors at the Ian Allan Group are about Freemasonry: A Guide to Masonic Symbolism, A Handbook for the Freemason’s Wife, Laughter in the Lodge and so on. The railway side of the business has been sold off; the book and model shop in Lower Marsh was the last thing to go.
Shops of all kinds are vanishing everywhere; anyone who can remember steam locomotion as an everyday mode of transport must be sixty at least. And yet one result of the pandemic is that, seeking a domestic pastime and a relief from stress and the computer screen, people are buying model trains in unexpected numbers, increasing Hornby’s sales by a third over the past year and putting the company into profit after several years of heavy losses. Perhaps stress relief has always been a factor in the railway hobby, with its rise during the Second World War not a coincidence. Other worlds. After Douglas Bader bailed out over France in 1941 he was taken to meet an admirer, the fighter ace Oberstleutnant Adolf Galland, at a pretty farmhouse the Luftwaffe was using as an officers’ mess. As described by Bader’s biographer, Paul Brickhill, the German led the Englishman through the garden to a ‘long, low arbour’, which Bader was surprised to see occupied by an elaborate model railway. ‘Galland pressed a button,’ Brickhill writes,
and little trains whirred past little stations, rattling over points, past signals, through tunnels and model cuttings. Eyes sparkling, Galland turned to Bader, looking like a small boy having fun. The interpreter said: ‘This is the Herr Oberstleutnant’s favourite place when he is not flying. It is a replica of Reichsmarshal Goering’s railway, but of course the Reichsmarshal’s is much bigger.’
Does every railway modeller have an inner Reichsmarshal struggling to get out – to be the manipulator of all he surveys? I like to think it brings out our better side. So far as I can tell, the earliest recorded train set was the possession of another German, Goethe. In 1829, six years before Germany had a steam railway of its own, some English well-wishers presented him with a tiny model of Stephenson’s Rocket, which had just won the trials to find the best motive power for the world’s first passenger line, between Liverpool and Manchester. It came with a set of wagons and rails, and Goethe, who was fascinated by technical innovation, placed it on his desk as an intimation of the new industrial society to come. At some point before his death in 1832, he passed the models to his grandsons Walther and Wolfgang. ‘By his benevolent action,’ the historian of model railways Guy Williams wrote, ‘he may well have made them the first of all the millions of young people who have received gifts of model railways, and who have been made ecstatically happy by their good fortune.’