Tasker Dunham reconstructs his clockwork train set.
I’ve not given it much of a thought in nearly fifty years, but today, just looking at the images hits me in resounding vivid detail: the solid heaviness of the black tank engine in your hand, the oily smell of the high quality clockwork motor, the steady force of the spring against the key as you wound the ratchet, the clunky movement of the brake and gear rods in the cab, the thick paint of the milk wagon in contrast to the tinniness of other rolling stock, the frictionless glide along the rails, the musty scent of track metal on your hands*, the sudden give of point levers and signals switched into position, the whirr and rattle of a train in motion, the made-to-last sturdy red boxes.
I realise now they served different purposes. The ‘OO’ gauge electrics were exact lifelike models. ‘O’ gauge was more tactile, but with sufficient realism to remain credible. My train set still provided hours of entertainment, from my earliest days with my dad in the attic to later years playing with my brother. My dad always set out a ‘Grandad Dunham’s siding’ where we would deliver wagons of imaginary coal, oil, tar and creosote - presumably what real heads of household would buy in those days. By the time my brother was interested we were able to augment the layout with other toys and accessories so that the trains rattled through idyllic pastoral scenes of grazing farm animals and busy urban roads of matchbox cars.
Hornby Trains were the creation of Frank Hornby (1863-1936), who had earlier invented the Meccano construction kit. He developed Meccano for his children around 1898, marketing it as ‘The Mechanics Made Easy’ in 1901, and ‘Meccano’ from 1907. Hornby ‘O’ gauge trains (1:48 scale) were introduced in 1920, and made from metal pressings bolted together with Meccano. ‘OO’ gauge ‘Hornby Dublo’, approximately half the scale of ‘O’ gauge, was introduced in 1938, and made from diecast metal. Both gauge sizes were sold in both clockwork and electric versions before the Second World War, but afterwards Dublo was entirely electric. The company was, however, slow to adapt to changing conditions. Metal models were expensive to make but Hornby didn’t adopt plastic until 1959, which was much too late. Around the same time it invested in retooling ‘O’ gauge production when it should have discontinued it. It was bought out by its rival Triang in 1964. The Hornby and Meccano web sites give more detailed histories.
I have tried to re-construct my entire train set from internet images. I hope these are all in the public domain and copyright free, but if I have inadvertently infringed anyone’s rights then please get in touch and I’ll remove them.
I am going to call things by the names we used ourselves rather than their correct names, for example ‘railway gates’ instead of ‘level crossing’.
To begin, we had two locomotives as pictured above, or engines as we called them, one with tender in L.M.S. maroon livery and the other a black British Railways tank engine with the lion and wheel logo. The L.M.S. engine was part of the initial set and had three matching coaches, one a brake coach or guard’s van with protruding observation ports known as look-out duckets. We later acquired a second set of three coaches in red and cream livery.
Over and above the basic sections of track we had a set of railway gates which could be opened and closed, a turntable to reverse locomotives or place them in sidings, and a couple of buffer stops. We didn’t, however, have much trackside furniture other than a signal box and two signal posts, double and distance. The signal box was possibly the most unsatisfactory item in the train set. Its clanky lightness made it so obvious what everything was actually made of, which was pressed tinplate. I also wished the signals were of the kind that raised rather than lowered into the line clear position, as on our local railway. It may also be surprising we did not have a station platform, but we didn’t really need one. Wooden building bricks, cardboard boxes, Airfix kits, Meccano and Lego could be used to construct all the stations, goods yards, tunnels and roads we needed. Making was as fascinating as using.
One particularly attentive detail was that if you look carefully at the front of the engines, there are brackets for oil lamps to display a train headlamp code, and similar brackets on the coaches for lamps at the rear of the train. Miniature lamps, red or white, slid on to the brackets to indicate passenger trains, freight trains, and so on.*** Another nice touch was that the handles of the winding keys were shaped to act as rail width gauges, especially necessary after accidental adult footfalls.
I’m not sure whether I have collected all the right images for our freight wagons. We had at least one coal wagon, a cattle wagon, a flat bed truck, a petrol tanker, a milk wagon with milk churns and a guard’s or goods brake van. The cattle and milk vans had sliding doors to accommodate our toy farm animals and the milk churns. The guard’s van had hinged doors.
One advantage of ‘O’ gauge clockwork over ‘OO’ electric was that was that it could be set out just about anywhere, such as in the garden. I laid it out on the lawn during the school summer holidays when I was around fifteen, possibly the last time I used it, with a friend from next-door-but-one who was three years my junior. It looked right in the garden, as if meant there, but just as we’d finished assembling the track, two of my own aged school friends arrived on their bikes. It was a difficult and embarrassing clash of developmental phases, one of the Basil Bernstein moments I've mentioned previously, between two friends who shared my emerging teenage interests, and one with whom I still liked to play trains. I’m sorry to say the school friends won, although they did help put everything away into their red boxes. My younger friend went home, and I went off on my bike with my two school friends. I remember the day well because, in just retribution for my disloyalty, I sprained my ankle jumping over a fence. It puffed up like a balloon.
I don’t know what became of the train set. My brother must have had it for a time, and then I guess, as they do, my mother gave it away.
Nowadays children seem to have Brio, with its grooved jigsaw-jointed track and chunky minimalist trains connected by magnets. Just as Meccano was outsold by plastic Danish Lego, Hornby and Triang trains were overtaken by wooden Swedish Brio, triumphs of convenience over realism. They are not for the older children among us. I would happily play with my ‘O’ gauge train set again, if I still had it, but my children’s Brio, with the rest of their junk, is gathering dust in a box in the loft. Perhaps it says it all that to recreate my clockwork set at present day second-hand auction prices would now cost in excess of a thousand pounds, whereas a similar quantity of Brio could be gathered for less than fifty.
* Actually metal doesn't smell. Its distinctive odour is the caused by a chemical reaction between the metal and moisture from the skin which produces musty smelling aldehydes and ketones.
** I could be wrong, but I think because the Hornby sets were metal, they made an electrical connection between the two main rails of the track, and therefore a third rail was needed to provide power. The Triang sets did not have this problem because they were made of plastic.
*** There are several different express freight codes in the diagram to account for trains made up rolling stock with different brake configurations.