The origins of the Model Engineering hobby in Britain in the organised pattern familiar to us today can be traced back to the way in which local groups took form during the opening years of the twentieth century and affiliated, with remarkable speed, to the Society of Model Engineers founded in London in 1898.
Among the earliest provincial branches were those in Sheffield (1899) and Dundee (1900). Birmingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and Norwich got going in 1901. Tyneside was not slow to follow.
An advertisement in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 5 June 1902 suggested that a local Society had just been established and was still finding its feet:
By 1903 the Society was meeting regularly at Rutherford College in Bath Lane, exhibiting working models and issuing an open invitation to “anyone interested in Model Engines, Dynamics, &c.”
Since its subsequent story is probably already familiar to many, what follows here will attempt instead to explore some aspects of the “pre-history” of the model engineering hobby in the North East.
On 9 June 1881 the centenary of the birth of George Stephenson was marked with extensive and elaborate celebrations in Newcastle.
A local Bank Holiday was declared; the Central Station and all the principal streets were lavishly decorated, and newspaper reports described how “various Public Bodies, Friendly and Benefit Societies, Trade Councils and workmen connected with the workshops and factories of the towns of Newcastle and Gateshead and the surrounding district, together with the miners of Northumberland and Durham” marched in procession from Neville Street to listen to speeches on the Town Moor.
At the N.E.R. sidings “near the Infirmary”, several historic locomotives were on display, including the Killingworth, Billy – Stephenson’s Hetton Colliery engine, Locomotion No. 1 and the Derwent.
In the morning, a cavalcade of seventeen Modern Engines‟ (six NER; three L&YR; two each from the NBR, L&NWR and MR and one each from the GNR and LB&SCR) travelled from the Central Station to Stephenson’s birthplace at Wylam, where a commemorative oak tree was planted.
That evening, a grand banquet was held in the Assembly Rooms (tickets: one and a half guineas), where a toast to Stephenson’s memory was proposed by Sir William Armstrong, and the day concluded with a public concert and firework display in Leazes Park (tickets: 6d.)
At the Lit & Phil in Westgate Road, in a hall – lighted by twenty-four of Mr J.W. Swan‟s electric lamps, visitors inspected an “Exhibition of Model Locomotive Engines” organised by Mr J.A.Haswell, Assistant Locomotive Superintendent at the NER works in Gateshead, who also gave a lecture on the history of early locomotives.
His remarks accompanied a display of old models, many of which were set to work. These included Blenkinsop’s engine of 1811, lent by Mr Thomas Embleton of Methley, Stephenson’s, No. 1 of 1825, with the Invicta, both lent by Edward Fletcher, Locomotive Superintendent of the NER; and Stephenson’s, Rocket, lent by Mr. G.R. Stephenson.
An account from the Newcastle Journal gave details of other model locomotives on display :-
- “Express passenger engine, with inside cylinders, 4 driving wheels coupled, lent by J.Taylor, Darlington.
- Passenger locomotive engine, 4 wheels coupled, inside cylinder, lent by Thomas James, Hartlepool. The construction of this model occupied the leisure time of its maker for three years.
- Locomotive engine, with vertical cylinder (represented to be a model of the Royal Prize) made by Daniel Johnstone, whilst serving his apprenticeship with George Stephenson about 1830, lent by Mr. William Johnstone.
- Locomotive passenger engine on six wheels, 4 wheels coupled, made by Mr. John Fawcett, engineman, New Delaval.
- Locomotive express passenger engine, single driving wheels, made by and exhibited by Mr. William Kirton, blacksmith, Great Northern Railway, Doncaster; this is perhaps the most highly finished model in the exhibition.
- Tank locomotive engine, made by Mr. T. Hudson, Darlington; this is a well-finished model and runs round a circular railway…
- Mr George Goldsborough, Sunderland, exhibits a model of a locomotive branch passenger engine.
- Mr George R. Stephenson exhibits a model of a long-boiler locomotive engine; all the wheels are under the boiler; the first with direct action and slide valve motion.”
From the Census returns of the same year (1881) it has been possible to discover more about several of these pioneer model engineers.
James Taylor, born 1841, worked as an engine fitter in the NER works at Darlington.
Thomas James, born in 1832, and his 27-year old son of the same name, were also employed by the NER, as a locomotive superintendent and an engine fitter respectively.
John Fawcett, aged 40, operated stationary engines at New Delaval.
George Goldsborough, aged 35, was a “locomotive store keeper”,
and Thomas Hudson, born c. 1825, managed an iron foundry in Darlington, where his model tank engine had previously run on its circular race at a Polytechnic Exhibition in 1855.
It is notable that, in almost every case, these early model makers were professional engineers. Many had direct connections with the North Eastern Railway, a company which not only celebrated its industrial heritage but also gave strong encouragement to employees interested in model engineering.
At a Grand Engineering Exhibition held at Gateshead Town Hall in September 1883, the Newcastle Courant reported how “The working models … were the chief centre of attention. A large number of models have been sent by the North-Eastern Railway Works, North Road, Darlington, and by workmen engaged there. Chief among them are two models representing No. 1 locomotive and a model passenger engine…the modern one especially being a very perfect piece of mechanism. It was made by R. Cairns, who has frequently been awarded prizes for his work.”
In a well-received address at the opening of the Exhibition, Alexander McDonnell, who had succeeded Edward Fletcher as NER Locomotive Superintendent, praised the model engineers: “These exhibitions were extremely useful as showing what men were able to do when left entirely to their own skill. They gave a stimulant to working men, and they afforded an opportunity of bringing out local talent and local power…Mechanical workmen ought to be very careful in remembering that the rest of the world was now competing with them on much greater equality than was the case forty or fifty years ago…Exhibitions of that kind they were there that night to open drew the attention of working men generally to the skill necessary to enable them to hold their own with the rest of the world”.
At around the same period, the Summer Flower Shows, which were popular annual events in many North East communities, began to include “Industrial” sections, with competitive classes for Model Engineers from which NER employees often emerged triumphant.
Robert Cairns, mentioned above in connection with the Gateshead Exhibition of 1883, was one such man.
Born in 1842 and a foreman in the engineering shops at Darlington, one of his model locomotives had been judged “pre-eminent” at Shildon Show in 1879, where he exhibited regularly in subsequent years.
His colleague John McKaig, an engineering draughtsman born in 1851, took first prize with another model locomotive at Spennymoor in 1883 and was judged to have the “best locomotive not in motion” at Shildon in 1884, when Christopher Dawson of New Herrington took first prize for “a beautiful model locomotive”, winning £4, the approximate equivalent of two week‟ wages.
Dawson, an engine fitter and “small machinery repairer” born in 1846, was one of the region‟s most prominent model engineers for many years, still exhibiting at Darlington in 1890 and at the Old Penshaw Leek Club Show in 1892, as reported by the Evening Chronicle on 20 September of that year.
But interest in the hobby was not confined to professional experts.
In July 1881, only weeks after the Stephenson Centenary celebrations, the Newcastle Courant advised its general readers that “The Polytechnic Exhibition at the Central Exchange Art Gallery, Newcastle, is well worth a visit.
The collection of model locomotives and steam engines is most interesting”.
Advertisements in local newspapers provide random glimpses of how amateurs or the less well-off might pursue their enthusiasm. On 20 December 1869, for example, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle announced what seems to have been a raffle: “The Model Locomotive Engine will be disposed of tonight, at seven o’clock, at the North-Eastern Hotel, Newcastle, where tickets may be had till that hour.”
In 1873 the Newcastle Journal was carrying regular advertisements from W. Muir & Co., “Mechanical Engineers, Model Makers, &c.”
In Whitehaven, offering “Model Locomotive Engines, with Carriages, Packed in box from 8s. Complete. All descriptions of Steam Engines, &c., made to order, from 17s. 6d. to £2000.”
In 1877, Mawson, Swan & Marston (as they then were), of Grey Street, Newcastle, offered “MODEL STEAM ENGINES, Models of Locomotives, Vertical and Horizontal Engines, &c. Finished parts, Castings and Fittings for Model Steam Engines.”
Unfortunately, details are lacking, and it has not been possible to discover information about dimensions, gauges or even what prototypes might have been available.
An advertisement in the Evening Chronicle on 18 September 1896 was unusually specific: “MODEL LOCOMOTIVE (nearly finished) for Sale: Tennant four-coupled express passenger…Apply Addleshaw, Model Engineering Works, Percy Street, Newcastle.” What were the “Model Engineering Works” – in Percy Street? Did this model Tennant locomotive find a new owner? Was it ever finished? Did it run? What, eventually, became of it and, indeed, of all the other early models? Do any still survive?
For now, at least, these questions remain unanswered, but perhaps other members know more…