Early Public Miniature Railways in Great Britain (1901-1918)
This overview summarises the development of the public passenger carrying miniature railway in Great Britain, from the first such railways of 1901 up to the end of the First World War in 1918. Only brief details are given for each railway, many of which were only laid down in connection with various exhibitions. Details of many of the lines mentioned here are, at best, sketchy and, apart from the larger well-known examples which have been better documented, would benefit from being properly researched. Anyone who has any further information, additions or corrections, is welcome to contact the Author via scott.pe[at]btinternet.com. We start with a quick round-up of the private miniature railway scene prior to 1901.
Private Miniature Railways - up to 1901
The earliest miniature railways in Great Britain were built on private grounds and estates. Queen Victoria had only been on the throne for a few years, when the first such railway opened in 1843 at Alresford, Hampshire. Of an unknown gauge it closed around 1864 on the death of its owner Lord Robert Rodney. Much better documented are the activities of Sir Arthur Heywood, who built his first railway to a gauge of 9" at his father's Dove Leys residence in Denstone, Staffordshire around 1865. This used merely a hand powered "locomotive", but following his marriage, he moved to Duffield House in Derbyshire and started building his 15" gauge Duffield Bank Railway in 1874. This railway lasted until his death in 1916 - the railway at Dove Leys being removed around 1898. In Scotland, a line was built around 1866 on the Ardkinglas Estate, on shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll. The gauge is not known, but may have been 18", and certainly between 15" & 2ft. The estate was visited by Queen Victoria in 1875, but it is not known whether the monarch took a ride on the line! It closed around 1900. Captain Harry Bridson owned a short-lived railway (1876-1878) at Dartmouth in Devon. Gauge is thought to have been around 10¼". This gauge was adopted for the Pitmaston Moor Green Railway of Sir John Holder, which opened in the 1890s at his home in Moor Green, Birmingham. The Duke of Westminster was the only person to take up Arthur Heywood's ideas of a practical 15" gauge estate railway and he duly built the Eaton Hall Railway on his large country estate near Chester. Construction commenced in 1895 and the line lasted until 1947 - proving to be the most durable of all these early private railways - as it actually provided a useful transport function. The 6th Marquis of Downshire ordered a complete 18" gauge railway in 1893 for his estate at Easthampstead, near Wokingham in Berkshire. The railway, with a GNR 4-2-2 locomotive, does not seem to have lasted very long and was gone by 1898. One should note the titles of the owners of these lines - a fair amount of money (and space) was required to build and operate these private miniature railways! Although technically outside the remit of this article, the final private railway to be noted in this brief round-up was built by the Reverend Preston in the grounds of Julianstown Rectory in County Meath, Ireland. Gauge was probably 21" and the line lasted from 1898 to around 1928 and featured hand power, with a steam outline "locomotive".
The First Public Miniature Railways - 1901
This brings us up to the turn of the century and the opening of the first public passenger carrying miniature railways in Great Britain. Queen Victoria passed away on 22nd January 1901 and the Edwardian era marked a number of public miniature railways - many being operated as part of large scale exhibitions, which were poplar in the period to up the start of the First World War. Many of these exhibitions featured some form of amusements as an element of their offering, keeping visitors, especially perhaps the children, entertained. 1901 saw two exhibitions held, which both featured American built locomotives on their railways. The Cagney Brothers of New York produced complete train sets, which were intended to be purchased by Showmen and the like for amusement park use. In doing this, they were ahead of the British and hence many railways of this period used Cagney equipment. The locomotive they produced was a small 4-4-0 - naturally of American outline - and of varying gauges. They were designed, not as an extract replica, but for intensive use on passenger trains. It must be said that many of the Cagney locomotives mentioned below, were probably the same ones, which merely moved between the railways concerned. After all, that is what they were designed for!
An International Exhibition was held in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow from Thursday 2nd May to Saturday 4th November 1901. A miniature railway was laid down in the grounds, and assuming it opened on the first day of the exhibition (and there is no reason to think it didn't - as The Scotsman of 1st May noted the railway was "ready for public inspection"), this was the very first public passenger carrying miniature railway in Great Britain. The line was 15" gauge and a run of 160 yards - probably in an "E" layout. Motive power was a Cagney class D locomotive. Only a few days later, on Saturday 4th May 1901, the Military Exhibition at Earl's Court, in Kensington, London opened. The official plan showed that "No.28" was an "American Miniature Railroad". This railway was laid to the unusual gauge of 12⅝", with a Cagney class C locomotive. The exhibition closed on Saturday 19th October 1901. Although only temporary in nature, these were the very first of hundreds of public miniature railways in the country.
1902 - 1905
An Arts & Industrial Exhibition was held in West Park, Wolverhampton from 1st May to 8th November 1902, which featured two railways operated by Cagney locomotives - one of 12⅝" gauge and one of 15" gauge. These may well have used the track and locomotives from the lines at Earl's Court and Glasgow, respectively. 1902 also saw the construction of a private 15" gauge estate railway at Blakesley Hall in Northamptonshire by the local squire, Charles Bartholomew. Although a private railway, it did carry passengers during an annual village event. Motive power was, yet again, a Cagney locomotive - on this occasion not being used as intended on an amusement park line.
Alexandra Palace in north London was used for a number of exhibitions and on Saturday 30th May 1903 an International Exhibition of Arts & Industries took place there. At the same time a 15" gauge railway was laid in the grounds, some 150 yards in length and using a Cagney locomotive and covered coaches. The exhibition was to run through until the autumn and on Thursday 17th September 1903 the British and International Aeronautical Exhibition also opened at the same venue. (This was timely as on 17th December 1903 the Wright Brothers achieved the first controlled, sustained, powered flight!). The railway apparently lasted until April 1904 when it was removed.
What was the first public 10¼" gauge railway opened on Good Friday, 1st April 1904 at Woodside Retreat, Bricket Wood, near St Albans. This employed a 0-4-4T locomotive built by George Flooks and Fred Smithies. The line was an "E" layout of 200 yards in length. This railway attracted the interest of Northampton model maker W J Bassett-Lowke, who had presumably also been watching the success of the Cagney products and thought it might be time for a British company to take a share of the miniature railway business! Bassett-Lowke and designer Henry Greenly formed Miniature Railways of Great Britain Limited and acquired the Bricket Wood line. They relaid it for the 1905 season on a site adjacent to Abington Park in Northampton. This line opened on Easter Saturday, 22nd April 1905. The line at Bricket Wood was regauged by George Flooks to 12" gauge (to give extra stability) and reopened as such for the 1905 season - the first railway of that gauge.
1905 also saw the opening of the first permanent 15" gauge railway in the country - that is designed to be in situ more than just a few months in connection with exhibitions. This was constructed by Miniature Railways of Great Britain Limited on the South Shore Sands at Blackpool and opened on Whit Monday, 12th June 1905. It was formed of a circuit of track with a length of 433 yards. Motive power was a "Little Giant" 4-4-2 locomotive designed by Greenly and built at the Bassett-Lowke works in Northampton - the first of many similar locomotives. The railway lasted until 1909.
The former Royal Botanical Gardens in Old Trafford, Manchester were converted into the White City amusement park, which opened to the public on Whit Monday, 20th May 1907. The park contained a 15" gauge miniature railway, operated by a Cagney locomotive, which ran around a lake. The railway was advertised for sale in July 1909, but the amusement park remained open until 1928. Miniature Railways of Great Britain Limited moved their 10¼" gauge railway from Abington Park, Northampton to Sutton Park, near Sutton Coldfield. The relocated railway opened there in June 1907 (the line was regauged to 15" over the winter of 1907/1908 and then operated until 1962).
The Imperial International Exhibition was held at the White City, Shepherds Bush, London in 1909 and featured a 15" gauge railway, which was equipped by Miniature Railways of Great Britain Limited. The exhibition itself opened on Thursday 20th May 1909, but the railway did not open until mid-August. Motive power was a Bassett-Lowke "Little Giant" locomotive and the line was formed of a balloon loop, although on return trains had to reverse into the station. The exhibition closed on Saturday 16th October 1909.
A Festival of Empire Exhibition had been planned to open at Crystal Palace on Tuesday 24th May 1910 and for this a 15" gauge line was laid around the Great Fountain basin on the Second Terrace. However, the death of King Edward VII on 6th May 1910, delayed the Exhibition for a year. Despite this the railway, operated by a Cagney locomotive, seems to have run for various events held at Crystal Palace at least for the period of the planned Exhibition until mid-July. The death of the King brought to an end a period which had seen the operation of the first public miniature railways in Great Britain. However, the reign of his successor, King George V, would see the development of the miniature railway continue unabated. Indeed, 1910 saw the opening of two permanent 15" gauge railways. On Saturday 14th May 1910 a line opened at Halifax Zoo & Pleasure Gardens at Chevinedge, near Halifax. Operated by the original Bassett-Lowke "Little Giant" locomotive (now suitably renamed "Little Elephant"), it consisted of a circuit of around 560 yards in length. The railway closed just after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Southend has long been popular with visitors from London and an amusement park called Luna Park (later the Kursaal) had opened near the seafront. A permanent 15" gauge railway opened in the park in July 1910, with a Cagney locomotive. The line later under-went a number of iterations, with the last finally closing in 1938. A post-war 10¼" gauge line only lasted for three seasons from 1948 to 1950.
Another line operated by a 15" gauge Cagney locomotive ran in connection with the International Ancient Art Exhibition, held at Earl's Court between Friday 19th May and October 1911. The Exhibition was opened by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.
Two of our most well-known, and indeed long-lived, miniature railways opened in 1911. The Rhyl Miniature Railway was constructed by Miniature Railways of Great Britain Limited and opened on Monday 1st May. It ran for almost 1 mile around Marine Lake, immediately west of the town and close to the seafront. The railway still runs to this day, but suffered a period of closure, with the track removed, between 1969 and 1978. Just a few weeks later, on 27th May 1911 the Lakeside Miniature Railway opened in Southport. Then known as Llewelyn's Miniature Railway, after its founder, it ran for 500 yards alongside Marine Lake. The line was extended after the Second World War and is still running to this day - our longest lived miniature railway in continuous service on the same site. Both these railways were initially operated with Bassett-Lowke "Little Giant" locomotives.
In 1912 a 12" gauge railway opened at the Paddocks Sports Ground, South Harrow. This was operated by George Flooks (who previously ran the line at Bricket Wood mentioned above). The 130 yard long line closed at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. A Children's Welfare Exhibition was held at London's Olympia from 31st December 1912 to 11th January 1913. This featured the first public 7¼" gauge railway in Great Britain. The exhibition was opened by Mrs Winston Churchill, who took a ride on the railway! It is reported 8,000 people rode on the line during the period of the exhibition, which was housed in the annexe of Olympia. The railway was supplied by Bassett-Lowke who also had large display of their garden railway equipment in the exhibition. Motive power was a LNWR George V locomotive.
The Liverpool Exhibition at Edge Lane in the city ran from 22nd May 1913 until October of the same year. Like so many similar exhibitions it was not a commercial success, but among the amusements was a Cagney operated 15" gauge railway. The Second Children's Welfare Exhibition, again held at London's Olympia, took place between Easter Saturday, 11th April and Thursday 30th April 1914. This time Bassett-Lowke installed a 9½" gauge railway - the first public railway on this gauge. A photograph shows what appears to be a GNR 4-4-2 locomotive as being employed. The exhibition was opened by Queen Amelia of Portugal, although it was not reported whether or not she took a ride on the railway! Like the 1913 exhibition, the line ran in the annexe, this time featuring a Cornish theme.
The Anglo-Spanish Travel Exhibition took place at Earl's Court, Kensington, London in 1914, opening on Thursday 28th May and closing in October. Again this featured a 15" gauge railway and a Cagney locomotive - it probably used the same loco, coaches and track from the Liverpool Exhibition of 1913 - the driver looks remarkably the same in two postcard views of the respective railways!
The outbreak of the First World War on 4th August 1914 did not seem to stem the opening of new miniature railways, although it did bring to a halt to the exhibitions and their associated railways. Easter 1915 saw the opening of a 7¼" gauge railway at a location called the Beauty Spot at Ilkeston, thus becoming the first permanent public railway of that gauge. A line of some 100 yards in length was laid and operated by Louis Shaw - a real pioneer of the 7¼" gauge. The line lasted throughout the war, but was removed after the 1923 season and moved to Mablethorpe on the east coast.
Remarkably it might seem to us now, two long-standing and very well-known 15" gauge railways opened during the First World War. It must be remembered, though, the "Great" war did not have the same countrywide impact as did the Second World War. The Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, formed by Bassett-Lowke's Narrow Gauge Railways Limited, took over the disused 3ft gauge line in Cumbria originally built to service the extraction of minerals in the area. The first section of the regauged railway opened to Muncaster Mill on 28th August 1915. In Wales, the same company took over a horse drawn tramway in Fairbourne, across the estuary from Barmouth. With the line converted to 15" gauge, the Fairbourne Miniature Railway opened to passengers in the early summer of 1916. Both of these railways are still in operation today - although the Fairbourne Railway now operates on 12¼" gauge track. These two railways bring us up to the end of the First World War and the period under review in this summary.
© Peter Scott
(Updated April 2021)