Large Scale Miniature Railways of the 1930s
This article is neither a detailed historical study of the events of the time, nor an attempt to describe the comprehensive history of the various railways mentioned. It does, however, portray the background to the construction of a number of similar railways at a time when events elsewhere would have seemed to conspire against such developments. All photographs are from the author's collection. Note: this is an extended version of the article, which previously appeared in The Narrow Gauge No.182 (Autumn 2003).
The 1930s were certainly a boom time for large scale miniature railways employing internal combustion steam outline locomotives and it is specifically these railways this study is dedicated to. Here "large scale", means those with a gauge greater than the usually recognised maximum for a miniature railway of 15in. Although by definition narrow gauge, the railways under consideration were (and are) normally viewed and known as miniature. The first such railway opened in April 1928 at Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire and in the period from then up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 similar lines followed at Wicksteed Park in Kettering (1931), North Bay at Scarborough (1931), Golden Acre Park in Leeds (1932), Blackpool Pleasure Beach (1933), Trentham Gardens near Stoke-on-Trent (1934), Maidstone Zoo (1937), Glasgow Empire Exhibition (1938), Butlin's Amusement Park at Clacton (1939), Wilson's Pleasure Park at Allhallows-on-Sea (1939) and finally Barton Ferry near Nottingham (1939). See summary below for further details of each of these railways.
The period of greatest activity (1931-1934) closely matches that of the economic slump of the 1930s - the "Great Depression". So why did so many railways of this type open at this time? An interesting question, which this article will try to answer - but two locomotive builders in this country were very glad that they did! Hudswell Clarke & Company Limited of Leeds and Baguley from Burton-on-Trent, with just two exceptions, built all the locomotives and rolling stock for railways listed above. The main advantage of this type of the railway was two-fold. Firstly, the relatively large gauge meant a good number of passengers could be moved in comfort. Secondly, being powered by internal combustion, motive power was immediately available and skilled staff familiar with the intricacies of steam locomotives were not required. Trains could be run with a flick of switch (or the wind of a starting handle!). A steam outline body on the locomotive made them more appealing to any prospective passengers.
The 1930s - a brief history lesson
The end of the First World War came in 1918 and a proportion of the population emerged from the war with middle class ambitions: home ownership with more leisure pursuits and possibly a car - 1 million cars were in private hands by 1930. The late 1920s were the start of motoring for pleasure. Large roadside pubs and other facilities were built to service the touring motorist, who would, along the way be looking for attractions to visit like gardens, parks, castles etc. The UK population showed a steady growth - 1911: 40,831,000; 1921: 42,769,000; 1931: 44,795,000 (the 2019 figure was 66,000,000). A change was marked in 1929 when a second Labour Government came to power, although it was events elsewhere in the world that were to have a dramatic effect on this country.
On 29th October 1929 the infamous Wall Street crash occurred, when millions of dollars were wiped off US share values in a matter of hours forcing the closure of many US banks and leading to the recall of US investments overseas. This had serious repercussions on the European economy and led to a steep fall in the levels of international trade as countries attempted to protect their domestic economies. In the United Kingdom these events caused a downward spiral of trade and employment beyond the control of any Government. Unemployment rose alarmingly - by the end of 1930 it was nearly double the figure of 1928, and would reach 3 million (22%) in 1932 at the bottom of the slump. The best year of the 1930s was 1937 (11%). The effect of all this was felt most in the traditional industries - violent contraction took place in coal, steel, textiles and shipbuilding - industries generally centred in the north of the country. As unemployment took its toll, hunger marches and demonstrations were held by those worst affected - the most famous being the "Jarrow Crusade" of 1936 from Jarrow, on Tyneside, to London protesting at the high level of unemployment following the closure of Palmer's Shipyard in the town. It proved a landmark event of the depression. There was no sign of a recovery until 1935. Not until the impact of rearmament in the period that followed the 1935 Defence White Paper, with its emphasis on engineering and aircraft production, was a there a significant increase in employment, although the level of the 1920s was not reached until after the Second World War.
However, outside the industrial regions crucified by the depression - life was acceptable and in many ways agreeable. The thirties were a time of very low inflation, cheap housing, and a growing choice for consumers. An average of 345,000 houses were built annually between 1933 and 1937. The motor car industries, electrical and chemical concerns continued to thrive. In the Midlands, towns like Leicester and Coventry experienced unprecedented growth and affluence. This was also the period of the growth of suburban life, perhaps best typified by "Metroland" in the north west of London. Between 1918 and 1939 two-thirds of all new jobs in the country were based in London. Under the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, paid holidays (initially only one week per year) were made compulsory in many occupations and by 1939, 11 million people were entitled to a holiday. The Act had barely enough time to have any real affect, before the outbreak of the Second World War on Sunday 3rd September 1939. This then was the background to the 1930s - a period of severe economic depression whose effects varied considerably depending on where you lived and what your occupation was.
The Locomotive building industry in the 1930s
Most of the railways considered here saw vast numbers of passengers during the 1930s, so at least a proportion of the population had money for a holiday or an occasional day out. In fact in the days before holidays abroad became possible, the 1930s saw passenger figures on some railways rarely equalled today. The fact that what would today be called the "leisure industry" seemed to be doing well during this time, fortunately (for them) coincided with bad times for railway locomotive manufacturers. Companies like Hudswell Clarke and Baguley's relied on those (depressed) traditional industries (at home and abroad) for the majority of their business. Indeed Baguley's only built one locomotive in 1930. In Rodney Weaver's 1975 book on the company there is a photograph captioned "Group comprises whole of staff remaining in employment. Height of the Industrial Blizzard 1931". The situation was little different at Hudswell Clarke. The labour force there had been reduced to an absolute minimum, with many good men laid off. Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock suffered as well - the works was virtually shut down with only the odd order and the supply of spares to keep things afloat. Their locomotive output for the years 1930 to 1935 reflected the general dire state of the railway locomotive building industry: 1930-9, 1931-8, 1932-3, 1933-5, 1934-6 and 1935-12. Two other well-known builders failed to survive. Avonside Engine Company Limited of Bristol went into voluntary liquidation on 29th November 1934, while Kitson & Company Limited of Leeds called in the receiver in the same year. It is unlikely that just building miniature railway equipment saved Hudswell Clarke and Baguley, but the work must have been very welcome at a desperate time. At least it allowed meaningful employment for a few staff.
Why did so many railways of the type discussed open in the 1930s? It can probably be surmised that changes in life style of certain sections of the population following the First World War brought about more time and money for leisure. Along with greater mobility the motor car afforded, this allowed the development of "tourist attractions" at inland and traditional seaside locations. Many of these added a miniature railway to their offering for the visitor. An article in the Nottingham Journal of Friday 12th July 1929 amply demonstrates this car based mobility to reach such attractions. The article, titled "Motoring for Pleasure - A Run to One of the Stately Homes of England" describes a "good day's outing" by car from Nottingham to Lilleshall Hall near Newport in Shropshire. The suggested tour route ran from Nottingham to Derby, Burton, Litchfield and then a circular route via Rugeley, Stafford, Newport, Lilleshall Hall, back to Litchfield and thence to Nottingham. The Hall had only recently opened as a tourist attraction, with a 2ft gauge miniature railway added in 1928 (see below). The writer of the article describes the attractions on offer and adds "Then we discover the miniature railway, one of the great attractions, will take us through the woods and park to "Abbey Station".
Whether the promoters of these railways were aware of earlier similar lines cannot be said with certainty. It is likely, though, with connections in both industries Hudswell Clarke at least seemed eager to publicise their miniature railway locomotives. As already mentioned, the type of railway, with its large gauge and steam outline locomotives, was ideal for moving those very large crowds, which visited the attractions at the time - and with a flick of a switch the train was ready for the off! Some of the railways led a somewhat obscure existence, but it is interesting (but probably not significant) to note that of those opened during the period 1928-1933, all but one of the five survive to this day. While of the six lines built between 1934 and 1939, none remain today - although it has to be admitted the line at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition was only planned to operate for the duration of the exhibition in the summer of 1938. The line at Allhallows-on-Sea was still-born, opening shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Summary of Railways (in order of opening)
Lilleshall Abbey & Woodland Railway, Newport, Shropshire
Lilleshall Hall, laying in the original Lilleshall Abbey Estate, was completed in 1750 and for many years was owned by successive Dukes of Sutherland. The family sold the Hall and grounds in 1917 and in 1927 it was acquired by Herbert Ford. He developed the Hall and Gardens into a tourist attraction. The guide book was titled "Lovely Lilleshall", adding "see Lilleshall and know the thrill of living". On offer to visitors were: lunches & teas in the Hall, tennis courts, putting greens, archery, bowling greens, children's playground, formal gardens, abbey ruins and a 2ft gauge railway. Opened on Easter Saturday, 7th April 1928, the line was a balloon loop of 1 mile, giving a full ride of 1¼ miles. Stations were provided at "Lilleshall Hall" (the terminus) and "Abbey" on the return loop in the woods. Apparently, internal combustion motive power was chosen to protect valuable plants alongside the line from damage by a steam locomotive. The line was presumably a success as a second steam outline locomotive was ordered from Baguley, arriving in May 1929. The Hall and railway were closed at the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939.
Lakeside Railway, Wicksteed Park, Kettering, Northamptonshire
Wicksteed Park, just to the south of Kettering, was laid out immediately following the First World War by Philanthropist and Engineer, Charles Wicksteed. He formed the Wicksteed Park Trust in 1916 to build and run the Park as a place for local people and their children to enjoy. Gradually, amusements were added - a water chute and a miniature railway being two examples. Charles Wicksteed had visited Lilleshall Abbey and was apparently very impressed by the 2ft gauge railway there (as described above), so decided to install a similar railway in his Park - using the same manufacturer for the locomotives. Tragically, Charles Wicksteed died on 19th March 1931 - only a couple of weeks before his new railway opened on Good Friday, 3rd April 1931. The 2ft gauge railway was formed of a circuit of track, 1¼ miles in length, round the Park and large lake. The main station was close to the formal gardens. Baguley supplied two steam outline locomotives, which worked the railway until 1966, when they were joined by another steam outline locomotive built by Motor Rail of Bedford. Alan Keef Limited supplied some new covered coaches in 2004 and then a brand new steam outline locomotive in 2010. Otherwise, the railway has remained as built - aside from a few minor track realignments.
North Bay Railway, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
In the 1920s Scarborough Borough Council was developing attractions in the North Bay area of the town. This was a time when most seaside resort Local Authorities were investing heavily to improve their amenities - boating lakes, bathing pools, formal gardens etc - to attract holiday makers to their towns. At North Bay, the Borough Council were to construct a boating lake, water chute, open air theatre, gardens and a miniature railway. The track layout was an end-to-end run of 1,300 yards between Northstead Manor Gardens at Peasholm and Scalby Mills, with an intermediate station near the beach. The gauge was 20in. The Borough Council applied to take out a loan of £19,125 for the complete project - £5,000 being for the railway. The Government agreed to the loan - the work helping to offset the effects of the depression in providing employment for local men. Hudswell Clarke beat off competition from Baguley and Bassett-Lowke to equip the railway and the company supplied a steam outline 4-6-2 based on a LNER A3 locomotive, which featured hydraulic transmission using a torque converter - a world first. The railway opened on Whit Saturday, 23rd May 1931 and was an instant success. A second identical locomotive was ordered for the 1932 season, arriving in April of that year. The Council directly operated the railway until 2007 when they awarded a 25 year lease for its operation to the North Bay Railway Company. This company obtained the two Hudswell Clarke locomotives that had previously run at Golden Acre Park and brought them to Scarborough. The railway continues to run and provides a useful transport function in the North Bay area.
Golden Acre Park Railway, Leeds, West Yorkshire
Golden Acre Park, to the north of Leeds near Bramhope, was designed to be visited by those with a car, although it was accessible to some extent by public transport from Leeds. The grounds on which the amusement park was built had original been intended to be developed for housing. The estate was purchased by successful Leeds house builder, Herbert Thompson in 1925. Only a few houses were ever built and Herbert's son, Frank Thompson, turned the land into Golden Acre Amusement Park. Planning, which was to include a miniature railway, began in 1926 and construction was underway by August 1931. The Park was officially opened on Maundy Thursday, 24th March 1932, for invited guests at 3pm, with the public admitted from 4.30pm. The railway, although only part built at that time, opened on the same day. The line was 20in gauge, with a steam outline locomotive and coaches supplied by Hudswell Clarke. The full line, a circuit of some 1¼ miles around a large lake and with three stations, was completed by Saturday 14th May 1932 for the Whitsun weekend. The Park and railway were successful enough for another locomotive to be obtained from Hudswell Clarke for the 1933 season. Despite early popularity, the Park proved not to be commercially viable and it closed at the end of the 1938 season on Sunday 18th September - advertising it would reopen at Easter 1939. However, the owners never reopened it.
Pleasure Beach Express, Blackpool, Lancashire
Blackpool Pleasure Beach is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. It has its roots in various amusements, which were set up on the South Shore at Blackpool in the 1890s. Among these, William Bean became the leading operator and on 23rd April 1896, he founded the Pleasure Beach Company, planning it as an "American style Amusement Park". By 1904 Bean owned all the land required for the Pleasure Beach and he started adding attractions, including Sir Hiram Maxim's Flying Machine - one of the most well-known of the early rides. When William Bean died in 1929, management of the Pleasure Beach passed to his son-in-law Leonard Thompson, who started a period of steady development. This included the construction of a 21in gauge miniature railway, for which planning started in 1932. The line was formed of a circuit of 1,200 yards with a station in LMSR style and a timber recreation of the Forth Bridge. Hudswell Clarke supplied two steam outline locomotives and accompanying rolling stock. The railway opened in May 1933 - the two locomotives departing from the manufacturer on Tuesday 9th May - so presumably the new line opened a short time after that date. Another steam outline locomotive was supplied by Hudswell Clarke in 1935, along with some more coaches. The railway continues to operate, although there have been some changes to the track layout and alignment. Being one of the older attractions, the majority of the today's Pleasure Beach has been built around it.
Trentham Gardens Railway, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Originally the home of the Duke of Sutherland (like Lilleshall) the original Trentham Hall was built around 1633, but virtually reconstructed from 1834 - extensive gardens being laid out at this time. The family abandoned the Hall in 1905, due to the nearby River Trent becoming polluted by foul sewage and it was demolished soon after. However, the gardens survived and were opened to the public in 1910 and during the 1930s were developed with a swimming pool, café and 2ft gauge railway. The new line was opened on Good Friday, 30th March 1934 and ran for almost 1 mile along the western side of the 83 acre Trentham Lake. It was end-to-end layout with a station at each terminus. Motive power was originally one steam outline locomotive and a larger, similar, locomotive was provided in 1935. As Trentham increased in popularity another even larger example was obtained in 1938. All these locomotives and all the coaches were supplied by Baguley. The railway survived the Second World War and Trentham Gardens saw further developments in the 1960s such as cable car system in 1969. However, by the late 1970s it was struggling and was put up for sale by the Countess of Sutherland. The new owners had ambitious plans, which never came to fruition and the railway closed at the end of 1987 season.
Maidstone Zoo Railway, Maidstone, Kent
Maidstone Zoo was established by Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake at Cobtree Manor, just north of Maidstone in Kent and opened on Monday 26th March 1934. To make access easier for visitors to the Zoo a 2ft gauge railway was constructed, opening on Sunday 21st March 1937 - the first day of the season the Zoo was open and a week before Easter. The line ran almost in a straight line for 500 yards from the car park at the entrance to the Cobtree estate on the Rochester to Maidstone road, along the south side of the driveway, up to the Zoo entrance, near the manor house. The locomotive, which had a steam outline, may have been constructed by Avery Brothers of Maidstone. Sometime after the war it was replaced by a Ruston diesel locomotive from a local industrial site. The coaches were locally produced, using a frame mounted on two skip chassis to form a bogie coach, which had tram style seats. The line survived the Second World War - the Zoo remaining open except for a short period immediately after war was declared in September 1939. However, Zoo and railway closed on 4th October 1959.
Glasgow Empire Exhibition, Bellahouston, Glasgow
In December 1937 Billy Butlin won the sole concession to provide an amusement park adjacent to the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. Butlin, the "Holiday Camp King", had only opened his first camp at Skegness two years previously, but had been in the amusement park business since the 1920s. The Empire Exhibition site was at Bellahouston Park on the west side of Glasgow and was opened on Tuesday 3rd May 1938 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Among the attractions Billy Butlin had provided in the amusement park were: Scenic Mountain Railway, Octopus Ride, Dodgems, Petrol Speedway, Indian Theatre, Ghost Train, Walzer, Caterpillar, African Village and a 21in gauge miniature railway. The line ran around three sides of the amusement park and formed a "dumb-bell" layout with a passing loop half way along the single track section, behind the Scenic Mountain Railway. The two stations were located on the return loops at each end. The route length of the railway was 820 yards, with a total track length including the passing loop of 930 yards. A typical ride from station to station would have been around 660 yards. For motive power and rolling stock, Billy Butlin went to Hudswell Clarke and they supplied two steam outline 4-6-2s, third scale replicas of the LMSR "Princess Royal" class, and identical to one at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Normally only one train was in use, the spare locomotive and stock being stabled on the passing loop. At busy times both trains were used, passing at the intermediate loop. The exhibition and amusement park closed on Saturday 29th October 1938. Virtually the whole exhibition and amusement park was then cleared, the site again becoming Bellahouston Park. Nothing now remains to show there was once a large amusement park, let alone a 21" gauge railway.
Butlin's Amusement Park, Clacton, Essex
Billy Butlin opened his second Holiday Camp at Clacton on Saturday 11th June 1938, although his adjacent amusement park had already opened on 12th May 1937. In 1939 he transferred the locomotives and stock (and presumably the track) from his 21in gauge line, which had operated in the amusement park adjacent to the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, to his amusement park at Clacton. The new railway opened there on Saturday 27th May 1939 and was probably formed of a balloon loop of 680 yards, although at some stage the layout was altered. The Holiday Camp, amusement park and railway closed during the Second War World, but the park and presumably the railway reopened in July 1945. The railway closed at the end of the 1954 season and new chalets were built over the site of the railway. However, around 1959 a 2ft gauge railway was opened inside the Holiday Camp. Butlin's closed the Camp at the end of 1983 season and it (and the railway) lasted just one season under new ownership as Atlas Park, until finally closing in September 1984.
Wilsons Pleasure Railway, Allhallows-on-Sea, Kent
Allhallows-on-Sea, on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent, was an invention of a 1930s development firm. The area had been popular in the 1920s with day trippers visiting the nearby sandy beach and the company sought to sell building plots for holiday homes and construct a large amusement park, zoological gardens, yachting centre, the largest swimming pool in the country, holiday camp, hotels, restaurants, theatres and cinemas. Work was to start in March 1937 - but very little of planned development was ever built. However, at least part of the amusement park was constructed, which was run by showman William Wilson and it seems to have opened on Whit Saturday 3rd June 1939. Wilson also built a 1,000 yard long 2ft gauge miniature railway, linking the park to the railway station (which had been opened in 1932 in anticipation of the planned developments), with a Baguley steam outline locomotive and two coaches. These were ordered in May 1939 and were completed by mid-July 1939 (being photographed at Baguley's works on 14th July). They were presumably delivered to Allhallows-on-Sea soon afterwards and the railway opened. There is only one known photograph of the line in operation, which was known as "Wilsons Pleasure Railway". The amusement park and railway closed with the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939 - the most short-lived of all the railways studied in this article!
Barton Ferry, Attenborough, Nottinghamshire
The area around the Ferry across the River Trent at Barton in Fabis, south west of Nottingham, was popular with day trippers in the Victorian era and through to the early 1950s. An obscure and little-known 2ft gauge railway is recorded here in 1939. Running for about 200 yards between the Ferry and Ferry Farm, it was owned and operated by Thomas H Barton of the well-known local bus company, Barton Transport. Motive power was a steam outline petrol railcar, probably built by the bus company and certainly using some bus components. It is presumed the railway closed at the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939.
Two other railways from the 1930s should also be noted, but lie outside scope of this work. In Essex, just south west of Clacton, the Jaywick Miniature Railway (18in gauge, 1936-1939) was operated by steam motive power. It was only built to that unusual gauge due to the availability of an 18in gauge steam locomotive. In the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, the unique Ramsgate Tunnel Railway (2ft gauge, 1936-1965) was operated by electric traction and utilised a disused railway tunnel.
© December 2020