04/02/2019
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Bassett-Lowke: Best of British

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It is often said that in every grown man there is a small boy crying to get out. This perhaps, goes some way to explaining the perennial popularity of model train sets often purchased by adults for their children, but sometimes secretly intended for their own amusement!

Within a few years of the first full size steam locomotive having hissed and puffed its way along a track the urge to build scale models of these revolutionary new machines emerged.

While it was Britain that gave birth to the steam locomotive, it was Germany that quickly cornered the market in model toy trains. Much of this industry centred around the industrial city of Nuremburg which lay close to tin mines and already had an established clock making industry employing a highly skilled workforce. Early model train makers in Germany included Hess – established in 1826 and noted for beautifully made push-pull trackless toy floor trains; Theodore Marklin was another, initially making tin toy kitchen equipment and dolls house furniture before turning to model trains, while Frenchman George Carette migrated to Nuremburg with his famous toy company in 1896. They formed a dominant grip on the toy train market not only in Germany but also in the world market with healthy export trade predominantly with the United States and British colonies.

Throughout the latter years of the 19th century the British model train market had mainly consisted of crudely constructed spirit-fired locomotives affectionately nicknamed ‘Dribblers’ or ‘Piddlers’ as they often dribbled water as they sped over the floor or carpet! As the 20th century dawned, however, a new British company emerged that would rival and eventually eclipse German domination of precision model railway engineering. That company was W. J. Bassett-Lowke & Co. of Northampton.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke was born in Northampton in 1877 and after leaving school at the age of 13 he worked briefly in an architect’s office. Declining architecture as a career Bassett Lowke instead became an apprentice at his father’s engineering and boiler making works based in Kinswell Street, Northampton. Northampton’s highly mechanised shoe making industry provided the Bassett-Lowke firm with plenty of work. Initially working in the boiler making department and then the fitting shop, young Wenman Bassett-Lowke developed an interest in model engineering and began making miniature stationary engines. He also began making miniature steam boilers in the firm’s boiler shop, recognising the fact that the average amateur model engineer lacked the basic equipment or expertise to make many precision parts including whistles, safety valves and water gauges. His miniature engineering masterpieces were put on display in a window next to the company office in Northampton and gained plenty of attention.

It was a combination of Bassett-Lowke’s love of trains and photography combined with an incident that happened on the evening of 2nd September 1898 that provided this young engineer with the opportunity to raise the capital to start his own business.

As the 7.15 express running from London St. Pancras to Manchester sped through Wellingborough station a trolley rolled off the platform causing it to crash. Bassett-Lowke quickly set off on his bicycle armed with his trusty camera to observe the wreckage. He was quick on the scene and equally quick to get his pictures printed up in time to sell them both locally and to the national newspapers. It was a piece of quick thinking that paid off in terms of cash injection and, at the tender age of 21, he was able to sink these earnings into forming a new model engineering business partnered by his close friend Harry Franklin.

His small pressure gauges were soon being advertised in the newly published Model Engineer & Amateur Electrician magazine and Bassett-Lowke was also instrumental in the formation of the ‘Society of Model Engineers’. It was also around this time that he built his first complete live steam locomotives that were advertised for sale in local newspapers.

Seeing the need to supply an ever growing band of budding model engineers 1899 saw the publication of Bassett-Lowke’s first mail order catalogue which, rather surprisingly, contained goods bought in from other model making companies as well as those made by Bassett-Lowke itself.

This came about following a visit to the Paris Fair of 1900 where Wenman Bassett-Lowke marvelled at the model trains being made by several German toy makers, two of which (Bing and Carette), he particularly admired. Subsequently an arrangement was made for Bing to produce a gauge 3 model of an LNWR locomotive ‘Black Prince.’ This was the beginning of a long business relationship with Bing during which many different German built British model railway locomotives appeared for sale in Bassett-Lowke catalogues.

Bassett-Lowke’s first retail outlet was opened in London at 257 High Holborn in 1908, Mr E. W. Hobbs being appointed as its first manager. This shop was later re-located to larger premises at 112 High Holborn in 1910.

Bassett-Lowke was not all about trains, however. A separate department was set up specifically for the production of waterline scale model ships. Those built included a fine model of S.S. Olympic for the White Star Line along with Cunarders Aquitania, Mauretania and Berengaria which were exhibited at the 1924 Wembley Exhibition. Blue Riband winners Bremen, Normandie and Queen Mary were other famous liners built as waterline models by Bassett-Lowke. The company gained a great admirer of its ships in Lord Louis Mountbatten who commissioned a model of every ship on which he served all of which were displayed at the Mountbatten family home of Broadlands in Hampshire.

W. J. Bassett-Lowke died on 21st October 1953 and in 1964 the company ceased retail sales and sold its shops, including one at High Holborn which was bought by Beatties. Bassett-Lowke finally went out of business in 1965. There were several attempts to keep the brand alive but it was not until 1996 that Bassett-Lowke returned to the market in grand style.

The name was acquired by Corgi Classics and three years later its centenary was marked with the release of the first of a new range of Bassett-Lowke model trains. In 2008 Corgi Classics was acquired by Hornby and incorporated into its model train catalogue. Sadly, however, production was only maintained for four years and the brand was deleted from the Hornby range in 2012.

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