A Toy Train for Christmas

“I remember clearly the Christmas my parents decided I was old enough to have a model railway all of my own. Saturday mornings were spent in the local hobby shop. I was awe struck by the rows of gleaming model locomotives in glass display cabinets, with little handwritten price tags propped up neatly next to each engine. The present I opened up on Christmas day was a complete surprise, I missed the Hornby Train set high up on a shelf in the shop containing a little blue steam engine (that I named Bob) a few goods wagons and a circle of track. It was magic and the start of something much bigger” – David Hampton, Curator of Transport, The Workshops Rail Museum.

For many train travel and Christmas are closely linked. The excitement of train trips home to spend the holidays with family and friends conjure up fond memories. For more than a century trains were the way most people completed long distance travel. Letters, cards and gifts also crossed the country by rail, connecting people across vast distances and communicating love and well wishes between those that couldn’t be together for Christmas.

For others, like myself, the origins of a lifelong passion for railways began with the gift of a toy train for Christmas. The tradition of giving toy and model trains as Christmas presents is almost as old as the railways themselves, tracing the advance of technology and changing tastes in leisure activities. Originally marketed as toys for boys, today model railways are a pastime enjoyed by people of all ages the world over. The trains themselves, once robust and simple caricatures are now delicate and detailed scale models representing as accurately as possible the real thing.

The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich is home to hundreds of model and toy trains, most of which are held safely in the museum’s collection store. However, as Christmas treat I’ve gone through the collection and picked out some of my favourites to share with you.

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Until the First World War toy trains were large, expensive and exclusive. Most were made in Germany and were play things for the rich. They were mostly powered by clockwork mechanisms or live steam.

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Things changed after the war. German made goods fell from favour and mass production made toy trains more affordable. A demand for British made products inspired Frank Hornby –creator of Meccano – to branch out into toy trains in the early 1920s.

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Hornby became one of the most popular toy train brands in the world.  Produced in O Gauge the range developed into a comprehensive toy railway system that included locomotives (available with either electric or clockwork mechanisms), rolling stock, track, signals, buildings, figures and scenery.

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But even in the 1920s people were running out of room as houses and living spaces became smaller. The toy trains available took up the floor of a room for even a basic railway set up. An early attempt to make a more compact railway system was the Bing Table Top Railway, which as its name suggests could be set up and played with on the dining room table.

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After the war toys were still scarce. In Australia brothers George and Bill Ferris couldn’t find train sets to buy their children for Christmas 1946. They decided instead that their car radio business would start manufacturing their own range of O gauge trains. Ferris Electric Trains was one of a number of small ventures that made toy trains in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. These toys were based largely on Australian trains – the first time models of trains running on Australian tracks were made in commercial quantities.

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As technologies and manufacturing techniques changed in the 1950s, so too did model railways. Trains were being made in plastic rather than tin, smaller scales like HO/OO became more popular and the old O gauge trains fell from favour.

By the 1960s model trains were struggling to adapt to changing tastes and interests. The influence of television, cheap imported toys and declining interest in railways contributed to companies like Hornby suffering financial difficulties and eventually closing down.

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Despite this decline in popularity model trains endured. Marketing shifted from toys for children to accurate and detailed models for serious collectors. Models Railways became a pass time for model builders, researchers and enthusiasts.

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Model train collections come in all shapes and sizes. One of the most remarkable collections in Australia is that of business man Marsden Williams. Mr Williams amassed a collection of 20,000 individual pieces of rolling stock in various scales from across the world between the 1970s and 1990s. After Mr Marsden passed away half of this collection was donated to the Workshops Rail Museum.

Until the 28th of January 2019 visitors to Cobb & Co Museum in Toowoomba can see a small display of Marsden’s collection including locomotives from Europe, America and Japan. Out at the Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich the process of researching and conserving the various collections of model and toy trains in the museum’s care continues behind the scenes. Out on the museum floor an enormous model based on the railways of Queensland operates every day, capturing the imagination of visitors young and old. I wonder if there is a future Curator of Transport amongst them.

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A Man From Glamorganvale

Mephisto, the world’s only remaining German First World War tank is without doubt a unique and fascinating object. Visitors come from across the world to see it, and many words have been written about it. It is also a treasured object to many Queenslanders who remember it out the front of the old Museum on Gregory Terrace, or lurking menacingly in the Dinosaur Garden of Queensland Museum at Southbank. But it is also close to the hearts of Museum staff and volunteers – one more than most.

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Lance Barrett, Queensland Museum Volunteer, 2018.

My name is Lance Barrett, and I am a Front of House volunteer, meeting and greeting the public when they visit the museum. My paternal Grandfather William Joseph “Bill” Barrett played a part in the history of the Mephisto tank. As my grandfather passed away some years ago, I am only now coming to realise the significance of his experiences. During the 1980s my grandfather was interviewed by Queensland Museum and attended a function here but I would have been busy working at my job at Telstra then and missed it. Years later, when I joined the Sciencentre and the Museum, I began to understand that he was actually present around the time of the capture of the Mephisto and was interviewed when he was 90 about his experiences.

My grandfather enlisted in 1916, a boy from Glamorganvale, just 18 years old and fresh of the farm when he signed up. Before leaving he planted a number of Moreton Bag Fig seeds in the plot on his family farm, in case the worst should happen. By March 1917 he was on the Western Front, was wounded in battle at Broodseinde (Belgium) and returned to his unit in France in July 1918. In October he was transferred to the 26th Battalion who retrieved the tank and sent it on its way to Brisbane. At the interview with then Queensland Museum Curator, Mark Whitmore, my grandfather spoke about how he saw Mephisto when he was relieving troops holding an outpost beyond the tank.

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William Joseph “Bill” Barrett, circa 1916.

In my role as a Front of House volunteer I regularly visited the display Courage of Ordinary Men. It made me think about my grandfather’s war experience, and really personalised the First World War for me. In 2012 my Dad visited the European battlefields, including Villers-Bretonneux, to see where his father had fought. When he brought home photos, it made me feel so connected with my grandfather and his experiences. Added to this, other relatives have served in the military over the years, including both World Wars and Vietnam. One distant cousin received a DCM in World War 2, and my Dad served in peace time. With all these family connections, and talking to visitors to the Courage of Ordinary Men exhibition, I felt everything fall into place because so many of my relatives have served our country – a family history of service. I have wondered whether I could do that – it seems to me the ultimate bravery.

Members of the Barrett family in 1986, with Mephisto. L to R : Darrell and Elaine Barrett (nee Harding), Barbara Douglas (nee Barrett), Elaine Barrett, Bill Barrett (centre), Glenda Barrett, Vivian Griffiths and Kelvin Barrett.

Now, when I talk to visitors about war time, I challenge them to think about what it really meant for the men and women who served. And today as I look at Mephisto, newly installed in the Anzac Legacy Gallery, I find myself thinking again of my grandfather, standing at an outpost on the Western Front, looking across at this tank, just after it had been captured. And once again feel that wonderful connection to my grandfather, William Joseph “Bill” Barrett. I think about our family, my Aunts and Uncles, most of who are still with us, who are so proud of Grandad, their Dad, and his role in the First World War.

Reconstructing the Kronosaurus

Kronosaurus queenslandicus was the largest predatory reptile to swim the seas of western Queensland 105 million years ago. This icon of the paleontological world is thought to have grown up to 11 metres in length, with around two metres of that dedicated to its unusually large skull, containing a mammoth set of jaws and dozens of enormous teeth.

Recently, an opportunity arose for the Queensland Museum to add to the State Collection with the acquisition of two lower jaw pieces from a large individual Kronosaurus. Although the Kronosaurus is an iconic animal, surprisingly little is known about its biology, with skulls and jaws a relatively rare find.

Kronosaurus queenslandicus was named in 1924 by Queensland Museum palaeontologist and former museum Director, Heber Longman, based on a piece of jawbone that was discovered near Hughenden, in central Queensland. It was named after the Greek Titan Kronos; so horrible that he ate his own children. Kronosaurus is a pliosaur, an extinct short-necked marine reptile. Its powerful jaws – which worked in a similar way to a crocodile’s – contain rows of large conical teeth, the biggest of which are nearly 30 centimetres long. Kronosaurus was a fierce predator – remains of its stomach contents found in central western Queensland indicate that it fed on turtles and other long-necked marine reptiles. Kronosaurus fossils have been found in the sediments deposited by the inland seas and turned to rock, ranging in age from 112-100 Million years, during the Early Cretaceous Period.

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This particular specimen was found by a private collector near Boulia in western Queensland and, through negotiations with Dr Andrew Rozefelds, Head of Geosciences, Queensland Museum, was acquired through generous Queensland Museum Foundation donations directed towards object acquisition. The jaw adds to the Queensland Museum’s collection of Kronosaurus specimens. The acquisition of the specimen will ensure that this important piece of Queensland’s geoheritage is preserved in the State Collection for perpetuity. Importantly, it will also provide an opportunity for both researchers and the broader community to get up close to this fascinating specimen.

But as is the case with most specimens of this nature, the jaw was not in perfect condition, which meant that certain work needed to be done before the object could be properly studied, displayed and stored safely within the collection. The main goal for the Geosciences team was to cradle the pieces of fossil as best possible, whilst demonstrating the aspects of the jaw that were missing, especially its teeth. Senior Technical Officer, Ms Debra Lewis took on this meticulous and detailed work.

To present the jaw in a life-like pose whilst also safeguarding it from damage, Debra began work on a bespoke base that would serve the dual purpose of supporting the specimen whilst allowing it to be displayed. Debra said that creating such a base is a lengthy process due to how customised it needs to be.

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“The base is made of timber but each one contains an individual cradle sculpted from polymer plaster to suit the weight, angle and intricacies of each piece of jaw. The cradle was glued to the timber and filled in with expandable polyurethane foam, which was then sanded off to create the shape of the base’s sides. Over that, two layers of fibreglass were carefully applied to give the structure strength. The final step was a coat of paint in a specially chosen shade that would not detract from the ‘hero’, our Kronosaurus jaw.”

As the teeth and part of the bone were missing, careful work was done to demonstrate this as accurately as possible. The teeth were made using 3-D modelling and printing – technology that Dr Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, has developed within Queensland Museum and has become a key feature of his research and engagement work.

“In this case, the benefits of this technology served as a huge time saver,” said Scott.

The usual method for producing replicas is creating a plasticine sculpture and using that to make a mould and then cast from it. In this case, the process would need to be repeated for each individual tooth – all 16 of them – which Debra and Scott estimate could have taken a month of work or more. The same result using 3-D modelling and printing took about 36 hours, with most of this made up of printing time rather than manual labour. This is achieved through digitally modelling one tooth, then digitally sculpting a 3-D model of each of the 16 teeth. Using photographs of the original tooth, a 3-D model of it was created, which can then be modified and printed out. Debra then hand painted each tooth in a colour that matched the remaining bone. The final piece of the puzzle was to come up with a way that the teeth could be displayed so that it was obvious to viewers which part was original fossil and which was a reconstruction.

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“Part of the bone was missing, so rather than replicating this on top of the original, we decided to use clear perspex rods to place the teeth at the correct height and show the position of the teeth as they would have been in the jaw,” said Debra.

This was done by gluing each newly made replica tooth to a clear rod and placing it into a small indentation drilled into the matrix (a build-up of rock where the tooth would have sat) so that the rod would fit snugly and can easily be removed and replaced. So where to from here for our “revamped” Kronosaurus jaw?

The Geosciences team hope that the specimen will go on display, possibly within the permanent Lost Creatures exhibition at Queensland Museum, where it can be enjoyed by visitors. It is currently available to researchers and is being studied by a PhD student, who has been 3-D scanning the pieces of the jaw to reconstruct the animal digitally and learn more about its palaeobiology. Of course, a scientist’s work is never truly done – there is always more to learn and new examples of these extinct species to be unearthed, which in turn will bring new opportunities for research and discovery.

“We’ve known about the enigmatic Kronosaurus for a long time – hopefully we can continue to find out more about this icon of the Cretaceous inland sea,” said Scott.