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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