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Blast from the Past - Hornby Heyday from the December 1996 Issue of British Railway Modelling

12 January 2012

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British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday' British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday'

The models may not have been prototypically correct, but for generations the Hornby Gauge O system was pure magic. ROBERT KELLY recalls this famous product from Meccano Ltd. of Binns Road, Liverpool.

Go to one of the larger model railway exhibitions and, if you are lucky, you may well come across a Gauge 0 Hornby working layout It is a fascinating experience to see these substantial trains negotiating 2' radius curves, although you may be intrigued to see an 'Atlantic' locomotive bearing the name Royal Scot, or main line carriages with tin-printed sides and even stations with tin-printed doors and windows. But such details were symbolic of a pre-war age of innocence, when youngsters were expected to use their imaginations when operating a model railway.

British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday'

A Hornby leaflet circa 1932, featuring on the front cover a brace of 'Yorkshire'
4-4-0s in front of two imposing No.2 engine sheds.

Even these displays cannot quite evoke the glamour of the Hornby system as seen by contemporary youngsters, when the locomotives and carriages were in mint condition and Gauge 0 was not the secondary scale it is today, but the most popular. Those were the days when practically every boy wanted to own a Hornby model railway, complete with station and other accessories supplied by Meccano Ltd. of Binns Road, Liverpool. From its introduction in 1920, it took no more than a decade for the Hornby system to make the transition from mere popularity to a national institution, followed by another decade - the 1930s - which saw both its high noon and its Indian summer.

But to go back to the beginning, the Hornby Gauge 0 model railway was the invention of Frank Hornby, whose first great success had been the Meccano construction system, another national institution and one which in no small measure helped inspire generations of engineers. Meccano had come on the market in 1901, almost 20 years before its inventor entered the model railway field
with a range of clockwork-powered train sets. There is no great mystery why Meccano Ltd. began manufacturing the first Hornby trains in 1920, two years after the ending of World War One. Prior to the war, the German manufacturers, notably Marklin and Bing, had dominated much of the toy train sector with UK outline models. But during hostilities and for some years afterwards, anti-German feeling created a gap in the market that Frank Hornby was able to exploit.

Apart from their general reliability and sturdiness, there was nothing notable about the initial range of products. But in 1921, Hornby produced its first classic, the No.2 4-4-0 tender locomotive, which by 1928/29 was available in the liveries of the Big Four companies in both passenger and (except for the GWR) goods versions.

  British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday'  
  Evoking a magical period of model railway history - a Hornby Gauge O train set. The contents make an interesting comparison with the artwork on the box lid!  

Another undoubted classic was the impressive 4-44 No.2 tank engine introduced in 1923 and again available in both passenger and goods liveries. Neither of these models were 'true-to-type' in the sense that the model locomotives imported or manufactured by Bassett-Lowke were. The Hornby 4-44 did have something of a Great Central look about it, but corporate identity was not the aim for a multi-liveried model. Nor were such models meant to appeal to enthusiasts (mostly adults) who desired locomotives with more than a passing resemblance to the prototypes they portrayed. Rather, Hornby trains were aimed at the large middle class junior market (though purchased by parents). Not that the working class market was entirely neglected: the range also included a cheap and cheerful selection, which by the 1930s had become known as the 'M' range.

One weapon used by Frank Hornby in building up the popularity of his model railway system was the founding of the Hornby Railway Company. Members were issued with a badge and handbook, and
branches were also formed up and down the country and overseas, many in schools, to allow Hornby trains to run on larger layouts than was usually possible in the home environment.

Another link between Meccano Ltd. and its public was the monthly 'Meccano Magazine', which had a much wider appeal than its name implied. It carried articles on railways, ships and aircraft ('New Flying Boats for Imperial Airways' is a typical 19309 heading) and other features on general engineering-interest subjects. But for many readers the hobby pages covering Meccano and Hornby were the main attraction, and there were also regular columns dealing with stamp collecting and new books of interest such as the current 'Boys Own Annual' or The Modern Book of Aeroplanes and Airships'. Taking an issue at random, December 1936, the magazine covered Hornby in three articles: 'How to Choose a Hornby Train Set', 'Hornby Railway Progress in 1936' (an illustration featured the new high capacity wagons) and 'Engine Sheds on Hornby Layouts'. By the end of 1938, such features were supplemented by similar articles on the new Hornby-Dub10 system. A significant milestone in the history of Hornby, was the introduction in 1929 of four distinct 'true-to-type' 4-4-0 locomotives, all immediately recognisable models of particular prototypes unlike the all-purpose and about to be discarded No.2 series. The No.2 Special models represented the LMS Compound class, the LNER 'Shire' Class, the GWR 'County' Class and the Southern L1. The first two had the advantage of being both representative of contemporary practice and of prototypes widely distributed over their respective railway systems, whereas the 'County' Class was rather antique by 1929 and the L1s rarely ventured outside Kent during the pre-war period.

British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday'

A Hornby a advertisement from a 1936 issue of 'Meccano Magazine' which -
unusually - identifies items on a real railway scene with their Hornby counterparts.

The Compound was particularly handsome in its LMS Midland red livery and became the best-seller of the range. The LNER Yorkshire' (which became Bramham Moor in 1935, the 'Shire' and 'Hunt' classes being practically identical) was also a business-like looking beast and seemed to feature in a number of illustrations placed in front of the imposing No.2 engine shed.

But while they may have carried the flag for Hornby, the No.2 Specials were not the biggest passenger locomotives available. Until the introduction of the Princess Elizabeth Pacific in 1937, that honour belonged to the No.3 series introduced in 1927 and based on the recently-introduced Riviera 'Blue Train' locomotives. The modified No.3 series featured a 4-4-2 wheel arrangement and was decked out (with minor variations) to represent the LMS Royal Scot, the LNER Flying Scotsman, the GWR Caerphilly Castle and the Southern Lord Nelson. Later, the first and last of these locos were fitted with smoke deflectors.

It is easy these days to be scornful about a 4-4-2 design representing 4-6-4 and Pacific prototypes, but at the time of their introduction there was a valid reason for an all-purpose Atlantic locomotive: its ability to negotiate Hornby's 2' radius curves. To appreciate the No.3 range, one should view these locomotives from a child's viewpoint. I recall as a youngster during the period of early post-war austerity, discovering an early 1930s 'Meccano Magazine' which included an article about the visit of a foreign potentate and his two sons to the Meccano factory At the end of their visit, the boys were presented with a No.2 Special train set. My immediate reaction as a boy of ten or 11, was that they had been cheated by being fobbed off with this train set instead of the No.3 version. And it was something of a shock to find, when I checked later, that the No.2 Special train set was just as expensive, proving that a child's eye view tends to equate sheer size with desirability rather than 'true-to-type' qualities.

In any case, the type of artistic licence associated with the No.3 series was still common on both sides of the Atlantic and the locomotives themselves were immensely popular with those youngsters  who required their flagship loco to be more substantial than a 4-4-0. The 1930s was to see the introduction of new carriages, goods wagons and accessories (including a station with a see-through booking hall) and the development of the 20 volt electric system featuring automatic reversing. The year 1937 was particularly exciting, with the introduction of two further 'true-to-type' locomotives: a Southern 'Schools' 4-4-0 and the magnificent LMS Princess Elizabeth 4-6-2 , which was unusual in being marketed in an electric-only version. But at the cost of five guineas (£5.25p), Hornby's new flagship locomotive was too expensive for many parents in a period when £5 represented a foreman's weekly wage. It also ran best on the new wider-radius steel rail system also introduced by Hornby.

British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 and 'Hornby Heyday'

This advertisement, from the November 1936 'Meccano Magazine', features
a more conventional spread highlighting a train headed by the LMS Compound
in charge of what appears to be an all-Pullman express.

In considering the appeal of the Hornby Gauge 0 model railway system, it should be remembered that it was representative of the period when most junior layouts were temporary, to be assembled and dismantled before and after each session. Often a single station would suffice as the centre for all operational movements via the ubiquitous single or doubled-track extended oval. While such accessories as signal boxes, water towers and goods sheds were always welcome to provide more railway 'atmosphere' for a layout located on the sitting room carpet, scenery was of minor importance, particularly when the locomotives and carriages were so substantial in their own right.

It was therefore all the more eccentric for Hornby to introduce in the 1932-33 season interlocking countryside sections to provide 'real scenery for your railway'. These were miniature field and hedge sections designed to be set in a layout featuring 2' radius curves. The innovation survived only a few years, although three or more decades later, basic moulded layout sections were manufactured by Continental producers for the more appropriate ultra-miniature N scale.

The only other oddity in an otherwise near perfect scenario, was the lack of representative bogie coaches in the Big Four company liveries until well into the 1930s. Hornby appeared to be besotted by the Pullman image and produced a number of Pullman designs to go with the No.2 4-4-0 and its successors, which eventually settled up into two basic model ranges: the No.2 Special Pullmans and the cheaper No.2 range. However, while Pullman services looked appropriate on LNER and Southern layouts, they were less at home on the LMS and GWR. No matter, the No.2 Pullman was decked out in maroon and brown liveries and marketed as the LMS and LNER saloon coach. LNER enthusiasts had a further choice: the brown non-corridor bogie coaches produced to go with the Metropolitan locomotive were often recommended for use on LNER suburban trains. What made this ridiculous situation all the more bizarre was the fact that the humble non-bogie No.1 coaches were readily available in LMS, LNER, GWR and Southern liveries.

Hornby began to make amends in 1935 with its No.2 passenger range of non-corridor bogie coaches, with two vehicles for each of the Big Four companies. This was followed in 1937 by the No.2 corridor coaches (again two vehicles per company) and, like the previous range, with tin-printed representations of windows as well as body sides. The more expensive Hornby Pullmans had proper
window cut-outs, but the celluloid windows were adorned with imitation table lamps. Coach interiors did not become general on proprietary coaches until the 1950s, but the Hornby corridor coaches and Pullmans did at least have proper corridor connections. At little more than half the cost of the No.2 Special Pullmans, the new corridor coaches sold in great quantities during their comparatively short commercial life.

By the end of 1937, with the introduction of the Eton and Princess Elizabeth locomotives and the new range of corridor coaches, the Hornby Gauge 0 system had reached its zenith. What few enthusiasts realised at the time however, was that 1937 would prove to be its last great year of expansion.

By 1937 Hornby had a serious competitor in Bassett-Lowke, though not so much with the latter's upmarket Gauge 0 range. W.J. Bassett-Lowke was one of those dangerous men with an obsession: in his case, to create a miniaturised model railway system that could be operated in an area no larger than a dining room table top. The first attempt, in partnership with Bing, the Bing 'Miniature Table Railway' introduced in 1922, had only a limited popularity in the 1920s. Even when an electric version was added in 1925, the system failed to make the sort of breakthrough that would prove a threat to the Hornby range.

But Bassett-Lowke kept in touch with the Continental manufacturers, notably Trix which also had connections with the older Bing concern, and in 1935 an entirely new 'Double '0' Gauge' table-top railway was launched by Trix. This time there was much greater appreciation of the space-saving potential of the 'table railway', not least the fact that permanent installation was a much more practical proposition than with an 0 gauge system. Bassett-Lowke soon set up production facilities in  Northampton to produce UK-outline models in 1936, and by 1939 the UK-outline system included a widening range of locomotives from stubby 0-4-0s to handsome Pacifics.

W.J. Bassett-Lowke now had an electrically operated 'table railway' to play with and in the commercial sense, one that had a much wider appeal than the more expensive Gauge 0 and Gauge 1 models with which this organisation had previously been associated.

Since Meccano Ltd. seemed to have a policy of allowing advertisements in the 'Meccano Magazine' of any products which did not directly compete with Meccano or Hornby, this probably explains the  existence of advertisements for US Lionel trains in the late-1930s. But it must have been worrying for some in the Hornby organisation to see advertisements in its pages for the Trix 'railway sensation', as with Hamleys full-page spread in the December 1936 issue.

How Meccano Ltd. countered this threat with the introduction of its own 00 gauge table railway in 1938 has been related in another article about Hornby-Dublo. Understandably by the end of 1937 the manufacturer was so busy planning the introduction of the new 00 gauge system for its October 1938 launch, that Hornby Gauge 0 had to take a back seat. The immediate success of Hornby-Dublo meant a frenzied follow up of further products throughout 1939.

Had the war not intervened in September 1939, there is little doubt that the existing Hornby Gauge 0 system would have suffered a slow and painful decline in the 1940s in view of the increasing  popularity of Hornby-Dublo. There were warning signs as early as 1939, when some items were withdrawn. But the bulk of the 0 gauge system remained intact in terms of availability in the early war years, until further production was prohibited by Government edict from January 1 1942. The final price list before the curtains came down was issued as late as November 1941 - although actual manufacture had taken a back seat to the pressures of war work at least a year earlier. As with Dinky toys, supplies were probably unofficially rationed in order to ensure that every area dealer received something, if not all that had been requested. The last 'Meccano Magazine' advertisement for Hornby indicating price lists were still available, was in the December 1941 issue.

Later wartime advertisements implied that the status quo would be restored after the ending of hostilities. However, what eventually emerged, in spite of the temporary availability of some bogie goods and passenger stock in the late 1940s was not an updated version of pre-war Hornby Gauge 0 as fondly recalled by its followers, but rather a minor system for younger enthusiasts, a mere branch line compared with the by now dominant Hornby-Dublo.

Given the shortage of raw materials in the immediate post-war period, it made commercial sense for the manufacturer to concentrate on 00 gauge products. Though few realised it at the time, the last Hornby 0 gauge express trains had departed at the end of 1941, and not just for the duration. Hornby 0 gauge lives on in a sense. It is widely collected, with its own collectors association. There is a  beautifully illustrated history published in the Hornby Companion series by New Cavendish Books. But before we get too misty eyed about the past, let us not forget that the-present-day manufacturer bearing the Hornby brand name introduced some years ago a series of 00 gauge 4-4-0 locomotives (still available from time to time) based on the Compound, 'Shire', 'County' and 'Schools' classes as a tribute to the original Hornby 0 gauge designs. The newer models are much cheaper than the originals, which now command collectors' prices, but as a form of 'instant nostalgia' they have their own appeal in evoking a magical period of model railway history.

Robert Kelly
British Railway Modelling, Vol. 4 No.9 from December 1996 

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