A Brief History of Model Railways
For information about the terms ‘scale’ and ‘gauge,’ please see the Scale and Gauge page.
The history of model railways is a fascinating subject in its own right, encompassing social and technological developments over two centuries.
Model railways are about as old as real railways and, like the full-size version, have their origin in England. The earliest ones were simply model locomotives, built by the men who designed the full-size ones, as a miniature prototype. These earliest model locomotives did not run on rails. The working model railway, as opposed to simply a locomotive, arrived sometime in the 1830s. There is an account, written by the famous locomotive engineer, David Joy, of him seeing, as a boy, a model railway on public exhibition in Leeds in the summer of 1838. These early model railways used steam-powered locomotives. Whilst splendid fun, the spirit-fired locomotives were a fire hazard when used indoors and, from the 1850s, clockwork-powered locomotives became available. At first, these were made by clockmakers but, gradually, a model railway manufacturing industry became established, mostly in Germany, and by the 1890s, model railways with a locomotive and carriages or wagons, running on rails, were becoming popular.
These model railways were large, Gauge ‘1’ being the smallest size commonly used, and were only available to those wealthy enough to afford them or sufficiently skilled to make them. For indoor use, a large room was required, which reinforced the hobby of model railways as one for the well-off.
Around 1900, Gauge ‘0’ model railways began to become available. In Great Britain the Bassett-Lowke company of Northampton became an established supplier of model railways in this gauge and in Gauge ‘1’. The locomotives were either clockwork or steam-powered. The Great War resulted in a shortage of supplies and, once the hobby became re-established by around 1920, Gauge ‘0’ ruled supreme. Gauge ‘I’ became the preserve of dedicated enthusiasts and still has a small but enthusiastic following today.
Bassett-Lowke was the premier established British manufacturer but there were others such as the Leeds Model Company and Mills Brothers. Clockwork was the preferred form of propulsion. However, in 1920, Hornby trains became generally available. Mr Hornby owned the Meccano company which made the famous constructional toy. The Hornby trains were in Gauge ‘0’ and were more toy-like than the more sophisticated offerings from the traditional manufacturers. But they were much cheaper and enabled many more families to participate in the hobby of model railways. By the 1930s, more lifelike Hornby trains became available and electric propulsion, also adopted by the other manufacturers, was becoming increasingly popular. Technological developments had allowed small electric motors, suitable for model locomotives, to be produced.
However, houses built in the inter-War period were usually smaller than the typical Victorian and Edwardian residences and even Gauge ‘0’, sometimes called ‘small scale’ when it was becoming popular, was simply too large for many houses. By this time, the models were more affordable, but space was, once again, an important factor. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the German Bing and Trix companies had developed a much smaller model railway, what we now know as ‘H0’ Gauge. At the same time, amateur enthusiasts also became interested in building model railways in this smaller size. Then, in 1938, Hornby introduced its famous ‘Hornby-Dublo’ system in ‘00’ Gauge. Now, at last, there was a reasonably affordable model railway available, which could fit in the typical house of a family which could afford it.
After a long hiatus due to the Second World War, the hobby really took off in the 1950s. History then rather repeated itself; just as Gauge ‘0’ had ousted Gauge ‘1’ after 1920, it was itself overshadowed by ’00’ Gauge after 1950. Hornby-Dublo became enormously popular and was of high quality, although still too expensive for many families. However, during the 1950s, the cheaper Tri-ang Railways range became available. This was also ‘00’ Gauge and soon became the market leader. Hornby-Dublo’s sales declined and the company was taken over by Tri-ang in 1964. Now rebranded as ‘Hornby’ the company, after numerous restructurings and suchlike, remains as the best-known British supplier of model railways.
The story of smaller houses also repeated itself as post-Second World War houses tended to be more compact. This led to an interest in model railways even smaller than ‘H0’ or ‘00’ Gauge. Tri-ang introduced ‘TT’ gauge in the late 1950s. This was popular for a while, but was replaced as regards commercial production, when ‘000’ Gauge, later called ‘N’ Gauge, became widely available in the 1960s. Since then, even smaller ‘Z’ and ‘T’ Gauge systems have become available, but these remain a specialised interest. In Great Britain, ‘00’ Gauge is the most popular, followed by ‘N’ Gauge. In the last few years there has also been a remarkable resurgence on interest in Gauge ‘0’.
Regarding the model railway layout types that have been popular over the years, the pre-Second World War ones tended to be continuous run systems with track crammed into most of the available space and little or no scenery. These were very much operational railways. Fully-scenic model railways became increasingly popular from the 1950s and many are end-to-end railways, often of branch lines, which do not permit continuous running. The emphasis is more on creating a model of a railway in the landscape, rather than on operation.
Somewhere between these two approaches is the semi-scenic model railway, often associated with the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. This style of layout, normally continuous run, replaced some of the track with modest scenic development, but retained an emphasis on operation. Initially, Gauge ‘0’ was most popular, changing rapidly to ‘00’ Gauge as models of this size became widely available. As well as being popular with enthusiasts, layouts of this type often featured in the various manufacturers’ catalogue illustrations.
The Table-Top Railway is my attempt to build a semi-scenic model railway, but in British ‘N’ Gauge. Not quite a model of a model, but, certainly, an attempt to recreate, in a smaller scale, something of a tribute to the atmosphere of these layouts.