Looking back on a Model Railway Exhibition.
The story behind the 1980 Burton upon Trent event.
Although the East Midlands town of Burton upon Trent boasts a rich railway heritage where, as late as the sixties, many of its inhabitants worked for the railway companies or one of the Brewers who operated their own private systems, the town previous to 1980 had not been, to the best of my knowledge, blessed with a model railway exhibition.
During my youth, I had never been drawn into the “Boy Scout” movement, but during the late seventies, my wife and I became fund-raisers for a local scout group. Not an easy task as the group’s sponsors forbade alcohol, raffles and any games of chance at the events that we organised. Becoming rather frustrated with this situation, I decided to plan the sort of occasion that would appeal to the public, particularly youngsters, and I would find enjoyable myself – a Model Railway Exhibition.
Conception and planning:
The idea conceived, October 1979, the date fixed, Saturday 3rd May 1980, planning and preparation period, 7-8 months.
Being the owner of a model railway, “Blytheborough”, recently featured in the Railway Modeller (May 1979 issue) and having exhibited the layout at a few local shows, I had accrued a number of useful contacts. Also Phil had all but completed his first version of a Settle and Carlisle based branch terminus “Malham” which needed a public airing so, together with a handful of colleagues with railway interests, my idea could be realised.
The local Scout and Guide headquarters presented itself as the ideal venue; previously a large town house, its rear extension had the proportions of a small hall with a capacity for 5-6 layouts. Other exhibits and trade could be accommodated in the two large front rooms of the original dwelling.
The two layouts already mentioned, both 00 gauge, shared the hall with 4 others; “Mickleover Town”, also 00 gauge and Llanaber, an early example of 7mm narrow gauge, both built and operated by members of the St. John’s, Mickleover MRG kept company with an 0 gauge layout, the work of members of the Gauge 0 Guild. The name of this layout after all these years escapes me, but I do remember that it had begun life as a very quiet rural through station, possibly in Cambrian territory, before a new owner converted it to a terminus. The 6th layout, with micro proportions found itself perched above one of Blytheborough’s storage yards; inspired during teenage years, by the model in the shop window of Pecoway House in Seaton, Devon, that on the pressing of a button, a train would complete a circuit of its track, my 009 version of Dolgoch station on the Talyllyn Railway performed in a similar way – you could call it an ‘unstaffed halt’, ideal as helpers would be at a premium.
A model engineering society has existed in Burton for many years, so one of the two front rooms housed excellent examples of 3 and 5in gauge model locomotives, whilst two traders, C&B Models of Derby and the Locomotive Club of Great Britain’s book stall occupied the second room.
Noting the large blank expanse of the two end walls of the hall, I decided to add another dimension to the show by covering one end with a series of wall posters featuring photographs of Burton’s steam scene, taken mainly by Phil and myself during earlier train spotting years. Inspiration for the other wall came suddenly one morning at work; attracting the attention of Mike, a highly productive railway artist and photographer to this very day, who occupied the next drawing board to my own, I suggested creating a Railway art section improvising the other end wall as a gallery.
Spreading the Word:
The preparation period proved none too long – publicity for a not-staged-before exhibition could not neglected; posters finding their way to every official piece of space in the district being complimented by announcements on local radio, free entries in the Railway Modeller and Model Railway Constructor magazines and a display in the town centre window of a building society, with the Dolgoch layout as a central feature, attracted much interest including the local newspaper which sent a photographer and published a feature.
The eve of the show dawned to find me loading the two 6ft long sections of Blytheborough, together with storage yard baseboards, rolling stock and sleeping bag into the rather temperamental scout minibus in readiness for the journey to the head-quarters that would be my home for the ensuing two days. The insurance company covering the exhibition required two persons to be present at all times at the venue for the duration of the event.
With all exhibits in place by late Friday evening, it fell to John, a man with an interest in all things GWR and the Burton railway scene, and myself to assemble scaffold, procured by Phil from a local builder, to serve as crowd barriers. That night, lying on the floor in my sleeping bag, staring up at some dreadful wiring intended to keep trains running at Blytheborough throughout the ensuing day, wondering if any piece of vital preparation had been overlooked or would anybody bother to turn-up, I slept very little and took pleasure on hearing the ring of John’s alarm clock; having a business to run, he would not be able to assist until lunch-time.
Model railway exhibitions didn’t close at 4-5pm as they do today, the duration of our show extended from 10am until 8pm. I seem to recall that we charged the princely sum of 15p entrance with a reduction for children; a single sheet programme, a photocopy of a document typed on a manual typewriter with the letters ‘e’ filled-in, accompanied each entrant. Having a member of our fund-raising team with a day job as school cook and the Group Scout Leader having a butchery business, enabled us to offer excellent hot and cold refreshments throughout the day to the public as well as the exhibiters and traders.
As 10am approached, news came from the scout leaders serving as front of house staff that a queue had gathered; with a great feeling of relief as I witnessed a flock of visitors approaching the hall, Mike and I commenced operating Blytheborough and Phil, Malham, to be joined by John at lunch time. To save space, these two layouts shared common storage sidings enabling the occasional through working. It occurred to me that the show had turned-out to be very steam-biased and many of our younger visitors would not be viewing the type of motive power that they recognised. Thankfully Mike had brought some “up-to-date” blue era stock which could feasibly operate on Blytheborough, but Phil, a devotee of steam traction to this day, became rather perturbed when a class 47 turned-up at Malham.
Throughout the day I don’t recall a slack period and expressed no surprise when informed that the attendance figure had exceeded 700 persons. For some years following the event I continued to receive favourable comments from those who had attended. The layouts ran well, except for Dolgoch who's motor burnt-out quite early in the day due to some over enthusiastic button pressing by public operators. Visitors enjoyed the photographic display reminding them of local scenes that had vanished in the name of progress. After cashing-up and settling expenses my wife, acting as treasurer, recorded a profit of £140.00 to bolster the ever-needy scout funds.
Taking advantage of our venue not being on our sponsor’s property, we could organise a raffle; with the star prize being a Mainline train-set featuring the LNER J72 locomotive and wagons, Mike’s and my respective wives kept themselves busy throughout the day selling tickets and stewarding the art exhibition.
I attribute the success to a number of factors:
By the time of the exhibition, interest in the hobby had returned following its time in the doldrums, partially due to ‘Scalextric’, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
This recovery could have been due to the “Mainline” and “Airfix” brands entering the ready-to-run market with models far superior to those available from existing manufacturers.
A television serial entitled “God’s Wonderful Railway” utilising the Severn Valley Steam Railway as its location, had been screened generating high viewing figures.
Compared with today’s situation, such model shows tended to be few and far between, local enthusiasts possibly only having the opportunity to attend one or two per annum, so little competition to our exhibition existed.
One or two images survive which are shown on this page, but due to me ‘lending’ the exhibition records and general paperwork to assist a person intending to organise a similar show, the only remaining reference is the art exhibition catalogue. Otherwise the missing names of others who made such a large contribution to the success of the event could be mentioned.
A printer’s strike that prevented the publication of the Railway Modeller may have deprived us of some punters; regularly a RM reader, I decided to buy a copy of the Model Railway Constructor, mainly to check if our exhibition entry had been included. It had, but an article caught my attention – Lyme Regis terminus in EM gauge; commemorating the EM Gauge Society’s 25th anniversary, this article pointed me in the direction I have pursued for the following 36 years. Blytheborough consequently spent the duration of the show with a ‘For Sale’ notice pinned to its frontispiece; later sold to a gentleman from Cheshire, I made a fresh start with a blank canvas, learning the skills and pitfalls associated with fine scale modelling.
Phil’s second version of Malham, constructed over the past ten years, is, apart from running well, a brilliant example of architectural and scenic modelling; although a new layout, now with an extensive quarry site, the original Settle and Carlisle styled station building dating back to the exhibition survives as part of the current layout.
Mike continues to produce some fine examples of railway art and photography, and John – we won’t forget you.