Inside the Collection

We are off to Steamfest 2011 with Hornby toy trains

Illustrated steam train with the text "Hornby Train"
Hornby train Image Powerhouse Museum

Powerhouse staff members are again off to Maitland, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, this weekend to contribute to one of Australia’s most well-known heritage steam events, Steamfest.

Each year a theme is selected and a group of objects chosen by a curator to take up for a special display in the Powerhouse marquee. The conservators take great care in packing the objects, often into especially-made boxes, to ensure safe transportation to the rally site.

This year’s display focuses on a O-gauge scale Hornby toy steam locomotives, rolling stock, and the wonderfully evocative line-side accessories depicting the halcyon days of the British railways in the early 20th century. The toy trains are up to 90 years’ old and too precious to operate but will be displayed in engaging vignettes.

Pull apart steam train model
Hornby Pull apart train: Image Powerhouse Museum

Hornby Trains were the brainchild of Frank Hornby who, in 1901, also invented that other great early 20th century toy popular all over the world, Meccano. In fact, the first toy steam locomotives (85/2582-57) and rolling stock made at Meccano Ltd’s Liverpool factory in 1920 could be taken apart like the Meccano construction toy. It was soon realised that boys wanted to operate the trains not take them apart.

Model tin steam train on track
Collection Powerhouse Museum


Side view of Bramham-Moor-loco Steam model train
Collection Powerhouse Museum

By the late 1920s both Hornby clockwork and electric locomotives and were being made in the liveries of the “Big Four” private railway companies operating in Britain at the time. True to the multi-tiered British class system these ranged from relatively inexpensive tin plate sets to the top-of-the-line No. 2 Special 4-4-0 LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) locomotive Bramham Moor. (85/2582-5).

Tanker, model train set
Tanker Collection Powerhouse Museum
Model Snow-plough
Snow plough Collection Powerhouse Museum
Crane-loco, train model
Crane Collection Powerhouse Museum
Barrel-wagon, train model
Barrell wagon Collection Powerhouse Museum

A bewildering array of Hornby rolling stock was developed from wagons and flat top trucks to tankers. These often had extra “play” value with rotary and side tipping mechanisms, trucks with cranes which could be lowered and swung (85/2585-217), and barrel wagons (85/2585-148) to load and unload. An item of rolling stock not terribly well known to Australian children was the snow plough (85/2585-279), with specially heavy wheels and a spring belt which ran around a v-pulley on the leading axle to drive the Meccano fan or “snow pusher”.

Jacob & Co's Biscuits train model
Biscuit van Collection Powerhouse Museum
Bananas carriage train model
Banana van Collection Powerhouse Museum


Cadburys Chocolate Van Model Train
Chocolate van Collection Powerhouse Museum

The so-called “Private Owner Vans” added charm and realism to the Hornby series and were made from 1923 until 1941. The rarest and most sought after item, the equivalent of the 1930 penny to Hornby collectors, is the “Colman’s Mustard” van, produced between 1923 and 1924. The Carr’s, Crawford’s and Jacob’s biscuit vans were popular, so too were the “Fyffes Bananas” van from 1931. A personal favourite of mine is the “Cadbury’s Chocolates” van (85/2585-56) which hit the shelves in 1932.

Model of water tower, train station and crane
Water tower, goods shed and station Collection Powerhouse Museum

And to make your railway layout more realistic, a range of line-side accessories appeared from 1921 with a Meccano-based lattice girder bridge, a station called “Windsor”, followed by a tunnel and signal box (85/2586-25).

Meccano-based lattice girder bridge, a station called “Windsor”, followed by a tunnel and signal box
Signal box and engine shed Collection Powerhouse Museum

Signals, crossings, water towers, turntables and buffer beams were all made. Whereas the rolling stock was enamelled the line-side buildings were beautifully lithographed, the most detailed was the enormous double-track engine house (85/2586-130) introduced in 1928. Some of the stations and goods sheds (85/2586-7) were even lit by electricity from the late 1930s.

Collection of Dinky toy cars and trucks
Dinky toys Collection Powerhouse Museum

Other trackside accessories for avid Hornby collectors included lithographed tinplate suitcases, platform machines and milk churns. And to populate your set, lead passengers, station and engineering staff came out in 1932 and Hornby’s Dinky Toys, (2008/158/1) comprising cars scaled to fit the 0-gauge layouts from the mid-1930s.

Photograph of application for membership to the Hornby Railway Company
Hornby Railway Club form Collection Powerhouse Museum

Hornby was one of the first manufacturers to actively brand their products with an inspired sales programme. A yearly catalogue, The Hornby Book of Trains, contained details of trains sets and much information about full size trains written in a lively and informative manner. Boys and girls could belong to the Hornby Railway Company, formed in 1929 and received a badge and handbook. Application forms were in every box. Branches were created in the larger British towns and some in conjunction with schools. In the 1930s if an item was not in stock, it could be ordered and arrived from Liverpool within seven days. The whole Hornby system was very reliable and repairs, if needed, easily undertaken at the local agent and returned mended in a special repair box a week later.

For decades the Australian agents for Meccano and Hornby Trains were E.G. Page & Co. Pty Ltd, of The Meccano Depot, 52 Clarence Street, Sydney, moving to the Danks Building at 324 Pitt Street from about 1942 until 1955. Annual sales and promotional visits were made to the State capitals with a special display at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show where their advertising read “Hornby Trains Clockwork & Electric – British and Guaranteed”. Orders were placed directly with E.G. Page & Co. who passed them on to Meccano Ltd with dispatch made directly back to the retailers. Page carried out most of the train repairs on the Sydney premises. With typical Hornby precision, a clockwork locomotive spring change was undertaken in only 15 minutes including a test run of the locomotive hauling a load around an oval track seven times.

Photographs of the Hornby Railway Company official documentation
Hornby Club certificate Collection Powerhouse Museum

E.G. Page & Co. also processed the application forms for the Hornby Railway Company membership in Australia. A letter and badge (2007/223/1) were sent out from the Sydney office and the applicant’s form was then forwarded to Liverpool (GB) for registration. In 1950 the patient Australian applicant had to wait 10 to 12 weeks for Meccano Ltd to forward out their membership certificate and Hornby Railway Company booklet by seamail. The wording and appearance of the certificate resembled a legal document and no doubt made the new member feel he was part of a worldwide club. In 1950 it read: Hornby Railway Company, At a Directors’ Meeting, held at the Headquarters in the City of Liverpool, County of Lancaster, on the (date, name and State typed in), was elected a Member of the Company and is entitled to the full benefits of Membership. In Witness Whereof, this certificate has been issued. Signed, Roland G. Hornby, Chairman.

Two years after Frank Hornby’s death in 1936 the firm introduced the smaller Hornby Dublo (00-gauge) table top trains which were more affordable and convenient than the 0-gauge. Post-war houses were getting smaller and there was less room for the big railway sets. This gauge became the most popular type for toy trains for the next 50 years. From then on no further effort was devoted to 0-gauge trains and by the 1960s their popularity had diminished. Today, model railway production is aimed at adult collectors and is increasingly distant from the traditional children’s toy railways of yesteryear. Many of the original collectors have kept and added to their interwar childhood 0-gauge toy railway layouts with stations, tunnels, landscapes and rolling stock often forming a historical diorama of twentieth century land transport.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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