The war years 1939-45

By Stephen Siddle

By the start of World War 2, OO was already well established. Gauge O was still the more common, but in the pages of the Model Railway Constructor at least, 4mm was running 7mm close, and from the mid 30’s most new entrants to the hobby were going into the smaller scale. British HO had almost vanished. In 1939 Edward Beal estimated “there are about 6000 owners of extensive layouts in this standard [4mm/OO]” (MRN 11/39) although this may be an exaggeration; in the late 1940s he estimated the number of British modellers in all scales as being at least 10,000.

The hobby did not come to an immediate halt in September 1939; rather there was a progressive rundown over several years. During the “Phoney War” a certain normality survived in the magazines: Trix (who were dependant on German components) halted production at the outbreak of war, but Meccano were still releasing new Hornby Dublo items in November 1939 and as late as March 1940 still hoped to release their new Duchess that year, while new items continued to appear from the London model shops. The situation changed radically with the fall of France and the beginning of the Blitz: the MRN lost its office to bombing in the autumn of 1940 as did the Constructor shortly after (neither magazine missed an issue), paper rationing bit hard, large numbers of modellers were in the Forces on active service, the few clubs ceased to meet and very few people had much time for leisure, though a modelling magazine could at least be read in the air raid shelter or in an army Nissen hut.

It was this precise moment, as darkness fell, that the September 1940 MRN published one of the most important letters in the history of the British hobby under the heading “Standards Required!” The writer, Lt.-Col. JTC Moore-Brabazon MP, was shortly to become Minister of Transport in Churchill’s wartime coalition. “..Being...not without mechanical experience, lately with misguided confidence, I plunged into ‘OO’ gauge. I write this letter that others may be warned against false optimism as to the present state of the craft. All model railways to run successfully should be looked upon as mechanisms of precision. The smaller the gauge the greater must be the precision in order that they should operate. Here are some of my experiences. I order a locomotive…it cost me £10 [£375 today]. I place it upon the lines and find that the side collector shoes were put on with such adjustment and with such a strong spring that the leading driving wheels of the locomotive are in the air. I buy some rolling stock and I find that that they are not riding on the tyre of the wheels, but sit – so to speak - in the air, jammed on the two flanges. I invest in a double diamond crossover and under no circumstances does anything at any time go across it without going off the lines. Such dispiriting events drove me to fundamental checking of dimensions and I find that stock rail is frequently sold sometimes as much as 1mm inside the correct gauge. Now 1mm may be nothing in some gauges, but in ‘OO’ it represents a 3-in error. How can one possibly expect railways to run with that sort of error? On curves instead of the slight enlargement always necessary, I am told enthusiastically by one maker that “they do not believe in it”. Still that can hardly account for the diminution in gauge that I have often found put into stock curves. As to breadth of wheels, every form and dimension seems to be indulged in, varying as much as 2mm from maximum one way to maximum the other and the perpetrators of these outrages have the audacity to advocate scale-size tyres and flanges. Frankly the result of this sort of sloppiness is complete discouragement to anybody like myself who would like to go in for ‘OO’
…I really do believe that if this movement is to be as prosperous as it is in America then some powerful body like the Model Railway Club, or somebody, must set some standards and check them...I have no doubt that if anybody has the time to do everything themselves this ‘OO’ could be made very satisfactorily, but it cannot be done by buying parts from various depots in London in the belief that they are going to work; and yet that should surely be the basis for any future business to survive. Engineering standards are not very difficult to work to. Is there any reason why we should not have engineering standards in such a small gauge as ‘OO’?… Proprietary articles [i.e. Trix, Hornby Dublo] I have found strictly to standard and to work satisfactorily but they have their limitations... I write this letter because there is only one way of making ‘OO’ a success and that is to deal with it as an engineering proposition…”

This was backed up with an MRN editorial headed “Stern Criticisms”. Moore-Brabazon was clearly thinking of the buyer of finished models in OO and his stress is on consistency: the fineness of the standard is never mentioned, and it is the scale trade, not “those owners [and makers] of proprietary articles”, that he attacks. Maskelyne introduces a new note: “ there are certain enterprising individuals [WS Norris?] who, working by themselves, have shown that much finer standards are easily attainable, involve no extra trouble constructionally, and are absolutely satisfactory in use. Our American friends, starting from zero, attacked this problem at the outset, and evolved a set of national standards that are adhered to by all devotees of the craft. After the war, many of us will have to “begin again”, and the opportunity for effecting some much-needed reforms seems too obvious to miss”. In three successive sentences, the three principal themes of standards debates – standards as a means of converting the work of a few advanced modellers into a general “finer is better” agenda for the hobby, the situation in America as a model for Britain, and the myth of the post-war “clean sheet”, are launched on their careers. The following month (October) MRN reported the NMRA’s annual convention, and in November it published a letter from W.S.Norris calling for the adoption of a set of standards.

Blitz or no Blitz, by the New Year something was happening. The January issue of the Constructor reported, “There is a rising tide of feeling in the model railway world against the present lack of standards and general coarseness existing, especially in the smaller gauges. In America there is a considerably better arrangement throughout and the standards are fixed by a central controlling body…Track and wheel standards are badly needed…As a result of some constructive criticism from the Rt.Hon. JTC Moore-Brabazon, it has been decided to form a small committee of “unattached” but sympathetic experts…The committee will consist of Messrs. J.N.Maskelyne (MRN & ME) G.H.Lake (Railways) and RJ Raymond (MRCons.).” The Standards Committee’s remit appears two months later: “To discuss the recommendation of certain standard dimensions…; to review the question of the number of existing scales and gauges with a view to possible reduction of the number; to consider the standardisation of voltages…; to consider the possibility of acquiring … suitable premises which might serve as Model Railway House.” (MRN 3/41 – a similar statement appears in MRC 3/41). “ The Committee’s recommendations….must be essentially practical, rather than theoretical in character” and the co-operation of the trade was to be sought. Raymond’s MRC editorial that month led with a piece on the issue, rehearsing the principal themes: “The rapidly diminishing stock of materials on the market…this low ebb is an unrivalled opportunity to put our house in order…To determine these new dimensions has been formed the Standards Committee, but it must have your wholehearted support right from the beginning. Ask for goods of approved dimensions and scale, and above all, see that you get them.”

For the next 15 months the correspondence columns of the Constructor are choked with letters about standards, mainly for 4mm since this was very much a 4mm modellers’ magazine. Proposals for the adoption of 19.5mm, 19mm, 18.5mm,or 18mm gauges, or a 5mm scale (i.e. a form of S gauge), and plaintive enquiries as to why HO had been abandoned filled the air. At first it seemed as if the Committee might rule against 16.5mm gauge for 4mm, Raymond writing in his editorials, “ 3.5mm scale on 16.5mm track agrees with true scale ideas, but if 4mm scale work is to be presented on scale lines then a larger gauge than 16.6mm is required” (MRC 7/41) and “Already the antagonists of the Standards Committee rally to their flag…Controversy rages fiercely round the smaller gauges…Well, you asked for standards and true scale dimensions and surely all of you know that true scale can never be 4mm on 16.5. If the Standards Committee turned a blind eye to this combination, it would fail in its task of laying down true factors…So long as there is a demand for 16.5 track and wheels, the trade will see that you have them, but it is the Bureau’s wish that scale equipment should be available for those who desire to work to the new standards”. (MRC 10/41).

July brought a letter from F.W.Chubb, (whom we met in part 1 advocating a “compromise gauge” of 18mm) now the proprietor of the Constructor: “It would certainly be a tremendous advantage if the toy trade would come into line, but the requirements of that trade are so different that a wholehearted effort is too much to expect. As it is, the Hornby ‘OO’ has made great strides in the right direction, but I think they have gone as far as is practicable…The only course of action would appear to be the adoption of two standards which should be adhered to strictly by all the model and toy trade. A fine standard for the high grade work and a coarser standard for toys and those whose skill is limited.” The following month J.H.Ahern wrote, “It is too late to do anything about the accepted 16.5mm gauge, but anyone who feels so inclined would be well advised to adopt 18mm gauge: it is of course a compromise but probably about the most practical from every point of view. “ In October came a letter from the Worksop Model Railway Circle: “1. It appears to us that two standards are essential – (a) 18mm gauge for the highly skilled enthusiast or person with a deep pocket. (b) 16.5mm gauge, 4mm scale, width and contour of wheel to be correspondingly coarser …. 2.The question of voltage should receive the Bureau’s attention.” (They suggested 12V). By now, modellers working in 16.5mm were raising the familiar issues: “How many can employ real scale curves?” (MRC 8/41) “I was once shown a very nice 3.5mm scale 16.5 gauge Schools class of trade construction which would not take a 6 foot curve.” “The reason the practical maker sticks to 16.5mm gauge is that he can’t get in working outside valve gear and have enough room to swing the bogies on even 3’ 6” curves if he increases that gauge even a millimetre”. (both MRC 11/41), while W.S.Norris weighed in with, “I see the 4mm 16.5 track brigade are already taking up war stations to attack any suggestion to broaden the gauge. Nevertheless I think the 4mm scale track should be 18.0mm” (MRC 10/41)

In the meantime the Standards Committee continued its work. In September 1941 they issued provisional “True Scale Gauge O Dimensions”, based largely on the work of W.S.Norris and Bernard Miller, and Raymond reported the election of Maskelyne as Chairman, G.H. Lake as Secretary, and the adoption of the title “British Railway Modelling Standards Bureau”. As we saw in Part 1, that name had first surfaced in the pre-war Constructor, and by the end of the year F.W.Chubb, its proprietor, had joined the Bureau; Michael Longridge, an HO modeller who wrote for the Constructor and was changing to 4mm, also seems to have become involved. One gets the feeling that the standards for “the smaller gauges” were very much a Constructor production. Coarse scale Gauge O standards were published in the MRN during the winter, and in March 1942 the Constructor published “British Standards for 3.5 & 4mm Scales”; as Raymond wrote that month, “Well the cat’s among the pigeons now with the publication of the Standards Bureau’s recommendations in this issue on 3.5 and 4mm scales. Having played some small part myself in the findings of the Bureau, I personally shall await further views with interest. It will be noted that in 4mm two sets of standards have been laid down”. There, under the name of “Scale OO”, was F.W.Chubb’s 18.0mm gauge, officially recognised, fully defined with a set of standards, and recommended by influential figures within the hobby. What we now call EM gauge was born. Beside it, labelled “Nominal OO” were the OO standards, though the flangeways were not at first specified (1.25mm was later adopted). There was even a second set of 16.5mm gauge standards for HO: clearly betraying the fact that HO was the pre-war finescale, the EM gauge wheel and flangeway were recommended, with the same code 80 rail (code 100 was specified for OO) and a back to back value of 15.0mm. (Compare the DOGA Finescale standard – 14.8mm)

Almost certainly the BRMSB had begun with HO and with the 1936 EF Carter/Constructor wheelset and standards. Carter had probably started with a 1mm flangeway, then derived his wheel thickness using the formula “twice the flangeway plus 0.3mm”. However the Bureau reduced the overall thickness of the wheel from Carter’s 2.25mm down to a “true scale” 2mm, while retaining Carter’s 1mm flangeway, his flange dimensions and his back to back; this arguably left the tread slightly too narrow (The NMRA formula states that flangeways shall be less than half the overall width of the wheel). Having decided to adopt Chubb's 18.0mm gauge, the Bureau then took their HO standard and simply added 1.5mm to both the back to back and track gauge to produce the first EM gauge standard (which they called "Scale OO").

That is probably where they would have liked to have stopped, with a single wheel profile and a single flangeway. But the outcry from existing 4mm modellers forced them draw up a 4mm/16.5mm standard. So they added 0.5mm onto the tread of their standard wheel to produce a coarser standard for "Nominal OO”, and knocked the same figure off the b to b . No flangeway was originally specified, but they had probably adopted 1.25mm as a nominal figure for calculation purposes (their smallest unit was evidently 0.25mm not 0.1mm - in 1942 few modellers possessed a vernier): as with the Bureau’s two finer standards, the overall thickness of the wheel was then twice the flangeway, which is a value on the extreme margin of today’s NMRA flangeway formula. Presumably they felt it would just about do - one of Chubb’s repeated arguments in correspondence had been that clearances must always be greater than scale, and never less, and the thin wheel achieved this in the critical areas of outside motion and bogie swing.

These three standards had very different fates. That for HO vanished into oblivion with its scale. That for “scale OO” became the foundation charter of EM gauge, and the choice of those 4mm modellers who were not prepared to accept 16.5mm gauge and were prepared to build their own equipment to fine standards. And that for OO proper was never universally adopted by the trade, and therefore failed in its purpose. In 2002 it is still not possible to buy ready-made OO products in the confidence that they are made to a common standard and will therefore work satisfactorily together. That battle DOGA are still fighting.

Despite its achievements in Gauge O and EM, therefore, the BRMSB was ultimately unsuccessful, although its OO standard became an accepted reference for scale modellers for over 30 years, and even today a good few products reflect it. As one of its later members puts it, “The BRMSB was a cabal… It lacked teeth.” It was the product of a particular moment, when clubs and the trade (especially the mass-produced trade) were not functioning, the monthly magazines had become absolutely central to the hobby, and their editors in consequence its only leaders. When normal service was resumed, it gradually became apparent that magazine editors had only modest influence on the scale and toy trades and indeed on modellers’ views and the OO standards slowly broke down. Hornby Dublo and Trix resumed production with their existing tooling, Rovex entered the market with their own coarse standards, and by the late 1950s large amounts of proprietary OO were being sold in Britain, none of it made to BRMSB standards.

Nor did the BRMSB standards gain wholehearted support from modellers. A group of skilled modellers in the Manchester MRS adopted 18.0mm gauge, but reckoned they could design a better wheel than the BRMSB – thus was born the “Manchester wheel” which was later Longridge Wagonsadopted by Pendon. One of them, Sid Stubbs, even wrote an article on building your own driving wheels to the Manchester standard. The one club then large enough and prestigious enough to give a firm lead, the MRC, did not do so, even though F.W.Chubb, Michael Longridge, and W.S.Norris were all MRC members (though Norris not a particularly active one); the then MRC chairman, G.P Keen, taking the view that it was not the function of the club to lay down laws for the hobby in general. In those days modellers’ allegiance was generally to a prototype company not to a scale and the MRC was divided into five “groups”, one for each of the mainline companies, and freelance/overseas: there was little interest in anything other than mainline railways and only in 1952 was it tentatively and unsuccessfully suggested that the club might have an extra Group covering odd ball prototypes like the S&DJR, M&GNJR, narrow gauge, and “those railways that escaped the 1923 cataclysm”. Norris and Longridge were leading lights in the GW Group, very much the most prominent with its own very large professionally built glass display case, the notorious “Aquarium”, in which its models were displayed at the Exhibition; Keen’s own superb O gauge K-Lines system was freelance, and it cannot have helped that it was not to the new Norris finescale standards. Indeed there was a distinct finescale tinge to the GW Group at this time and its knowledge of GW minutiae was sufficient to persuade the young Peter Denny to model something obscure like the GC!

In fairness, the BRMSB did make some attempt to establish broad based institutional support for their work. At the end of the war, the Model Engineering Trades Association (META) was established, under the chairmanship of G.H.Lake, Secretary of the BRMSB: this mainly comprised the London model trade, but it was intended that its members would produce their goods to the new BRMSB standards and thereby ensure the compliance of the trade. But META was overtaken by the development of the hobby: the makers of “proprietary” OO like Meccano and Triang were not members, and in practice META evolved into a trade federation for the retail trade, not the manufacturers, before finally fading away in the early 1980s.

There was also one stillborn attempt to establish a national federation of modellers in emulation of America’s NMRA, the weight of whose huge membership has probably been the critical factor in establishing and maintaining effective standards in America. In May 1941 Albert Kenyon, an architectural modeller who wrote for the Constructor, proposed the establishment of a nationwide “Standard” Model Rail
Association for “the banding together of model railway folk pledged to use and to work to the association standards”. This would have a national headquarters and local groups would be established in each district. W.S Norris wrote in support (MRC 7/41), and in September the Constructor’s editor, RJ Raymond, took up the idea. Noting that, “at the moment there is no one qualified to join the Association… since no volunteer can claim to be working to the new standards – they are as yet undefined,” he proposed a national federation of clubs, “suggesting that the Model Railway Club becomes the parent body” [whether this idea had been cleared with its chairman is uncertain], adding “the [Standards] Committee does not call upon owners of layouts to go to the expense and time of scrapping their work. We build for the future so that we may hand on a torch which burns bright and clear”.

In December came a further letter from Mr Kenyon, suggesting that members of such an association should pledge to make alterations to their existing layout “where permissible”, ensure that all new work conform “if existing conditions permit” to the new standards, and should advise all new recruits to the hobby to follow the new standards. A letter from the Secretary of the MRC then appeared, observing that “there are many practical difficulties that would have to be overcome”, and raising seven questions: this sparked Raymond to reply in the February Constructor, again suggesting the MRC as the central body, and suggesting that the Association could be administered on a voluntary basis. The following month Raymond noted, “No one has risen to the bait of a National Club which was dangled so temptingly…Strange. I should have thought there would have been some feeling one way or the other.” And there the matter died.

Amidst all the theory and the schemes for reforming the hobby, some actual modelling was still being done, and some of it was of great importance for the future. In 1939 letters and articles written by a London insurance broker, J.H.Ahern, began to appear in the magazines. Ahern’s first short-lived layout was a conventional main line, but it was rapidly replaced by another layout, depicting a small freelance light railway, called the Madder Valley Railway. Such a subject is commonplace today, but in 1940 it was unheard of. Pre-war modellers were almost exclusively interested in big modern steam, but Ahern’s first articles dealt with the construction of three small antique engines, versions of a GW Metro tank and Sharpie, and an LNWR Special tank. Beal had written about the possibilities of the “old-time railways”, but Ahern was the first modeller to construct a layout entirely operated by a motley assortment of small antiquities. And this was a scenic layout; one of the landmarks in the history of the hobby was a short article, headed “Bert’s Garage” (MRN 9/40) showing a model of a small country garage nestling against a railway embankment. A.R Walkley had built several scenic cameos of similar realism but not, as far as is known, a full-size permanent scenic layout.

This first Madder Valley was swiftly replaced by a second. Built in a room 7’6” x 14’ 9”, it ran from a small harbour-side terminus in front of a picturesque townscape modelled partly in low relief through the village of Much Madder to an unfinished terminus. Nobody had previously modelled this sort of quaint “picture-postcard” English town or village, and certainly nobody had ever before built model buildings of this quality, or in such profusion, for a model railway. Even today Ahern’s work is outstanding: in 1942 it was simply breathtaking. And this was only the spectacular beginning. A house move in 1944 saw the layout expanded into a room 10’ x 16’, with a branch line, further developed, and then converted to 2 rail .A stream of articles poured from Ahern: between 1941 and 1950 there was an article of his in MRN more months than not, and the latest news of developments on the Madder Valley was continuously before the readers of the MRN.

The Madder Valley revolutionised the hobby. It was loved and admired as much for what lay beyond the railway as for the railway itself, and it thereby changed the whole emphasis of railway modelling: for the next three decades the great ambition of most railway modellers was to be a scenic modeller. And it was decisive in showing the immense potential of the old, the small, the quaint and the single-track rural railway as subjects for modelling. All the many light railway layouts built in the last fifty years, and a good many of the branch lines are descendants of the Madder Valley.

The Madder Valley was a deeply Romantic layout, the first model railway to exude charm, character, and atmosphere. What it was not was an absolutely precise dimensionally accurate replica of a real prototype. It featured models of narrow gauge locomotives from the Isle of Man, Wales and Devon built to run on 16.5mm gauge track alongside models of standard gauge stock. Some of the stock was based on American prototypes. The buildings were based on buildings from all over Britain which had caught Ahern’s fancy, but no more than based: “a prototype building is seldom exactly as wanted, and I cannot remember that I have ever reproduced a building without some modification. Most of my buildings are derived from something, but they are not exact copies.”(Min.Bldg Constr). As for rolling stock: “the photo was a side-on view and I just decided, brutally and firmly, that it was “full-size for OO” and hoped for the best. Dimensions were transferred direct from the photograph to the metal. It follows that the exact scale is a bit vague”. In short “I am not at all a “scale fiend”; on the contrary … I want to make models – models of all sorts of things – and not to spend my time messing about with microscopic wheel and track adjustments.” (MRC 1/42). Ahern was a natural OO modeller: a pragmatist who produced an enormous amount of inspirational modelling in just over a decade, and the era of modelling ushered in by his Madder Valley was to be dominated by OO.

Over and above the Madder Valley itself (now preserved at Pendon and still occasionally operated), and the articles which described it, Ahern left another important legacy in the shape of the first manuals on specialist areas of railway modelling. Miniature Building Construction (1946?) Miniature Locomotive Construction (1948), and Miniature Landscape Construction (1950) immediately became the standard works on their subjects and remained so for thirty years. If Beal taught the post war generation how to build a model railway, it was Ahern who taught them the techniques of scratchbuilding: even today much in these books remains useful and Miniature Building Construction is still the best available guide to cardboard-and-brickpaper modelling techniques.

Through these books and through contemporary articles it is possible to glimpse the materials, the techniques, and the crippling shortages facing modellers in the late Forties and early Fifties. During the latter years of the war virtually all supplies had ceased: the manufacture of metal toys had been banned as from 1st January 1942, and the sale of metal model and toy goods both new and second hand, whether complete or in parts or castings from 1st October 1943. Some modellers still had bits hidden away in their drawer but otherwise Ahern’s cardboard buildings were almost the only kind of modelling still possible in the latter stages of the war.



Sources and Authorities for Part 2

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