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Robin Butterell - An Appreciation

Joined: August 15th, 2006, 6:15 pm

August 13th, 2007, 6:21 pm #1

Robin Butterell - An Appreciation

By Colin Peake

On 8th May 2007 the miniature railway community lost one of it’s greatest campaigners, authors and personalities, Robin Butterell. If there was any single person who has influenced my interest in miniature railways, and no doubt the interest of many others, it was Robin.

Robin seen with his family driving Elidir at the Weston MR in 1982.

A young Robin first became aware of the miniature railway scene in the 1930s, placing adverts in the railway periodicals of the time seeking further information. Most of the replies he received were trying to sell him equipment, however two of the contacts he made at this time were key figures in the miniature railway scene of the time, 9 ½” gauge loco builder William Jennings and editor of ‘The Locomotive Magazine’ Charles Simpson. Jennings proved to be a mine of information, whilst having met with Simpson he later loaned Robin a copy of the recently published ‘Liliputbahnen’ by German enthusiast Walter Strauss. This book furthered Robin’s interest in the subject and in 1939 on a family holiday to North Wales he had his first encounter with a product of Northampton Engineers Bassett-Lowke, in the form of Class 30 Atlantic ‘Count Louis’ at the Fairbourne Railway. The influence of this encounter cannot be understated, as Robin remained a firm fan of the firm’s work for life.

After service in the RAF, Robin attended Liverpool University, studying architecture. Here he met fellow student and enthusiast Brian Rogers, and hatched a plan to create an income from running a miniature railway in the holidays. Using gratuities from their time in military service they eventually purchased a 7 ¼” gauge Southern Railway outline 4-4-0 locomotive from Jos Liversage of Herne Bay, who also provided rolling stock and other equipment to start their miniature railway. In 1948, with the help of their friends from University, they laid a simple end-to-end line in the ‘council fields’ at Llandudno, North Wales. Although great fun for the operators, the line was hardly a commercial success and Robin later described it as a labour of love. The first and only season ended in early September when a leaking tube stopped the locomotive and with post-war supplies being scarce, the operation ceased a few weeks earlier than planned.

After a year off running a railway and with the locomotive equipped with a new boiler, the line was re-laid in 1950 on the other side of the country at Bridlington, where the line ran along the sea front. Here the line was a greater success, however as their studies overtook them Brian and Robin sold the line on to a local barber who had helped them to operate on occasions. He figured he could run a miniature railway in the summer and cut hair in the winter!ABC Miniature Railways and Miniature Line Memories

After University and by now working as an architect, Robin became involved in Tom Rolt’s pioneering railway preservation on the Talyllyn Railway, where on a working party in 1954 he met with John Milner, who’s father had been a Bassett-Lowke agent. Soon discovering common ground they went on to research the history of both the company and its products, John acquiring the company archives and other sources of valuable information. Attempting to locate the 15” gauge ‘Little Giant’ class locomotives led to the discovery in 1965 of the remains of no. 18 ‘George the Fifth’ under a pile of junk at Belle Vue, Manchester, which Robin and John purchased for restoration. Robin went on to purchase no.15 ‘Red Dragon’ jointly with William McAlpine, and in due course after engineering work by both John Milner and Roger Marsh ‘George the Fifth’ was rebuilt using some parts from ‘Red Dragon’ and emerged fully restored in 1978, debuting at Longleat in October that year. The locomotive later passed to William McAlpine and moved to Carnforth, sadly being sold to a buyer in the USA many years later.

Robin became an active and passionate writer on the subject of miniature railways, with Ian Allan publishing an ‘ABC’ guide in the late 1960s, followed by other titles in the 1970s and also articles in the partwork ‘Model & Miniature Railways’, illustrated in colour and instrumental in generating interest in the varied miniature railway scene of the time. In 1998 Ian Allan revived the ‘ABC’ of miniature railways, co-authored by Robin, Simon Townsend and Dave Holroyde. A ‘second edition’ followed in 2000, although those of us with copies from the 1960s were counting it as the third or fourth!

In 1981 Robin started the third miniature line he was involved with, at Weston-Super-Mare. AgSteam on Britains Miniature Railways and The Little Giant Storyain 7 ¼” gauge, this line survives to this day having been operated for many years by Bob Bullock. In 1982 Robin went to work abroad for the best part of a decade. Over this period he kept in touch with the miniature railway scene in the UK through the Heywood Society and 7 ¼” Gauge Society, being a founder member of both organisations.

It was on his return from working abroad that Robin started a venture that captured the imagination of many young readers and perhaps helped shape the miniature railway enthusiasts of tomorrow. October 1991 saw the publication of the first ‘Small World’ column in Ian Allan’s ‘Railway World’ magazine. That first single page was the first of many, as ‘Small World’ ran bi-monthly for ten years until June 2001, usually two pages but sometimes three. Sadly due to illness Robin was on occasion unable to write the column, however Simon Townsend, Dave Holroyde and Peter van Zeller did an admirable job of filling his shoes when required. Peter was later granted his own column on 15” gauge railways that alternated with Robin’s, providing monthly miniature railway interest in a mainstream railway magazine for the first time. It’s like hasn’t been seen since.

It was through the ‘Small World’ column that Robin reported on efforts to restore former Fairbourne Railway Class 30 Atlantic ‘Count Louis’ to steam with a much needed overhaul. Robin campaigned tirelessly to raise money for the restoration and it is sad to think that he will not be able to see the finished result when the loco returns to steam later this year. It will be a tribute to him that the loco he first saw in 1939 has been restored thanks to his efforts. ‘Count Louis’ wasn’t the only Bassett-Lowke loco he reported on during the ‘Small World’ era, Robin was also instrumental in ensuring the survival and restoration of ‘Blacolvesley’ when the Lightwater Valley theme park decided to sell the historic steam outline locomotive. Bassett-Lowke’s ‘Little Giants’ were also the subject of what Small World Articlesis perhaps Robin’s lifetime work, ‘The Little Giant Story’, co-authored with John Milner and published by Rail Romances in 2003.

1n 1996 Robin was back on the miniature railway operating scene when the 7 ¼” gauge Grosvenor Park Miniature Railway opened in Chester alongside celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the 15” gauge Eaton Hall Railway. Robin had organised a display of equipment related to the original railway, including an original brake van and the chassis of James Waterfield’s replica of Heywood 0-6-0T ‘Ursula’. The Grosvenor Park Railway continues to run today, not bad considering it was conceived as a temporary line! Several years later the new owners of the railway named a locomotive after Robin, a fitting tribute to a man who has done so much to promote miniature railways through writing and research, and done much to generate interest in the subject amongst others. You don’t have to turn far in miniature railway circles to hear his name cited as an influence, as the following quotes will testify…


“I only met him a couple of times, though we corresponded and telephoned over my Masters' thesis before then, which he was very helpful over. My first meeting was in 2002 when we closed the Narrow Gauge Museum at Tywyn and he & John Milner as former trustees attended (Robin had been the architect for the building). He & John had just published the Little Giant story, and Nigel Bird had brought my copy up to Tywyn that weekend. I was very fortunate that both John & Robin signed the book, which is truly my Desert Island read (even over Liliputbahnen - which Robin published the English version of in 1988!) and it will be forever treasured.” Anthony Coulls, Locomotion – The NRM at Shildon

“The world is a poorer place without him. He is one of those people that should have been awarded an MBE for services to Miniature Railway’s and perhaps I should have organised the petition for the same. That’s one of those things that if you leave it to others, it never gets done.

I have had the pleasure of knowing him for many years and enjoyed the stories and tales he would provide at the Heywood Society events or at other social occasions.
Whilst he was not directly responsible for me getting involved with miniature railway’s, it was his Bradford Barton book on the subject that re-kindled my interest, and raised my interest in other gauges from the 5” at Albert Park, Middlesbrough I was involved with in the 1970’s, through to 7.25” at Ampleforth, 15” with Effie and Mountaineer at Cleethorpes and now 20” gauge at Scarborough.

I spoke to him last in March to tell him that Chris [Shaw] and I had been awarded the contract for Scarborough and that it was in safe hands as he told me he was worried about its future last year. Thank you Robin for all you have done for the miniature railway world.” David Humphreys, North Bay Railway Company

"Robin was a great friend and had a wonderful collection of old MR photos and info, which he was always willing to share. He got people into MRs with his Ian Allan ABC in the early 1960s and magazine articles. He was involved in MRs at Llandudno, Bridlington, Weston and Chester. I will miss him and our little chats, where he invariably would produce something from his archive, which I hadn't seen before.” Dave Holroyde

George the Fifth, as saved by Robin and William McAlpine, seen at Cleethorpes in 1995

Much of what I have written has been drawn from Robin’s own work, in particular three sources:

1. ‘The Little Giant Story’, Butterell/Milner, Rail Romances 2003

2. ‘Miniature Line Memories’ (DVD/VHS), Railfilms

3. ‘Small World’ columns in ‘Railway World’ magazine, Ian Allan 1991 – 2001

Any errors or omissions in the text are mine and mine alone. My thanks go to Miniature Railway World webmaster Peter Bryant, Bob Bullock, David Humphreys, Anthony Coulls and Dave Holroyde.
Colin Peake
MRW Digest Editor

My blog: O9 Modeller