A History of Bassett-Lowke

by

Ken Rumsey

 

            Bassett-Lowke was a toy company in Northampton, England, founded by Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke in 1898 or 1899, that specialised in model railways, and construction sets. Bassett-Lowke started as a mail-order business, although it designed and manufactured some items.

            Bassett-Lowke entered into contracts with manufacturers such as Twining Models and Wintringham’s, also of Northampton. While the company is perhaps best known for model trains, it had a long history of the manufacture of model ships. Before and during World War One, the company was dealing with a firm referred to in Bassett-Lowke catalogues as “B M C”. There is confusion as to what the initials stood for: internet sellers have identified it as “Birmingham Metal Company” or “Brighton Model Company”.

            The collaboration between Bassett-Lowke and B M C produced a model fleet of every class in the British navy from 1885 through 1916 including tugs, troop ships and the royal yacht. The models were formed using hollow cast lead with the wire masts cast into the hulls. The models were painted and issued in numbered sets, paper flags with each set to be cut out and applied. The scale was described in the catalogue as “one inch equals eighteen hundred inches”. While the models were rudimentary by later standards, every class of vessel was easily recognisable by the funnels and guns and masts. The series may have been discontinued during World War One since the last vessels were of ships commissioned about 1916. Possibly the series was abandoned due to rationing of metal.

            Later copies appear for sale on the internet. These can be distinguished from the originals, which were hollow cast Two copies are common, the first cast in solid lead with no wire masts and large numbers inscribed on the bottom. The second are in pot metal and represent three ship classes from the original sets; the King Edward VII, Lord Nelson and Swiftsure. During World War II, wood and wire ship models in the 1; 1200 scale were issued under Bassett-Lowke sponsorship for military contracts. Unlike the earlier rudimentary B M C lead models, these models are detailed and command a high price.

 

      

                                                                    Beckonscot Model Village                                     London to Paris journey

 

            Bassett-Lowke produced trains from 15-inch (381 mm) gauge live steam models to Gauge 2, Gauge 1 and 0 gauge. The first 15-inch steam locomotive, test run on the Eaton Hall Railway, in 1905 was Little Giant. Unlike other engines on the line it was a replica of main-line locos, built for a public miniature railway at Blackpool. It was a quarter scale 4-4-2 Atlantic tender engine, though not an exact copy of any particular prototype. This engine still exists in private ownership.

            In 1909 along with Henry Greenly W J Bassett-Lowke started and edited Model Railways and Locomotives Magazine.

            In 1914, Bassett-Lowke produced the second Pacific 4-6-2 of any size built in Britain (the first was GWR 111 The Great Bear). This was John Anthony, built for a miniature railway at Staughton Manor. It was never delivered, but after storage at Eaton Hall during World War I was sold to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and renamed Colossus. It was scrapped in 1927. Ravenglass and Eskdale had purchased another Bassett Lowke Atlantic, the Sans Pareil.

In the 1920s, Bassett-Lowke introduced 00 gauge products. The company provided custom-built railways; one such layout survives in modified format at Bekonscot Model Village in England.

            In 1939, Bassett-Lowke was producing a working model of Churchills trench digging tank known as Cultivator No. 6.

            Bassert-Lowke’s decline starting in the late 1950s and can be blamed on at least two factors: sometimes people would browse the firm’s free catalogue and buy similar or nearly identical items elsewhere at lower price; and interest in technical toys declined in the late 1950s and even more in the 1960s. Bassett-Lowke’s fall was mirrored by its U.S. counterparts, the A. C. Gilbert Company and Lionel Corporation. In 1964 the company ceased retail sales and sold its shops, including one at High Holborn in London, to Beatties. Bassett-Lowke went out of business in 1965.

            In 1966 the company was acquired by Messrs Riley and Derry, and in the late 1980s by Nigel Turner, a Northampton businessman, and the company was based next to his business of Turner’s Musical Merry-Go-Round, near Wootton, Northampton. In 1993 the name was revived with short run white-metal models. These included a Burrell-type traction engine, Clayton Undertype steam wagon, Burrell-type steam roller, and a London B-type bus. The name was acquired in 1996 by Corgi, which linked it with live steam 0-gauge locomotives.

            Key competitors to Bassett-Lowke were Hornby and Exley. Homby acquired Corgi in 2008 so consequently now manufacture Bassett-Lowke models.

Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd

            In 1912 W. J. Bassett-Lowke, Robert Proctor-Mitchell and John Wills set up Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd. / (NGR) to promote and run 15-inch (380 mm) railways. An earlier company, Miniature Railways of Great Britain Ltd, went into voluntary liquidation in 1912. NGR’s first railway opened in 1912 at Luna Park in the Pare des Eaux-Vives, Geneva, Switzerland. In Britain, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway was taken over, converted to 15-inch (380 mm) gauge and reopened in 1915. The Fairbourne Railway followed in 1916.

Locomotives

            Bassett-Lowke locomotives were often re-named when moved and it is uncertain whether a locomotive is new or an old one with a new name. The list (probably incomplete) is not definitive. Most of Bassett-Lowke’s locomotives were designed by Henry Greenly who was a contributor to Model Engineer magazine.

Class 10 Atlantic

Little Giant for Blackpool

Mighty Atom for Sutton Coldfield

Entente Cordiale for the 1909 Exposition Internationale de l’Est de France at Nancy

Red Dragon for the Imperial International Exhibition of 1909 at White City, London

Green Dragon same as Red Dragon

King Edward for the 1910 International and Universal Exhibition at Brussels, Belgium

King Albert same as King Edward

King Leopold same as King Edward

George the Fifth for Southport

Class 20 Atlantic

Prince of Wales for Southport

Class 30 Atlantic

Synolda for Sand Hutton Light Railway, then to Belle Vue, Manchester, later Southend-on-Sea, currently Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Sans Pareil for Luna Park, Geneva, Switzerland, then to Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Count Louis for Count Louis Zborowski, then to Fairbourne Railway. Now at Evesham Vale Light Railway.

Class 60 Pacific

John Anthony for J.E.P. Howey, then (re-named Colossus) to Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

The Class 10 and Class 20 had narrow fireboxes. The Class 30 and Class 60 had wide fireboxes.

 

            The following extract is from the official guide book of the Imperial International Exhibition of 1909, listing one of the attractions ‘A TRIP TO PARIS’ through Ballymaclinton, the Irish Village, Fare 6d.

            All the experiences of a journey from London to Paris can be sampled in this novelty, with the additional delight of accomplishing the troublesome passage between the two countries by means of a representation of the much-discussed Channel Tunnel in Miniature trains, drawn by locomotives modelled on those of the great British lines.

            The travellers leave the capital and proceed through charming Kentish scenery to Dover. Here instead of stopping at the pier head by the side of a turbine steamer, the train descends into a tunnel connecting the two countries, and during this subterranean voyage a number of unknown glimpses of scenes of the under water world are seen through vent holes in the side of the tunnel. Live fishes are detected swimming about, then a wreck is encounted, and other marine scenes witnessed.

            Reaching the French coast the train makes a quick run through the beautiful fields of Normandy to Paris, a fine view of the city being shown before the return journey to the Metropolis is begun. Five carriages make up a train, each accommodating fifteen persons, and are drawn by the diminutive engine at a speed of from five in the tunnel to eighteen miles an hour in the open stretches.

 

© Exhibition Study Group 2013

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