The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

10 October 2007

The little engines that went to sleep
Mr John Tidmarsh
Sutton Coldfield Miniature Railway
8th October 2007

John is a career railwayman, having worked for BR, and Dutch Railways, finishing his professional life in the project management of both the Class 60 and Class 92 locos. But it is the 15" gauge that is his passion and, in particular, the long-lived vehicles on the Sutton Coldfield Miniature Railway.
John Started with a brief history of miniature railways, tracing this back to the loco "Effie" of 1875 and the American Cagney locomotives. However, it was when Bassett-Lowke, and his designer Henry Greenly, entered the scene that the UK market really expanded. They started to build on quarter scale models of main-line express engines, Little Giant of 1905 being the first which, after trials in Northampton Park, ran for many years at Blackpool pleasure beach.
At the time Sutton Coldfield was a popular leisure destination for many Birmingham residents. In 1907, the park management decided to try out a miniature railway and brought in "Nipper" a 10¼" gauge loco, which proved conclusively that there was a significant demand for such a facility. During the winter of 1907 the line was relayed with 15" gauge track and a new locomotive "Mighty Atom" was obtained to the Bassett-Lowke design. It reopened the following year when rides were offered to an admiring public at the princely sum of 1d for the ¼ mile ride.
Meanwhile Bassett-Lowke was involved in exports and had opened a line at Nancy in Eastern France. He arranged to take Mighty Atom to the new line in 1909, replacing it with another engine. The World War I intervened, during which time the park was used by the army as a training group - including occasional rides on the miniature railway! Around this time, Bassett-Lowke's "Miniature Railways GB" went into liquidation, but somehow "Mighty Atom" resurfaced but in the guise of "Prince of Wales" in 1919 at Southport. In 1929 it moved to Great Yarmouth where it was rebuilt and ran on that resort's line. That line was very innovative and built an advanced, for those years, petrol-electric railcar, using an Austin 7 engine; the Austin company were so impressed they used it in their publicity and allowed the railway to badge the carriages with the Austin logo.
In 1937, Pat Collins bought the railway equipment from Great Yarmouth and relayed it at Sutton Coldfield, opening it as the "Crystal Palace Railway", named after an 1851-vintage glass house located in the park, and based on the Great Exhibition building. The line's layout was much altered from the pre-WWI version and the ride was now 3/4 mile long. Unfortunately, WWII now got in the way, and the line became very run down, but in 1948 Mr T.J. Hunt bought the railway and purchased another engine - a larger version of the Bassett-Lowke types, called "Douglas Clayton" and renamed it "Sutton Belle".
The park's fairground prospered after the war, and a third engine, "Sutton Flyer" joined the railway in 1952. At this point "Prince of Wales" was put into store after over 40 years of service from its origins as "Might Atom". Slightly earlier, another petrol loco, based on a GWR railcar, was built for the line, joining the Austin railcar as the modern-image traction. A 2½ litre Daimler-engined locomotive called "Dingo" came for testing at the Sutton Railway around this time, but did not stay. The "Sutton Flyer" achieved fame when it became the first "foreign" engine to run on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in 1959.
During normal operation of the Sutton line in its 1950's heydays, there was only one engine in steam. However, on busy days, both steam engines and the petrol vehicles were pushed into service. This could cause some difficulty as all the line's signals were dummies! The technique adopted was to hold one train on departure just outside the station until the second was approaching on the return, at which point the departing train went off. Meanwhile the third train was in one of the platforms loading up. This way, they could reach up to 1,200 passengers a day giving over 100,000 passenger rides in the year. The peak in the railway was when the new station was built in 1957 but the end was not long in coming - 7 October 1962 when the lease land ran out. The council had made it clear that they were unwilling to extend so all the stock was packed up, the line lifted and the site vacated.
And so things remained for nearly 40 years until Bill Hunt (T.J.'s son) received a call from Chris Shaw who had put together a proposal for National Heritage Lottery funding to build a line in Cleethorpes to resurrect the old Sutton operation - and he was successful! T.J. and later Bill, had always refused approaches to sell the stock piecemeal or for the equipment to be sent overseas, in the hope of seeing it kept together and operated again in UK. So the Cleethorpes proposal was too good to miss. Once everything was agreed, the engines and rolling stock were taken out of store, quickly overhauled and packed off to the R.H.D.R. for testing. Amazingly the petrol-engined railcar started first-time with just a quick clean of the plugs and a new battery. Indeed it ran so well "first time out of the box" that it nearly broke the speed limit on the line! Similarly, the steam locos worked perfectly and John managed to get himself as driver on "Sutton Flyer" at the head of a two-coach train carrying the collected UK miniature-railway experts on a special over the Romney marshes - despite his hands shaking he managed it flawlessly.
So everything was sent off to Cleethorpes where a new 1½ mile long line was built. Unfortunately, the original Sutton track was well past its sell-by date so new rail had to be procured. However most of the rest of the Sutton gear was used - the Station building, the engine shed (converted to a museum) and even the signal box. The later is now controlling signals and level crossing, more than it did at Sutton Coldfield where it was just used as a staff mess room. Plans are in place to extend the railway a further mile past its current terminus at North Sea Lane, once the money is available. The stock has also paid visits to other locations since finding its new home, including to the NRM for the Railex exhibition week in 2004. Further visits are planned; one to the Kirklees railway waiting the fitting of brakes to the passenger rolling stock. At present there are none, the stock having a Railway Inspectorate dispensation to run under "grandfather rights" while at Cleethorpes. This means that the trains are operating again in the same situation as they were 40 years ago - including, when John and his colleagues pay a visit, with the original train staff. Truly a case of the little engines that went to sleep - and awoke again.

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