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

5 January 2006

The Pendon Museum
Ken Surman
9 September 2002

Ken gave an entertaining review of the history of the exhibition. The originator of Pendon was Roy England who came from Australia to Wanborough near Swindon in the late 1920s. He was in digs there with the local vicar, the Rev. French and his family. At that time, the Vale of the White Horse was a depressed farming area, full of thatched cottages. He fell in love with the place and vowed to preserve the scene by modelling the area. He started with the old Cawley Arms at Wanborough, near his digs. It was being rebuilt as a modernised cottage from an old thatched alehouse. When Roy saw what was happening, he rushed out with his notebook and camera to record the building and prepare the plan for a model of it.

The Inn was his first model. Roy then started his quest to record the buildings of the Vale, returning many times to measure individual cottages - so much so, that one young resident described him as "the measuring man". He concentrated on pre-1800 architecture ignoring Victorian and Georgian buildings. He didn't make accurate scale drawings, but produced sketches with detailed measurements. The difficulty was working out the height of buildings. It was easy for brick-build houses - simply count the brick courses, but the half timbered buildings were more difficult. The answer was a graduated clothes prop! In addition to his sketches, Roy was good at getting copies of old photographs from residents.

Roy returned to Australia in 1934 and didn't return to the Vale until 1948. At that time he lodged with a railway man and this, together with the demise of the GWR, stimulated Roy to become interested in, and record the railway scene. He persuaded his host to bring home railway ledgers which Roy faithfully copied. Roy only managed to finish the one model building before the war, but he started more models in these post-war period, catching up on his past records.

He developed some techniques to faithfully replicate the buildings in model form, but these were not very practical and progress on the model of the Vale was very slow. However, he was very persuasive, and soon drew together a group of supporters some of whom carry on his work, although currently there are only two architectural modellers. One of the supporters was a lady visitor from California, Helen Buckland, who was so captivated by the model, that she offered to sculpture the figures; her expertise is clear from the near perfect results. Roy had a wonderful eye for detail covering the minutia of a scene- his model of the shoemaker's house even includes shoes scattered all over the shop - just like the original in Uffington which burnt down in the 1960s, and the well known sign "Doosnt disturb Zippy" was taken by Roy from real life.

Even today, construction techniques are as near the original as possible, e.g. the hay rick is modelled from layers of hemp, every slate on the houses is modelled individually, every petal and leaf in the gardens is individually painted. Originally, the thatch was made from human hair, but these days they use plumbers hemp, made up into individual bundles and carefully teased out. Building are made from thick card, with windows and doors cut out and brick scribed with a blunt pen. It is then washed over with a white colour for the mortar and bricks individually picked out in different colours. All the models have a "cellarage", providing a base, and something to hold while making it. The scenery is built from a boxed structure of cardboard, covered with scrim and plaster in two layers. Trees are made from multi-strand wire covered with plaster or, more recently, adhesive from a hot glue gun, and "Woodland Scenics" foliage put on the branches.

The railway is an important part of the museum with models of the gwr, Midland and South Western. The collection of rolling stock started when Roy saw a GWR 0-6-2 tank in a Bristol model shop, which is still on show on the Dartmoor layout. He found Guy Williams, the builder of the engine, and for the past 50 years he has continued to make the engines for the layout. The Dartmoor layout started when Guy persuaded Roy that he wasn't building the Vale fast enough. This allowed visitors to see something moving, including the well-known heavy-goods, Kings and Castles going over the large trestle viaduct - not quite authentic - but impressive nevertheless! The class 28xx goods engine, on the heavy goods, has a lead-filled boiler and the tender motor - it has hauled over 100 wagons at a scale walking pace. All the wagons and coaches on the layout are hand made. For the Vale layout, they will need over 180 coaches, currently they have reached 100, so there is still a long way to go. They also need hundreds of wagons. Ultimately, there will be two sets of 30 trains, with some spares, all assembled according to Roy's notes and train formation books.

When they came to be registered as a museum they hit a problem. While they had a good organisation of volunteers, they didn't preserve anything! That is where the railway memorabilia comes in - while an add-on to the Pendon vision it got them museum status! However, Ken is worried that the standards for registered status keep changing and there is a danger they may loose it in the future. Let's hope that doesn't happen and this superb permanent exhibition continues for future generations to enjoy.

See also visit report to Didcot and Pendon.

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