Going Loco

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Recently, lingering in my loft over books and back numbers of this journal and that, I stumbled on a photo of some schoolboys, paper and pencils in hand, sitting on a fence and watching a train go by. The location was Tring; the date, 1933. It’s a safe bet that what those lads were jotting down was the number of the steam locomotive at the head of the express.

That date, 1933, surprised me. I’d always thought that loco-spotting – collecting engine numbers as if they were physical entities, like stamps or butterflies – wasn’t invented until a decade later, when a 20-year-old clerk in the Southern Railway’s publicity department hit upon an idea, one that would make his name and fortune. Ian Allan had been spared military service courtesy of an amputated leg, and had been entrusted with a swelling postbag of requests for information about the Southern’s locomotives. His idea was to issue a booklet listing the hundreds of engines the company owned, and sell it for a shilling.

It was an immediate hit. It told the purchaser – doubtless roughly 98 per cent male – whether a particular locomotive was large ormedium or puny, whether used on passenger or freight trains or to shunt things around, whether to be found on main or branch lines or in sidings. The identification numbers they carried were printed in sequence, columns of figures down the page, asking to be ticked or underlined. As indeed they would be by a myriad schoolboys and, it was said, several vicars and the odd bishop. Thus, with one simple stroke of commercial genius, was born a book of numbers that launched several decades’ worth of the Ian Allan ABC of British Locomotives, the loco-spotters’ bible.

I’ve never seen that first ABC, but I’d like to think that Mr Allan enriched his list with the names the Southern gave their most glamorous engines: King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Camelot, Maid of Astolat, Excalibur, Lord Nelson

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About the contributor

Martin Sorrell eventually realized a boyhood ambition when he drove the Flying Scotsman, no less. It cost him 371 Combined ABCs but was worth every penny.

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