Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953) founded an eponymous company that produced and distributed a mixture of imported, imported-and-modified, and home-produced model railways, ships, outdoor railways and architectural models. W.J. Bassett-Lowke Ltd. were the UK's main importer and supplier of German-made model railways in the UK during the period that German companies dominated the market.
His first name is sometimes listed in articles as "Wenman", and sometimes as his family nickname "Whynne" or "Whynn" but in official documents he seems to have preferred to be known as simply "W.J." .
- 1 Family background
- 2 The Bassett-Lowke company, 1899-
- 3 W.J. Bassett-Lowke and the Black Prince
- 4 Professional relationships
- 5 Publisher and author
- 6 Miscellaneous articles
- 7 Other media
- 8 Art and architecture
- 9 Personal politics
- 10 Official biographical notes, 1950:
- 11 External links
Absalom Bassett (~1828-1891) founded a small engineering and boiler repairs company in Northampton in 1859, and after his first wife died, he married the widow Mrs Tom Lowke, aka Tryphena Lowke (nee "Tryphena White"). Tryphena's son from her first Marriage, Joseph Tom Lowke (1850-1926), worked with his stepfather and eventually took over the business, which became J.T Lowke & Sons. Joseph Tom's son Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke was not all that keen to join the family business, and experimented with the idea of being an architect before realising that most of an architect's work was fairly mundane, and that most architects didn't get to build world-changing buildings.
"WJ" had enjoyed making small-scale models of boilers and steam engines, but found that he preferred making the "practice" models to building the actual equipment. Since he wasn't so keen on the family business' focus on heavy engineering, model engineering seemed to combine the opportunity to explore ambitious architectural and engineering projects in miniature while also letting him draw on his existing experience (and make some money). There didn't seem to be much competition, so with the help of his father (who was probably quite pleased that WJ had found something to do that didn't stray too far from his own interests), and the accountant from his father's company (H.F.R Franklin), W.J. set up Bassett-Lowke.
Northampton was known as a centre for bootmaking and shoemaking, and the area had a culture in which local artisans were experienced in making customised shapes in a mixture of materials - wood, leather, metal and cloth. This may have made it easier for WJ to set up a business making bespoke models.
The Bassett-Lowke company, 1899-
W.J. Bassett-Lowke's eponymous company was set up in 1899, supplying hard-to-find model railway engineering parts by mail order. W.J.'s friendship with some of the most significant individuals in the model railway and model engineering communities, and his Northampton family' engineering connections stood him in good stead, and Bassett-Lowke's company began selling a range of steam engines, model locomotives and rolling stock, garden railways, and model ships that were usually built by outside companies as contractors. Stock was initially often built in Germany and finished in the UK, but with the outbreak of hostilities in WW1, became increasingly produced in the UK. His friendship with accomplished small-gauge model railway engineer Henry Greenly led to B-L's catalogues carrying a significant range of garden railway blueprints, parts and full locomotives, Greenly in turn had links with Stuart Turner (whose products also appeared in the B-L catalogues). George Winteringham's Northampton-based company did much of B-L's local manufacturing and local modification of imported items, and E.W. Twining moved to Northampton to supply B-L after his own aircraft and model aircraft business proved not to be wildly successful.
W.J's interests in steam locomotives (due to his family boiler-making background), architecture and ships seemed to dominate the company's output. W.J. wrote a book on the history of ships, and sometimes his company's promotional material seemed to go to great lengths to emphasise how far the company would go to support fellow "ship-lovers". W.J. seemed to be rather less interested in road transport or aircraft, and his company's almost complete lack of any road or aircraft models is notable, especially since the company's contractors showed themselves to be quite capable of producing exhibition-grade model cars, and given that the founder of Twining Ltd. was an expert in aircraft and model aircraft design.
W.J.'s ability to keep on amiable terms with a number of manufacturers who might normally have been expected to see themselves as rivals of his company seems to have helped the company no end. Part of this was probably due to due to the very limited nature of B-L's own manufacturing capabilities - the company was usually not competing directly with most of its suppliers, and if it got a manufacturing contract this would usually be subcontracted to part of the B-L "extended family". While there seems to have been some occasional exasperation from those manufacturers about the B-L company agreeing to contracts, prices and timescales without really understanding what was involved, many of the subcontractors were also probably grateful not to have to go to business meetings with clients, get involved with advertising, or worry about retail outlets.
W.J. Bassett-Lowke and the Black Prince
Company literature credits W.J. himself as having designed the model Black Prince locomotive, which Bing manufactured for B-L, and whose components B-L sold to home-builders. The "Prince" was claimed to be the first "British" model locomotive to be manufactured from a full set of cast parts.
Some commentators have expressed scepticism over W.J.'s involvement citing some of the clearly Germanic aspects of the "Prince" design such as the front hatch, and pointing out the W.J. wasn't known for being involved in the design of his company's products.
However, it's possible that both sides of the argument may have some truth to them. As an "enthusiastic amateur" there was certainly no reason for W.J. to be involved in product design after experts like Henry Greenly had joined the company … but W.J.'s meeting with Stefan Bing took place before this. It's also possible that W.J's designs for the loco might not have been a full set of engineering drawings, leaving Bing Werke to "fill in the gaps" with some Germanic flourishes. If W.J. did design the basic shape of the locomotive, then this would explain the company's attachment to the piece, repeatedly revising it over the years and producing alternate versions in different gauges, when that design effort could have been producing a wider range of products – this could be understood if the company's founder had a special personal interest in the product.
W.J.'s "enlightened" approach to business and to investing in personal relationships also paid off in other ways - when he helped Stefan Bing migrate to the UK out of Nazi Germany, this ended up giving Bassett-Lowke's company the Trix 00-gauge range of model railways, which (due to the miniaturised electrical engineering) would have been difficult or impossible for the company to produce using their UK contractors, without a very significant investment in R&D. When Henry Greenly agreed to stand in for W.J. on an early fact-finding tour of European toy manufacturers, Greenly ended up travelling first class and staying at the best hotels, an experience that probably earned Greenly's loyalty for life!
As an enthusiast, W.J. also subscribed to the idea that it was important to put resources back into the modelling community, co-founding Model Railways and Locomotives magazine in 1909 with Henry Greenly, and writing a number of articles for various magazines, including MRaL and Meccano Magazine. He also wrote a small number of illustrated children's books on ships and boats, locomotives and trains, and modelmaking, and wrote the foreword to Frank E. Dodman's "The Observer Book of Ships".
Puffin Picture Books
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke and F.E. Courtney, A Book of Trains (Puffin Picture Books No.10)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke and Paul B. Mann, Marvellous Models (and how to make them) (Puffin Picture Books No.19)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke and Paul B. Mann, Locomotives (Puffin Picture Books No.74, 1947-)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke and Laurence Dunn, Waterways of the World (Puffin Picture Books, No.32)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke, Model Railways / The Model Railway Handbook (many editions)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke and George Holland, Of Ships and Men: An Account of the Development of Ships from Their Prehistoric Origins to the Present Time and of the Achievements and Conditions of the Men Who Have Built and Worked Upon Them, (Harrap, 1949)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke, "Models for your Home Movies", Home Movies and Home Talkies Volume 2 Number 1 pages 11-13 (June 1933)
W.J was a very keen still and "movie" photographer and often carried a film camera.
As an early foray into multimedia, the Bassett-Lowke company also offered the loan of a slideshow lecture by WJ (with slides and a script) on models and modelmaking. The company even offered the services of W.J or Edward Hobbs free of charge (apart from travel expenses) to give the lecture.
- Northampton promotional film, New Industries Committee of Northampton Town Council , circa 1932/33 (four reels)
Art and architecture
His interest in arts and design, coupled with his realisation after visiting Germany that the German design culture was much more established than Britain's, led him to take a number of steps towards encouraging a similar attitude in the UK. The B-L company catalogues sometimes showed an almost extravagant use of Art Nouveau lettering and design, usually produced by Ernest Twining, whose background had been in stained glass design, and who then wrote a book on commercial design listing some of his work for B-L.
W.J. also joined the fledgeling Design and Industries Association (after seeing the success of similar industry associations in Germany).
78 Derngate (1916)
In 1916 Bassett-Lowke commissioned the acclaimed designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to redesign the interior of his house at 78 Derngate, Northampton, with Twining producing the stained glass. This turned out to be Mackintosh's last interior design project of this type, and 78 Derngate is now preserved and open to the public as a gallery.
Some of the furniture that Mackintosh designed for Bassett-Lowke is also on display at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, about ten minute's walk from the Toy Museum. Part of Mackintosh's design brief was to incorporate some of the new plastics that Bassett-Lowke was interested in though his work, so the "Brighton" pieces are historically notable for their innovative use of plastic as an inlay material for its blue panels. Unfortunately, the colour of these plastic panels hasn't aged very well.
New Ways (1926)
After 78 Derngate, W.J. commissioned influential German architect Peter Behrens to build him a house New Ways, again in Northampton. While 78 Derngate had been a conventional house in a terraced row, whose interior was remodelled but whose exterior was nothing unusual, "New Ways" was a brand-new modernist building in white concrete with a block shape and flat roof, that was rather reminiscent of a shrunk-down industrial or factory building ... an impression that was strengthened by the front view's absence of conventional windows, and an odd narrow window column at the centre of the front of the house, above the doorway - this was a feature that became common on large company or educational buildings (where the window column would form one side of a high central stairwell) but the appearance of a miniaturised version of the feature on a two-storey domestic house was ... somewhat unusual.
W.J. was a great believer in progressive politics, which has led some commentators to point out a possible inconsistency of a champion of the left-wing making so much of his money from servicing the whims of the very rich (most of the population wouldn't have been able to afford a "gauge 0" train set, let alone a ride-on Garden Railway or the Maharajah's famous solid sterling silver dining-table train set). W.J. did however manage to infiltrate a small level of subversion into the B-L range in the shape of a set of "personality" passenger figures that represented people that he particularly respected, including Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw (who stayed at 78 Derngate at least once).
The range of notable passengers eventually included a figure of "A Model Manufacturer", WJ himself. Unlike the other "notable" passengers (who are standing patiently waiting for their trains to arrive), the "WJ" figure is striding with briefcase in hand, presumably to his next business meeting.
Official biographical notes, 1950:
W. J. BASSETT-LOWKE ...
was born in Northampton on December 27th, 1877. His father was an engineer and his grandfather established an engineering and boiler-making business in Northampton in 1859. He served his apprenticeship in engineering and for two years had experience on the outdoor staff of Messrs. Crompton & Company of Chelmsford. A keen model-maker in his youth, he started a business in model engineering while still associated with his father, and in the year 1909 founded the independent firm of Bassett-Lowke Limited. He is a Member of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
As to his interests in Northampton, he is director and one of the founders of the Northampton Repertory Theatre. He was elected a member of the Northampton Town Council in 1930, and has since taken a prominent part in the town's municipal activities, especially with new developments. he was responsible for the design and building of the pioneer modern house in England in 1926 and it is still considered one of the best examples of "fitness for purpose" in the country.
He has travelled extensively in Europe and America, has lectured and broadcast frequently on models, railways and ships. His chief hobbies are travel, photography, cinematography, and the furtherance of good design in the everyday things of life.
— W.J. Bassett-Lowke, flyleaf biographical notes, The Model Railway Handbook, 15th Edition, 1950
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke points out the details of some model ships to George Bernard Shaw, Huntley Film Archives (youtube.com) - silent film
- Northampton Museum and Art Gallery (northampton.gov.uk/museums)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke's personal travelling pocket-watch diorama of the Golden Hinde (www.bonhams.com)
- Edwin Heathcote, The Homes of W.J. Bassett-Lowke (ft.com)
- 78 Derngate - WJ's Charles Rennie Mackintosh interiors, preserved (78derngate.org.uk)
- New Ways - Professor Dr. P. Behrens, W. J. Bassett-Lowke (ajbuildingslibrary.co.uk)
- W.J. Bassett-Lowke's film introducing his house, New Ways (youtube.com) - silent film
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Pages in category ‘W.J. Bassett-Lowke’
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- 78 Derngate, The Charl...
- 78 Derngate, The Charl...
- A Book of Trains (Puff...
- Bassett and Sons, Nort...
- Bassett-Lowke 9.5-inch...
- Bassett-Lowke stand, M...
- Black Prince loco MR 2...
- Black Prince loco, 190...
- Caledonian set, Basset...
- Everyday Science, enam...
- Furniture by Charles R...
- Locomotives, front cov...
- Locomotives, written b...
- Marvelous Models, back...
- Marvelous Models, fron...
- Model Railway Handbook...
- Model Railways and Loc...
- Model Railways and Loc...
- Models and Model Makin...
- MRAL cover Dec1910.jpg
- The Bassett-Lowke Stor...
- The Model Railway Hand...
- The Model Railway Hand...
- W J Bassett Lowke with...
- Waterways of the World...
- Waterways of the World...
- Wenman Joseph Bassett-...
- WJ Bassett-Lowke at No...