Category:Bassett-Lowke Ltd

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Toy Brands and Manufacturers

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Bassett-Lowke title 1937.jpg
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Bassett-Lowke Ltd

The Bassett-Lowke company started as a model engineering supplies company in 1899, and became a limited company in 1909. It was founded by Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and H.F.R Franklin, with the help of WJ's father. The company's initial premises were a site owned by the Bassett-Lowke family's boilermaking business (of which Franklin had been the company accountant), and it went on to become one of the country's largest suppliers of medium and large-gauge model railways, model ships, and exhibition models.

The company name is often abbreviated to B-L by enthusiasts. Where the influence of an outside primary manufacturer is recognisable, models may sometimes be referred to by collectors as being "Bing for B-L", or "Carette for B-L", .

Key engineers and designers

Helped by Percival Marshall, WJ assembled a formidable pool of talent for his new business. George Winteringham had designed some mass-producable model railway track, and in 1902 he joined the company and ran a new B-L factory space, Winteringham Ltd., aided by engineer J. Mackenzie. The talented small-scale model railway engineer Henry Greenly joined as a consulting engineer to produce new designs, and in 1904 became the engineer for an offshoot B-L company to produce exhibition small-scale railways and garden railways, Miniature Railways of Great Britain. When the first London showroom was opened in 1908 it was run by E.W. Hobbs, a well-known marine architect who then proceeded to churn out a range of ship and boat designs for B-L, and introduced the company's waterline models range in 1913. The company produced its first architectural model in 1912, and in 1913 brought in model aero engineer and artist Ernest Twining to continue this side of the business, via Twining Models Ltd. Twining also designed much of the company's distinctive Art Nouveau corporate artwork.

Product ranges

In 1905, the Bassett-Lowke range was split across three catalogues: Section A (Model railways), Section B (Engineering) and Section S (Ships). By the mid-1930s, the three-way distinction in their advertising was between gauge 0 model railways, larger-gauge railways, and ships (with Twining having their own separate booklet for architectural models).

At the outbreak of WW2, the 00-gauge range of Trix Twin Railway was added as a "core" category (without the Trix name), perhaps because the conflicts over control that Stefan had had with WJ were now over, with Stefan facing being removed as a Director due to his German citizenship (Stefan was interned in 1940, and didn't survive the war).

The B-L catalogues also carried accessories, sets of castings and plans to build your own locomotives and ships, static steam engines (from Stuart Turner and German companies), and a selected range of items from other manufacturers, such as the Anchor Blocks company's metal construction system, and Structo kit cars.

Bassett-Lowke advert in Meccano Magazine, showing three main consumer ranges, August 1939
Bassett-Lowke advert, Scale Railway Modelling Today, September 1939

History

1899-1914

Starting as a spare parts model engineering supplies company, an encounter with Stefan Bing at a Paris trade fair convinced both men that there was a market for new model trains based on British locomotives (as opposed to the "continental-only" designs then being produced by German companies). WJ then drew up a design based on the LNWR 4-4-0 locomotive, which Bing put into production.

The success of this first locomotive encouraged WJ to source more German-made locomotives and rolling stock, from Bing, Georges Carette and Märklin. These were initially mostly quite Germanic-looking models, sometimes re-finished in British railway company livery, with B-L emphasising that the models were "in correct colours", perhaps to divert attention from the less-than-correct bodyshapes. However, as the business grew, and B-L became a more and more important client, and supplied further designs and feedback, their German suppliers got to produce more and more faithful reproductions of British locos, carriages and wagons. A high-point was the contract with Georges Carette to produce 30,000 well-finished lithographed tinplate models of a Caledonian Railway locomotive and West Coast carriage, which were sold as a marketing exercise in conjunction with the CR at bargain prices through stands at railways stations, boosting the public's appetite for model railways.

Ramsay's Guide lists the most popular models of the period as the "Precursor" tank locomotive, George the Fifth, Sydney, Deeley Compound, GNR "Atlantic" and Sir Sam Fay.

The Great War and beyond

World War One ended stopped B-L from importing any more German trains, and increased the focus on Winteringham and UK suppliers. After a pause in toy production during the War (when B-L made precision gauges for other manufacturing work), B-L found that their model ship business boomed as shipping lines rebuilt their fleets to make up the war losses, and wanted models of their newbuilds, with B-L often being the default supplier. As a Frenchman living in Germany, Georges Carette had found that he could no longer operate his business, and B-L acquired the Carette tooling and designs and started to manufacture the equivalents of the earlier Carette pieces in-house in the UK.

B-L retooled with more emphasis on bulk mass-production rather then individually hand-crafted pieces, and the focus on gauge 0 made it easier for them to sell into a wider market. However, the anti-German sentiment after WW1 meant that the hold that the German manufacturers had previously had on the market was now broken, and Meccano Ltd. began making gauge 0 train sets. Hornby's early clockwork-only pieces were far more toyish than B-L's engineered steam-powered models (and priced accordingly), but increased in sophistication from about 1929 onwards.

B-L had carried the slightly experimental Bing Tabletop Railway range from 1922 onwards, and then cooperated with Stefan Bing in the design and manufacture of the next-generation range, the 1935 Trix Express range, with Stefan organising the manufacture of the mechanisms and German bodyshapes, and B-L designing and building the UK-styled bodyshells, at Winteringham. When the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany made conditions intolerable for Stefan, WJ helped Stefan to move to the UK and start manufacturing Trix Twin Railways at the Winteringham site.

World War Two

Bassett-Lowke spent WW2 producing lots of models as the war effort required new recruits to be trained as quickly as possible, and it was now recognised that models of ships and aircraft made it easier to train recruits in how to identify friendly and enemy aircraft and ships, or to find their way around ships or technical equipment. Bassett-Lowke models were used to plan the D-Day landings, and to train operators to assemble the Mulberry Harbours and other new equipment.

Post-War

After the second World War, the need to rebuild Britain's bombed-out infrastructure resulted in a lot of new buldings and a great demand for architectural models. However, the period was less kind to the other Bassett-Lowke ranges. The main market for model railways was now 00-gauge, and although "Trix Twin" wasn't as expensive as Hornby Dublo, it also didn't look as expensive - the Hornby product benefited from Meccano Ltd.'s expertise of diecasting good-looking metal bodies for the Dinky Toys range, and by comparison, the TTR range (whose main selling point had been technical innovation rather than artistic looks) suffered. TTR also found itself having to compete with cheaper plastics manufacturing, a subject that the company knew little about and found it difficult to embrace. With even less understanding of the new low-priced mass-market than Meccano Ltd. (who went bust twice), B-L went into a period of decline and ended up going through a series of buyouts that typified the toy industry in the late C20th.

Bassett-Lowke today

Bassett-Lowke ceased trading in 1965, although the name resurfaced on some products in the late 1960s and mid-1990s. Corgi bought the company's assets and launched a new "gauge 0" Bassett-Lowke range under the umbrella name "Corgi Classics". Corgi was then bought by Hornby in 2008. The "Bassett-Lowke" brand was used by Hornby for a range of 0-gauge locomotives and rolling stock built using traditional sheet-metal techniques, but the company's page is not currently active (as of early 2014). The role of supplying finely-finished metal gauge 0 locomotives is now carried largely by ACE Trains.

Identifying "unusual" historical B-L pieces can be difficult - Bing had vast ranges of toys and parts in their catalogues, so the range of items produced by Bassett-Lowke, including variations and custom orders, defies any attempt at a complete listing. Toys and models based on German stock designs were often "Britishised" with UK locomotive numbers and railway liveries or modified in other ways, and with a workforce of craftsmen "finishers" who could essentially build bespoke toys and models to order by adapting stock mechanisms and parts, so it's not unusual to find "B-L"-manufactured items that don't seem to appear in any published listing or catalogue.

In the museum

The listing below is not a complete listing of the B-L pieces that we have on display in the museum - the listing will be expanded as and when we have more time.

The museum's Bassett-Lowke collection can't include the outdoor railway or exhibition model ranges, for reasons of space (both display space and storage space).

See also:

Further information

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