Chris Littledale interview, 2008 (Jacqueline Le Huec)
MA Life History - University of Sussex
Public History Placement
Transcription series for Brighton Toy and Model Museum Oral History Project
Narrator: Christopher Littledale
Interviewer: Jacqueline Le Huec (italics)
Interview took place on Friday " March 2008, during a walk around the museum, starting in his workshop.
I do commissions. I have made all of this and it's all tin. Its how the original was done, except for the wheels which are lead. I had to make the wheels so that they would spin. There's a lot of work involved. This came to me with no door, no front step, no turntable and no shaft. This man Sir David Preston has an unbelievable collection of these sorts of toys. I made parts for the horse which was broken. New legs. I research and with this one, he gave me a horse to copy, the style. Its vast amounts of work and its worth between seventeen and twenty thousand pounds. It's from the 1880s. Its a challenge and I enjoy making all these things. I do not need to advertise my services because I cannot keep up with all the work I have got. I really shouldn't take on any more.
Trains are probably one of my greatest passions when it comes to inanimate objects. It was like a baptism of fire because when I was two and a half I was on Victoria Station with my mum and dad and a big steam engine came in, called a King Arthur locomotive and the safety valve went, which is a normal occurrence but it makes a noise like a jet aircraft as it releases steam to release energy from the boiler because its now stopped. It comes out of the top and the noise is awesome, electrifying and I was so petrified I hid behind my mother and wouldn't come out, I was so frightened, but I think that ever since then I have had a sort of love affair with the steam engine. Anything to do with steam and trains, which led to models and toys.
When I was a small boy I went to boarding school at Westcliff-on-Sea and I saw trains like some of the ones in the museum, not quite as exotic but a similar size in a junk shop and I was with a teacher and the matron and I was desperate to buy this train, it was an old one. It was probably made in the 1930s. I made such a fuss and asked all the people I could at the school including the headmasters wife who I asked for a loan, I think it was four pounds ten shillings, which in 1951 was a lot of money, equivalent to about £300 today. I didn't get anywhere and I did not ever get it, and I was so disappointed. I had even been prepared to sell off lots of my other toys, to raise the money.
About a year later, my father who was a fantastic model maker bought me my first serious train set. I had this when I was eight, the Hornby 00 Duchess of Atholl.it was a considerable present was something like seven pounds ten shillings in about 1952 which was a lot of money and I got it for Christmas. The set with TWI on it was bought for my brother, who gave it to me when he was older and not really interested in it.
Then I produced a layout with lots of scenery, a beautiful little street scene and a Tudor market square and hills on a board in our room, in our lovely old partly Tudor house, on a great big table. My younger brother and I related incredibly well and were great friends (still are) and on long winter days we would sit around this layout with its thatched cottages and rows of Tudor shops and cafes and Town Hall and the main station and little paths that led over ridges to it, all extremely real to look at and I would even have little vegetable patches at the bottoms of the gardens and corrugated huts that were going rusty and bicycles parked outside and all made by me, some bits from built easy kits which I used to cannibalise. We would sit and look at this and then we wove the most amazing stories around it. Every building in the village and the thatched cottages that sat up near a woodland with a stream running through it, all had owners. I bought buses to go in the village and I drew a map of where we were and the people who lived in the village had various jobs, and my brother and I chose our heroes from those people to craft our stories around. One had a boat moored in a harbour near by and I made a map of the whole area with the imaginary towns. I repainted all the bus signs to agree with the names made up on our map. I also repainted the buses in local colours and I still have one somewhere. There was a theatre in the village, and there was a murder in the village and the police were brought in and we had an enquiry and it was one of the people who was a gatekeeper on the railway who murdered a woman. It almost came to life, we had lights in some of the buildings and we would turn them down and down and the trains would run round and round until it looked like evening and we would make a moon effect with a bulb behind a piece of opaque disc. I let it shine down so it looked like moonlight on the whole of the scene.
I always told very elaborate adventure stories to my brother, in our room which we used to share, not wanting our own rooms. Unfortunately we never wrote them down as we got older we started to have romance in the stories. I had a passion for anything miniature. I built a tugboat for my brother which was based on a kit but I scrapped everything and made it myself. I built it as a steam boat and bought a steam boiler for it (the Industrious) I bought a kit to put a little steam engine in it and I connected it all up and my parents said it would never work and its maiden voyage was in the bath and we lit a fire and got steam up and off it went and they all clapped. So we took it down to the lake in Southsea and steamed it across the lake so we had a lot of fun with that. So stories got woven around that as well, there was chief engineer and a captain.
He made the hospital ship (RFA Maine) during the war, while he was on board. He was a Surgeon Commander on the vessel which was moored in Valletta Harbour in Malta. It was there for virtually the duration of the war, certainly three years, and he made this model absolutely from scratch. It was made from scraps, no kit involved, even cigarette papers were used, bits from all around the ship, bits of cable extremely fine fuse wire. It is of such a high standard that someone from the maritime museum was interested in purchasing it. It sits on a piece of teak which came from the ships stores and was a piece of spare deck plank which could have been used on real ships. The ship is made out of wood, metal, cardboard, tissue paper, fuse wire all sorts of things. I did have a picture of my father in his naval uniform with the ship in his hand in front of the bows of the real ship in Malta and it was almost detail-perfect.
They used to have First and Third Class travel on the trains. Originally there was First, Second and Third, but they dropped Second because they thought it would be silly to have three classes, so they kept the expensive, dropped the middle-of-the-road and kept the cheap. If you look at the carriages you can see a 1 on some and a 3 on others. It stayed like that for a long long time until they decided it was silly to have no second, so it became 1 and 2.
This layout was first displayed in The Engineerium on a smaller scale and there was a girl called Deborah who used to help out and we used to decide who owned all the buildings in the background and create stories although not as elaborate as the ones we used to tell at home because they were just so involved. Its marvellous to have all this, I don't know what makes one become a collector, having told you about my father and getting a trainset ... the larger sizes excited me more and there's a collectability about them as objects.
I used to comb junk shops all around. There are things here that I bought when I was in school, from junk shops and they were all getting to know me but it was taking over from the work I should've been doing at school and so it was frowned on. At one point there was even an embargo on my buying them so I did it in secret and smuggled them in – they didn't understand even though I was always an artist. I used to paint pictures of trains, sometimes ships, aircraft, buses and sometimes even places. My passion was trains and my reports would say things like: "Christopher would do so much better in physics if we could relate everything to railway trains".
When my brother was quite small I used to take him away on train journeys and indoctrinate him in loving trains I used to take him to places like Guildford where there were still steam engines still around. It was an adventure for him. I used to go down to the local docks in Portsmouth and get us invited onto old tugboats and dredgers. We even stoked coal into one of the engines of the old boats and the Camber Dock had all these old boats there. We went over to the Isle of Wight which was extremely exciting discovering the island. We walked around and I think the Isle of Wight has always been about fifty years behind the times which gives it a great charm. Our parents realised we were responsible lads, I was in my early teens and so they didn't mind our adventuring.
What caused this museum to be set up was the size that the collection grew to. All the trains are mine (looking around there are hundreds everywhere) it's a disease. I have been collecting, continuously, since I was 12. My flat was full of trains. There is nowhere in the world where you can go and see this sort of a collection. There are private collectors, but no public place. This quantity is exceptional. Its obsessional because you see something and feel you have to have it. Especially if its a carriage that would complete a train that you have. I used to spend money I didn't have. There was an old Irish lady, when I first came to Brighton nearly 40 years ago, who used to run the Regency Finance company, and there was a big dealer just outside Brighton Station, an ex-Navy man, John Proctor, and I used to go round there and buy new engines. These could be £30 or which was a lot of money and I was only scraping a living making models and that sort of thing and he introduced me to miss offline (?) who would lend me the money, something like £40 over two years and I bought some quite unique things like that. Maybe I shouldn't have bought on hire purchase but some of things you would not be able to find again so I had to buy them when I saw them.
I used to put exhibitions on at The Engineerium and before I came here I had my workshop there, but I had so much it was pushing me out of my flat and I knew I needed to do something with it all. I felt selfish and that I must share them and this idea was in my mind more than 30 years ago that I should put it on public display. It has at times been a nightmare, trying to find the money to pay the rent on this place and it was about 18 years ago when we really seriously decided to go and find a place. I had a good group of people and we set ourselves up as a charity straight away. I found a good man who owned a hotel in Brighton who was legally-minded and told me that I couldn't just find a premises, and fill it up with all my toys. Its hugely complicated to set up a museum, the litigation involved. Being registered as a charity is the only way to step round business rates, because if we had to pay business rates on this place we would close tomorrow. To form a charity we had to have trustees, so we found those, but it was a pyramid of things that had to be done. And although I knew it was going to be complicated I didn't realise how complicated. I am totally not an administrative person. The trustees came together almost serendipitously. We moved in here in 1991. The place was like a ruin, we had to repaint the walls, level the floors, one man rewired the whole place for us. The amount of work involved was astronomical.
We had to brick up the arches that were originally open to the street and had been boarded up – we couldn't have got insurance otherwise. There was no emergency exit. Before finding this we looked at a redundant cinema, an old hotel, two churches, somewhere with character, and I found this by walking past and I saw a "To Let" notice. It was owned by British Railways, it has been a photographic studios and originally a Bass Charrington beer stores. There are still marks in the walls from shunting barrels around. It's wonderful as a premises.
Most people probably look at things at a glance, don't understand it, don't need to understand it, but I think everybody can see that they are pretty unique and there is a joy about it all, ranging to people who study them (trains) and know all about them. There were two German people, who I spoke to, despite their not speaking much English, really knowledgeable about the trains and a lot of the trains were made in Germany, when it was in a state and England was affluent in the 1930s and they made these trains for the English market, as the mark was very low. Manufacturing was easy for other countries to capitalise on.
I realised early on that an awful lot of the trains that I was buying in junk shops had parts missing and I found my way into restoration, totally self-taught. I taught myself to solder.
I set up a trust so that if anything happened to me everything will pass into the Trust and carry on and I have now got five trustees for that Trust, which will be called the Objects Trust and I have done it that way because the museum is a charitable trust so if anything happens to the museum, i.e. BR want the building back then the charitable trust could decide that the objects could be dispersed, and this would all be taken out of our hands, because it is a registered charity. So the other trust I have set up is not a registered charity although it works hand in glove and its purely to hold the objects and if anything happens the Trust has absolute jurisdiction as to what happens to the objects. It is all unique, you cannot find this collection anywhere else.
People have said don't you think this is going to die when there are no more steam trains on the railways, but children do relate to the trains and we haven't lost interest in sailing ships, people still love those, and stage coaches, because its history, its old things. Some children want to break the glass and get hold of them. I can vaguely remember when I was a child of four or five, there was a garage down in Southsea where they had one of these park miniature railways with big beautiful engines and apparently I was trying to kick the glass in because I wanted to get at it. I threw a tantrum. Every week we have schools here, it would be nice for them to be able to handle them a bit more. I think letting them see this which is so far removed from the modern world gives them another aspect in life. I think young people seeing all this stuff, it does charge them with another world.
This dolls furniture is very rare, from a little known manufacturer, Evans and Cartwright started in 1770s and went through to 1830. They are more scale models than toys, and fashioned in metal because it is stronger – it can be made thinner than wood, without being as fragile. The metal ones look more real.
I am a consultant for Christies the auctioneers, in particular for trains. There was a yearly sale, called "Trains Galore" which was a social event and everyone I knew would be there. Again its all self taught over a lifetime.
That's a French locomotive, which ran between Paris, Cherbourg, Dieppe and the le Havre area and it was the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français State Railway they called it. Its quite a rare thing and its made in France. La radiguet? was the name of the firm, it's very French in design.
All these trains I can tell you about, and through all this I have met the most interesting people.
There is a man in Lausanne which is next to Geneva, who was a Count Antonio Giansanti Coluzzi of Lausanne. He was an incredibly rich man who knew the Rainier family and he was very much in that set in the old days of racing Bentleys around France. In his chateau he had a great garage and we were talking one day in a sort of Snug he had fitted out like the old Wagons-lits, Orient Express carriages. He produced a book called: "The Trains on Avenue De Rumine", which was all about his collection, which was vast, bigger than mine. We used to sit there and discuss trains and all the stories he had. He was first influenced by having a house near Cannes and the train from Paris to the South used to pass close by his house every day, which for him was magic. He was a wonderful old man, but unfortunately towards the end he had to sell all his collection, which was put up for auction. I stayed with him, with a man from Christies, Tom Rose, and two girls helping as well and two photographers, and we were over a fortnight just cataloguing these trains.
I met another person in LA called Ward Kimball, who was an eccentric character, who was an animator for Disney and worked on Dumbo. He had a place out the back of LA an hour by taxi. I found all the letters he sent me, pictures of himself and it's going into my archive. I am keeping an archive on all these various people. The other person I met was Sir William McAlpine, he is a great railway enthusiast and collector. He has been here and he has a very interesting background. I do love that side of it. Walt Disney also collected trains. And I briefly met Frank Sinatra, who was also a train collector. Michael Palin also collects trains. I have documentation on the railway works that used to be where the new Sainsburys is, and it all need sorting for the archive. We have here paintings from inside the Railway Works, done by Guy Burrows and his wife came in one day and realised we were full of trains and she said he did the paintings in the 1950s when he worked there. They are a piece of Brighton's history, fascinating. At the end of the 60s, early 70s, it was all demolished. I can just remember it. Eighty-ton locomotives were being built there. It was serious heavy industry here in Brighton.
I also do sound effects with a microphone. I do trains, aircraft, old fashioned motorbikes, stormy seas. I have done it for performances and shows. One of the reasons I went to L. was for Christies who had a prestigious sale of all sorts, and they asked me if I would do my sound effects cabaret. I can do a tube train and you will think you are on the underground. I was about eight when I discovered I could make these sounds. I was in the bath and I closed off my ears and discovered I could make these train sounds. (demonstrated) when I went to L. there were all these American bankers, pretty cold fish really and yet they loved it, especially the wives. And I gave it an American bent, because the American steam trains are subtly different to our own. I got terrific applause at the end.
This love of toys as a small boy has directed the pattern of my life, without a shadow of a doubt. Its probably why I didn't get married. There was a French girl called Katrine, she was from Lyon, she loved the trains and used to look out for some for me. She found some old German trains in a flea market near her home once, her description was razor sharp. I didn't know how I would finance them and she said her mother would lend the money, but the time she had been to her mother to get the money and back to the place, a dealer had been along and bought them.
Railway engines are often known by how the wheels are set out. If you look just at the engine itself, the wheels are broken into three units, small wheels, big wheels and small wheels in all different permutations, i.e. 4-4-2 - four wheels at the front (small), four wheels in the middle (big), two wheels at the back (small). Or 4-6-0, four wheels at the front (small), six wheels in the middle (big), and no wheels at the back. There are a number of reasons why they are set out like this, maybe to balance the engine, to identify the make, balancing coal and water when there is no separate tender.
The farm is mine, and a lot of the bits for it came with the trainsets in the early days, it has a great atmosphere reminiscent of rural England. There was an old man in Kemptown, Mr Newells, he was an inventor and I bought some trains and there was a lot of this stuff included. Little paper models, to cut out and make, wonderful, the old London Bridge with houses on it so you had to walk through the houses to get across (already written about). Other models (opposite) made from back of cereal packets.