PETER FROST remembers an unusual hero of his youth
IAN ALLAN, who died earlier this month aged 92, was a hero to me and to most other schoolboy baby boomers in the years directly after the war.
He gave us a hobby: one that many of us wouldn’t admit to in later life because our hobby became an insult. Frosty, however, isn’t afraid to admit: “I was a trainspotter.”
In my early teenage years, living just a short walk from Willesden Junction station, I joined hundreds of other young boys — never girls — to note down the numbers of the huge snorting steam locomotives passing through or halting.
So popular was the hobby that during bank holiday weekends a large detachment of police was on duty at Willesden Junction just to control the vast crowds of us spotters.
The man who started it all, as we read in our Boy’s Own Paper or Eagle interviews, was a one-legged railway clerk named Ian Allan. We absorbed every detail, including how he lost that leg at 15 in a tragic accident at an Officer Training Corps camp at public school; and how, at the age of 20, and as a 15 shilling (75p)-a-week clerk with the Southern Railway, he suggested the company publish an ABC of Southern Railway Locomotives, their the names, numbers, classes and shed allocations.
His bosses thought the idea worthless so he published it himself. He already had all the numbers and technical details in his head.
He had 2,000 copies of the little book printed for £42. The shilling (5p) booklet sold out in days, netting him £100 and convincing him doing this would be better than working on the railway.
Soon he had published further ABCs on the Great Western, LNER and LMS railways, and on London buses, trams and trolleybuses. They too sold like hot cakes.
By 1951 he had established a Locospotters Club with 150,000 members.
My first Ian Allan book was the London Midland Region ABC, first published in 1956. The copy I bought was one of a record 250,000 sold.
We spotters had to sign a pledge “not to interfere with railway working or trespass on railway property” on pain of expulsion from the Locospotters Club. That didn’t stop unruly scenes on Preston station in 1951 which led to trainspotters being banned.
When we trainspotters started to grow up, and when British Rail started to replace magnificent living and breathing steam locomotives with smelly diesels, Ian Allan realised his ABC number books wouldn’t keep him in the manner to which had become accustomed. He did however realise the British love affair with railways was something that would go on forever.
In 1962 he expanded his company, forming the Ian Allan group with its headquarters beside the terminus of the Shepperton branch line, with the boardroom a Pullman car once used by the king. As well as publishing books and magazines, his empire would grow to include bookshops and a travel company specialising in railway holidays.
As long ago as 1946 he had founded his first railway magazine, Trains Illustrated. It is still published today but the title has changed to Modern Railways.
Now he became a major publisher of railway books and launched numerous other magazines, among them Buses Illustrated, Tramways and Urban Transit, Model Railway Constructor, Aircraft Illustrated, Combat Aircraft and Hornby Magazine. He went on to acquire many other publishing companies and magazine houses.
In 1967 he published a book by Gerry Fiennes, the general manager of the Eastern Region of British Railways (BR). In I Tried To Run a Railway, Fiennes revealed in alarming detail the lengths to which the BR higher management would go to stifle enterprise and drive away business. BR chairman Sir Stanley Raymond sacked the errant Fiennes, who promptly joined the board of Ian Allan.
Twelve years later another Ian Allan book, by BR’s retired safety officer Stanley Hall, warned that cost-cutting had put rail safety at risk. Again it caused huge controversy.
As well as railways, Allan also published books and magazines on Freemasonry. He was a Freemason himself.
He used his wealth to buy a few railways, purchasing the Hastings Miniature Railway (below) in 1948. In the 1960s he acquired the Great Cockcrow miniature railway near Chertsey.
When BR tried to ban steam-hauled excursions that the travel wing of his empire had been organising using privately owned locomotives, he led a successful campaign to beat the ban. Thanks to him, you can still ride a steam train on Britain’s main line today.
If you seek a real tribute and the measure of what Ian Allan achieved, just pop into your local WH Smith, where shelf after shelf of railway, model railway and all kinds of other transport enthusiast’s books and magazines pay tribute to generations of schoolboys who never grew up — and to the man who started it all.
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 14 July 2015.