Bassett-Lowke was a toy company, based in Northampton, England founded by Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke
(1877 – 1953) in 1898 or 1899 that specialized in model railways, model boats and ships, and construction
sets. During its history, Bassett-Lowke offered trains in all gauges up to 15" and in all modes of power
(clockwork, steam, and electric). They were also well known for their ship models, some of which graced
the board rooms of the largest steamship companies of the time.
W. J. Bassett-Lowke was the son of a boiler-maker and a governess. He left school at thirteen.
He spent eighteen-months in an architect’s office, before joining his father in the family boiler making
business. He took up the hobby of making model stationary steam engines. Realizing the impossibility for
the ordinary enthusiast of purchasing small parts, which he had made in his father’s workshops, he soon
began a small mail-order business. His father’s bookkeeper, H. F. R. Franklin, joined him in the project.
Bassett-Lowke initially started as a mail-order catalogue business and primarily remained so,
although it sometimes designed and even manufactured some of its own items.
Bassett-Lowke was inspired by his visit to the Paris Exhibition in 1900, where he
made contact with German manufacturers, including Bing, from whom
he bought model trains painted in British livery. Soon he began
manufacture in Northampton. The company began making ‘waterline’ ship models in 1908. This type of
model, showing only the parts above the waterline, were used in wartime as training aids for the Navy
and Air Force. Yachts were also made to sail on boating lakes. Large shipping companies
commissioned models of their luxury liners to display in their offices. Miniature railways were
made for wealthy individuals and for exhibitions and resorts. The skilled model maker E. W.
Twining formed Twining Models Ltd., which produced the highest quality architectural models with
Bassett-Lowke was primarily a sales organization, contracting out the
manufacture of models and parts
to other manufacturers, such as Twining Models, and Wintringham's also of Northampton. They did, however,
keep the manufacture of shipmodels for display purposes in-house.
Bassett-Lowke produced trains in a variety of sizes, from 15"
gauge live steam models to Gauge 2, Gauge 1, and '0' gauge.
Their first 15" gauge steam locomotive, test run on the Eaton Hall Railway in 1905 was the
Little Giant. Unlike other engines on the line it was a replica of main-line locos,
being built for a new public miniature railway at Blackpool. It was a quarter scale 4-4-2 Atlantic
tender engine, though not an exact copy of any particular prototype. This engine still
exists in private ownership.
In 1908 Bassett-Lowke opened his first London shop at 257 High Holborn, moving
to number 112 in 1910.
His company made great use of trade shows, not only displaying their own goods, but often supplying
companies with models, too. Many 15” gauge railways were installed to carry visitors around exhibitions.
Usually the displays were of smaller gauge models and large tabletop systems. However, mail order
remained an important part of the business.
In Bassett-Lowke’s earlier days, the company commissioned a lot of its products
from other manufacturers. The company collaborated with Carette who made a good
deal of carriages for the English market.
One of the primary suppliers of 2½" gauge locomotives prior to 1913 was Carson & Co. (James Carson).
In 1913, Bassett-Lowke acquired all of Carson’s tooling and continued to make at least some of the Carson
range for some time afterwards.
In 1914, Bassett-Lowke produced only the second Pacific 4-6-2 (of any size) to be
built in Britain
(the first was GWR 111 The Great Bear). This was the John Anthony, built for a private miniature
railway at Staughton Manor. It was never delivered, but after storage at Eaton Hall during World War I,
it was sold to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and renamed Colossus. It was scrapped in 1927.
Previously the Ravenglass and Eskdale had purchased another Bassett Lowke Atlantic, the Sans Pareil.
In the 1914-18 war Bassett-Lowke Ltd. made the gauges which tested the standard
parts of guns.
In the 1920's, Bassett-Lowke introduced 'OO' gauge products from original Bing
designs. The company would also provide a complete custom-build railway service for those
with necessary funds; one such layout
survives in modified format at Bekonscot Model Village in England.
From 1930 to 1933, Bassett-Lowke received and filled an order from the Great
Western Railway for a highly detailed 3/4" scale model of their 'King George V' locomotive.
A huge model of the 'Empress of Britain', 21' long also was produced. The regular lines of 'O' and 1
gauge steam locomotives were enlarged to include five types in 'O' gauge, and an equal number in
1 gauge. These came in the liveries of the English 'Big 4' LMS, CWR, SR, and LNER Railway Companies.
In 1939 a special 2½" scale, and a 10¼" gauge model of the 'Royal Scot' was produced for Lord Downshire.
Previously, the largest such miniature had been one for 7¼" gauge operation. Other scale models
built by Bassett-Lowke in the 1930's included a 7¼" scale model of the underground railway
system, for the London Passenger Transport Board, a 1½" scale model of the Robert Stephenson & Co.
Locomotive No.1, ½" scale models of the French 'Normandie' and the British 'Queen Mary' ocean liners,
and a miniature 'Graf Zeppelin'.
In the 1930's, Bassett-Lowke distributed 'OO' gauge Trix models in
the United Kingdom under the brand name 'Twin Train Table Railway'. They initially used German outline
models painted in British colors, but from 1937 onwards they made and sold relatively crude models of British
locomotives and rolling stock. This included Flying Scotsman, Princess Elizabeth, Coronation Scot, Hunt
and Schools Classes, and the LMS compound types.
In 1937-1938, Bassett-Lowke released an 'O' gauge model of the Great
Western Railway's King George V. The locomotive body and the tender were manufactured by
Märklin, while the motor and wheels were made by Bassett-Lowke, Ltd. The
Basset-Lowke North Hampton shops followed up by making several improved 'O' gauge models, including
the Princess Royal, Princess Elizabeth, LNER Silver Link, LMS Coronation Scot, CWR's 2-6-2 tank loco,
LHS' 2-6-4 tank, and a Victory 4-6-0, LNER 4-6-0 Melton Hall, and an improved Royal Scot, with
smoke deflectors and a high-side 4,OOO-gallon tender. All locos were available in clockwork, or as
AC/DC electric powered models. These trains were made from soldered sheet metal, a distinct
feature of the company since they began.
During the 1939-45 war a great variety of work was done by Basset-Lowke to
support the war effort. Many projects were of a highly critical, secret nature.
A method of training for aircraft recognition using mirrors was devised. They produced training models
of the sectional Inglis and later Bailey bridges. Perhaps the most important construction of this
nature was the model of the floating Mulberry harbour, which was used to land troops in Normandy in 1944.
Bassett-Lowke did continue to sell locomotive models from remaining pre-war production stock.
In the post-war period of 1946-1965, train production at Bassett-Lowke was resumed,
but only in 'O' gauge. Other larger gauges were discontinued. Prices were raised, as labor and material
costs rose following the war. Such models as the LMS 4-6-2 Duchess of Montrose, and GWR 4-6-0 Pendennis
Castle were produced.
Business trailed off in the late 1950's and even more so in the 1960's. Bassett-Lowke's fall was
mirrored by two of its U.S.
counterparts, the A. C. Gilbert Company and Lionel Corporation.
Bassett-Lowke's decline starting in the late 1950's can be blamed on at least
two factors: Sometimes
people would browse the firm's free catalogue and then buy similar or nearly identical items elsewhere
at a lower price, but also consumer interest in technical toys in general began to decline in the hobby market.
After W.J.’s death in 1953 the company continued to make high-quality ship and industrial models.
However, the 1960's were also to bring their problems, and in 1964 the company ceased its retail sales
and sold its shops, including the famous one at High Holborn in London, to Beatties. The original
Bassett-Lowke went out of business in 1965. The Bassett-Lowke
and Franklin families sold their shares in 1967.
In 1966 the company was acquired by Messrs Riley and Derry, and in the late 1980's by
Nigel Turner, a Northampton businessman.
In 1993 the name was revived for a while with short-run white metal models. These included a Burrell
Type Traction Engine, Clayton Undertype Steam Wagon, Burrell Type Steam Roller, and London 'B' Type bus.
The brand name was acquired by Corgi in 1996. Corgi linked the company with live steam
and electric 'O'
gauge locomotives. Manufacturing was moved from Northhampton to Leicester England.
Corgi re-launched the railway locomotive products in 1999 to commemorate the original company's 100th year.
Bassett-Lowke continued to produce a range of 'O' gauge locomotives that were individually made
from sheet metal using soldered construction and that reflected those made in a bygone era. The company's
intentions were to produce a limited number of each livery style and move onto the next item in a plan.
The company stated that "Those involved in the production of Bassett-Lowke trains have a passion and knowledge of
trains and their aim is to produce a good value and quality product". These products are made with wheel
standards that will allow reliable running on most comercially available 'O' gauge track systems.
The recommended smallest radius being 36". All currently manufactured locos are electric motor powered
and fitted with a smoke generator which means that with a few drops of smoke oil down the chimney the
loco will produce what looks like steam from the smokestack. All locos are switchable between 2 and 3 rail
Because of the premium nature of Bassett-Lowke's toys, they tended to be well preserved,
and many examples
of older product survive today. They are highly collectible.
Key competitors to Bassett-Lowke were Hornby and
Hornby acquired Bassett-Lowke when it purchased Corgi in 2008.
Bassett-Lowke Collector's Society website