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. In his early years he was apprenticed to his father's engineering firm, J.T.
Lowke & Sons. While he was interested in engineering models, his first love
remained models of railway locomotives, and marine (boat) types.
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. Helped by Percival Marshall,
W.J. Bassett-Lowke assembled a formidable pool of talent for his new business. The
first Catalogue was issued in 1899.
In 1900, new types of low-pressure, slide-valve steam engines were introduced,
along with the first gauge 1, high pressure steam locomotive. It was a model
of a Lancashire & Yorkshire inside cylinder type. Bassett-Lowke was inspired by his visit to the Paris Exhibition in 1900, where he
made contact with German manufacturers, including Stephan Bing, from whom
he bought model trains painted in British livery. An encounter with Stefan Bing at the 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). W.J. 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 W.J. 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. Soon Bassett-Lowke began
manufacture in Northampton. In 1901 low-pressure steam models of the famous LNWR Black Prince locomotives
in No. 3 (2½") gauge, were designed and produced by Bassett-Lowke. Mr. Henry Greenly was appointed Consulting Engineer
and designer in the company. The Black Prince became so successful that the company's future was secure. Soon,
new models in both 'O', and 1 gauge were added to the line.
At this time in history, 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 high quality architectural models in partnership with
Bassett-Lowke Ltd. Bassett-Lowke was primarily a sales organization, contracting out the manufacture of models and parts
to other manufacturers, such as Twining Models, and Winteringham's also of Northampton. George Winteringham had designed
some mass-producable model railway track, and in 1902 he joined the company and ran a new Bassett-Lowke factory space,
Winteringham Ltd., aided by engineer J. Mackenzie. In 1902, the first B-L scale-rail track was produced, though
vast quantities of tubular tinplate track were also manufactured. Bassett-Lowke did keep the manufacture of ship models for display purposes
entirely in-house. Bassett-Lowke produced trains in a variety of sizes, from 15" gauge live steam models to gauge 2,
gauge 1, and 'O' gauge.
During 1904, the first 15" gauge passenger trains, designed by Mr. Greenly,
were issued. 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. Also in 1904, a 3½" gauge model of the Midland Railway 4-4-0 loco/tender,
constructed entirely of castings went into production. The Sultan of Turkey ordered a complete model railway for his
Palace in Constantinople. Not to be outdone, a special model of the latest type of Great Northern Railway locomotive was
ordered by the Duke of Zaragoza, Spain.
In 1905, Bassett-Lowke products included the first mass-produced stationary steam engines, and 2 gauge Great Northern
Atlantic type, high-pressured locomotives. Also this year, the first edition of the Model Railway Handbook,
and the B-L catalogue, now divided into three sections, were published. Section A was for Model railways, Section B for
Engineering and Section S for Ships. In 1906, a 2 gauge scale model electric
locomotive, a GNR prototype, with a single drive-wheel was introduced. A special model train done in silver, to
be used on the dining table of the East Indian Maharajah of Gwalior, was built. In 1907, a special, universal type
motor, usable for all gauges, up to 3½", bearing the 'Lowko' trademark, was added.
The company began making ‘waterline’ ship models in 1908. These types of
models, 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. In 1908 Bassett-Lowke opened his
first London shop at 257 High Holborn, moving to number 112 in 1910. E.W. Hobbs, a well-known marine architect was
tasked with running the new showroom. Shortly thereafter, Hobbs 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. Also in 1908, a special and
elaborate electric model railway in gauge 2 was built for the LNW Railway exhibit in the Franco-British Exhibition at White
City in London. Bassett-Lowke 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 early 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.
By 1909, Bassett-Lowke was making model railways in all gauges, including 'O', 1, 2, 2½", 3½", 7¼" and 15"
measurements. In 1910, the Caledonian Railway gave an order for 30,000 clockwork 'O' gauge models in ¼" scale.
This became a sub-contract with Georges Carette to produce the 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 railway stations. This effort boosted the public's appetite for model railways.
Also, a new line of ship models and fittings were introduced. In 1911, many special model locos were shipped to different parts of the
world. Another complete gauge 2 railway for electric operation was produced for the Glasgow (Scotland) Exhibition, where
the Great Northern, North Eastern and North British Railway Companies had this combined display. In 1912, the first European retail
agency was opened in Paris, France. In 1912 W. J. Bassett-Lowke, Robert Proctor-Mitchell and John Wills set up Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd.
(NGR) to promote and run 15-inch (380 mm) railways. An earlier company, Miniature Railways of Great Britain Ltd, went into voluntary
liquidation in 1912. NGR's first railway opened in 1912 at Luna Park in the Parc des Eaux-Vives, Geneva, Switzerland. In Britain, the
Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway was taken over, converted to 15-inch (380 mm) gauge and re-opened in 1915. The Fairbourne Railway followed
in 1916. In 1913-14, a special, 9½" gauge model railway was installed at the Children's
Welfare Exhibition, at Olympia. 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. The company produced its first architectural model in 1912, and in 1913 asked model
aero engineer and artist Ernest Twining to continue this business, via Twining Models Ltd. Twining also designed much of
the company's distinctive Art Nouveau corporate artwork.
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
smaller scales, the most popular models of the period 1899-1914 were the "Precursor" tank locomotive, George the Fifth,
Sydney, Deeley Compound, GNR "Atlantic" and Sir Sam Fay.
The outbreak of World War I ended B-L's ability to import German trains, and increased the focus on Winteringham and UK suppliers.
In the 1914-18 war Bassett-Lowke Ltd. made the gauges which tested the standard
parts of guns for the Ministry of Munitions. In 1919, following the War, new mass production techniques were initiated in
the enlarged plant facilities, devoted to the production of smaller-gauge models. Many models were made for documenting prototypes, and
for historical displays in Museums. In 1920 a large quantity of model warships, airplanes, tanks, and highway vehicles
were produced. The model ship business boomed as shipping lines rebuilt their fleets to make up for war losses, and wanted models of their
newest builds, 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. In 1922, Bassett-Lowke introduced lithographed 'OO' gauge products from original Bing
designs. These were modeled after the prototypes of the big 4 railways of Britain. 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.
Also in 1922, branch offices were opened in Edinburgh, Scotland and New York City, NY.
In 1924 the smallest railway in the world was made for the Queen's Doll House; also several special ocean liners
and a 2½" gauge model of Canadian Pacific styling were produced. In 1925, a 7¼" gauge passenger-carrying
railway was built for the Wembley Exhibition, and called Treasure Island Railway. The late King George V and
Queen Mary enjoyed a ride on this train. A 1¼" scale model of a Southern Railway King Arthur class locomotive was built
for Sir Berkley Sheffield. In 1926, a special 2" scale railway was made for the Maharajah of Jodhpur in India. A ½"
scale model of an LMS 4-4-0 compound locomotive was built for Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1928, several additional scale models in
1½" and 2" size were built, as well as a ¾" scale model of the Royal Scot was built for the LMS Railway.
The first mass-produced 'O' gauge models of the Royal Scot came out in 1929 for both clockwork or AC/DC operation. Also,
the Flying Scotsman, in both types. These were two of the most popular models ever made by Bassett-Lowke, and were 4-6-0 and 4-6-2
arrangements respectively. Earlier models had been 0-4-0, 0-6-0, 4-4-0, 4-4-2 types, along with the odd single-drivered 2-2-2, or 4-2-2 styles.
By this point in its history, thousands of Bassett-Lowke models had been shipped around the world, most from Northampton. Bing and Märklin models
were also stocked.
From 1930 to 1933, Bassett-Lowke received and filled an order from the Great
Western Railway for a highly detailed ¾" 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'. 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 organizing 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, W. J. helped Stefan to move to the UK and start manufacturing Trix Twin Railways
at the Winteringham site. 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. 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.
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
Bassett-Lowke Northmpton 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 Bassett-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 spent World War II 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. 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. An effort was made to revive the model railway
business around 1969 by Ivan Rutherford Scott, Allen L. Levy and Roland H. Fuller. In the late 1980's
Nigel Turner, a Northampton businessman bought the business and the company was based next to his business
of Turner's Musical Merry-Go-Round, near Wootton, Northampton. 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 Northampton 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 were made with wheel
standards that allowed reliable running on most commercially available 'O' gauge track systems.
The recommended smallest radius being 36". All the locos manufactured were electric motor powered
and fitted with a smoke generator which meant that with a few drops of smoke oil down the chimney the
loco would produce what looked like steam from the smokestack. All locos were switchable between 2 and 3 rail
Key competitors to Bassett-Lowke were Hornby and
Exley. Hornby acquired Bassett-Lowke when it purchased Corgi in 2008.
With that acquisition, Hornby added to its ownership of a group of historic European model
railroad firms, including Bassett-Lowke, Electrotren, Lima, Rivarossi,
Jouef, and Arnold. Production for all firms, except
Bassett-Lowke, was moved to China. Hornby has plans for future development of Bassett-Lowke products but
no public announcements have been made. For a brief period Bassett-Lowke tinplate freight cars were being
made by ETS. A few new Bassett-Lowke models appeared in the Hornby catalogs starting in 2009. Offerings
included a small Peckett 0-4-0T industrial steam loco named “Wenman” and “Joseph” in honor of Wenman J. Bassett-Lowke.
Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke was the son of Joseph Tom Lowke. Tom Lowke’s stepfather, Absalom Bassett,
had established a boiler making business in Kingswell Street, Northampton, in 1859. Tom Lowke continued the business, and
when he married he gave his two sons, Wenman and Harold, the middle name of ‘Bassett’ in honour of his stepfather. W. J. himself
married Florence Jane Jones, the daughter of Charles Jones, one of the founders of the Crockett and Jones shoe manufactory, still
in business today. W. J. Bassett-Lowke was an early member of the Design and Industries Association, established in 1915 to
encourage good design in all aspects of manufacture. Bassett-Lowke was very interested in travel, in planes, ships and trains.
He was also intrigued by ingenious gadgets, and delighted in the mechanical
toys that he bought on his frequent trips to the European continent in his younger days. Although Bassett-Lowke left school at thirteen,
he absorbed many new ideas from his travelling and contact with people from all walks of life. He went on fact-finding missions to Germany
and Holland. He was also keen to ensure that the outside world appreciated the benefits of Northampton. In 1932, he was instrumental in
producing a film showing Northampton’s history and current attractions. Despite his incessant travel, Bassett-Lowke never thought of
leaving Northampton. He was a member of many societies, including the Rotary Club, of which he was a founder. His work on the
Council gave him most opportunity to influence the future of Northampton. He was also a founder Director of the Northampton Repertory
Theatre in 1926.
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.
Bassett-Lowke Collector's Society website