A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Friday, 31 July 2015

Hooptedoodle #185 - The ABC Man

Last month Ian Allan passed away, one day short of his 93rd birthday. Who? Well, in his way, Allan was one of the most famous and influential men of his generation.

Ian Allan (left), in his early 20s - checking facts
You see, he more or less invented trainspotting in the UK. Well, he didn’t really invent it, but the books and enthusiasts’ guides he published (and which the company he founded continues to publish) organised it and codified it, and have been the backbone of the Nerd World since 1942.

Allan was born in 1922 in Horsham, Surrey, and educated at St Paul’s School. An accident at an Officers’ Training Corps camp when he was 15 resulted in the amputation of one of his legs, and he was not greatly gifted scholastically, so by 1942 he was employed in a clerical department at the Southern Railway, a humble role which, as it happened, suited him perfectly. He was fanatically enthusiastic about all things to do with trains and locomotives, and, since his employers refused to have anything to do with the project, he published at his own expense a booklet describing all the rolling stock of SR, and was rather shaken when all the copies sold out very quickly, necessitating a further printing. He went on to produce successful booklets for the other British railway companies, and the first edition of his volume on London Transport systems sold out all 20,000 copies within 4 days of going on sale. After that, things really took off.

In post-war, rationed, miserable, penniless Britain, Allan had provided the basic tools for an inexpensive hobby which became a near-religion, claiming the attention of vast numbers of boys (of all ages). In 1949 he and his wife founded the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Club, which eventually had some 230,000 members. His little booklets covered a remarkable number of titles, originally on railway topics, but later on trams, buses, aviation, all forms of road transport, shipping, military subjects, model-making – you name it. About half the kids in my class at grammar school were trainspotters – at weekends, on railway station platforms all over the country, there would be little groups of enthusiasts, each with a knapsack containing a flask of tea and a number of Allan's precious ABC books, so that “spotted” locomotives could be marked off in the lists.

Trainspotters at Newcastle, 1950

Just as well his mother never knew...
My cousin Dave had an astonishing number of the bus books – and I do mean astonishing. He was an easy kid to buy presents for. Not only was it necessary to have the booklet for every known vehicle fleet, but constant change in those fleets would require new editions every couple of years, and, naturally, they would be snapped up as soon as available. Though the individual books were only a couple of shillings each (in my day), they would form a major investment for the true disciple. Dave and I spent many hours at the Ribble bus sheds, in Liverpool and Preston, scribbling numbers into notebooks. I guess my unsophisticated tastes were honed at an early age…

Allan was always an enthusiast
Ian Allan Publications are still going strong – their output is glossier and more ambitious now, but they still seem to hold the same important place in the hearts and minds of transport fans, and their reputation for accuracy and quality still holds. Allan also produced market-leading monthly magazines on railways, buses and model railways, which I believe are still going strong, and at various times he bought the Hastings Miniature Railway and the Great Cockrow Railway (near Chertsea). He was honoured with an OBE in 1996.





If you wish to see how influential ABC books were, just have a look on eBay – any day, any week, almost any subject.

My old school chum Andy “Cocky” Roche once announced that he had seen a girl trainspotter at Carlisle station, but this was greeted with total (and somehow reassuring) disbelief. Anyway, if he had seen one, she would most certainly have had one or more of the ABC books with her; thanks very much, Mr Allan.



12 comments:

  1. I was aware of the Ian Allen publications (although I've never spotted) , thanks for the background of this very interesting man - are there people of this ilk out there nowadays ? , Tony

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    1. Hi Tony - I'm sure there are - at least I like to think so. Our (end-user) tech-loving youth might be looking for an app that does all the work for you! I think the Ian Allans and the TB Maunds are long gone - maybe people have too much transactional stuff to distract them now.

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  2. A fascinating post..... not a hobby I have indulged in but I can see the attraction that steam locomotives have.Certainly there are always plenty of spotters on the bridge in our village when a steam engine is due to go past and it's heartening to see they are of all ages from 9-90.

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    1. I'm delighted to hear there is still some interest - our local station gets no spotters at all (nothing to spot, really), and anyone hanging around Edinburgh Waverley would be nabbed by the police in very short order. The advantage with the X-Box is you can stay in your room all the time, apart from trips to get more potato crisps.

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  3. I own a couple of Ian Allen publications. If I had not gone down the wargaming/modelling path I would probably be a spotter myself. Glad he made it to a ripe old age.

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    1. Indeed - a great man. The ABC books were great - very compact descriptions, just so you knew what you were looking at, and bags of lists to underline or (heaven forbid) cross off.

      The eBay offerings are more valuable if they are unmarked, which is understandable but faintly sad - if these things have value as a record of social history then you might argue that the ones with evidence of human involvement are the real thing - we are not going to get to stand on any more platforms in 1960.

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  4. At grammar school in the sixties, I was a spotter of buses, so I had the local bus company books, such as SHMD, City of Manchester, Stockport Corporation and so on. Back then, it seemed every local authority had its own fleet. My brother liked aircraft, still does, so I think he had some of the Ian Allen aircraft registration books.

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    1. Excellent - the SHMD is one of my favourites - Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley & Dukinfield Tramways & Electricity Company (is that correct? - it's been a long time) - what a snappy company name that is!

      We were Ribble and Crosville men (there never was a booklet for Liverpool Corporation, I think), but Dave had books for masses of fleets we never got to see. He once sent me a postcard from Cheltenham, and the first thing he wrote about was the bus fleets he'd seen.

      I have some 1950s motor racing and automobile titles, which are sort of OK - not as completist as the train or bus titles, but then they couldn't be.

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  5. Though I was never a transpotter, many of my friends were. I remember huge excitement on the bus to school one morning, since we went over the railway bridge in Rose Lane (Mossley Hill, Liverpool) just as a "Deltic" locomotive passed underneath. It seems odd now that the appearance of a diesel loco would cause so much enthusiasm in the Steam Age, but looking at the service record of the Deltic class now, the fact that it was mostly used on the East Coast run (London to Edinburgh) and the date of the incident, I would guess that the loco was undergoing trials on the Liverpool to London line. I do remember that the loco was a palish blue colour, which seemed very novel.

    So there you go - I was never a trainspotter, yet I can still bore people with a tale of the sighting of a diesel loco sometime around 1960. That is a powerful hobby, and no mistake - it shows how much one was influenced by what everyone else did - nowadays I would have celebrated with a selfie on Facebook.

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  6. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. My pleasure, sir! - we specialise in the obscure and the trivial, as you know!

      Regards - Tony

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  7. Fascinating, Tony. Sounds like Mr. Allan basically invented a hobby. Always a good time to invent a hobby, when people are bored and have nothing to do. Not so easy these days.
    True story. In 1981 and 1982, I spent my summers as an undergraduate working as a yard labourer for Canadian Pacific in the mountains of BC. I got the job thanks to my older brother - CP Rail was pretty incestuous in those days. Being a preoccupied git who thought I was more important than I really was, I failed to enter into the romance of it. As a precious young artsie fartsie, I lamented the boorishness of the train crews whose cabs I had to clean and whose locos I had to refuel, which often left me getting splashed with diesel. One night, I was struggling with a fuel hose, great heavy beasts, when a passenger from the train I was working on ambled up to me and asked me very detailed questions about the class of loco I was working on. I shrugged and said I wasn't paid to do anything but refuel them, clean the windows and empty the poop bags. The poor fellow looked rather shocked that I didn't care. In retrospect, I rather wish I did. That was good money for a student in the early 1980s, I should have been more grateful.

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