The IOM in the Garden - A Personal History
by Jonathan Lewis

There is a pre-history to modelling the Isle of Man railways in 15mm scale, and it may be worth recording before the little grey cells go the way of the Foxdale Line. I started building a garden railway based on the MNR and IOMR in the early 1980s. At that time, the dominant scale was 16mm and the prevailing gauge was 32mm. I wasn’t the only, let alone the first person, to realise these would be perverse standards to adopt for modelling 3’ gauge. There was some precedent for 10mm scale on 32mm track in the Vicarage Garden Railway built by the Reverend Peter Denny years before. This line had IOM elements, including some rolling stock and the characteristic Manx buffer stop, as can be seen in this rare photograph.

Famous for the Buckingham Branch, Peter Denny’s garden railway never became seminal in the same way. Few of us knew of its existence until one of the model railway magazine writers on yet another visit to the Vicarage to write about the EM line, glanced through a window and noticed the rather larger one outside. Perhaps had the garden railway been written about and photographed more, 10mm on 32mm might have become an IOM garden railway option.

As it was, those of us venturing outside thinking Manx in those days found one locomotive builder dominating the rest: John Turner. The great pioneers of garden railway steam were around - Stewart Browne, Jack Wheldon, Tom Cooper, Harvey Watkins, Hugh Saunders and Malcolm Wright come to mind - but in my opinion John Turner was in a league of his own. For one thing John was dedicated to perfecting the art of making engines which were easy to run, and which kept running and running. The other attraction for me was that he shared my devotion to MNR No 4 Caledonia. He had designed a model of her in kit form for Kevan Winward under the Lindale banner, before striking out under his own name.

Marc Horowitz’s Locomotive of the Month series on his Sidestreet Bannerworks Online website is an invaluable source of information and photos on this early period.

John was not a mass-producer, preferring to innovate and perfect. He made comparatively few engines, but those he did were and are gems, and their owners do not part with them if they can help it. John had been a tool-maker, and his work was remarkably precise. But, interestingly, he worked to 16mm scale, on either 32mm or 45mm. Nor was he as fastidious a detailer of locomotives then as some of his contemporaries; what drove John was that his locomotives really had to work. So when I approached him and mumbled something about 15mm, John wasn’t interested. He would build me a gas-fired Caledonia to 16mm scale.

He would, though, add the detail I required: crossheads, rivets, fairly realistic backhead with quadrant reverser working his own design of valve gear, opening tool-box, electrified lampirons for working Brandbright lamps etc etc. The penalty was time. I waited nearly two years for her, but it was worth it. He captured the character of the engine, and she runs superbly and effortlessly, all day if needed. If you want to shunt for an hour or two, she is delightfully controllable and, with the exhaust regulator, runs dead slow with a heavy train.

Geoff Munday did the superb paint job and lining, as he did for my DJB Fenella which graces the Group website. The rolling stock with Caledonia in the photo exemplifies the work of other great builders of that era who were drawn to the IOM railways. Priory Carriages built the Foxdale Coach, the working Cleminson and the Brake Van, and Mike Beeson made the beauty in the bay platform. Its doors all open as do the windows, sliding up and down with leather straps. It is fully detailed inside even down to the letter rack in the guard’s compartment. Again, Geoff Munday is responsible for the wondrous finish. I collected it from Mike at a Garden Railway Show and as I was carrying it the car a man came up to me and said reprovingly, ‘that ought to be in a museum.’ Well, maybe - but not yet.

For my part, the rolling stock I built for my Glen Helen Railway were to 15mm scale. I just decided not to care about the difference. This M wagon was the first item I made and I did not paint it, just as the first delivered were left as bare wood.

It is often thought that John Turner only built locos, but he also built etched brass coach kits - again to 16mm. They were of the IOM 4 wheelers, and I bought a number from him, turning two into a ‘Pair’ as can be seen below. He supplied the full length aluminium roof knowing I was going to join two up.

I built the slotted-arm signal and spent an age on the linkage. It is still not to be relied on with visitors watching. The keen-eyed will see I used DJB couplers throughout; when David Bailey started manufacture it was an enormous boost to those of us trying to work in 15mm. David’s parts, coaches and locomotives were accurate and detailed. Here is Fenella on her home rails en route for Church Braddan with the Turner ‘Pair’ as the leading coach. The scale difference is apparent but not, I hope, too extreme.

Finally, a view of the loco shed at Glen Helen. My coal-fired DJB Peveril is awaiting a turn, and two L wagons scratch-built by me occupy the sidings while a St Johns train passes down the main line. The buildings were the work of Stuart Currie, who slanted his usual meticulous production Manx-wards for me. They are made of fired clay which he modelled with a great eye and a steady hand. I have some lovely cottages by him - see above with a Petter advert - and a goods shed based on the one at Castletown. The track under the L wagons I put together from Bonds parts; the rest of the track is Brandbright wooden sleepers with brass rail plus Bonds points. The telegraph poles are based on IOM prototypes.

Alas the line is no more following a house move, but it waits patiently to be rebuilt as soon as I can negotiate running rights in the new garden. Then, 15mm and 16mm on 45mm will be reunited, and Caledonia will puff effortlessly again with the Foxdale Coach, Cleminson and Brake Van obediently in tow. One of John Turner’s magic touches was to fit the biggest whistle possible between the frames. Can’t wait to hear it again...

Jonathan Lewis November 2020