John’s history working with trains fuelled this passionate collector’s enthusiasm for railway memorabilia and today, he has a remarkably extensive collection. Browsing through John’s collection is akin to taking a train ride through railway history …
Where did you gain your interest in railway memorabilia and model trains?
I remember my first day at Taree Public School, when I was 5. They gave me a wooden train, as obviously I didn’t want to leave Mum … I played with this train all day, and I think this is where the love of trains all began.
Ever since I can remember, all I wanted to do was grow up and be a train driver …
And that dream of becoming a train driver ultimately came true?
Yes. I was in Fourth Form at Taree High, and I was all lined up to join the railway and be a train driver. But then the Royal Australian Navy visited the school to talk about careers in the Navy. They showed a picture of an Australian sailor with Mickey Mouse in Disneyland … so I decided to join the Navy as a cook.
I served my time, and when I’d been in the Navy coming up for 10 years, I saw advertisements for train drivers. So, I left the Navy and became a train driver at State Rail and fulfilled my boyhood dream.
Where were you based when you worked for State Rail?
I started out in Sydney and then moved to Lithgow; where I became an acting driver. It was great at Lithgow … I got to drive the Indian Pacific from Lithgow to Parkes and back − and outside of family, that would be my proudest achievement.
Where did you source all of your amazing items?
I actually bought the railway memorabilia from the railway. Back in the 1980s, if you were staff you could buy redundant railway equipment. I’ve found the occasional item in antique shops and then, of course, along came eBay … and that just opened up a whole new world!
What types of trains and equipment comprise your model train layout?
The older layout I have is called ‘O’ Gauge – they’re Hornby tin wind-up or clockwork trains. They were all built between 1930 and 1940. The biggest trains you can buy are ‘G’ Scale – they’re outdoor trains, and you can create a layout with these out in your garden. The middle range is ‘HO’ Gauge, which are all of the English steam engines I have in my display case. They’re electric – so my collection contains both clockwork and electric trains.
Are you still actively collecting these days?
Oh yes. I’m still very interested. I advertise in The Land magazine to buy railway stuff, and every now and then I get on Buy, Swap and Sell on the radio, and I look at eBay every night to see what’s new
When my wife, Kim, and I travelled to the UK last year for our 30th anniversary, we visited a few of the antique fairs you see on that TV program, Bargain Hunt. I bought a few railway lamps, and a couple of brass plates …
And you had a terrific experience while you were over there too, driving a steam train …
Yeah. I have a lot of train DVDs, and I saw a DVD a few years ago that featured a story about a man who’d retired. He was in England, and the train societies over there raise money by allowing you to pay money to drive a steam train. When we decided to go to the UK, I booked ahead at Llangothlin in Wales.
When we arrived on the day, I was given overalls, and the driver showed me around the engine – it was an English steam engine, known as a Black 5, and it was called Foxcote Manor. The engine had six carriages attached that were full of tourists …
Once we pulled away from the station, I was able to use the regulator, the water injectors, I had a turn at shovelling the coal, and I was able to drive this train along a valley, through a long tunnel, 9 miles out to a station – where the engine was taken off, put back on the other end of the train, and we drove back …
At the end, when I was standing with the driver, I said to him, “Mate, if there’s such a thing as a childhood dream, I just had mine”. I actually drove a steam engine on the main line! I was overwhelmed …
Where did the bell we photographed you with come from?
I’ve got two bells; they both come from the Hattiesburg Museum in Mississippi. A man who collected stuff from ships went to the US in 1973, and he bought a heap of riverboat items. When his goods were packed in a container and sent back to Australia, two bells were in the shipment. He didn’t realise they’d be in there …
I bought them about 15 years ago now. The biggest bell, and the plate that goes with it, were off a Baldwin Locomotive that was made in 1883.
It’s not only the size of the bell and the condition it’s in that I’m rapt with … to think that this bell and the locomotive were made just 9 years after Billy the Kid was wandering around New Mexico, and just 20 years after General Custer ‘got it’ at Little Little Bighorn … I have letters from the museum which show they realised their mistake and wanted the bells back, but they admitted the items had been bought willingly, and it was their mistake …
If I had to get rid of all my stuff and I was only allowed to keep one thing, I’d keep that bell.
What’s the dream for you? Is there something you’d love to buy that you don’t own yet? Mind you − I’m willing to bet I can guess what it is!
I put that under my Lotto win dream – to buy a real steam engine.
Somehow, I knew you’d say just that! Thanks for sharing your collection with us, John.
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