Copyright R N Forsythe
NOTE: this is the text of an article written some time ago about models of the Rocket. It shows the sort of research I have undertaken on many classes. The full list of what has been written up can be found in my bibliography at www.forsythe.demon.co.uk .
The Rocket has such a role in world locomotive history that one would guess an account of its models could be complex. So it is; commercial models of Rocket have been around for almost as long as model railways themselves. Just in case you think that with such models the possibilities for commercial early railway models have to commence, travel back to 1804 and Trevithick’s Pen-y-darren engine. That was the subject of an Airfix Museum Models series kit in 1967. Rocket was built 25 years after the Pen-y-darren engine. Matchbox’s adverts claiming that the Rocket was the world’s first steam locomotive are massively misleading.
Rocket was actually built as Robert Stephenson and Co. number 19 at Newcastle’s South Street Works in 1829. Her real fame is that she won the Rainhill Trials, so successfully proving the effectiveness of the multi-tube boiler. She then played her role in the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway the next year. Locomotive development rapidly eclipsed her and in 1836 she was sold to the owner of the Brampton Railway: Lord Carlisle. So it was that Stephenson’s Rocket became a colliery railway locomotive on the Cumbrian fells. The engine that arrived by sea back in Carlisle (because it was from Carlisle that she had been shipped south) looked very different, indeed it was basically the Rocket as familiar from her years in the Science Museum.
Use as a colliery locomotive ceased in 1840. The engine then spent years out of use until it went to what became the Science Museum in 1862. This engine has a smokebox, a different tender, and cylinders much lowered from the image in glorious yellow that both models and painting make so familiar. Of course engines that look like the models certainly exist but they are replicas and it is helpful to be reminded of these full size 12” to the foot Rockets. The first was made by Crewe Works under Webb in 1886. This was a full size non-working replica which appeared at various exhibitions including the Centenary one at Wavertree in 1930. It was scrapped around 1975.
The Stephenson’s works appears to have made four. The sectioned one dated to 1935 is well known from many years in the Science Museum. Three others were exported to various American museums. The familiar recent example was made by Locomotion Enterprises in 1979 for the Rainhill Trails recreation of 1980 at which it worked and is part of the NRM Collection . This has even reached Japan, so did the original herself in 1998.
Whilst best endeavours will be deployed to chart the models, with a prototype that is at once so old and has a clear relationship to the souvenir market, there must be some expectation of omissions. Hopefully the working models will all be caught. The first recorded commercial model would seem to have been a working model. Bassett-Lowke and Märklin collaborated with a Gauge 1 example in 1907. This was a live steam example. The catalogue entry before me suggests that what was available came as a set for 19/6 for which a brass boilered loco hauled its tender and three coaches. In the circumstances the outline was probably pretty good but evidently this was no scale model. What I do find inexplicable from colour illustrations available of surviving models is the livery. The loco was painted black and red.
Such historic models always seem a bit of a gamble for manufacturers. Sometimes they seem to work, others flop. Sadly this seemed to flop, it was not catalogued for very long. That means it is most uncommon today with the result that even back in 1984 Sotheby’s in New York sold a set for £28,050.
What is likely to be the first Rocket kit appeared in the 1930s. This was a 4mm Modelcraft plan. A monochrome printed plan provided numerous cut out components which with other additions like doweling could create a small display model. In the 1950s, the Micromodels Volumetric range of cardboard kits enjoyed a vogue. These were much smaller products intially made by Modelcraft but quite soon becoming independent, though remaining in close contact.
Two versions of Rocket appear to exist.. The first dates from 1947, the first year of Micromodel production and was quoted as being 000 in scale. Set J1 had six coloured cards which built Rocket three appropriate coaches and a wayside station.
The H1 set for ‘Famous Historic Locos’ offered three prototypes amongst which the Rocket was the most modern. Puffing Billy and Locomotion were the companions. The model is I suspect (working from photographic evidence only) to a larger scale than many of the the other sets. As usual the engine was modelled in Rainhill condition and one coach was provided. This was not a typical L&MR example but a one compartment stage coach on rails. If anyone can supply some prototypical provenance for this combination, I should be grateful. Old stocks of these kits were readily available in the 1980s and may still be so.
Our next reference point is the outset of the Second World War. Victor Hunt was a well known mid century model maker. It would appear that around 1940 he made several Rockets in O gauge. These appear to be good quality scale models driven by an electric motor. One example in the Christie’s Train Galore sale in 1994 was mounted on a static display stand. It is just possible that there is only one example and that it has failed to sell in three successive Trains Galore sales!
The next model was mass produced. In a small display of Moko trains at the Boston Collection, Cadeby Rectory during 1993 an anonymous diecast model Rocket approximately to OO scale was displayed. The loco was coloured a sort of bronze, the wheels and motion were a silver grey, the tender green. Such a description when applied to John Ramsay’s diecast listings actually takes us to the Benbros Rocket. The model is likely to date from the 1950s. Other colour variants are described by Ramsay. Benbros was the brand name used by the Benenson brothers working in Walthamstow.
Just a few years after Benbros and probably between around 1958 to 1964 a model from Charbens of Holloway was current. This was another diecast non-runner but it differs clearly from the Benbros model in a number of ways. The model was numbers 14/15 in the Old Crocks Minature Series (described in detail in Model Collector May 1990). Two numbers because engine and tender were boxed and sold separately. Rocket is likely to exist in a variety of detail finishes but the yellow and black core colouring should be consistent. The loco was 41mm long, the tender 35mm. Availability as indicated above reflects the idea that the two models were withdrawn sometime before most of the range expired.
Yet another diecast Rocket was current at about the same time. This time only a loco was sold and the subject is the River Series model. These models were boxed in either red Engines Through the Ages or blue Engines of History packaging. The manufacturer was Jordan & Lewden Ltd in North London. A detailed account was given in Model Collector for April 1999. Another account in Model Railway Enthusiast for August 1998 ascribed these models to Gaiety. I am minded to suspect that this ascription is a mistake but evidently the story of 1950’s diecast Rockets is complex and there may be more to the story than meets the eye. A possible resolution would be if the red packaging which clearly states River Series was superceded by the blue when/if Gaiety became involved in Birmingham.
With Kitmaster in 1959, the chance of being confident in detailing the model history becomes possible. Till now, every model has been more or less esoteric. Not this one. Here was the first long lived and well known model, it would not be too difficult to conclude that more of this plastic kit will exist than any other Rocket model. The model’s initial life lasted till 1962. Rocket was numbered 1 in the range and appeared with the first four releases in the early Spring of 1959. Reviews in the Modeller and Constructor took place that April.
I have not been able to compare any of the models to a scale drawing but along with Tri-ang’s Rocket, Kitmaster’s model does give the impression that considerable attempts to offer a scale model were made. Although a plastic kit, the model featured working components and could be propelled along a 00 model railway. That said its small size ensured that it never attracted a motorising kit after the example of other Kitmaster models. Colouring was provided by the plastic being moulded in yellow. This kit would appear to have escaped being part of the Nabisco Hermes branding promotion, but in addition to being sold solo, Kitmaster packaged it in the 100 years of British steam presentation set P1.
After 1962 and Kitmaster’s sale to Airfix, the kit was unavailable for a while. Re-introduction from Airfix came late in 1964 with a Constructor review for January 1965. Some changes were made. Two period crew members were added. The connecting rods were made of thinner plastic and the stabilising stays for the chimney became plastic rather than wire.
Between 1964 and 1980 the kit appears as a virtually constant feature of the catalogue. There will be some packaging variation through this timespan and components continued to be moulded in yellow. Around 1983 Dapol acquired the tools for the remaining Kitmaster kits following the purchase of the Airfix Railway Range by Palitoy Mainline in 1980. Re-release was scheduled for December 1987 as C46. Precisely when it became available again is not yet confirmed but it was by the spring of 1989. Dapol moulds the model in grey. What was definitively the new Dapol kit appears in the 1989 catalogue whereas 1988’s made no mention. It was illustrated in the 1996 catalogue and is priced from Dapol in 1997 adverts.
The Tri-ang 00 Model
Just while the Kitmaster model was undergoing an enforced absence from the market, the Westwood works at Margate landed the first of their two Rocket model bombshells. In the autumn of 1963 this was the home of the Tri-ang empire which was at the height of its ultimately successful competitive fight with Hornby Dublo. Earlier in the year, the new catalogue had staggered the model railway world by promising a fully working Rocket. The model was released for the pre-Christmas trade being advertised from October, with a Constructor review in the January 1964 issue. The secret to its success lay in the tiny X500 motor. In the railway range this was unique to Rocket but it had another application in Minic Motorway cars. Performance tended to resemble a started rabbit and could not be construed as a scale speed.
During its first period of availability, the Rocket proved very popular being in the British catalogue to 1968 inclusive. The model had proved very popular abroard. Examples were even assembled in Australia whilst the presentation set R346 having got into the French Hornby ACHO catalogue in 1965 was still there in 1969. 34,000 alone of that set were made. The set is far more common than the solo components.
Eclipsing in advance Airfix’s kit, period crew were supplied, but coming from Tri-ang they were already painted. The smoke unit which really was the final touch was dropped during 1966. The coaches had three names:Despatch, Experience and Times. They were never liveried in the manner shown in the 1963 catalogue.
Since the 1980’s there would appear to have been two re-issues of a Rocket set, clearance of old stocks of solo coaches also appeared to take place in 1975. News of a re-issue began to appear in 1982 and reviews of the new release took place in the December issue of Airfix Model Trains and the January 1983 Modeller. This R796 set came in a glossy presentation box with narrative. The models whether boxed or not may be immediately recognised by metal wheels and the plastic bar version of the tension lock coupler. It is thought that 5000 sets were produced.
It may seem strange that what was now Hornby Railways had missed the opportunity that the 1980 anniversary provided. Remember that another incarnation of Rocket had engaged them before then, and that what may have finally swayed the company was the successful re-issue of the Lord of the Isles, stocks of which were running low as Rocket re-appeared.
The 1982 re-release still does not exhaust the story. If there were 5000 sets they appear to have lasted some time. They were certainly still available in 1988. In a separate development at that time, Blackwells of Hawkwell in Essex who specialised in Hornby spares and clearance advertised a ‘OO Static Rocket and Tender’ (eg November’s Modeller). Who had assembled these? Unpowered Hornby models are unheard off, but this may have been a novel way of clearing some residue components.
Threads continue and one to cause further bafflement surfaces in the March 1994 Modeller. Two totally separate adverts announced a warehouse find of 100 R771 Rocket presentation sets in a brown box for an engine and three coaches. One advert was from Holland and the present surmise is that this might be an export reference for the 1982 set.
Present completion of the model’s narrative ends in a Barry Potter auction in April 1996. There a set described as ‘Rocket loco and tender, 6 coaches, 2 figures and track in large display box’ was auctioned for £300. The key word was ATT. This was an American company who packaged many Tri-ang items in the late 60s and early 70s for the American market. Their involvement with Rocket included separately boxing the coaches in clear plastic see through display boxes with their logo prominent. Pat Hammond’s history of the Tri-ang/Hornby Railways era shows in volume 2 an illustration (p41) of an ATT Rocket set. This one had three coaches.
Tri-ang>Hornby Railways Rocket References
R651S Stephenson’s Rocket Locomotive with smoke
R651 Stephenson’s Rocket Locomotive without smoke
R652 Tender for Rocket
R621 Liverpool & Manchester Railway Coach
R346 Presentation Rocket set (loco, tender, coach)
R796 Presentation Rocket set (loco, tender, three coaches)
R771 Presentation Rocket set (loco, tender, three coaches)
G100 3½“ gauge Rocket set
045100 ditto for Meccano France
G101 3½“ gauge Rocket loco
G102 3½“ gauge 25’ track components
045102 ditto for Meccano France
G103 3½“ gauge pair of Y points
045103 ditto for Meccano France
G104 3½“ Four wheel L&MR coach
045104 ditto for Meccano France
G110 3½“ gauge Rocket tender
G120 3½“ gauge Rocket set Japanese
G121 3½“ gauge Rocket set Germany
G122 3½“ gauge Rocket set Swedish
G123 3½“ gauge Rocket set Spanish
G125 3½“ gauge Rocket static kit
G105-8 3½“ gauge sundry part completed locos at Blackwells
Hornby Railways Minature Steam
Our usual practice is to steer well clear of minature locomotives and 3½“ gauge is assuredly minature. When the very rare instance of a major model manufacturer entering the field is encountered, it would be perverse to ignore it. This was the case in 1978 when Hornby’s programme announced a live steam butane gas fired (using lighter refills) Rocket. The model was widely previewed in the model railway press and was delivered in time for the 1978 Christmas trade and presumably was so pitched to figure in the run up to the 1980 celebrations. That is evident form Hornby’s own literature for the model. It was not promoted inside the pages of the standard 00 catalogue but received its own 2 sided A4 leaflet. These were inserted into the normal catalogues but are often lost in surviving examples. I know of three different examples which I suspect reflect 1978/79, 1980 and 1981. A detailed profile of the new engine was provided in the August 1979 Modeller. Unlike its 00 gauge counterpart the model was ingeniously and discretely geared down at the driving wheels to give a realistic speed. All this and it was remarkably cheap at about £50.
The metal constructed loco was certainly remarkably fine and it was designed for safe and easy operation. It was not very powerful, two coaches for eight minutes was the intended performance. Despite the effort, sales were not outstanding. Already in 1980 the models were being heavily discounted notwithstanding which the coach model arrived in 1980. The coach model offered five different names provided in each box. About 8,000 coaches were made. Some 20,000 Rocket sets were made in all and it is known that the project lost money overall. That figure includes very small numbers (all less than 2000 per reference) of sets packaged for foreign markets.
The task of clearing the residue seemed to take at least the next five years and produces further collecting challenges. On the one hand in 1981 the Modeller was reviewing the coach in February, whilst Hornby picked up a box design award for the packaging. On the other hand further references were released for which separate literature has not been seen. In autumn 1981 a static loco kit was released in which the boiler and burner were removed. When in 1985 Blackwells were still advertising the complete loco and the static kit, they added a series of new references for various combinations of part completed engines.
All in all the 3½“ gauge Rocket was a valiant try by Hornby but one that was likely to have lost the company money. If you want a partner for this model, another in the same gauge has come from Maxwell Hemmens, a Yorkshire company well known for their small gauge minatures. This had appeared by 1980. It was priced in their 1997 literature for a cool £5880 as a finished model.
Some foreign models
Having followed the lineage into Hornby Railways, a trek back in time is needed to pickup further manufacturers. For such a high profile prototype, it is no surprise that overseas manufacturers have found themselves tempted. Fulgarex are amongst the watchmakers of the hobby and in 1964 brought into Europe a Rocket model made in Japan by Tenshodo. This was an all brass O gauge electric example with the motor placed in the tender and driving the loco via a flexible coupling. Two matching open carriages were part of the package. Any readers with further information are invited to pipe up with regard to these and succeeding rarities.
The 1980 anniversary appears to have prompted Fulgarex back into action. Another all brass handbuilt O gauge electric Rocket was released that year. Photos reveal an assuredly high class product, priced appropriately around £300. A fine illustrated advert providing one of several illustration choices is in the August 1980 Modeller. But who exactly made this and how many were there? In 1981 Peco were advertising themselves as trade agents for the model in Great Britain.
Fulgarex Rockets are not exhausted by this. In HO scale a Japanese brass handbuilt model which was actually painted was available in 1971 which is about all I know (see the Modeller that April). Presumably it was electric. Further similarly Swiss connected Rockets would follow but whilst we are around 1971 and have a Japanese thread mention of the Gakken kit should be made.
I only have two references to this: the Model Railway Constructor for March 1970 and that wonderful 1973/74 partwork History of Model and Minature Railways 22. The Gakken model appeared in the UK for 1970 with Kohnstam as the importer. This was a plastic kit to the large scale of 1:26. Whether it was powered is not known. In time it may well have metamorphosed into the same scale Minicraft offering. Their reference 11101 was available in 1999.
Back with the brass models: two more Swiss connection examples came around 1977. Metropolitan is well known for their European prototype brass HO models and at the 1977 Nuremberg Fair announced that an HO Rocket was in the programme. The set was illustrated as a loco, tender and an open wagon. Yet another company called LS Loc in Basel surprised many by producing a live steam HO Rocket the same year. As models the two were totally different. The LS Loc is very crude but Eames was stocking it by the autumn for £50. It was claimed to be the first commercially available live steam HO scale model railway engine. Are there any other contenders? Steamcraft’s range was still a couple of years away. The February 1978 Modeller reviewed the steamer and the crude nature of the model was clear. The cylinders oscillated and the pot boiler was externally meths fired.
Metropolitan’s example certainly arrived, but exactly when has eluded our search, and at about three times the price of the LS Loc example. The model is shown in a 1986 published review of Metropolitan’s range. That reveals a Metropolitan model reference as 55 and that the model had been available as “plaqué or goldplaquiert”.
Many More Souvenirs
Every model to be considered from now one with only one vague exception comes into the static souvenir category. The first brings the account to 1980 and the obvious potential of the 150th Anniversary year. A company called Investment Models from London’s Hatton Gardens produced a hand crafted edition of 150 models. This looks a worthy model, it is plinthed and quoted as 4½“ long and looking at the gap between engine and tender, with this figure we might guess it is a OO scale model. Wheels could rotate and the cost was £395 in solid sterling silver. Even the display length of rail was fish bellied. Yet more exclusive and desirable was a version in 18 carat white gold, POA as they say.
Advertised at the same length as a OO model and looking the part was another silver limited edition form 1980. This time just 50 models were produced at £375. Apparently actually modelled from the blueprints in the Science Museum, working parts were free to move. The metalworker was Peter Coulter and the project was done in conjunction with the Liverpool Road Station Society in Manchester. This became an official souvenir with this relationship. There was no wooden plinth but the models came on rails in a display box.
There was then a wait of seven years before another manufacturer offered Rocket. Despite being billed as a limited edition, apparently 60,000 of the Matchbox Model of Yesteryear loco were made! It is a model to provoke mystery. Not surprisingly it hardly featured in the model railway press. The model was new in 1987 as Y12-4 in S scale 1:64. That is taken from Ramsay’s diecast catalogue. Matchbox’s own catalogues of the period are wholly reticient. It was the beneficiary of extra detailing and like the Diddler trolleybus was promoted as a particularly exclusive Yesteryear and priced to match. The cachet was a not to be repeated ‘Special Limited Edition’. I rather guess that nothing like 60,000 Rocket buyers were found; that would be more one suspects than the production run of all the Tri-ang derived models.
Instead two factors make me wonder how much stock is still held. It is not that difficult to find new examples on the swapmeet scene. In 1996 the model was given more attention when it formed part of “The Steam Powered Vehicles Collection”. I cannot tell you whether this was new production or the finishing of some more of those 60,000. However it was reported that the decoration detail varied, how was not specified. Using some pictures, it is just possible that the difference is that the newer model has a black top to the white chimney. Packaging was definitely changed.
If your author is betraying an element of cynicism at this point, this is because whilst the collecting bug has many good points in its favour, the wholesale re-writing of history on the back of its commercial exploitation is not. So far Rocket models had been marketed with some appreciation of the subtleties of history. Tri-ang>Hornby Railways had been precise about saying ‘although she was by no means the first steam locomotive’, but now ‘George Stephenson was commissioned to build the first steam locomotive’ and the engine was ‘the World’s first train’. Despite all this, the diecast model should be on every Rocket collectors list, but just not for the reasons Matchbox suggest.
The next model offers some more quirks (like it may not even exist). Invictascene arrived with a bang on the railway modelling scene around the beginning of 1990. They promised N gauge cast whitemetal limited edition kits in a whole variety of 19th century areas. Some of the programme certainly appeared but to such poor quality that a long debate in the N Gauge Society commenced and the company withdrew disgruntled from the model railway world. Rocket was part of the plan. It would have been unmotorised but a motorised carriage was intended. What happened?
The final roundup of releases is a group of decorative models. Late in 1991 Grandspot proprietors of DJH in conjunction with the National Railway Museum released a ‘Railway Heritage Series’ of pewter paperweights. Rocket was MM5 in this series. The same product later appeared in the Royal Hampshire series of ‘The World’s Greatest Locomotives’. In 1992 another small size pewter Rocket appeared. This was from Franklin Mint and was not a plinthed paperweight and I suspect has no Grandspot connection, a point on which I am open to correction. A model made of coal resin and probably drawn off the Airfix Rocket has been circulating the collectable shop scene in the north east since around 1994, whilst the winter of 1997 saw a relatively crude display model in brass from E Thomas & Williams released. This is plinthed and costs £50 gaining an illustrated review in the December 1997 Railway Magazine.
These souvenirs some collectors may feel can be excluded; equally there probably is scope to find a number more. It intrigues me that no large scale cardboard kit Rocket has chanced through our trawl. It would surprise me if it had not attracted attention in that genre. With 28 core manufacturers to start from, there is quite enough work here to start a collection.
Märklin for Bassett-Lowke Gauge 1 Obsolete
Modelcraft 00 Obsolete
Micromodels 000 + ? (x 2) Obsolete
Victor Hunt for W&H Gauge 0 Obsolete
Benbros 00 Obsolete
Charbens ? Obsolete
River Series? Obsolete
Kitmaster 00 Obsolete
Airfix 00 Obsolete
Dapol 00 Current
Tri-ang>Hornby Railways 00 Obsolete
Hornby Railways 3½“ Obsolete
Maxwell Hemmens 3½“ Current
Tenshodo/Fulgarex 0 Obsolete
Fulgarex 0 Obsolete
Fulgarex HO Obsolete
Gakken 1/26 Obsolete
Minicraft 1/26 Current
Arrow Models S?
Metropolitan HO Obsolete
LS Loc HO Obsolete
Investment Models OO? Obsolete
Peter Coulter/Liverpool Road Station Society OO Obsolete
Matchbox S Obsolete
Invictascene N Obsolete
Grandspot/National Railway Museum Obsolete
Royal Hampshire Obsolete
Franklin Mint Obsolete
E. Thomas & Williams Current
To various members of mailings lists on the net including NRM staff for guidance about Rocket replicas who sent far more information than we had room for!