Trainspotting, a branch of railway enthusiasm, was at its most popular in the 1940s and 1950s. It has a surprisingly long history. Browse our timeline, or come along to one of our curator talks to find out more.
First footplate ride
Shortly after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, young actress Fanny Kemble rides on the footplate of Rocket.
This is the first recorded instance of a member of the public requesting and getting a footplate ride. She wrote "when I closed my eyes, the sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description."
A romanticised 1894 illustration of Rocket (NRM object number 1975-8684).
First spotting records
A diary, believed to belong to Colonel James Pennyman of Ormesby Hall, shows detailed records of trains on the Great North of England Railway from 1841 to 1847. There are a number of other references and railway observations in diaries and letters around this time.
One of the locomotives believed to be listed by James Pennyman was the A engine, used by the Royal Commission on railway gauges in 1845
Journal of locomotive numbers
The first person to keep records of locomotive numbers and names in a separate journal was 14 year old Fanny Johnson in 1861. Her lists are mentioned in a Great Western Railway (GWR) magazine article published in 1935. It would be interesting to know if this early spotter's notebook survived the Second World War - get in touch if you know!
Fanny Johnson spotted this GWR narrow gauge passenger locomotive and recorded it in her journal.
Printed compendiums of numbers
Several lists of locomotive numbers had been printed by 1899. The first major compendium appears to be an alphabetical list of named engines by S Cotterell and GH Wilkinson for the London & North Western Railway (LNWR). We would like to find out who the authors were and whether anyone has an annotated copy of this book. Please get in touch if you can help.
LNWR engines at Crewe around 1900.
Locos of the Southern Railway
Locomotives of the Southern Railway was published in 1934.
This is one of a number of publications by the Big Four railway companies aimed at satisfying the needs of 'locoists' and those collecting 'namers' (named locomotives).
The Southern Railway's publication featured an H15 on an express train – a postcard was also issued of this image.
Ian Allan's ABC
Ian Allan published the first ABC spotter book and this led to a boom in trainspotting. The Ian Allan Locospotters' Club was formed in 1948 to help control the craze. A whole generation of enthusiasts got to know the major railway centres and junctions of Britain through their hobby. These enthusiasts later formed the bedrock of support for heritage railways in Britain.
The cover of the London and North Eastern Railway ABC from 1943 featured Mallard.
By the 1950s, trainspotting was extremely popular and many unaccompanied youngsters could be found at stations. Some authority figures wanted to ban the hobby as they were concerned about the potential for juvenile delinquency. When Willesden Junction closed to spotters in June 1954, it was suggested that this potentially affected up to half a million spotters.
Trainspotters at Edinburgh in the heyday of the hobby watching 60009 Union of South Africa.
The start of diesel
The end of steam pulled trains on British Railways led some spotters to give up the hobby. It also kick-started the railway preservation movement, with ex-spotters getting involved with restoring and running trains on these new lines over the next decades.
Black 5 45212 was the last steam locomotive in ordinary service for British Rail on 4 August 1968. It was bought for preservation and moved to the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway which had just re-opened. It is pictured here leaving Keighley shortly after arriving on the railway.
The book waiting at Platform 5
For those who stuck with the hobby into the diesel era, the Motive Power Pocket Book published by Platform 5 in 1978 became the must-have publication. The author was an early adopter of computer technology which kept the lists up to date. Platform 5 became a publishing empire that eventually produced spotters' guides to railways around the world.
A current guide to Austrian Railways (OBB) for UK spotters
Trainspotters today are able to use a range of websites to find out what’s happening across the network. Often, spotters will record their sightings by taking a photograph as well as noting down the details of what they have seen. They share information via chatrooms and social media sites.