Railway book and magazine publisher who drove the post-war schoolboy craze for trainspotting
Courtesy of the Daily Telegraph
Ian Allan, who has died the day before his 93rd birthday, triggered the post-war explosion of trainspotting as a British pastime by publishing the first booklet of engine numbers in 1942 and starting a club which had 230,000 members by the time steam gave way to diesel. He diversified the business to embrace magazines, bookshops, a travel agency, a Masonic publisher, a printing business, organic garden supplies, commercial property and car dealerships.
Allan was 20, and a 15s-a-week clerk with the Southern Railway, when he published the ABC of Southern Railway Locomotives in response to calls from enthusiasts for information. Management declined to publish it, but allowed Allan to do so at his own risk.
The first 2,000 copies of the shilling booklet sold out in days. Further ABCs on the Great Western, LNER and LMS railways, and London buses, trams and trolleybuses, went like hot cakes, friends and neighbours helping to distribute them.
It had not occurred to Allan that “bagging” the locomotives he listed would take off as a hobby. But within weeks, knots of schoolboys armed with his booklet appeared at the end of station platforms, and in 1943 he and his colleague (and future wife) Mollie Franklin launched the Ian Allan Loco-spotters’ Club.
By 1951 it had 150,000 members, and by 1956 when the London Midland
Region ABC sold a record 250,000 copies, nearly that many. Branches
mushroomed and special excursion trains were run. Out of this activity
grew the travel business.
|An Ian Allan Combined Volume from 1961|
Spotters had to sign a pledge “not to interfere with railway working or trespass on railway property” on pain of expulsion from the club. In the deferential post-war years it was largely adhered to – though unruly scenes on Preston station in 1951 led to spotters being banned there. By 1964, however, Allan was lamenting that “mods and rockers” had infiltrated the club.
While railways remained a national obsession, spotting – and sales of ABCs – declined as steam gave way to diesel. Allan anticipated this, and in 1962 formed the Ian Allan group with its headquarters beside the terminus of the Shepperton branch line – with the boardroom a Pullman car once used by King George VI.
In 1946 he had founded Trains Illustrated (today the industry “bible” Modern Railways). He became a large-scale publisher of railway books and launched numerous other magazines, among them Buses Illustrated, Tramways and Urban Transit, Model Railway Constructor, Aircraft Illustrated, Combat Aircraft and Hornby Magazine. He went on to acquire the Oxford Publishing Company (1998), Midland Publishing and Midland Counties Publications (1999), and, in 2002, Classic Publications. The rail magazine business was sold in 2012.
In 1967 a political row erupted when the British Rail chairman Sir Stanley Raymond sacked Gerry Fiennes, the entrepreneurial general manager of the Eastern Region, after Allan published his book I Tried To Run a Railway. In it, Fiennes revealed in alarming detail the lengths to which the BR hierarchy would resort to stifle enterprise and drive away business. Twelve years later another of Allan’s publications sparked controversy: a book by Stanley Hall, BR’s retired safety officer, warning that cost-cutting had put rail safety at risk.
One of Allan’s aviation titles “scooped” the national press. Sqn Ldr Eric Annal’s Harrier and Sea Harrier (1984) revealed how during the Falklands conflict experts at Farnborough and Marconi had invented and supplied a “black box” radar jammer to protect the aircraft in 15 days, when such an innovation would normally have cost four times as much and taken two years to develop. An enthusiastic Freemason, Allan could not resist the opportunity to acquire, in 1986, A Lewis, publishers of books on Masonic ritual and the quarterly The Square. He also took on a Surrey fertiliser business, Chase Organics, and through it a stake in (and ultimately control of) a local motor dealership, which grew to five garages in the south of England.
Ian Allan was born on June 29 1922, at Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, the son of George Allan, clerk to the school, and the former Mary Barnes. He would become a governor of the Hospital in 1944 and an almoner there from 1960-89, yet he was educated at St Paul’s.
At 15 Ian lost a leg following a camping accident during exercises with the OTC, and this seemed to limit his career opportunities. Already a railway enthusiast (and regular visitor to the signal box at Christ’s Hospital station), he left school when war broke out to join the Southern’s staff at Waterloo. He helped to produce the company’s magazine and handle enquiries from the public – and increasingly from enthusiasts.
As soon as the war ended, he left the Southern – who were by now paying him £3 a week – and founded Ian Allan Ltd, taking over a bomb-damaged office in Vauxhall Bridge Road with a colleague and a typist; his father soon joined as financial director. In 1951 he moved the business to Hampton Court, removing the need to commute.
Allan bought the Hastings Miniature Railway with friends in 1948, going there whenever he felt the “need for steam”. In the 1960s he acquired the Great Cockcrow miniature railway near Chertsey on the death of its founder. When British Rail at the end of steam banned steam-hauled excursions using privately owned locomotives, he led an ultimately successful campaign for their return.
As the railway preservation movement grew, Allan took an active part. He became president of the Main Line Steam Trust (Great Central Railway), vice-president of the Transport Trust and the Heritage Railways Association, chairman of the Association of Independent Railways and the Dart Valley Railway, and patron of the Mid-Hants Railway. From 1982 to 1984 he served on the Transport Users’ Consultative Committee for London.
Had Ian Allan not fallen into publishing, he had thought of becoming a hotelier and in 1969 he purchased the picturesque Broadway Hotel in Worcestershire, followed by the Mansion House Hotel in Evesham. He chaired the governors of King Edward’s School, Witley, and was treasurer of Bridewell Royal Hospital. He was appointed OBE in 1995.
He married Mollie Franklin in 1947. She and their two sons survive him.