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By Amy Banks on

Researching the trainspotters

What makes trainspotting such a popular hobby, and what should spotters do to keep safe? Amy Banks reveals what she's learned while researching our Trainspotting season.

I’ve recently been investigating the subject of trainspotting which will be the focus of a season at the museum from September 2014 to March 2015. As part of this research, I have been reading trainspotters’ memoirs to get a feel for what the experience of trainspotting is like and I’ve learned that there’s much more to it than collecting locomotive numbers…..

Trainspotters at Newcastle Station
Schoolboy train-spotters at Newcastle Station, August 1950.
© National Railway Museum / SSPL

Trainspotting began in the 1950s and was a very popular hobby. Crowds of boys of all ages could be seen at the end of station platforms, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of a locomotive they had not yet seen. Something that comes up again and again is the sense of adventure that trainspotting involves – I’ve read about many trainspotting excursions that involved travelling the length and breadth of the country to discover new and faraway places.

Trainspotters on the trackside
Near Faversham, Kent, 1959. Boys standing by a level crossing watching the train approach.
© National Railway Museum / SSPL

The Ian Allan ABC book was the trainspotters’ go-to guide. Here, the spotters could keep a record of what they had seen. The Ian Allen Locospotters’ Club had a Code of Conduct to keep trainspotters in check and members had to sign a pledge of good behaviour. Occasionally, however, some spotters pushed their luck. This video from 1953 shows some mischievous trainspotters getting on the wrong side of station staff!

British Railways Trainspotting poster from 1953. NRM arhives object 1998 – 10828
British Railways ‘To Loco Spotters’ poster from 1953. NRM archives object 1998 – 10828

This British Railways poster sets out some rules to make sure that spotters were safe on station platforms. I like the friendly tone of this poster, however the ‘Spotter’s Code’ gives a good insight into some of the things that trainspotters got up to.

It seems that for many people, trainspotting led to numerous escapades and spotters often indulged in an array of antics such as filling the train carriage with soot or letting off stink bombs. One trainspotter admits to using ‘all manner of tricks’ to get into railway property whilst another remembers ‘the thrill of guerrilla raids into the heart of railway territory’.


5 comments on “Researching the trainspotters

  1. Enjoy reading stories like this it transports you back to a by gone era were as long as you behaved you could enjoy yourself quite freely. You just had to respect other people and there property which is so lacking in todays modern society.

  2. If you look in the library at the NRM, you should find a copy of my book, ‘Firing in the 50s at Hitchin’ Subtitled’, ‘A train spotter’s collection of tales about life on British Railways in the last days of steam locomotives.’

  3. ‘Train spotting started in the 1950s’ gushes this self appointed expert on Britain’s second largest army of sedentary interests.
    Where do they get these people from…..?

  4. Not very well researched. Ian Allan were publishing train spotter guides in the 1940s which suggests that the pastime began much earlier with perhaps a bit of a break during WW II. In fact if we look at that wonderful painting by Terence Cuneo of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive of 1804 we see what may well have been the first trainspotters!

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