Books that inspired so many generations

There was a time, not so long ago, when the British public woke up to be told there would no longer be Woolworths in the High Street. Now the heritage sector has been told that Ian Allan Publishing will produce railway books no longer.

Unlike Woolworths or British Home Stores, Ian Allan is far from going out of business, as the Shepperton outfit has a multi-faceted empire which for years has extended far beyond the realm of railway books. However, it has sold its transport publishing division to Crécy Publishing, bringing the curtain down on an era in which Ian Allan was a defining backbone of railway enthusiasm and its by-product, the heritage movement.

It may be an unalike comparison, but amongst the Fifties schoolboy fraternity, Ian Allan abc locospotters books were far more widely read than Shakespeare. Back in the early 1940s, young Ian Allan pulled off a publishing masterstoke when he produced a pocket-sized pocket-money-priced booklet listing the numbers of all Southern Railway locomotives.

He did not invent railway enthusiasm – he was a participant himself – but he came up with the tools to turn it into a tangible hobby that was more widespread and popular than any modern-day computer game.

It is impossible to estimate, or rather, underestimate, the colossal impact which Ian Allan publications had on the railway preservation movement. With the advent of dieselisation and the total eradication of steam, there were of course those who placed their spotters guides in the drawer or cupboard for the final time and were left with no choice but to walk away. However, there were others who had been so inspired by their hobby that they decided to do their utmost to ensure that at least some of their precious steam engines lived on to tell the tale of a golden age.

I have very fond memories of trainspotting at Widney Manor station in Solihull during the early 1960s, with my elder brother Stewart and our small but well-thumbed abc collection with numbers of locomotives we had seen underlined.

Aged eight, I had a brief flirtation with bus spotting as a Midland Red service 153 terminated outside our front garden, and yet again, Ian Allan came up with the goods.

As a teenager, I would visit a bookshop to spend my Christmas and birthday money and find but a small shelf of railway titles, most of them from Ian Allan. Prized possessions, they still have pride of place on my bookshelves today.

Nowadays, scores of publishers are in on the act, yet despite intense competition, Ian Allan books have been a joy to receive and review, and that name remained a byword for quality, admirably maintained by the calibre of superb modern-day staff like Nick Grant and Sue Frost. The firm’s series of railway atlases, for example, are essential reference books.

Very rarely does a publisher enshrine itself in folklore, but Ian Allan managed that early on.

Over more than seven decades, the firm has made an immense contribution to popular British culture, and we look to Crécy to maintain the exacting standards set at Shepperton.

Robin Jones, Editor

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