During the latter part of World War II, whilst on air raid warning duties, the seed if an idea began to germinate in the mind of Harry Wright, the manager of the Westminster Bank in Old Hatfield. Discussions with fellow Wardens and subsequent following up of ideas with like minded people led to the mounting of a Hobbies Exhibition in the Public Hall, Old Hatfield, in June 1948. During the exhibition, there was sufficient interest shown in forming a Model Engineering Society to arrange a meeting of potential members. That meeting was held on 7th July 1948 and resulted in the formation of the Society with 24 members, each paying an annual subscription of one guinea (£1.05).
Harry Wright went on to become a leading light in the Hitchin Model Engineering Society.
The search for a meeting place came to fruition when approaches to the Divisional Education Officer resulted in the Society being given the use of the overflow huts at St Audrey’s School in Hatfield.
The main interest of the founder members centred on the construction of 0 gauge railways together with a strong interest by some members in model boating. At this time the live steam active interest rested solely with just one member, Lauchlan Rose (of Roses Lime Juice fame) who had a permanent 3.5 inch gauge track in the garden of his home at Harmer Green. Lauchlan Rose was, and remains so far, the only President in the history of the Society.
In the very early days of the Society an apparent asset was “Wylie’s Railway” at Brookmans Park. This was a gauge 1 garden railway started by Mr Wylie but discontinued for a variety of reasons. The idea developed that a small band of enthusiasts would complete the railway and then enjoy using it. Attempts to draw up a simple agreement giving members right of access and safeguarding their interests resulted in the need for legal advice. In the event there were so many obstacles to such an agreement that the project was abandoned.
In the summer of 1949 a Model Engineering Exhibition was promoted by the Society and held in the original Memorial Hall at Hatfield. Considerable assistance was rendered by the North London Society of Model Engineers who operated their portable live steam track and provided loan models. Other models were loaned by the St Albans Society members and various other individuals. One such model was a 3.5 inch gauge 0-4-0 "Juliet" tank engine owned by Mr Saunders of St Albans. The passenger hauling capacity of this diminutive coal fired locomotive so inspired member Arthur Price, that he commenced construction the very next day! Arthur’s "Juliet" was the beginning of a long period of public passenger hauling at fetes and sports days, and over the years many thousands of children were given rides on the 3.5 inch gauge portable track and passenger cars Arthur had also constructed. Later, the portable track was rebuilt with both 3.5" and 5" gauge rails. It has proved to be sturdy and easy to erect and dismantle.
In 1951, demolition of the St Audrey’s School huts loomed and the Society had to search for a new meeting place. A temporary home was found in the first floor loft over what had been the coach wheel house in Batterdale, then owned and occupied by Grays Garage. This has long since been demolished and the area redeveloped, but the site was near the present Catholic Church in Old Hatfield.
Because of the temporary nature of the tenure at Grays, early in 1952 Frank Dunham approached Bill Salmon of the Breaks Youth Club with the objective of using the loft over their garage. Frank was successful in his endeavours and activity was transferred to the garage block where members enjoyed the exclusive use of a downstairs room with a stairway leading up to the loft area. This accommodation was available on a “grace and favour” basis with the Society, from time to time, making donations to youth club funds.
The Breaks, Hatfield
An early result of the move was the staging, in October 1954, of a Model Engineering Exhibition in the main hall of the Breaks. The aim was to become better known and support was yet again forthcoming from the North London and St Albans Societies together with several individual model engineers. The exhibition was held over two days with night security being achieved by members sleeping on the premises in what could only be described as rough and ready conditions. The exhibits included many fine examples from a wide range of modelling activities and was well supported by the public, and succeeded in raising public awareness of the Society.
The 1954 exhibition at The Breaks
Members about to enjoy a ride on the portable track at The Breaks.
Fred Few, still a member, is behind the driver.
Major projects in the new clubrooms included the construction of a large permanent 0 gauge railway layout and the setting up of a general workshop. Few members had reasonable machining facilities in their homes and it was felt that the Society could meet a real need for its members. To this end a second-hand Drummond round bed lathe was purchased from Arthur Price for £17-10s-0d (£17.50), a new hand bench drilling machine of 0.5 inch capacity for £3-7s-6d (£3.37) and various other basic items for £12-4s-11d (£12.25). Erection of overhead line shafting and benches proceeded apace and wheels were soon rotating. The whole set up was a bit “Heath Robinson” and by today’s Health and Safety standards was probably dangerous, but happily no accidents occurred.
Following on from the success with the portable track a permanent one was constructed in the grounds of The Breaks. In the summer evenings running went on well past sunset with fish and chip suppers from the Blue Seas chip shop in Hatfield Town Centre – now long gone, the site being occupied by the Halifax.
In 1969 the ground occupied by the track was required for housing development by the local council, and a suitable alternative site was found elsewhere in the grounds backing onto some houses. During a surveying session a resident of the bungalows was horrified to learn that a miniature railway was to be constructed at the bottom of his garden. The opposition was such that rebuilding the track at the Breaks was abandoned. However, the Society had the last laugh – a children’s’ playground was constructed there instead!
Attempts to find a suitable site for a track in the Welwyn Hatfield area proved unsuccessful. Pockets of land were offered by the local council but they were either too small, too hilly, or the only access was by helicopter. However, a solution was at hand…..
Member Fred Few was appointed Head of Technical Studies at a school in Welwyn Garden City, and he was faced with the need to develop a craft based activity for the less academic pupils. These boys were leaving school at the end of their fourth year of secondary education and were therefore non-examination pupils. The end result was a project type activity aiming to produce a successful 5 inch gauge petrol locomotive.
Fred gained the support of the Headmaster and the school governors in the idea of reconstructing the track in the school grounds. This would provide an educational opportunity for many pupils and a home track for the Society.
The Society proceeded to purchase materials and the pupils assisted in surveying the site. Final plans were drawn up and construction commenced with the project being completed in less than a year. The pupils contributed significantly towards the project and thereafter enjoyed the successful running of their petrol locomotive. Subsequently a Railway Club was formed at the school and enjoyed the joint use of the track with the Society.
An early aerial view of the permanent track. The view today is little different.
The dual use of the track continued until late 1982 when Fred retired early for health reasons. The Society continued to maintain and use the track under an informal agreement with the Headmaster. The Society agreed to assist the school by running trains whenever possible. Eventually the Society was officially recognized as an educational body by the County Council and the track now belongs to the school.
The Society had been paying a nominal rent of £14 per annum for the loft room at the Breaks, but by 1975 this had increased to £72, and then in 1978, to £175. Enough was enough - the Society left and the cold loft room remained unused! From then on Society meetings were held in the school workshops in Welwyn Garden City, and still are to this day.
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