Our History in Words
Background and Construction of the Railway
The Rhyl Miniature Railway was the last to be built by Miniature Railways of Great Britain Ltd. The company had been founded in 1904, with W. J. Bassett-Lowke as Managing Director, and Henry Greenly as Engineer. Greenly designed its ‘Little Giant’ 4-4-2 locomotives, and the first railway opened at Blackpool in 1905. Following its success, further lines were opened at Sutton Coldfield (1908) and Halifax Zoo (1910), besides several temporary railways at exhibitions. Greenly first surveyed the Marine Lake at Rhyl in December 1910, and quickly pronounced it as ideal for a miniature railway. The lake itself is artificial, having been formed when land was recovered from the River Clwyd in 1895. The site quickly became well established for bathing and boating, and a big water chute had been built. Materials for this had been supplied by Mr Butler, owner of a Leeds steel company, and this began a long association between his family and enterprises in Rhyl. Once permission was granted in March 1911, work began immediately on installing the railway, and it opened on 1 May that year. During 1911 a successor company was formed, Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd, into whose name the line at Rhyl was transferred.
The route which Greenly laid out was almost one mile in length, right around the lake. That is still the railway today, although some alignments have changed. The circular track made operation easy, and the steepest gradient was only 1 in 220. Its station was built next to the site entrance in the north east corner, featuring an ornate wooden building to Greenly’s design. To operate the railway a standard ‘Little Giant’ locomotive was provided, named Prince Edward of Wales. Six four-wheeled coaches made up the train.
There was a good season at Rhyl in 1911, and the railway quickly became a showpiece for friends and customers of Greenly and Bassett-Lowke. So much so that special footplate passes had to be issued at a cost of 1/- for adults and 6d for children!
Prosperity in the hands of Albert Barnes and Rhyl Amusements Ltd, 1912 – 1969
In 1912, Greenly and Bassett-Lowke moved on to fresh 15in projects, the first being a new railway in Geneva. The Rhyl line was sold shortly afterwards to Rhyl Amusements Ltd, the local company owned by Mr Butler, which already operated the other attractions at the Marine Lake. Rhyl Amusements had an energetic young manager named Albert Barnes. Under his direction a substantial fairground was developed at the Marine Lake, and the railway had to be improved to keep pace with the number of visitors.
A second Class 10 ‘Little Giant’ locomotive named George the Fifth was purchased from Llewelyn’s Miniature Railway at Southport in 1913. A new train of ‘Cars de Luxe’ was built for it in the company workshops. Comfortable bogie coaches with seats all facing the locomotive ‘were greatly appreciated by the season’s patrons’, according to Models, Railways and Locomotives of August 1913.
On leaving the station, trains now entered a long tunnel which carried the railway underneath an enormous roller coaster. It was also useful as a carriage shed out of season! The tiny locomotive shed was replaced first by a two-road building with an inspection pit, then in the 1930s by a still bigger shed adjacent to the Wellington Road. Greenly’s station may have been ornate, but had been of little use in the event of a sudden shower. It was replaced by a huge canopy titled ‘Central Station’.
All these changes left the locomotives basically still of Greenly’s original 1905 design. Although adequate, they were stretched to the limit during the peak seasons, when two trains were always needed. So Barnes contacted Greenly to see what could be done. The result was the ‘Albion’ series of locomotives, designed by Greenly, but built in Rhyl by Albert Barnes & Co. at its Albion Works.
Bassett-Lowke had already produced two enlarged versions of the ‘Little Giant’, the Class 20 and the Class 30, but the ‘Albion’ class was the ultimate development. Here was an Atlantic that weighed more than two tons and could pull more than 80 people, but still traverse the 80ft reverse bend at Rhyl. Although the ‘miniature’ outline was retained, the ‘Albion’ locomotives have bigger cylinders and strengthened motion when compared with a Class 30.
By this time, Barnes was already applying his fairground know-how commercially, building rides like the ‘Cake Walk’ for other sites besides Rhyl. At its peak, just, after the First World War, Albert Barnes & Co employed 100 men building fairground equipment, as well as handling structural steel contracts along the North Wales Coast. Rather than just make one or two locomotives Albert decided to build six in all. No 101 Joan was the first to be finished, entering service in August 1920. Greenly was later proud to report that the engine ran 1,500 miles in its first two months alone.
By April 1921, the third locomotive was nearly complete, the remainder being finished at 12 or 18 month intervals. They were named after the children of Mr Butler, the owner of Rhyl Amusements.
The older Bassett-Lowke locomotives were quickly sold. Prince Edward of Wales went to Margate in 1920 where it stayed until sold to two enthusiasts in 1968. Eventually, it was deemed beyond repair, and the frames cut up, but some original parts have now been incorporated into a new locomotive built at Southport. George the Fifth left Rhyl in 1922 for a truly varied career at Skegness, Southend, Belle Vue Manchester and Longleat before reaching Steamtown, Carnforth. From there it was sold by auction in July 2000 to a buyer in the USA.
Two of the Barnes locomotives were also sold. Michael went to the Woodland Park Miniature Railway, a short-lived line beside the shore of the Isle of Grain, across the water from Rochester. Subsequently, it ran for a few years in the tea garden of a pub in Cheshire, before being sold during the winter of 1927/28 to Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester. Once there, it soon acquired the name Railway Queen in honour of the Queen of the annual Railwaymen’s Carnivals, held at Belle Vue.
Meanwhile, the fourth engine, Billie, joined Prince Edward of Wales at Margate. Mr Butler insisted that there should still be a Michael and a Billy at Rhyl, so the names were allocated again to the fifth and sixth locomotives in order to keep everyone happy.
Early in the 1930s, the Rhyl Miniature Railway settled down to years of successful if unspectacular operation, using the four locomotives, Nos 101/3/5/6. During the season two would be in use, the third spare and the fourth perhaps in the works for overhaul. After World War 2, both the station and the locomotive shed were again rebuilt, this time in concrete.
From the 1920s Rhyl Amusements had developed a second funfair located between the promenade and the Marine Lake, which they named ‘Ocean Beach’. Punters used to flow down the steps from Ocean Beach, cross the Wellington Road and enter the Marine Lake section, where a train would be standing. Even though smoke chimneys were provided, the station was always surrounded in steam. Every 10 minutes or so the second train would arrive, whistles would blow and the first train pull out right across the main entrance. With such theatre, who could resist giving their kids a ride on the train?
It all came to an end in 1969. Rhyl Amusements was by then a subsidiary of Trust House Forte Leisure Ltd, whereas the Marine Lake itself belongs to the Borough Council. Trust House would not invest further in the Marine Lake site without a very long lease being granted, which the Council refused. As a result, Trust House decided to concentrate all its resources at Ocean Beach, and handed back the Marine Lake to the Council in 1970, completely bare.
1970 – 1977
The railway equipment all went into store, save for Joan, which was sent to help out on the railway at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester; by then also owned by Trust House. Faced with an empty site, Rhuddlan Borough Council tried to put some life back into the Marine Lake. A new building arrived topped by a long kiddies’ slide, and boating rides were also reinstated.
In September 1977 Belle Vue Zoo closed, and Joan pulled the last train on the railway. Trust House had no further use for miniature railways. and during 1978 began selling the equipment. First to go was No 105 Michael to Alan Keef Ltd. a firm of light railway engineers based at Cote, Oxon. The Hon W. H. McAlpine considered buying No 101 Joan and, under his auspices, the engine made brief appearances at Blenheim Palace, on a portable line at Newcastle Town Moor, and then at Steamtown, Carnforth. In the event, though, he decided against purchase, and Joan was sent back to store.
It was decided to overhaul two of the locomotives completely, and John and Billy were chosen. One employee returned from retirement to assist with the work, which included fitting new boilers to each. John was then purchased by John Broome of Alton Towers, Staffs. However, plans to operate it there were never realised, and John was placed on static display. It was resold in 1985 to Raymond Dunn of Whorlton Lido, Co Durham, and then in 1996 to David Hibbert, who kept it at Ravenglass. In 2000 it was acquired by Jim and Helen Shackell, and it now operates on their railway at Evesham.
The present railway, from 1978
Back at Rhyl, the first proposals that the railway should be restored were made in 1977, and the Council seemed to approve. The new track would be Council property, and let out to operators on a normal concession basis. Alan Keef Ltd agreed to act as engineers and a new company was formed to operate the line, so tracklaying began. To haul the trains Michael was purchased from Rhyl Amusements and, in addition, Clara, an 0-4-2 steam outline diesel locomotive, was provided, ex Dudley Zoo. Michael returned to Rhyl on 1 July 1978, and trains started running immediately. The Rhyl Miniature Railway was back in business.
Across the road from the lake, No 106 Billy remained unsold, so it was sent for auction at Sotheby’s, Belgravia on 6 October 1978. When Rhyl Town Council heard about this, its members were seized with dismay that such an item of Rhyl’s heritage should be leaving the town, so they bought Billy at the auction for £9,000. A special ‘Billy the Engine’ sub-committee was formed to safeguard the new asset! At first, No 106 was displayed in Rhyl Town Hall but, from Easter 1979, the Town Council allowed it back to the Marine Lake railway, providing it was on a limited number of days.
In 1980, events moved fast. The railway concession was assigned to a partnership led by local businessman Les Hughes. He really caught ‘bug’ for the trains that summer. Michael and Clara were bought from Keef Railways Ltd, and then Joan and Railway Queen (No 102) from Trust House. Not content with that, Les Hughes heard that Dreamland Railway at Margate might be for sale, so bought that as well, including No 104 Billie. Thus it was that No 104 returned to Rhyl after more than 50 years absence. Only No 103 John eluded Les because at the time John Broome would not part with it.
In fact, the great Barnes reunion was all that it seemed. Neither Joan nor Railway Queen were fit for service, and they simply moved from one store to another. An enthusiast from the Mold area offered to overhaul one of the locomotives for nothing, providing that the owners paid for materials; and Billie the Margate engine was in his garage before he could change his mind. Michael, although operational, left much to be desired mechanically. This left the Town Council’s engine Billy, which operated the Rhyl line on its own throughout the main season of 1981.
In mid-1981 a link was made with one Stan Jackson, a showman who operated several rides at Dudley Zoo. The Dudley Zoo Railway itself has a long history, dating from 1938. But in the 1970s it had become run down, then finally closed, and the track lifted beyond the zoo perimeter. Michael and the diesel Clara were sent to revive the railway, and the former ran a short season there from August 1981.
Still greater plans were made for 1982. Over the winter a firm in Flint began a major overhaul of Railway Queen, but then promptly went into liquidation. Les Hughes had to hire a workshop of his own in order to get the work finished. At Dudley the railway was extended by 200yd or so. No 104 emerged from its overhaul in April 1982 and was sent to relieve the ailing Michael at Dudley Zoo. At Rhyl, the Town Council retrieved Billy in mid-1982, and it went to store initially in the old town hall. Subsequently it has been overhauled by a firm in Derby, and for a spell it was displayed in Rhyl’s main line station. That left Railway Queen, which had been reassembled in rather a hurry, but a new driver did much to nurse her through that season.
Ken Dove’s father Ernest used to build 7¼in and l0¼in gauge locomotives at their home in Nottingham in the 1940s, and since then Ken had built and operated a number of different l0¼in gauge lines. He brought a lifetime’s experience of miniature railways with him to Rhyl. After the season closed, he set about Railway Queen which was restyled, carrying a black livery with curved splashers, but no name. It became a powerful and reliable hauler, running throughout 1983. This year also saw steam trains at the Dudley Zoo Railway, which passed on to a new operator for 1984.
Back at Rhyl, Ken Dove now had a firm grip on things. In winter 1983-84 he worked on Joan, then in the next year Michael was brought back to first-class order. All the more commendable when you consider that this was achieved by one man working without mains power in a dingy shed. Every bit of machining had to be done at friendly premises around the town. The reward came on steam test day 1985 when all three locomotives were running around the track; the first time that had been possible since the 1960s. Unfortunately this progress was marred by a dispute with the Council, which led to the railway lying unused during 1986.
Further uncertainty was caused when the news came that Nos 101/2/4/5 were to be auctioned. A large audience gathered at Sotheby’s Saltney saleroom, Chester on 30 April 1986 to find out what would happen to the engines. However, although bidding reached £18,000 for one of the Atlantics, the reserve was higher and offers to purchase were turned down. The sale was caused by financial pressures which were subsequently eased by other means.
The impasse with the Council was solved in 1987 when Ken Dove took charge of the situation as operator of the railway, hiring the rolling stock from Les Hughes. From this point onwards Clara became the principal motive power on the railway. Ken selected Joan as his preferred steam locomotive because of her fuel economy in operation, however her boiler certificate ran out leading to the use of Railway Queen during 1988 and 1989, although carrying splashers and name plates from Michael! During Winter 1989-1990 Joan and the real Michael were retubed and Joan has worked the great majority of the steam days since then.
During 1987 and 1988 trains only ran for an eight week season during July and August, but from then until 2007 operations have fell into a pattern of all Bank Holiday Sundays and Mondays, Sundays in June, then 6 days a week (not Saturdays) in the summer school holidays, followed by one or two September Sundays. We generally steamed up on Sundays, Bank Holidays, and peak Thursdays (market days) from 1pm. All these dates of operation were weather permitting.
The Dudley Zoo railway closed at the end of the 1992 season, and its unusual diesel electric railcar set was purchased by Les Hughes for operation at Rhyl, under the banner ‘old and the new’. Although a bit over-complicated it did some good service with us in North Wales. 104, the Margate engine, never worked any public trains at Rhyl and departed in June 1993 to a private owner in Kent.
In May 1994 Ken Dove died, having suffered two years of bad health. Although rarely the enthusiast’s friend his contribution to the railway had been immense and we still miss him. From 1994 to 2000 Les Hughes operated the railway, along with a volunteer group, under a lease concession from what is now Denbighshire County Council, as well as owning the rolling stock and track, under the banner of Rhyl Steam Preservation Society.
Railway Queen and Michael were moved in Spring 1994 to James Pringle Weavers’ shop at Llanfair P.G., Anglesey, where they then stood on static display in this railway-themed clothing store.
Clara received a new Leyland engine in June 1996. Joan’s boiler certificate ran out at the end of 1996, and the courageous step was taken to obtain a brand new welded boiler. She re-entered service in August 1997, but a few weeks later the site was taken over by contractors for a storm relief tank scheme. Joan therefore went on loan to the Windmill Farm Railway where the boiler was again removed and she received a mechanical overhaul, re-entering service there in time for Whitsun 1998.
Following the tank scheme we gained access back to the site in November 1998. Various works were then undertaken to enable trains to run again from Easter 1999. The railway has certainly benefited in some ways from tank scheme, with almost half of the track being re-laid.
In 2001 operation of the line was taken over by Rhyl Steam Preservation Trust; on 5th May the railway celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of its opening. Joan double headed trains all day with John, which visited us for the day courtesy of its owners Jim and Helen Shackell. This was the first time for thirty years that two of the Barnes Locomotives had been in steam together. Also operating trains was 0-4-0T Effie from the Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway.
During the Spring of 2002 the KD1 multiple unit left us for new owners in the West Country. Since 2001 further heritage equipment has been acquired for the railway: a 4w Lister diesel, a 4-4-0 Cagney steam locomotive, bogies and parts for further traditional Rhyl coaches, and most recently a pair of Cagney coaches. During 2006 all of the core railway collection was donated into the ownership of Rhyl Steam Preservation Trust.
In May 2007 our new building ‘Central Station was opened. Customer facilities include the ‘Albert Barnes Room’ which tells the story of Britain’s oldest miniature railway, and its place in Rhyl’s past. There is also a ticket office and toilet facilities for visitors. The dedicated workshop enables most maintenance work to be done on site, whilst the train shed doubles as a secure storage for the trains when not in use.
We hope that this new building will serve the railway for many future years. Rhyl Miniature Railway achieved Accredited Museum status in September 2010.
In 2014 history turned full circle with the further acquisition of the locomotive Prince Edward of Wales, which had been the railway’s original engine back in 1911.
During 2021 Rhyl Steam Preservation Trust acquired the remains of several Bassett Lowke four wheeled carriages which had run originally at Rhyl, and later at Margate and Windmill Animal Farm. Shortly after they arrived were offered the chance to acquire locomotive no 104 Billie, which we did.