Unseen Steam’s Bill Lucas chats to David Allan on the eve of his father’s memorial service
I worked for Ian Allan Publishing for twenty five years, much of that time spent as a director of the company. Although I did not work directly for Ian Allan – or IA as he was affectionately known throughout the company – his controlling presence was a constant factor, felt by all. I spent many hours in IA’s company. He was shrewd, direct and could be subject to occasional monumental rages, but I remember him mainly as warm, funny and mischievous and as the only man that I have ever met who truly had a twinkle in his eye.
What all of us who worked for him knew was that that IA was a vigorous defender of high standards. Efficiency, smartness and good manners were an absolute requirement for all who worked in public-facing roles. Internally, punctuality, jargon-free common sense and (although relaxed in latter years) a company tie was the order of the day. He expanded his original publishing company into a major successful and diverse group; active in printing, travel, motor cars, organics and property.
I spoke to David Allan, Chairman of the Ian Allan Group for over ten years, on the day before his father’s memorial service.
Bill Lucas: The world knows Ian Allan as the man who popularised the railway enthusiast market and invented the trainspotter. Where did his love of railways come from?
David Allan: He was born at Christ’s Hospital School in 1922 and his nanny’s husband was signalman at Christ’s Hospital Station. As a child IA spent many happy hours in the signal box, playing trains with real locomotives. He grew up loving the railways and with a fascination for how they worked.
BL: IA lost his leg in an accident at school. How did the accident affect him?
DA: Well, it had a profound effect on his career as he was out of school for a year and failed to matriculate. He knew straight away that his prospects were damaged.
BL: So he was always ambitious?
DA: As a boy he always wanted to become station master at Waterloo, but it didn’t take him long to decide that it would be better to become general manager. In the end he joined the Southern Railway in the publicity department.
BL: How did he get into publishing?
DA: Working in the busy [publicity] department he found that he was constantly dealing with queries from the public about locomotive numbers and locations and so on, and thought that it would be a good way to save time if they could put out a listing with most of the information that people wanted. He approached his boss with the idea but it was rejected, so he asked if they would let him do it privately and they agreed.
BL: How did he go about it?
DA: He created the content of the first book – a detailed listing of the locomotives of the Southern Railway – and gave it the title of ABC of Southern Locomotives. This was in 1942. He talked it over with a printer, borrowed the money from his father and produced 5,000 copies.
BL: Was it profitable?
DA: Yes. They sold out very quickly and he had enough money to repay his father and pay for the next ABC. There was money left over and he donated that to Christ’s Hospital.
BL: I guess that’s how he got the publishing bug. How did the company grow?
DA: He began to apply the same principles to the other railways of the Big Four and throughout the war years published ABCs on all of them and created combined volumes that covered the entire country. They sold in their thousands. When the war came to an end he faced a choice – ‘Do I stay with the railways or launch out on my own as a publisher?’ He set up on his own and soon was publishing a broader range of railway titles for the growing enthusiast market that he had created.
BL: How did he invent the trainspotter?
DA: In 1947 there was a massive army, mainly young men, who were using his ABCs to spot locomotives across the country. The books were not designed as I Spy titles…These chaps simply crossed through the locos that they had spotted. In the end there were so many of them kicking their heels at stations and at other lineside locations that they started to become a problem…and there was some unruly behaviour as well. IA had the idea of forming them into a club with a proper code of conduct, to keep them all in line. That’s how the Locospotters Club was born.
BL: That became huge didn’t it?
DA: Yes – at its height there were between 300,000 and 400,000 members. And it worked…they were well behaved!
BL: The preservation movement started up in the early 1950s. What was his relationship with them like?
DA: It started with the Talyllyn in 1951 but soon groups of individuals in different locations were becoming active in preserving their local lines. Obviously IA was a great supporter of their efforts and always did what he could to promote their cause. As the movement developed there were two major associations in control – the Association of Preserved Railway Societies and the Association of Independent Railways. IA was instrumental in bringing these two bodies together to form a single cohesive unit. It’s now the Railway Heritage Association.
BL: What did he think of the movement?
DA: He was very keen that the preserved railways should serve the public well, as well as carrying out their important preservation work. He could see that it would be the public who ultimately would pay the massive sums needed. So he was always trying to get the railways to raise their game. After a while I had the brilliant idea that he should write a monthly column in Railway World Magazine praising or criticising individual railways according to their performance. He went out on inspection tours.
BL: Yes, I remember going on some of those inspections with him. He told me he always inspected the toilets and sometimes got into trouble.
DA: Did you inspect the toilets with him?
BL: Yes, I remember being at one of the biggest railways and going into the gents with a notebook…
DA: So what was his verdict?
BL: Not very complimentary. He said they were aromatic!
DA: Yes – he was often critical, and some of the railways hated it. But the Talyllyn loved him, and sent him a golden ballcock as a memento of his visit. He kept in on display in his office for ever.
BL: So it was sometimes a difficult relationship?
DA: No, not really. Everyone understood that he had the railways’ best interests at heart. He was passionate about the quality of service and detail and his constant efforts kept everyone on their toes and trying to improve.
BL: How do you think he should be remembered?
DA: Well, the company he created grew to become the country’s biggest independent publisher at the heart of a large business empire. He founded the railway publishing market – which led on to modelling and memorabilia – he invented the trainspotter and, above all, he raised the standards of the preservation movement. Not a bad legacy I think.
Ian Allan OBE FCIT died on 28 June 2015 one day short of his 93rd birthday