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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 14:03 GMT
The world's first trainspotter
John Backhouse's drawing in his letter
John Backhouse drew the first steam-hauled passenger train

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

As the National Railway Museum in York opens a new 4m visitor centre, it claims a 14-year-old in 1825 as the world's first trainspotter.

Long before Clapham Junction, anoraks and binoculars, trainspotting was born in the North East.

For a 14-year-old boy, the sight of the world's first steam-hauled passenger train in 1825 was a revelation.

John Backhouse, a Quaker from County Durham, wrote to his sisters in London a month after seeing the opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway.

John Backhouse's letter, 1825

His neatly-written letter includes an illustration of the train, complete with annotations to point out the locomotive steam engine at the front, the freight wagons, the passenger coach and the flags.

Failing to find enough words to describe the exciting new phenomenon, he drew the steam-hauled train that caught his imagination so intensely.

    It was a very grand sight to see such a mass of people moving on the road from Stockton to Darlington, 600 people were said to be in, on and about the wagons and coaches! And the engine drew not less that 90 tons!!!!!

    There was an excellent dinner prepared at Stockton for the railway gentry. I could tell you a great many more particulars but suppose that you are tired of it by this time.

The letter is a key item in the National Collection housed in the National Railway Museum's new interactive archive and research centre called Search Engine.

Spotting heyday

Nick Brodrick, of Steam Railway magazine, says that the boy's annotations suggest he may indeed be the world's first trainspotter.

School children in West Ealing
Pupils line up to spot trains in 1979
"It sounds like he was the first enthusiast and could conceivably count as the first trainspotter. Maybe that was really the birth of it, although it didn't take off in a massive way until much later.

"Trainspotting as we know it today probably began in the 1930s but didn't become big until the late 40s, early 50s. Then in the early 1960s it really reached its peak.

"People recognised that steam was on its way out and wanted to record it and record what they saw."

In the 1930s, the introduction of faster engines like the Royal Scot and Mallard generated interest in individual engines rather than the broader railway as a whole, says Mr Brodrick.

In the heyday of trainspotting, large numbers of schoolboys could be seen on platforms before and after class, clutching their Ian Allan-published log books that had all the engine numbers, plus added details like boiler pressure.

Boy in 1960
It was the first time they had seen anything faster than a galloping horse
Christian Wolmar, rail historian
Those were the days when rail travel played a huge part in people's lives, so the hobby could be pursued as people went about their daily routine.

But the end of steam engines in the UK in 1968 deprived trainspotting of its romance and signalled the start of a decline in numbers that continues today.

Michael Palin and WH Auden are among the more famous names associated with trainspotting and Alfred Hitchcock was a huge rail enthusiast who regularly featured trains in his films. Maybe they owe a small debt for their enjoyment to young John Backhouse for starting it all off.

There was a shared sense at the time that this was the beginning of something huge, says railway historian Christian Wolmar.

"What this shows is that once people started seeing trains and locomotives going by it was the first time they had seen anything faster than a galloping horse and the first time anyone had attempted mechanical motion in any way, although there were some prior experiments."

Painting by John Dobbin
The Stockton-Darlington railway captured the imagination
Stockton to Darlington was the first significant step in creating a railway, he says. It was longer than previous railways, it had both passenger and freight transport and it had engines pulling trains, which was crucial.

"What this boy saw was quite revolutionary. I think there was quite a realisation quite early on that Stockton-Darlington and Liverpool-Manchester weren't going to be the be all and end all.

"They were part of a wider network and before the 1920s there were people putting forward plans for lines between London and Scotland, so although these were still railways, they were starting something much bigger. There was an awareness of that."


Below is a selection of your comments.

What's really sad is that I can tell what type of locomotive the boy is lying next to in the black-and-white photo... I too was to be seen at Eastleigh loco sheds from 1965 to 1967. Do kids today get the same buzz from their computers that we got from spotting a "Merchant Navy" at the head of 10 Pullman cars going all-out up the gradient towards Winchester with the Sunday afternoon Bournemouth Belle?
Hampshire Hog, Havant, UK

I can well understand John Backhouse's excitement at seeing the S&D train. Nowadays, using my computer Train Simulator, I can re-create somewhat the thrill of a "Merchant Navy" engine going all-out on the Bournemouth Belle, and re-live the steam era by visiting Heritage Railway lines around UK. I was lucky enough to get caught up in the trainspotting frenzy of the early 1960's. The excitement was all the more intense as each area of the country had different types of engines to hunt down. Great times!
Cliff Bancroft, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

I still remember saturday mornings at Hornsey in North London waiting for the Yorkshire Pullman to head toward King's Cross & even the name of the loco Bois Roussel as if it were last week and this was back about 1950.By the way I became an engineer(driver)over here that's how much I'm hooked on railways.
Richard, Walnut Grove Canada

What memories have been brought back, I too spent many happy hours at Eastleigh in the 60s,innocent days! Merchant Navys, Battle of Britains, Q1s, standard class 5s, all seen with notebook in hand and duffle bag over the shoulder.
Mike, Denia

People say that trainspotting, like many simple pleasures, is a sad hobby for sad people- I could not disagree more. These are magnificent machines, and being raised in London, it makes for a great day out- sandwiches, tea or a beer or two (after all you don't need to drive), a friend or two, and a fun ride through the country. Consider that "fun" for most of my generation is drinking until comotose, plus a fight and a curry, it makes you wonder who the sad lonely people really are.
Seb Fuller, Nagasaki, originally London

A steam train is a living creature - the awesome power - the breathing - the noise diesel and electric? B for boring
Garth, Pretoria, South Africa

I was a trainspotter and still have my old Ian Allen numbers books.My parents let me go to Inverness (and all over te UK) aged 13 for trainspotting! It was an excuse to gain a bit of teenage freedom! Happy times indeed. Instead of thinking about people "disrespecting" us and stabbing them, we were thinking about which would be the next loco we could see. An age of innocence? Maybe. Glad I had my childhood.
Andy, London


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