For over a century, model railway toys have fascinated many kids. Some of them never outgrew their fascination with model railways and they turned into lifetime collectors. Even with the existence of more high-tech toys nowadays, toy trains continue to attract new enthusiasts who are willing to spend not just cash but also their time on this hobby.
Model trains have been around longer than any of us alive today. One of the earliest model railway toys was invented in the 1840s called the Carpet Railway. Even if its design was simple, it became a very popular toy during the Victorian era.
Why were they named “Carpet Railway”?
They were called Carpet Railways because they were designed to run directly on carpets or floors. Unlike most toy trains we see today, they didn’t come with a track.
One of its first working model trains was made in Birmingham, England and since these live steam trains leave a trail of water as they ran across the floor, they were nicknamed “Birmingham Dribblers”.
This steam engine toy was quite simple with very minimal decoration and polishing. They were usually made using brass with a simple oscillating cylinder driving the main wheels. Essentially they were just mini-boilers mounted on wheels.
How Did They Work?
The burner tray underneath it was filled with methylated spirits or denatured alcohol, which is then lit so that the boiler filled with water which can then produce steam, then the toy train is placed on the floor and allowed to run until either the water ran out or it crashed into something.
As the small train model runs across the floor not only does water spill from it, often its trail is mixed with fuel and sometimes it could crash into an object and spill the burning fuel all over the floor which resulted in numerous fire incidents. Several reports have also been recorded about the fuel inside this locomotive having exploded, hence some modifications were made such as simple safety valves were fitted onto the train.
Other enhancements such as wooden buffer beams, buffers, and steam whistles were also added later.
Major Carpet Railway Makers
Stevens Model Dockyard
William Stevens established the Stevens Model Dockyard in Algate, London in 1843. The company produced mechanical and scientific devices, but it is best known for its live steam ‘Birmingham Dribbler Floor Locomotives.’ Their spirit fired live steam locomotives were made of brass and either 2¾”, 3¼” or 4½” gauge. The most popularly used scale during the Victorian era was the 2¾” gauge.
Some of Stevens’ Carpet Railways models were:
2-4-0 #293 Tank Loco
2-4-0 #294 Invicta tank loco
4-4-0 #296 The Prince tender loco
4-4-0 Britania Tank
In 1890, Stevens Model Dockyard 2-2-2 was released. It was initially coal-fired but later versions were spirit fired. Like all carpet railways, it could be run on the ground without a track.
After more than 80 years in business, Steven Model Dockyard closed. Stevens’ products are easy to identify. The word ‘Stevens’ is stamped in an arch shape on the underside of the toy along with the year it was manufactured.
Ernst Plank was established in 1866 in Nuremberg, Germany. Named after its founder, this German manufacturing company was one of the first companies to produce toy steam engines and became famous for its copper and tin toys. Ernst Plank manufactured stationary steam engines, steam railway engines, and tracks.
The company produced its first toy train in 1882. Their products were known for their decorative design and quality. The company lost its market significance during the economic crisis in the 1920s. In 1934 it was sold to brothers Hans and Fritz Schaller, who gave up the production of toys. Ernst Plank toy trains are very collectible due to their rarity.
Ernst Plank’s Carpet Railways models include:
Plank #500 Vulkan Steam Engine
Plank Stork-leg Spirit-fired Live-steam Loco
Plank Vulkan 0-4-0 Brass Steam loco
4-4-0 American Steam outline Vulkan Loco
European Outline 2-2-0
Ernst Plank Black Prince Live Steam Locomotive
Just like other big steam engine manufacturers, Schöenner was named after the man who started the business. Jean Schöenner founded the company in 1875 in Nüremberg. The company is best known for making magic lanterns and steam engines. Schöenner also made carpet railways in multiple gauges from ‘O’ gauge up to a 29” model.
Schöenner built mostly steam toys from 1890 to 1910 including the following:
Schöenner ‘O’ gauge American Live Steam 2-2-0 Loco
Schöenner 1-gauge Storkeleg Steam Loco
Schöenner 1 gauge 2-2-0 live steam loco
Schöenner 2-gauge 4-2-0 live Steam Locomotive
Schöenner 4-gauge 4-4-0 live steam American profile
Aside from trains, the company also made boats and fire engines. Schöenner’s products are easy to identify because it has embossed trademarks with either the initials ‘SN’ or ‘JS’.
In 1912, the company was sold to Josef Falk.
Not all Birmingham Dribblers are Victorian antiques. In the late 1970s to 1990s Maxwell. Hemmens manufactured a brass Precision Steam Models self-assembly kit for a Birmingham Dribbler model in Yorkshire, UK.
Maxwell Hemmens’ version of Birmingham Dribbler represented the original classical Victorian toy. However, its version has steerable front wheels so it can run in a circle without tracks. The burner under the boiler used solid fuel tablets instead of liquid fuel so it is safer than the original Carpet Railways. Hemmen’s toy trains also come with a dummy chimney, whistle, and safety valves on top.
How much does a Birmingham Dribbler cost today?
The Carpet Railways that remained popular were sold up until the 1920s and some replicas are still sold today. Original Birmingham Dribblers nowadays are very collectible, and the good condition of this model can easily reach £400 bid at auction in the United Kingdom.
The birth of the modern model railroad
In the year 1891 a company called Märklin launched the first version of a model train kit similar to what we have today. Although today’s version is much better with the help of more high-tech manufacturing methods, what Marklin made back then was a series of railroad tracks, different locomotives as well as accessories like tunnels and buildings to match, all ready to go.
Today, Märklin and other toy companies continue to sell toy trains for the young and old who have made model railroad a hobby.