The origins of Coventry Model Railway Club lie in the history of the much older Coventry Model Engineering Society, which had existed before World War II, and catered mainly for live steam modellers, with a circuit of track in the Memorial Park, which disappeared about 1970.
There was interest in smaller scale modelling too and about 1953, a small group of model railway enthusiasts, as opposed to model engineers, began meeting to discuss the possibility of starting a club in Coventry.
The early meetings were actually held only a few hundred metres from the present clubroom, in a room in the now-demolished GEC Centre Ballroom, in Holyhead Road. If this sounds a bit odd, Coventry was still recovering from World War II and there were not too many places available for meetings. The Centre Ballroom used to hire small rooms for meetings to a lot of societies and after some discussion, a move was made to find a home for a layout.
In time (about 1955), the idea came to fruition, and these early heroes managed to rent a hay loft, above a stable at the rear of No. 20, Central Avenue, in Stoke Park. Access to this palatial residence (16ft x 8ft – say 5m x 2.5m) was by a vertical ladder, through a trap door, under the layout, and into the middle area. The layout was built on slotted angle iron legs called Handy-Angle and supplied at a VERY favourable price by our secretary, Ron Ellis, who happened to work for John Hall Tools, located just behind Trinity Street, who by a happy coincidence, were the local stockists
From this came Winford Stokes, and this was featured in the July 1959 edition of the Railway Modeller. The level of poverty and the innate skill of those early efforts really comes to light, when you realise that all the track was made by the indefatigable Ron Ellis, who could be seen on meeting nights, wheezing up the road on an incredibly ancient push bike, with a rucksack full of tools on his back and another bag hanging from the handlebars, carrying his latest creation
The nominal membership was generally about two dozen – half a crown a week for full members, a shilling for juniors (12 1/2p and 5p), but normal attendance tended to be about eight to ten, so economy was the watchword. It was in 1960 that we got 15 people in for the AGM. and we nearly asphyxiated! Not much room to get that many in, all at the same time. Perhaps small turnouts were a blessing in disguise.
At this point we should emphasize the huge debt of gratitude that railway modelling in Coventry owes to Ron Ellis. Almost single-handedly and at times, almost alone, Ron carried CMRC. He made almost anything needed and taught others how to do so as well. He came up with fund raising schemes (e.g. we sold a special four colour ball point pen for about one and sixpence – seven and a half pence in current coinage).
He also organised trips to many of the then major centres, but we did get to see some marvellous things like the early parts of Pendon, the superb Derby Museum Gauge 0 layout – all Midland Railway, and they opened it up and operated it specially for us on a Sunday. Another major event was the annual trip to London for the Model Railway Club show, at the Methodist Central Hall, or the Horticultural Halls. The journey, usually in an incredibly motley collection of vehicles and only a bit of the M1 open then, was usually an epic in it own right, but we knew no better.
1961 brought a new development. Ron and others had spent years trying to find a new clubroom, but we were always hamstrung by both a lack of suitable accommodation and an even greater lack of funds, but suddenly this all changed. Out of the blue, we were contacted by Mr. Roland Bennett, the managing director of the local machine tool manufacturer, Webster and Bennett. Mr. Bennett turned out to be a marvellous benefactor and ally, becoming our first president. Quite simply, he had contacted Ron and said, ‘I understand that you are trying to run a model railway club. As a Coventry citizen, I would like to offer some help. What do you need?’.
The upshot was a cheque (possibly £50.00 – a lot of money for a club that had been struggling the way we had) plus an undertaking to talk to his contacts to see if any suitable premises were available.
Not long after, came more news. There was a room available in Leicester Row, in a warehouse there. This, we discovered, was the warehouse by the canal basin, at the end of Foleshill Road – the traffic used to go straight past the front door in those days, before the Ring Road was built.
When we saw the size of this new room – 65ft x 18ft (20m x 6m), we couldn’t quite believe it. In through the same iron door we still use, we could just about dimly see the other end wall – no lighting and the windows had last been cleaned about Armistice Day 1918! The Winford Stokes layout was dismantled and carted to the new clubroom, where it was put in one corner. What to do next?
Answer – build a clubroom within the clubroom, for meetings and so on, plus allowing us to heat just a small area – we were still skint, so we couldn’t afford to heat the whole room in winter – without all today’s mod-cons, it was absolutely freezing in winter! Then the planning started – we put up Winford Stokes and began to add to it. Then we designed the new layout that became Bystone St. Johns (featured in the Model Raliway Constructor in 1973) on one side – where the Gosford Green now stands, but the full length of the room to loop round and join the original.
What about N Gauge, you may ask? Simple – it didn’t exist until the late 1960’s, other than horrendously expensive Continental models, which no one was interested in.
When our president, Mr. Bennett died, we then elected a new president – again, a benefactor and the owner of one of the best model railway shops in the country at the time. Although it was called ‘Finister’s of Coventry’, in Humber Road the shop was acquired by Peter Bartlett, an amazing if somewhat eccentric character, a brilliant, modeller, who taught loco building skills to anyone who was interested.
Right up until his death (probably totally worn out) Ron Ellis kept beavering away for the club – doing anything and everything – organising trips to raise funds (as far afield as the Bluebell Railway in 1965 and the Ffestiniog in 1967 and even the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch). Others came and went, but at least, the club survived.
This covers the history of our club up to about the late 1990’s.