The death last week of Ian Allan is the end of an era; he was, perhaps, the last of the generation of those who helped to establish the railway hobby in the immediate years after the end of World War 2.
Ian Allan was born at Christ’s Hospital School, where his father George was Steward (an amalgam of Bursar and Estate Manager), in 1922. In 1935 the family moved to a large house in Staines, 225/227 Laleham Road (an address familiar to early purchasers of the first ‘Abc’ volumes). Initially taught at boarding school, he was subsequently educated at St Paul’s School in London as a day boy.
Interested in railways from an early age, he was determined to join the industry and, through a variety of circumstances (including the loss of a leg as a teenager), he was appointed to the Southern Railway’s Publicity Department at Waterloo station on 16 July 1939. With war beginning shortly thereafter, IA (as he was always known, except to his face, by colleagues and staff), along with the rest of the Publicity Department, was moved out to offices at Elmstead Wood. It was during this period that he became increasingly aware of the interest in the company’s locomotive stock. Initially suggesting that the railway itself publish the booklet, a suggestion rejected, IA found that the then head of PR, Cuthbert Grasemann, was not averse to the idea — provided that IA took all the risk himself. The result was the first edition of the Southern Railway ‘abc’ published, with much trepidation, in 1942.
The success of this first book, published despite the hostility of Oliver Bulleid, led quickly to further volumes on the GWR initially and then the remaining ‘Big Four companies. The big change, however, was to come in 1945 with the cessation of hostilities and the decision to abandon the safety of paid employment within the SR in favour of establishing himself in the publishing business.
The early years of the business were not without their problems, but it was the era when many of the publications for which the company became well-known first appeared — such as magazines like Trains Illustrated (later Modern Railways) and Buses Illustrated (now Buses) as well as books like Titled Trains of Great Britain.
In 1947 IA married Mollie Franklin, who had been with him at 282 Vauxhall Bridge Road to assist with the burgeoning Locospotters Club and who was to have a profound influence on the business over the years; there were two children, David (born 1954) and Paul (born 1957). Both his sons followed him into the business.
As the business continued to expand, the existing premises at 282 Vauxhall Bridge Road became unsuitable and, in 1952, the company moved, not without some difficulty, to Craven House in Hampton Court. This was destined to be the company’s home for the next decade and was also to witness the first phase of what was subsequently to become Ian Allan Printing Ltd with the installation of a small press in the cellar.
The 1950s witnessed the continued expansion of the business with the development of Ian Allan Travel and the acquisition of, for example, the Locomotive Publishing Co (with its photographic archive) and the magazine interests of W. J. Fowler & Co of Cricklewood (which brought Railway World, Model Railway Constructor and a half-share of Modern Tramway into the magazine portfolio). The acquisition of MRC, then the country’s best-selling railway modelling magazine, led to the sale of Railway Modeller to PECO.
With the continued growth of the business a further move was in order and, in 1962, the company relocated to new offices at Shepperton. Terminal House was built in two phases on land originally owned by the railway. Incorporated within the northern block was the ex-Pullman car Malaga that served as a boardroom. Inevitably as the business grew, IA was no longer able to be in day-by-day control of all aspects of the company but, over the years, he was to benefit from the experience and advice of a wide range of individuals all of whom contributed to the success of the business. Some of these people — like Cecil J. Allen, Geoffrey Freeman Allen and Eric Treacy — are familiar ones to all those with an interest in railways; others, such as Norman Miles and Charles Hemmings, are perhaps less well known but their contribution to the development of the company was crucial.
Inevitably, there were odd controversies over the years; the most notable was perhaps the publication of Gerald Fiennes I Tried to Run a Railway in 1967. Publication not only cost Fiennes his job as Eastern Region’s General Manager but also probably contributed to the sacking of Sir Stanley Raymond, the then Chairman of the British Railways Board, by Barbara Castle.
The business continued to grow with the acquisition of the Combelands House site, home of Ian Allan Printing and later Ian Allan Publishing until 1998, the purchase of new presses and Dial House in Shepperton, and the launch of the first Ian Allan Bookshop in Birmingham. Further bookshops soon followed. Following the sale of the Coombelands site for residential development in 1998, Ian Allan Printing and Ian Allan Publishing relocated to Hersham (and more recently the latter has moved to a new site between Addlestone and Weybridge). The Ian Allan Group Ltd now has diverse business interests, ranging from property through publishing to cars and travel.
Away from business, IA was also actively involved in a wide range of other activities, including membership of Rotary and an active involvement in Freemasonry. From 1980 until 1990 he served on the Council of Almoners, the inner governing body of Christ’s Hospital (where he father had been Steward and later Clerk). His connection with Christ’s Hospital had been reinforced earlier by his appointment as Secretary of the Amicable Society of Blues; this is probably the oldest dining society in the world and regularly holds dinners in London for noted alumni of the school. Another educational appointment was as chairman of the governors from 1983 of King Edward School at Witley. Railway preservation was an area in which IA actively participated, most notably through his involvement from the earliest days in the Dart Valley Railway, being chairman of the company for a decade from 1976. IA’s interest in preservation was made explicit through his monthly column in Railway World, ‘Plain Track’, in which he regaled readers with reports of his visits to many of the country’s leading preserved railways.
Ian Allan was appointed an OBE in 1995 and in 2001 was made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Spelthorne, the citation reading that the award was made ‘in recognition of the eminent services which he has rendered to the Borough over a number of years, through his publication of an unique range of books, his operation of various businesses which employ a number of local people, undertaking charitable work, both nationally and locally, particularly for people with disabilities and for the part he played in the creating of the Bradbury Centre in Shepperton.’
Although IA continued to be actively involved with the business until comparatively recently, his final years were marked by increasing ill health particularly by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. He died on 28 June 2015.
He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Mollie, his two sons, David and Paul, and by his grandchildren.