Sir William McAlpine: a life in railways

Robert Baldwin writes a personal tribute to that great railway enthusiast, Sir William Hepburn McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCILT, who passed away in March aged 82.

Sir William’s early life moved to quickly and enthusiastically include railway models when, aged about three and a half, he was taken to Bassett-Lowke’s splendidly stocked shop in High Holborn, where his enthusiasm for O-gauge models was truly fired.

In his childhood years he would make more visits there, returning with various black and yellow boxes containing at least three models of the Pacific Flying Scotsman, two GWR Castle class locos, and many Hornby ballast and sand trucks bearing different versions of the company logos of Sir Robert McAlpine. When William was about four, his father began a series of visits to the family firm’s major bases, notably a 30-acre site beside the GWR main line between Hayes and Iver where the company had kept a fleet of saddle tanks to shunt sand and ballast trucks since 1913. One engine, No. 31, made such a special impression he would later keep it at his home to pull two trucks up a 1-in-13.4 gradient.

Sir William McAlpine reunited with Flying Scotsman at the National Railway Museum in York during the A3’s February 25, 2016 comeback trip from King’s Cross following a long-running overhaul. ROBIN JONES

Again, aged four, he opened a present of the Wonder Book of Railways and found a picture taken in 1927 of Flying Scotsman and the then new Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Pacific locomotive, Tornado, at ‘Top Shed’ King’s Cross. Looking back, these were truly formative encounters, he revealed when speaking about this at Sheffield Park in April 2017.

Equally important were his childhood sightings of Spitfires and Hurricanes at war, which left him with huge affection for all those moving machines. During that same childhood, despite wartime restrictions on railway movements, he was shown the magnificent sight of his great-grandfather’s finest construction works, notably his birthplace, the Dorchester Hotel, the Singer sewing machine factory near Glasgow, Kinlochleven Aluminium Works and the magnificently curved concrete Glenfinnan Viaduct. That childhood admiration for his great-grandfather, Sir Robert McAlpine, founder of the family business, would see him proudly keep that portrait in his office at the family firm’s headquarters opposite the terracotta-tiled frontage of LT’s Russell Square station.

For the full article, see the May edition of Modelling – available now!

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