The International Steam Pages

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

In the 1950s many British schoolboys wore uniforms with grey shorts or trousers, a tie and even jackets. As they came to the end of their (mixed sex) junior schooling they sat an exam known as the '11 Plus' and those who were successful - roughly 20% - went to (almost invariably) single sex institutions known as grammar schools where they were taught by staff who were almost invariably male. The rest went to what were known as 'secondary moderns'. 

The fateful divide had the effect of settling people's course through life, grammar schools provided an academic education which for many would lead to university and a range of career opportunities while the secondary moderns provided a vocational education which for most would lead to an early exit of the education system (at 14, later raised to 16) and more limited employment opportunities.

What united many from both systems, though, was the hobby known as 'trainspotting' and after school, at weekends and during the school holidays, railway stations and bridges would have groups of youngsters and spotty adolescents recording the numbers of the locos that came by and ticking them off on lists in small handbooks which were published by Ian Allan. These were available by region or as a 'combined volume', the latter was for years the safest Christmas present an indulgent uncle could buy his nephew.

As they grew older, the more serious spotters would scour the country in search for 'more'. Some developed their obsession in other directions, maybe they would seek to travel on as many railway lines as possible even if they had no regular passenger trains, others would buy a camera and take up railway photography. In time, especially as steam gave way to diesel, the numbers dwindled but those who stayed the course travelled more, often overseas, and became known as 'gricers'. For some, it became a lifetime's commitment, many of these are regular readers of this website. As I write this in July 2020, almost all will be pensioners and, indeed, many have already 'fallen off their perches', I went to a funeral for one yesterday - safely observed from a distance of course. 

Victor Charles Kenneth Allen, born in the mid 1940s, was such a boy (perhaps 'is' as he is happily still with us). Growing up in a middle class family in Colindale in North London, he passed his 11 plus and attended Kingsbury County Grammar School, as did many of his trainspotting friends, 'class' being a good predictor of success in the exam. As such, he was spoiled for choice, nearest home was the Midland Railway line from St. Pancras while the LMS line from Euston and the LNER line from Kings Cross were just a short bus (or bike) ride away. Together, they roamed first locally and then further away, children were not considered 'at risk' in those days and only on those occasions when an overnight stay was required (often spent in carriages in sidings) was some parental deception required. Needless to say almost all the many shed visits made were unofficial and out of sight of parents their behaviour was anything but what would now be called 'politically correct'.

Victor was not academic, he left school at 16 and got a job in the Ministry of Transport in central London. The money he earned allowed him to travel more widely in the UK with his mates and to indulge himself in his new fixation - railway photography. His was always a gender specific hobby, 'girls' were sisters (and their friends) and 'women' were their mothers and their friends' mothers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the proportion of 'confirmed bachelors' among gricers is higher than average, most delayed their dabbling in 'sex' and Victor seems to have been no exception, such things could wait because steam was on its last legs in the UK. By 1966 he was recording French steam, moving on step by step through Europe as circumstances allowed. Inevitably he found he needed a job with a company that would fly him around Europe, preferably to countries with residual 'steam'. The solution turned out to be to join Thomson Holidays where he was to be employed initially selling 'excursions'. Victor soon progressed and was kept busy moving around the continent as part of 'management', a position which allowed time for steam between assignments and enjoying all the perks that came from being in the holiday business.

Further jobs in the travel trade followed and it wasn't long before Victor gravitated to positions where he could use his specialised railway interest. Finally he established his own company which sold international train tickets and overseas steam holidays for railway enthusiasts. By now Victor was a 'man of the world' with, if not a lady in every locoshed, plenty of friends to visit while on his business trips. It was hard work especially given the kind of countries that still had steam but it must have been near idyllic...

Now Vic Allen of Enthusiast Holidays (for it was he whose history is summarised above) has written a lavishly illustrated 'warts and all' autobiography called 'Gricer!'. It is a massive tome running to over 600 pages with over 500 colour and black and white pictures all printed to good quality. Yuehong called it 'utterly shameless' and with his often lurid tales and somewhat blunt assessment of the strengths and mainly weaknesses of those he worked and played with, it's maybe just as well that many aren't still around to summon their lawyers. Characteristically he told me he has nothing to fear as "It's all true" but I wouldn't leave it on the coffee table if you are having the vicar round...

In today's climate, Vic's obsession with some people's sexual preference may seem a little strange but that reflects the less permissive age in which he was brought up. Funnily enough gricers are now treated to a similar kind of ridicule and intolerance that was once accorded what is now known as the LBGT community.

For me, the highlight was the early section covering the time before the 'End of Steam' in August 1968 which is a wonderful social history of the time. Indeed, much of it from the late 1950s into the early 1960's I can readily identify with. The last part passed me by as I was busy getting an education without which I would not have had 7 years in the 1970s surrounded by real steam first in Asia and then in Africa.

As a self-published book it's necessarily not cheap at 60 plus 6.90 P&P. For more information contact

Rob Dickinson