Frank Hornby was born in Liverpool, England in 1863. He was aged 38 and employed by a shipping company in Liverpool when he invented and patented a metal construction toy which he named “Mechanics Made Easy”. It employed perforated metal strips with equidistant holes. Utilising   miniature bolts and nuts, it allowed the construction of many different working models. Renamed as MECCANO it proved immensely popular. Over a century later it is still made today. Its success led to Frank Hornby enjoying fame and wealth, and his company Meccano Ltd in August 1914 was able to acquire a six-acre site in Binns Road, Liverpool, the location of the Meccano factory until 1980. The Company soon introduced Raylo, a model railway table game, but the 1914-1918 Great War curtailed production and these sets today are rare.

Before World War One, German factories had produced the majority of the world’s best toy and model trains.  The consequences of the War left the British population disinclined to purchase

products made in Germany. When the War ended in 1918 Frank Hornby saw an opportunity for Meccano Ltd to build and market the first 0 gauge British trains: ‘British and Guaranteed –  Made in England’.

In the 1800s the very earliest toy trains often ran on the floor, and running on

rails came later.  In the late 1800s sizes were standardized, based on the gauge of the track – the distance between the inside edges of the running rails. Descending in size, gauges 4, 3, 2 and 1 were devised, and today’s main survivors include gauge 3 (2½ inches) and gauge 1 (1¾ inches).   Gauge 1 enjoyed renewed popularity with the introduction of LGB trains in 1968, and G gauge at 45mm (G stands for Garden) is identical to gauge 1.  Many G gauge trains run outdoors on garden railways.

Image by Andrew Horner

                                                                        When Frank Hornby in 1918 decided to manufacture trains, he made mock-ups                                                                     of a 4-wheel locomotive using parts from a Meccano set. The mock-ups                                                                                 approximated gauge 0.  The next size below gauge 1, 0 gauge, or gauge 0, has a width between the running rails of 1¼ inches or 32 mm.  The ratio is 1:45 or 7mm to the foot.  In USA, it can be 1:48 or ¼” to the foot.  Initially Meccano Ltd chose two rail track as all the early Hornby trains were clockwork, or spring-drive, powered by a coiled metal spring wound with a key.  Curves were of 12 inch, 24 inch or 36 inch radius, unrealistically sharp. But the trains served two markets, toys for young children and models for youths and adults.  The range was vast, from very small and inexpensive to the ultimate, semi-scale models such as the SR Schools Class 4-4-0 and the LMS Princess Elizabeth 4-6-2. The latter sold in a wooden presentation case at 5 guineas (£5.5.0) in UK when that was for many people several weeks wages.

Garden gauge is big, too big for many of us, and bigger trains invariably cost more. As size reduces, so does the cost. In recent generations houses have become compact, engineering in minature is now common and it was many years ago that even gauge 1 was found still to large for indoor model railways.The next number down from 1 is zero, and gauge zero or what we call 0 gauge was the size chosen by Frank Hornby. 0 gauge trains had been marked well before Hornby trains arrived. More recently, numerous other smaller gauges or scales have emerged - S gauge, 00 gauge, half - 0 or H0 gauge, TT gauge, and recently in Japan the diminutive T scale, with a track gauge of just 3mm.         

Hornby O Gauge E320 4-4-2 Loco and Tender Nord, 20 volt electric.   Image by  Mark Hobson

Launched in 1920, and as with Meccano nearly 20 years earlier, Hornby trains were very popular. In 1925 Hornby introduced a locomotive based on an actual prototype. The full-size engine was an electric locomotive that ran on the Metropolitan line  in London,collecting current from a third rail.Because mainline railways in Britain are fenced, the third rail carrying 600 volts was just above ground level close to the running rails. It was Hornby’s first model powered by electricity,

                                                            initially at a very high voltage, with clockwork as an option. On the Hornby 0 gauge electric model, the third rail needed for current collection was a centre rail.  Thus 0 gauge track of today can be two-rail or three-rail – clockwork or electric.  Although today’s smaller gauges are almost universally two-rail, three-rail track in 0 gauge lives on, very popular in USA.

Members collecting, restoring and running 0 gauge often were given an 0 gauge train set in their childhood, and it was usually Hornby.  Frank Hornby died in 1936, his son Roland Hornby taking the reins.  The table-top Hornby Dublo trains were introduced in 1938, and after a war-time interruption, resumed production from the mid-1940s.  Their popularity was instant. Hornby 0 gauge production continued post-war, but Meccano Ltd was now focussed on Hornby Dublo and the 0 gauge range was simplified and reduced until phased out in the 1960s.  While Hornby Dublo has a very strong following, with lasting appeal and inbuilt quality, older enthusiasts tend to believe that the best Hornby trains are the 0 gauge models pre-war, built from 1920 until 1939.

Two words which are very similar are Hornsby and Hornby. 

Hornsby is a leafy northern suburb in Sydney. Hornby is a

surname, and on Sydney’s South Head at the Harbour

entrance you will find Hornby Lighthouse.  Those of us

familiar with Hornby Trains know the difference; amused by

the frequent confusion. Just as LGB trains in gauge 1

revived that scale in 1968, new manufacturers in the current

age, aware of the nostalgic interest in Hornby 0 gauge trains,

provide an ongoing supply of new 0 gauge trains compatible

with Hornby.  Some are Hornby replicas, but easily identified

as such. Many are based on locomotives and olling stock

from an earlier age, now scrapped, in museums or running

on heritage railways.  Most  locomotives made today are

three-rail electric, some can adapt to two-rail electric. This

supply of new models in gauge 0 supplements the originals.Hornby 0 gauge remains the original Hornby train, and

Members of HRCA (in UK) and HRCAA have access to replacement parts so that damaged or worn models can be brought back to life.

 Whatever your interests, you will find within our membership fellow collectors who share them, and the universal view is that the Meccano factory in Liverpool produced the best products of all – Meccano, 0 gauge, Hornby Dublo, Dinky Toys, and more. Today’s Hornby Trains whether analogue or digital are all 00 scale, two-rail, with exquisite  detail and built-insound effects. Hornby Railway Collectors’ Associations in UK,  Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and The Netherlands are focussed  on products from an earlier age, and we are custodians of treasures many of which, like antiques, will outlive us.


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 Credits:  I am indebted to The Hornby Companion Series Volume 5, The Hornby Gauge 0 System by Chris and Julie Graebe published by New Cavendish Books, London.  This volume is an invaluable and essential reference book for collectors of Hornby 0 gauge trains.  Chris Graebe is of course a member of HRCA, and member # 273 of HRCAA.

Author,  Robert  Gorrell