That Very First ‘New Zealand Railway Observer’

A Personal Reminiscence by Tom McGavin.

(Taken from RESEARCH NOTES #104)
It was recently suggested to me that I could describe how the first issue of this journal was put together, all those 58 years ago.

To really understand the process of compilation of that first number, described as Volume 1, Number 1, and dated May 1944, it is desirable to know at least some of the events that led to its production. In the early 1940s, when I was in my early twenties and employed as a clerk in the New Zealand Railways Department, I was beginning to become acquainted with other enthusiasts scattered throughout the country. I was a long-time avid reader of any literature on railways as well as a prolific letter writer. Then, in 1941, I met Noel Palmer, another keen railway clerk, but shortly after we met Noel was sent overseas on war service. For three years we corresponded, and we exchanged much information about New Zealand’s railways and locomotives.

Noel was able to supply me with the address of Malcolm Park, President of the Australasian Railway and Locomotive Society, an organisation which I first knew about from the English Railway Magazine. Malcolm replied on 24 September, 1943 to my letter asking for more information. This was followed by advice from the AR & LHS Secretary, A H Dunstan, that wartime restrictions did not allow them to mail copies of their Society’s Bulletin beyond Australia. He put me in touch with Stan Rockliff in Dunedin, who was a member, and would have some back numbers of the obsewretin. Stan replied to my letter with enthusiasm, noting that the more ‘we fans in New Zealand’ could contact one another the better. He sent my letter to Jack Mahoney, a Christchurch enthusiast who was then in the RNZAI? camp at Levin. Jack then wrote to me with the names of six or seven other enthusiasts with whom he maintained contact, all new to me, and it was not long before Jack and I met to discuss the situation.

Meanwhile, I had been sending occasional short reports of my New Zealand railway observations to the Meccano Magazine and the Railway Magazine in Britain, and in 1943 I prepared for Malcolm Park a survey of train working in New Zealand since Malcolm’s visit here in 1933. An account of his observations during this visit had been subsequently published in the AR & LHS Bulletin.
My survey ran to seven typewritten foolscap pages, including three covering locomotive developments in New Zealand between 1933 and 1943.

It seemed that this could be of interest to local enthusiasts, so I discussed with Jack Mahoney ways and means of making copies more widely available. Jack, who had already suggested that a society of corresponding railfans be set up in New Zealand, now proposed that 12 copies be printed, and thought that treating several articles this way annually could contain the germ of a New Zealand Railway Circle bulletin.

By mid-March 1944 the first draft of what I tentatively called The New Zealand Railway Observer was ready for Jack and Stan to comment upon. The first of its six typewritten foolscap pages outlined the proposed objects of an informal body to be known as The New Zealand Railway Correspondence Society. Then followed two and a half pages of my sketchy outline of locomotive development, and a number of shorter items including a discussion on speed limits, a report on progress towards completion of the Christchurch – Picton railway, and a note on car-vans and their classification. Their comments were favourable, subject to some reservations, so production was put in hand and the first number was ready for mailing in May 1944.

It fell to my lot to prepare all the material for the first few issues because no contributed articles were available, but I was able to produce an eight page issue in June, July, and August. A ten page issue was produced in October and December 1944. Correspondents provided information for some of the shorter notes. Percy Codber was the first contributor with an article in the July issue and Ross McQueen wrote a short article on the Sanson Tramway that appeared in the October 1944 issue. In the August 1944 issue appeared an article on New Zealand Express Train Services in 1943 by ‘Student’.

In those days the production team consisted of one person, myself. Work was done in the evenings and I would type the text onto Gestetner stencils using a portable typewriter. The stencils would then be taken to a little stationery shop in Brandon Street, Wellington to be run off on the Gestetner duplicating machine. I would then have the task of collating the pages, stapling them, and putting an addressed wrapper around them before posting. The initial print run for the first issue was 50, but six months later another 100 copies had to be run off.

From such humble beginnings I never imagined that the Observer would develop into the journal it is today.

An image of the first page of the Vol.1, Number 1 Issue.

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