General Leigh

Recovered from a box in the shed, this Kitmaster  General  4-4-0 was also a victim of the shelf collapse. It might be restorable for my diorama. CHRIS LEIGH

Recovered from a box in the shed, this Kitmaster General 4-4-0 was also a victim of the shelf collapse. It might be restorable for my diorama. CHRIS LEIGH

Readers of my 'Backscene' will know that I'm a movie fan. Like most of my generation I grew up when the big screen was the place for 'westerns' - not Class 52s, but cowboys in the Wild West, where you always knew who were the 'goodies' and who were the 'baddies' by the colour of their hats. The Saturday morning 'Minors' Matinee' at the ABC Regal in Staines frequently included a 'Buffalo Bill' serial, and most movies would have a train sequence at some point. Then came Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase, for which the historic 4-4-0 General, centre-piece of the original Andrews Raid, was steamed.

It was against that background that I became interested in American history, and acquired a copy of the 1961 publication Civil War Railroads by George B. Abdill. From then on, my US history interest became centred on the 1861-5 conflict and I bought a Mantua Western & Atlantic Railroad General 4-4-0 and some old-style boxcars, with a view to creating a diorama.

I never did. Somewhere over the years the boxcars were disposed of, and the locomotive, too, it seems. I also had Pocher's model of Abraham Lincoln's private car, which in reality was only used as a hearse after the US President was shot at Ford's Theatre in 1865. I guess I disposed of that, too. I have found a couple of contemporary Pocher passenger cars which have price tags on, so presumably they were also offered for sale.

In over 50 years of model-making, with inevitable changes of direction, I have lost track of the models I’ve sold, given away, or on occasions, ‘binned’. I have, currently under restoration, a large model of the Mississippi side-wheeler Natchez. It suffered severe damage in a shelf collapse in my workshop about 10 years ago and is, at last, receiving some much-needed TLC.

I've been having a clear-out at home and the surviving models have emerged from a cupboard, prompting me to re-watch that timeless work of cinematic art Gone with the Wind. There's only one brief but powerful railroad sequence in that particular movie, the Atlanta rail yards with hundreds of dead and wounded awaiting the imminent arrival of Sherman's army. In fact, the American Civil War was the first conflict in which rail transport played a significant role. Indeed aspects of rail-related warfare, which were first employed in 1860s America, were adopted and expanded upon in the 20th century conflicts.

My searches also unearthed a Kitmaster plastic kit-built General with only minor damage. Fascinating to think that the hugely popular Kitmaster kits were made just a few miles from where I now live, in the Rosebud dolls factory at Raunds, Northamptonshire. The little engine has outlasted the factory where it was made, no trace of which now remains. 

It has all prompted me to think again about my Civil War diorama, especially as work on my Model Rail project layout 'Polwyddelan' draws to an end. Once that layout is out of my workshop, perhaps the diorama that's been in the back of my mind for 50 years could actually become a reality. Watch this space... (CJL)