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August 2006

Birmingham Dribbler

by Marc Horovitz

The model
Back in the earliest days of steam, in the mid to late 1800s, the idea of the railway captured the public's imagination like nothing had before. Toy makers soon were making replicas of greater or lesser fidelity to the prototypes for children of all ages to play with. It wasn't long before primitive steam toys came into being, as well.

The earliest of these toys, made by any number of German and British manufacturers, had oscillating cylinders that tended to leak, leaving a wet trail wherever they went. These became generally known as "dribblers" and more specifically known in Britain as "Birmingham dribblers," since that's where many were made.

The example at hand is of more recent manufacture. It's not a replica of a specific model, though it incorporates features of many. It is constructed entirely of brass and has a pair of single-acting oscillating cylinders set at 180 degrees for continuous running. It has the added amenity of a throttle (which many dribblers lacked), and a whistle that would produce a high-pitched peep. These were commonly called "peanut whistles." An ornate safety valve sits atop the boiler.

The locomotive has cast wheels and a cast frame. All other parts are turnings or bar. A wooden buffer beam is featured at the front. No coupler is provided, as it is doubtful that an engine like this would have had the power to pull much anyway. It was considered something of a minor miracle that the engine would go at all. While the unit would run on rails, it was also designed as a floor toy. To help it along, the front axle could be turned so that the engine would travel in a circle. The drivers have knurled flanges, too, to prevent the engine from slipping on slick surfaces.

The burner on this little monster is nothing but a chunk of cotton wadding held in place beneath the boiler by a steel clip. The idea was that you fill the boiler halfway with water, soak the cotton in alcohol and set it alight. I've never run this engine -- I'm not that adventurous.

This engine was marketed in the mid 1970s as a product of Bassett-Lowke (Railways). The Bassett-Lowke company of old ceased making model trains in 1953, when W.J. Bassett-Lowke died. In the late 1960s, a new company was formed by Ivan Rutherford Scott, Allen Levy, and Roland Fuller. This company was called Bassett Lowke (Railways) and it took over the old Bassett-Lowke logo. The company had a wonderful store, called The Steam Age, on Cadogan Street in London. Here, they sold new and second-hand steam models of all types, but mostly railway related. I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of times and the store was spectacular in its displays. Sadly it did not survive past the 1980s.

The dribbler shown here was marketed by Bassett-Lowke (Railways) as their own, but who actually made it? I don't know. A similar engine was later marketed by Maxwell Hemmens. If anyone has further information about this locomotive, I'd like to hear from you.

Builder Bassett-Lowke (Railways) (nominally)
Date built Mid 1970s
Gauge 2-5/8"
Scale ---
Boiler Pot
Fittings Safety valve, throttle, whistle
Fuel Alcohol
Blow-off pressure 10 psi (?)
Cylinders Two, single-acting oscillators
Reversing gear None
Lubricator None
Weight 2 pounds, 2 ounces
Dimensions Length over end beams, 6-3/4"; width, 4"; height, 5-1/2"
Although its proportions are less than elegant, this chunky toy does exude a certain charm. It could be considered the Basic Steam Locomotive, having just enough in the way of appurtenances to qualify it as one.
The front of the locomotive features unsprung buffers and a wooden buffer beam. The leading wheels have been turned so the engine will travel in a circle. The rudimentary footplate. A throttle valve lets steam into the line, where it goes to drilled-out passages in the frame casting, then to the cylinders.
Above: An ornate but unsophisticated safety valve and whistle adorn the boiler top.
Above right: This diabolical burner is just some cotton wadding in a tin pan. Light it and stand back!
Right: In order to help the engine along when running on the living-room carpet, the flanges were knurled. Original models of this nature were built before gauges were standardized. This one would probably travel on track with rails around 2-5/8" apart.
Below: The underside of the engine is basic in the extreme. Note how the front axle pivots. The burner just clips between the frames.

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