About us - The Early Days 



The following article is an edited version of the one that appeared in the Model Engineer Magazine Volume 166. Edition 3894 5-18 April 1991 and is published with permission.



You drive down the M4, and then keep going. Pembrokeshire really is a long way from anywhere. (Edit. The River Seven toll bridge is about 2 to 21/2 hours from us). But, even here, there have been a few model engineers quietly proceeding upon their lawful occasions. One such was George Thomas. His family had model engineering connections and it is no wonder that he grew up with fingers itching to be metal bashing. With strong ties to the sea, his early interest was in model boats.


That was a long time ago. In 1952 he built a P.V. Baker, and that was his first in a long list of model locomotives. He nominally claimed that his real love is road locomotives, and he built three to prove it. But it seemed impossible to picture him anywhere other than behind a railway engine somewhere. Indeed, sometimes it seemed to club members that it would need several crowbars and a screwjack to get him off the track once steam was up.


Many years ago he organised the first portable track in West Wales and was a constant visitor to the Swansea track. He would take fish from Milford dock to Swansea market in his van, with a steam locomotive wedged in somewhere. Once business was over he would nip over to the track and be in steam quicker than you can say hydrostatic lubricator. as is the custom hereabouts he became known by his activities. Hence George the Fish.


He also had the good sense to rear a model engineering family, including his daughter Janet who was an excellent driver in her own right. And there things might have rested. The handful of model engineers and budding hopefuls who knew each other casually, ploughed a lone furrow and occasionally bumped into George for a natter. But his eldest son, Trevor, changed all of that.


You know how it is; some people get a bee in their bonnet despite adverse circumstances. Well, Trevor had been hankering after a permanent track in the area. On paper it made no sense at all. There wouldn't be enough people to do the work, and there was no hope of raising the cost of the materials. etc. If there are readers out there in a similar position I can report that obstinate stubbornness does work.


A muddy site at the start of developement.>


They ended up with a splendid track, some 1/3 of a mile round, basic facilities and ambitions for greater things.

At the inaugural meeting there were less than a dozen people present , and that, they reckoned, was just about everybody available for miles around. A newly built leisure centre was approached for the use of some land. Then letters were sent to everybody conceivable for loans, gifts, advice etc. An annual subscription was set at £12 for the first year, with the offer of a lump sum for life membership. These efforts raised some immediate cash.


From this humble start the club got a lease on a piece of land and an interest free loan for materials. Trevor wrote letter after letter looking around for the cheapest source of supply of anything they were likely to need. George was made treasurer; the wisest move the club ever made. Although generous hearted on his own account, he proved to be an absolute skinflint with club funds. Anyone proposing expenditure for something had to make out a jolly good case for it!


The club was called the Milford Haven Model Engineering Society (hence MADMESS). In the early days everybody, up and down the country had their brains picked for advice. All sorts of methods of construction were looked at, and in the end they came to certain conclusions as to what they thought would give the best track at a reasonable cost.


They took some convincing that the best thing to do was not to fix the track foundations down at all. They merely sat, and still do, sat on pads of fine chippings. It all seemed improbable, but they went ahead anyway.


A muddy site at the start of developement.>


It was, and still is, completely successful in practice. Even in the hottest weather there has never been any question of buckled track. There was the occasional settlement here and there. George merely waylays someone and wanders over to the spot. With a length of timber the pier is levered up and a few chippings tamped underneath. End of job. Maintenance from this point of view has been negligible.


One thing considered important was to have wooden sleepers. Members liked the resiliance they give, and find an all concrete/steel track a bit hard on the drivers' flabby bits. So, construction went like this: Shallow pits were dug to clear the old grass and topsoil. A pile of chippings went in each. A hollow concrete block was laid on this. The hollow portions are filled with concrete and this retains a ā€œJā€ bolt, thread sticking up. The main foundations of track is ex BR point rodding, pre bent where necessary. This is welded into sections with flat steel plates at intervals. These are drilled to take the "J" bolts. Rolled steel rail is fitted to the wooden sleepers with plated screws and the track is bolted down to the plates at intervals.


They hired a welder and generator and the welding took two weeks. The sleepers were cut to length and jig drilled by members. The longest job was putting the screws in. They made the mistake of digging all the pits first; only to find that, when the various straight and curved sections had been put in they didn't line up with the piers. Thus they were filled back in and left as a conundrum for archaeologists in aeons to come (that is unless they do a bit of model engineering on the side).


The sheer weight and rigidity makes the track apparently immovable to potential vandals. Some did try riding their bikes along it, but a few headless nails in some sleepers soon sorted that out. The site is overlooked on two sides by an estate. It was no use pretending that they weren't worried about vandalism. However, right from the start they tried to involve the residents. Although they kept the club hut and steaming bays for members only, they happily accommodated children and adults and made them welcome. In the winter months they often gave free rides.


There were one or two occasions when their patience was taxed, but paid hansom dividends. Many of the local residents kept an eye on the site for us. Right next door to the club was a BMX track and members initially thought that this might be a source of problems but the local children seemed to respond to a certain amount of interest by club members.


The initial club building was, in fact, a redundant body from a lorry. It proved ideal, with its aluminium body and translucent roof. It was secure against possible intruders and was weatherproof. A second hand container was planned and the lorry body proved to be an ideal interim measure. They installed the essential services of a fenced steaming bay, traverser and platform. The fencing was made up from welded-up redundant square tubing.


The original site was not attractive. It was a flat, featureless area, badly drained and completely overgrown. This was not much use for anything else and the local council seemed pleased with the fact that the club cared for the area. They kept it neat and tidy, but deliberately left some sharply defined areas of long grass for wild grasses and for ecological reasons although in hot summer months they had to cut fire breaks. They were pleased with their efforts. They had a nice track up and running and there hopes for future expansion and improvements. Georges smile was wider than ever.


At this point certain conclusions were drawn. Although membership was small they had two things going for them. First there was George with his lifetime of experience, and secondly there was Trevor. He was, and still is a tireless worker for the cause and as good a driver as any around. For such, they were grateful. They had tidied up a modest wilderness and put it to good use. They tried to help the community and that helped them win the support of the local council. The club was pleased to publicly thank them for their encouragement.


This is a brief account of how the club came into being. The circumstance did not seem favourable but they got there. Both directly and indirectly it all came about because of George the Fish and marked a fitting climax to many years of model engineering enthusiasm.


This article is in tribute to George "The Fish" Thomas. 1917 - 1997



What happened next?


Renaming, enlarging, new rails, new club house. Lots of work. Watch this space. All will be revealed, well maybe some of it, in the near future.