Bertram Otto And His Miniature Railway

As mentioned in this post, Stories From Scarborough is in the process of adding further former attractions to its collection; one of which includes the Corner Café. Built in 1925, this venture went from being a humble cafe to a popular entertainment complex hosting live music and various forms of entertainment before it closed in 1997.

cornercafe3

Above: Postcard image of the Corner Café, date unknown (from the author’s collection)

One of the highlights of this history was the miniature railway exhibition in 1967; a touring creation called The Spectrackular. This impressive model was engineered by entertainer Bertram Otto, who turned a childhood hobby into a venture which took him across the world, and saw his spectrackular world of trains showcased to millions.

The scaled-to-life settings include 24 churches, 148 country cottages and farm buildings, 400 shops and stores of all descriptions, 200 schools, fire stations and other public buildings, 150 factories and administrative buildings, 100 skyscrapers, supermarkets and multiple-business structures, and over 500 railroad stations and siding sheds.

(source)

Otto was born in London (in 1902), to a Swiss father and an English mother, but grew up in both Switzerland and India due to his father’s job. A life-long model-railway enthusiast (he later became president of Thames Ditton Model Railway Society in Surrey), Bertram initially built a career for himself as a theatrical entertainer, specialising in illusions, magic, and later TV. He was well known for his ‘professional pickpocketing’ tricks, and was a regular performer at Eastbourne:

The Redoubt Bandstand was well used, for every morning Monday to Saturday, Uncle Bertie (Bertram Otto) entertained the children with magic, Punch and Judy, a talent contest and sing a long, again for one shilling.

(source)

It was only later in life that Otto’s hobby made the transition to a full-blown business enterprise, with the assistance of his wife and mother-in-law. Both he and his wife jokingly suggested that the latter take on the role of chief miniature railway operator – imagine their surprise when she calmly agreed!

Mrs Palmer came by this most unusual occupation – only woman scale-model chief engineer in the world – most unexpectedly. In addition to being the Spectrackular’s most dependable and accomplished operator, Mrs Palmer has also become her son-in-law’s right hand in maintenance, modelling and even the complex logistics of moving the Spectrackular, as when it was recently shipped over the Atlantic for display at the Fair.

(source)

In 1951 Otto exhibited a small model of his work in Eastbourne before travelling the world to seek out inspiration for a bigger, more comprehensive railway system. Visiting different countries enabled him to put together a truly global model, illuminated by 6000 bulbs, with moving traffic, skiers on Swiss slopes and a sailing ship. Naturally there were also trains – 100 of them to be precise, and 8000 model inhabitants of this bizarre miniature world. Not only were countries and landscapes from across the world featured, but there was also a City of the Future.

The City of the Future featured a flying saucer, rocket launch pad and a monorail, amongst other things; evidently anticipating developments in space travel that would soon follow. You can see a video of the railway here, and read more about it.

Returning to Eastbourne in 1959, Otto premiered his new, improved railway in the southern seaside town once more. It was displayed in the Gold Room of the Winter Gardens there from June 29 until September 19, 1959. Five years later it was in New York, making an extended appearance at the Better Living Centre as part of the city’s grandly titled World Fair.

You can read more about the New York appearance here.

The then Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (Hampshire, UK) saw the railway on a visit to New York, and arranged for it to be put on display at Beaulieu’s Motor Museum – an institution he founded. However, it didn’t stay there for long.

Above: Inside the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu (source)

In 1967 Bertram’s model railway came to Scarborough’s Corner Café, where it attracted 100, 000 visitors across the summer season. This was a major coup for the town – local press pictures from the time depict young visitors eagerly observing the moving trains, and reporters covering the event were full of praise for the model.

Due to copyright restrictions Stories From Scarborough is unable to re-publish any of the images here, but local press coverage can be viewed at Scarborough Library.

After this point history becomes rather murky. Otto was already in his sixties when he brought his railway to Scarborough, and some sources have suggested that the Corner Café had a smaller miniature railway on display during later years. So what exactly happened to the original model? How long did it stay for? There are rumours that it also visited Colchester and Brighton in later years. This source states that the railway moved to Ireland in 1996. The question is, where is it now?

Do you have any answers? Maybe you know what happened to Bertram Otto’s famous railway? How long did it stay at the Corner Café? Please get in touch.

Sources

1964 New York World Fair Press Document

1964 New York World Fair Web Page

Beaulieu Light Railway

Material from the Scarborough News and the Doris and Cyril Prescott Collection at Scarborough Library.

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4 thoughts on “Bertram Otto And His Miniature Railway

  1. Pingback: A Corner Cafe Memory | Stories From Scarborough

    • Hi Jonathan – I’d love to hear what you have about the railway. I’ve recently found that Gladys Palmer and her daughter Lilian, Otto’s wife are related to me from Glady’s grandfather who was my grandfathers brother…:) sorry that was long winded but the first time I have found anyone who may be from this line…
      lisa@bartmax.com.au

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