A steam sensation, virtually!

Posted by Chris Graham on 3rd July 2020

The only steam rally to be held so far this year was purely online and went truly ‘global’ to become a steam sensation, virtually, as Anthony Coulls explains

A steam sensation virtually

A steam sensation, virtually: The idea behind the twitter rally came from Charlotte Coulls, seen here with her engines.

We started 2020, like many I’m sure, looking forward to the season ahead, wondering if our engine might make an appearance this year, and generally anticipating seeing friends and engines old and new.

Within weeks, though, the country became aware of a new situation unfolding, and meetings at work suggested a new world order was approaching. At the beginning of March, questions began as to the viability of spring indoor events, such as model railway shows, and we knew things were getting serious when the large exhibition at Alexandra Palace, in March, was cancelled.

In the world of social media, things move fast, and within hours of that announcement, the concept of a virtual model railway show was born. Mainly to be held on Twitter, using the hashtag #TwitterModelTrainShow, the idea was for people to share film and photos of their models and railways across the internet, for the whole weekend.

That weekend came and it was fantastic to see the variety and content displayed, plus the international take up. By that time I was working from home – and the team made the decision that my museum’s annual Festival of Steam in May was cancelled. My younger daughter, 14-year-old Charlotte, was due to take part in an NTET driving course the same weekend – an event also cancelled. As the #TwitterModelTrainShow finished, she asked me when our next rally was likely to be, and I had to answer truthfully that I didn’t know.

Charlotte then said: “Don’t worry, we can have our own rally at home, with our Mamod and Wilesco engines,” then added, “we could share it across Twitter with other people, and call it the Twitter Steam Rally.” And so it was that an idea became reality. It didn’t take long to settle on a date, May 9 – the first Bank Holiday weekend – and create #TwitterSteamRally.

A steam sensation virtually

People from around the globe sent in photographs of their engines and kit in happier times. David Warren called his selection ‘Coullscombe Park’, as a nod to his photos from last year’s Duncombe Park rally. (Pic: David Warren)

Shared idea
In next to no time, we’d shared the idea of a virtual rally across the internet, with everything from Mamods and miniatures, to full-size engines, from all over the world. Charlotte drew a poster, and her idea was to fill the internet with steam activity, as we wouldn’t be the only people feeling the loss of events.

Of course, many people aren’t on Twitter, so we posted the date on Traction Talk, then made a Facebook page on which enthusiasts could share their engines and activities. This went live on March 30th and, by the end of the night, close to 1,000 people had caught on to the idea, and we knew something big was going to happen. Just how big was about to become evident…

James Dundon, of Mechanical Music Radio, heard about what we were doing and, by the second night of the Facebook page’s existence, we had 2,700 followers and a live interview on MMR’s 9pm show. This was growing fast! By the end of the week, there were close to 5,000 followers and, with so many people getting involved, it was getting harder to watch all the posts for content.

Thankfully, four people offered to join the administration of the group so, take a bow and many thanks to Jenny Duncombe, Paul Cook, Matty Wilson and Brian Mansergh. We also switched to admitting people to the page, but still had 8,400 members by the time the rally actually started. People from the USA, Canada, Ireland, Greece, France, Holland, Australia and New Zealand all signed up, and many with engines began their virtual journey.

A steam sensation virtually

The Coulls’ own front garden roller line-up on the day of the rally, with a selection of Mamods and Wilescos of various ages and colours.

Important ingredients
Now, there are many ingredients to a good event. The weather was out of our hands but, very soon, there was the suggestion on Facebook that, although the event was free, its very nature meant that we should consider raising money for charities, and that Charlotte should choose them herself. She came up with three – the NHS Foundation on a national level, Butterwick Hospice, local to us in Bishop Auckland and Young at Heart – a charity at Birmingham Children’s Hospital which my sister, Helen, had benefitted from as a child, with a heart condition.

Then came an offer from Matt Shipton, to produce souvenir t-shirts and tote bags. Charlotte then designed a rally logo, swiftly tweaked into computerised form by Jim Huntley and his sister, Jess, and we were ready to take souvenir orders on April 6th. As news of these broke, there were 70 orders by the end of the first evening, and Phil Doran suggested we made mugs, so the design went to local producer, T Junction, of Bishop Auckland. Proprietor John Holmes was happy to take on the challenge, as he supplies many vintage events and clubs. But he warned that the supply chain might be affected by the Covid situation. Phil’s slogan idea – I was virtually there – was on the reverse side, and hundreds of people expressed an interest in the souvenir mug. So I eagerly awaited the news from John, that he had enough mugs to start production.

Then Charlotte asked if she could create an Instagram account. Now, I can only cope with one social media platform at a time, two at the most, so with supervision from trusted friends, the rally found another platform from which people could join. Then someone asked about rally plaques… In a few hours, Procast Foundry had come up with a design and, a few days later, went in to production selling cast plaques with 10% of revenue going to the Alzheimer’s Society.

It’s still available
At the time of writing this, some 320 plaques have been sold and, as with much of the merchandise, more are still available at, itself set up kindly by Alan Morris, a professional web designer who gave his time free of charge – thank you, Alan! I worked out how to set up Justgiving pages for the three charities, which began to bring in donations and support.

What else does a rally need? Publicity, of course, and lots of it. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were already going great guns, so next we approached the monthly magazine editors. We also had publicity in the Steam Apprentice Club magazine and the NTET Steaming magazine – thanks Brian and Jim.

Further support came from ace model maker, Elijah Bell, who made three special steam lorry models to be auctioned on eBay, one for each of the charities – and beautiful they are, too. Although all are now sold, you can see them on the website, and Elijah’s generous support netted us another £250.

Legacy Vehicles also entered into the spirit with a prize for the best steam entry, to be judged on the number of likes received and, on the strength of that, made a generous donation of £200. Added to this was the production of engraved tankards and hip flasks by Gerry Bryant, of Vintage Engravers.

A steam sensation virtually

Anthony Coulls’ Wilesco traction engine provides steam for a horizontal mill engine model of unknown origin – the first time that the mill had run under steam in his ownership.

Weather fears
All the time we watched the weather – rain was forecast? Although a virtual rally, would our exhibitors be put off by the rain from getting their toys out? Would we have to run our own rally from the back yard? I’d run my last, full-size event in 2008 – the Tom Rolt Rally, in Tywyn – and it had been curtailed by the weather. I vowed ‘never again’ after that experience, but would my comeback suffer the same fate?

My wife, Kathryn, had suggested it wouldn’t be a rally without rally food, so our day’s menu was a rally breakfast, hot dogs, chips and doughnuts with ice cream for good measure. Charlotte market-out our front garden, and staked-out an arena. Five litres of meths was ordered for our own engines, and test steamings and cleaning began.

A colleague at work, Clive Goult, had given me a plastic box of most of a dismantled Mamod traction engine back in January 2020, for Charlotte to restore. This was dragged out of the shed, and our own rally restoration project began. Most afternoons after work and school, Charlotte – with my supervision ­– stripped, cleaned, painted and reassembled the engine with a day to spare. In fact, my only contribution was to form and solder the steam pipes – thus the engine would make its rally debut.

When it became apparent that Carter’s Steam Fair would be curtailing their season, we bought some of their posters and used them to decorate our rally field. Charlotte’s concession to a fair was to make our own hook-a-duck stall!

Our neighbour’s daughter and her husband work for Consett Ale Works, so that was the beer sorted. Karen Smith created a virtual programme of events to give some structure to the day, and she also arranged for Fraser Cruickshank to play his bagpipes live at the opening. The event also became NTET-authorised, perhaps the only event to do so this year!

Evening entertainment
Thoughts turned to the Saturday night – for this unique event was for one day only. Mechanical Music Radio became a virtual rally for the day and evening. Jenny Duncombe had put a call out, inviting bands to play live music at times online during the evening. Alex Steele in Fife had become known on Facebook for playing his organ during the Thursday night 8pm Clap for Carers, so I invited him to play a set on the Saturday night. Quietly, we had also been working on the piece de resistance, courtesy of Steve and Fran Baldock, and masterminded and recorded by John Arthur. It was a specially-recorded set of Doctor Busker appearances and songs, oce of which had two re-written verses to suit the current Covid situation. We went live with the news of these broadcasts to go out at 8pm.

Clive Flack’s ‘Wednesday Afternoon Silly Buggers Club’ (a by-invitation club) exists in the main to honour friends from the steam world who have gone before us. I was delighted when Clive agreed to provide a toast at 7pm to all our absent friends across the world, for it’s they who have shaped us, and made the steam world what it is.

May 9th dawned calm and sunny, but I still felt the nerves of a full-size rally organiser as I ferried engines, fuel and food out to the garden. We set up a beer tent, a model tent and Charlotte brought out her hook-a-duck stall. After bacon sandwiches, we set up a wireless speaker to hear Mechanical Music Radio all day, then watched Facebook to see Fraser play his pipes at 9.45am.

Catherine Bailey’s rally at home.

Welcome to all!
At 10am, I did a Facebook Live broadcast to introduce and welcome everyone to the rally, encouraging them to support our charities and buy souvenirs. Then we settled down to run our own rally, and enjoy sharing across the world – for we were already aware that our friends in Australia and New Zealand were dropping their fires having taken part while we were asleep. One participant even made his own rally stickers to distribute among friends Down Under – fantastic!

Friends and neighbours came to see our own rally from up and down the street, and socially-distanced while chatting over the fence; we had over a dozen real visitors! All the socialising and watching the net meant that we didn’t steam as many of our engines as we’d hoped to, but both girls ran their Mamods, along with another Mamod that our neighbour had lent them.

I ran my two Wilesco engines, and used one to provide steam for a horizontal mill engine. We also used my roller to tow a large plastic tractor up the garden path – our own version of tractor pulling! Rain threatened at about 3pm, but not before we’d done a live broadcast along our engine line, which was 22 engines long. We were delighted to see everyone joining in across the internet, from a rally on a canal boat, to full-size engines steamed up in yards and on farm tracks.

Karen’s programme meant that everyone joined in with tractors, cars, commercials and stationary engines – railway engines, too, and even steam ships; nothing was excluded in our attempt to fill the internet with steam. So many thousands of posts were made that we’re still finding new content two weeks after the event!

See for yourself
So, follow the links on, and see the ingenuity and enjoyment for yourselves. I estimate that thousands of engines were steamed on the day, perhaps the largest number ever in the UK – and we have submitted the event to the Guinness Book of Records adjudicators.

Off for the evening road run at Coullscombe Park. (Pic: David Warren)

After a rally tea, we took part in Clive’s toast, then listened to Alex Steele’s organ playing live. At 8pm, I breathed a sigh of relief as the Doctor Busker songs uploaded and went out perfectly. When I’d watched all of those in full, to make sure all was well, we packed the engines away and did what happens at many rallies. We took some engines for a pub run.

Of course, the pubs were all closed, and the engines were Matchbox models in our pockets but, on our walk around Shildon, we paused outside each pub and took a picture of ourselves with the engines and posted them online! Yes, we are mad indeed, but it made people smile. Once home again, we had a last drink under the stars in the beer tent. It had been an incredible day which we’ll never forget, and Kathryn commented that the rally toilets were the best she’d seen!

Will it become an annual event? Well, that was never the plan. It was a response to difficult times and situations, designed to bring pleasure and make people smile, followed by memories and reflections, photographs and souvenirs. I’d like to think we achieved all that, and made a bit of money for charity in the process.

The fundraising continues and if, on reading this, you feel you might like to help, the website will point you to the appropriate pages. Many people helped with the organisation but, to everyone who took part and showed stuff, thank you. Thanks particularly to the home rally team of Kathryn, Isobel and Charlotte, for giving your all to a mad Saturday in May!

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A lot of folks joined in with the likes of these.


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