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John Ness Walton 1921-2013 recalled by Philip Wedgwood

John Walton is known to many around the world as the publisher of Light Steam Power magazine and his seminal work on Doble. This was true of my late brother Dennis who took out a subscription in 1954 but it was not until about 2004 that I met John. I found him well-spoken, highly intelligent, an individualist and eccentric in the best traditions of the English gentleman. However, he was also a very private person so that the limited biographical details following are based on his daughter's reminiscences and what Chris, my son, and I were able to glean from him.

John was born in Dorset in 1921, the son of a redoubtable Anglican minister. He was sent as a boarder to Sherbome School in Dorset where he was very unhappy. But he already had a keen interest in railways and we have his schoolboy notebooks with his sketches of various locomotives, notes on railway liveries and snapshots of Southern Railway trains. John never threw anything away!

For John's generation one's parents usually decided one's future career so it is an indication of his determination that in his teens he was allowed to turn down a place at Cambridge and instead move to what is now Cumbria where he worked for his uncle who had a coalmine. John operated the steam winding engine during the day then bicycled into town in the evenings to attend night school.

When the war began he wanted to join the RAF as a mechanic. A friend told him he wouldn't get in applying directly, but if he applied to be a pilot he would be accepted and later be found unsuitable (John was long-sighted) and get transferred as a mechanic. And that is exactly how it happened.

The Bolsover Brothers had been publishing a magazine relating mainly to steam car developments since 1929. In their January-March 1948 issue they announced their desire to hand over publication to a younger man. I imagine that at this time John could not long have been demobbed, but he must have responded to the Bolsovers very quickly as the very next issue (April-June 1948) included a letter announcing the handover and an ‘Editorial’ by John, publishing the magazine from Wetheral, Carlisle.

From April 1949 the magazine became Light Steam Power and by July 1951 John had moved to Kirk Michael, Isle of  Man, where he continued to live, apart from a few years in the 1980's when he was based at Loughborough.

Under John's ownership LSP became an excellent publication in both presentation and content, with articles on steam vehicles of the past, modern developments and news items from around the world. My brother and I read it avidly as soon as it arrived, as I'm sure many other subscribers did too.  From March 1954 it was published bi-monthly. Think of the work that involved. In those days there was no Internet, email or even cheap international calls. It all had to be done by writing letters but somehow John managed to keep abreast of everything that was going on. Then too, there was no computer type-setting or scanned images, it was all very labour intensive.

Light Steam Power was highly regarded worldwide by all who were interested in the subject. Alongside producing the magazine and copies of catalogues and drawings, John also researched the work of Abner Doble and his brothers, resulting in his publishing the definitive work on Doble products in 1965, with several updates and re-prints following.

He developed his own waste-oil burner which he marketed as the "Freeheet" burner. John's daughter Sue recalls the exciting time of its development, with frequent calls of "stand back Sue" and her father admitting to one occurrence of an "explosion"!

Close to his bungalow in Kirk Michael John established "The Steam Centre", an exhibition of an eclectic collection of steam and transport-related items, everything from railway tickets to a Doble engine. Two particularly large items were "Sea Lion", one of the Bagnall locos which had operated the Groudle Glen Railway (when enthusiasts subsequently re-opened the line the loco. went back on long-term loan) and a Clayton & Shuttleworth traction engine, which John spent a week "digging out" from a location near Quarry Bends on the TT course. John's daughter, Sue recalls that in the exhibition room there was also a slide show running with a voice-over description of the various railways depicted. She also remembers that there was a cabinet of china and "knick-knacks" because John said "to make this sort of exhibition successful one must provide something for the ladies". Tea, coffee and ice-cream were also available.

John also obtained two of the Steam Railway coach bodies which were lying derelict at St. John's in the late 1960's. One of these he kitted out as a "camping coach". However, he must have found it more advantageous to rent out his bungalow, because Sue recalls that they lived in the coach during the holiday season and eventually John sold the bungalow and lived in the coach all year round!

John and his friend Johnny Dalgleish enjoyed shooting and each had a gun dog. Apparently John was a poor shot and eventually his dog would go and help Johnny's out of boredom! John also went collecting seagull's eggs. Whether it was illegal and whether John knew we don't know. However, his view was that there were so many of them and they were very careless with their eggs. Sue recalls enjoying many seagull omelettes.
After one such expedition her mother was horrified to discover he'd been walking the cliff edges with four year old Sue!

ohn was a kindly man, often rescuing injured animals, and an inclusive father, allocating Sue her own patch in the garden from an early age.

John was active well into his eighties, but over the last few years he progressively lost his short-term memory and eventually went into a care home, where he died peacefully in the early hours of Tuesday 19th March.

At the onset of his memory loss he asked Sue and my son Chris to take care of his affairs and expressed the wish that his collection of exhibits be kept together. Whilst he has been in care we have catalogued his exhibits, pictures, books and magazines and have gathered together boxes of correspondence. These have been moved into temporary storage and it is now intended to establish a trust to maintain the exhibits and archive.

No doubt all who espouse the cause of "Steam" are at least a little eccentric but John Walton was a wonderful example - living and enjoying life in his own way whatever the world might say. At the same time he made a unique and significant contribution to the cause, by researching and documenting the history, current developments and future prospects for light steam power, providing an archive that will continue to help all interested in this topic for years to come.

Philip Wedgwood 2013


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