Crown jewels of the wire

Old railway telegraph insulators seem a bizarre treasure. John Windsor reports on an eccentric collector and his successors
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The Independent Culture
THE SPORTING gun shown above in the hands of the century's greatest collector of antique firearms, the late W Keith Neal, is clearly a double flintlock by Henry Nock of London of about 1788. But what of the shiny white mystery object on the right? It is known to collectors as a "Fuller's inverted cone" and dates from about 1877. Objects such as this are said to have aroused as much passion in Mr Neal as guns. Is it a hand grenade, perhaps? A bazooka shell? A peg for an elephant gun?

No. It is a railway telegraph insulator made from porcelain, of the sort that perched on wooden telegraph poles, carrying wires that transmitted electric pulses between signal boxes. Most signal wires disappeared underground in the Fifties and Sixties.

Keith Neal's antique firearms collection is expected to raise at least pounds 600,000 at Christie's on 8 Novem-ber. Meanwhile, his unique collection of 300 railway telegraph insulators will remain in cardboard boxes in a London lock-up store. No new home has been found for it.

Should you doubt that insulators are collectable, Marilyn Albers, of Houston, Texas, will tell you that the inverted cone is catalogued as Fuller's U1992 in the Universal Style Chart For Porcelain Insulators, 1982, of which she is co-author (which can be ordered for $8.75;1986 supplement $9.50; plus shipping on Internet

She sold one of Mr Neal's Fuller's cones for $500 (about pounds 320) in the United States following his death in 1990. In his will he had authorised her to dispose of duplicates. Ms Albers had visited him four times at the 18th-century stone farmhouse in Guernsey, where he spent his last days. He regaled her with yarns of insulator hunts on railway embankments. "I more or less sat at his feet, like a little kid," she recalls. "We became firm friends."

In the US - where there are at least 1,200 insulator collectors, 50 collectors' clubs, three annual conventions, and a monthly magazine with the romantic title Crown Jewels of the Wire that sells 24,000 worldwide - a record $18,000 (pounds 11,400) was paid this year by Butch and Eloise Halt-man, owners of a swimming-pool construction company who live in Cathedral City, California. Their greenish glass insulator is a Ram's Head, maker unknown, of the 1890s, the only specimen designated CD 109.9 in NR "Woodie" Woodward's definitive Consolidated Design Cata-logue. The 68-year-old Mr Woodward lives in Houston and described his occupation to me as "transient". The Haltmans have spent $500,000 (about pounds 320,000) on insulators, reckon their collection is worth $1m, and are prepared to outbid anybody.

Mr Neal, a collector of insulators since boyhood, did original research and privately published books for a handful of enthusiasts. Even today, Britain has fewer than a dozen dedicated collectors of these crown jewels of the wire. There is still no club, no magazine, and the collectors' market has hardly evolved beyond swopping. Inevitably, Mr Neal's rib-tickling title, Searching for Railway Telegraph Insulators (1982), and its sequel, Railway and Other Rare Insulators (1987), have become anecdotal among booksellers. As recently as this year, the first title was submitted to the weekly trade magazine, The Bookseller, by Peter Nicholson, senior editor at Haynes Publishing, in pursuit of a prize in the magazine's Oddest Title competition. He des-cribed it as "an inspiring and inspired work... a remarkable example of an enthusiast's researches".

Which, if one cares to dislodge tongue from cheek, it is. Mr Neal, born the son of a Baptist minister in 1905, was one of the last of England's middle-class eccentrics. He lived the life of Boy's Own right up to the end. As a child, he made models, tinkered with wireless crystal sets, decoded transmissions in Morse and, aged 18, paid three shillings in a sale for a telegraph pole, which he and his brother Ernest lugged home and erected in the garden to carry a wireless aerial.

Ernest, a former schoolmaster now aged 84, became a world authority on the breeding cycle of badgers. In his autobiography, he recalls his elder brother's exhortations: "Come on, Titch, old man, come and give me a hand like a good chap."

There was no inherited wealth. Keith Neal left school at 16 and made enough money from dealing in antique firearms to drive a vintage Bentley, to collect clocks as well as guns, and to buy Bishopstrow, an imposing Regency house near Warminster, now a hotel.

Like other Edwardian children, Mr Neal was fascinated by steam trains. In those days, train-spotting was a respectable pastime: anoraks were still worn only by Eskimos. While awaiting Jumbo class engines with their tall funnels he would put his ear to telegraph poles to listen to the "singing" of the wires. His father, as fathers did, told him it was the sound of messages going to and fro.

Aged 10, he found a broken insulator at the bottom of a pole and glued it together. From then on, he collected and photographed them. His books are full of box-camera snaps of telegraph pole cross-bars crowded with different varieties of insulator dating from the 1870s and earlier.

Insulators, as well as guns, became a lifelong obsession - especially towards the end of his life, when insulator collectors were easier to come by than rich gun collectors. Different railway regions designed their own insulators and competed among themselves for new patents. He ended up with a specimen of virtually every known pattern. His allies were railway signal engineers and inspectors throughout the country, who alerted him whenever a line of telegraph poles was about to be dismantled. In his first book he thanks a score of them.

Foraging on railway embankments, he kept a wary eye open for adders, possessive squatters in no-man's-land. As a boy he had thrown stones at a family of them sunning themselves, before himself falling asleep at the top of the embankment. He awoke to find one of them, intent on revenge, poised to strike.

His daughter, Mrs Diana Berry, remembers accompanying him and his labrador- cross gun dog, Frisk, as he hunted insulators on railway embankments. "I loved it. I learnt the shapes of the insulators and how to draw them. We gave them nicknames: the Langdon's were 'Bell shapes', the Fuller's were 'Toppers' and the Varley's 'Many ringers'.

"I can't think of any moment when I was bored with him. His natural enthusiasm was understated but you soon got caught up in it. Sometimes I took a friend along. They never questioned what we were doing. It was like a treasure hunt.

"He would drive us in an old Bentley, a 3.5 litre, to comb a disused branch line near Midford. It was on the way from Warminster to Bath, where he visited his gun restorers, and we always stopped off at Fortt's or Fuller's, teashops in Bath." By the age of 10 she was accompanying her father to gun auctions in Paris and Switzerland, and to view gun collections in Scandinavia and America.

His portrait, with gun and insulator, was painted by Andrew Festing - son of Mr Neal's great chum, the late Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing - whose sitters include the Queen and Queen Mother. The Festing collection of Japanese swords fetched pounds 754,373 at Sotheby's two years ago.

Mrs Berry remembers Festing senior's first visit to Bishopstrow, when he was Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was in dress uniform, complete with swagger stick, accompanied by full aide-de-camp: a big, kindly, bear of a man, towering over her. He was instantly converted to gun collecting, becoming so engrossed with her father's flintlock sporting guns that he kept the mess at the School of Infantry at Warminster waiting half an hour for dinner.

The unlikely pair - Neal, lean and without small talk, Festing corpulent and garrulous - went on gun-finding expeditions and shot at targets together. Andrew Fest-ing remembers them at Bishop-strow: "They would stagger off into the bushes, we would hear a series of explosions and then they would emerge unscathed. How they avoided blowing themselves up, I shall never know."

Luckily, the bullet permanently lodged in Mr Neal's thigh never caused him any bother. As a boy he had pulled the trigger of one of his antique shop finds, a stubborn percussion pistol, once too often. The family doctor recommended leaving the bullet where it was. He was more careful after that, but throughout his life he insisted on firing his best pieces.

Besides having the money to indulge their acquisitiveness, homes crammed with weapons, and long-suffering wives, Festing and Neal shared the same brand of eccentricity. Festing's wife complained of his "tiresome habit" of polishing Japanese swords in bed, knocking puffs of powdered stag's horn on to the blades from little red bags. But he never subscribed to the advanced eccentricity of insulator collecting.

Today's small band of collectors, aware that their activities might be considered certifiable, have a battery of defences in readiness for the unappreciative. One collector, Dominic Allan, a 34-year-old British Telecom technician, lives with his parents in Mill Hill and confines his 200 insulators to his bedroom, a garage and a lock-up store, explaining that his father is "not keen on them" and that he himself is considered "a bit odd".

But he says: "I tell bigots that insulator-collecting is a form of industrial archaeology. Britain had the first successful telegraphs in the world but virtually nothing has been done to preserve their history. In the 1890s it was telegraph engineers who proved it was possible to transmit high-voltage power overhead: they laid the found-ations of our electricity distribution system". Of W Keith Neal he says: "He got a head start. The hobby needed a figurehead and he provided it".

Neither Mr Neal nor anybody else has come across any of the insulators used for the world's first public telegraph service. No, not Samuel Morse's of 1844, as some history books still say, but the Great Western Railway's, inaugurated the previous year. It transmitted telegram messages by wire along 20 miles of track between Paddington and Slough: electric pulses pushed pointers on alphabet boards. William Cooke, patentee of the system, was allowed to charge the public in return for giving the railway a free service.

For budding collectors, the BT museum has some insulators on display. Curator Neil Johannessen has come to appreciate their aesthetic. "They are not Toby jugs," he explains, "and they are not fine art, either. But they do have a wonderful variety of sizes, shapes and colours". He is trying to find a bona fide museum to display them.

British Rail's Collectors Corner at Euston still sends a van round the country's railway depots, collecting railwayana to sell. Its present couple of dozen insulators are priced at pounds 1-pounds 3 each. In the Portobello Road street market they can be picked up for pounds 1. Sheffield Railwayana Auctions, the country's only full-time railwayana auctioneers, seldom offer them because they fetch so little: pounds 2-pounds 3 for run-of-the-mill, pounds 15-pounds 20 for turn-of- the-century specimens.

I could have sworn Collectors Corner told me they had a Fuller's for sale at pounds 3. I went hot-foot to their counter, only to find it was a Buller's - one of the brands of the all-too-common Cordeaux pattern, the bane of collectors.

Buller's is still thriving, having been absorbed into the world-famous Allied Insulators of Stoke- on-Trent. There are cotton reel-sized insulators to fix to the walls of rural houses, taking 240-volt electricity, price 75p, and 4.5 metre tall "bushings" for 400,000-volt power lines at pounds 20,000 each. I asked whether insulator collectors had shown any interest in buying them. "No," came the reply.

! W Keith Neal's books: pounds 20 plus pounds 2 p&p from Signal Box Press, La Terre Norgiot, St Saviours, Guernsey. BT Museum: 145 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4 (0171-248 7444). Collectors Corner: Cobourg Street, London NW1 (0171-922 6436)