Welcome to Neil McRae's Page

St. Albans, Herts, England

Blad 1-1

The late John Findlay, myself and Henry Plews
in July of 2001.
I guess most collectors start almost by accident and I know I certainly did. Two things combining set me off on the road to acquiring hundreds of pressure lamps. It began with a casual conversation with the tracer in the drawing office I worked in.
This young lady was a District Wolf Cub Leader in Stevenage and when she found I had been a Scout up to the age of 18 and, being new to the area, had little to do in my spare time, she persuaded me to take over a Cub pack that was currently leaderless. I won't go into the story of my involvement with Scouts for the next 20 odd years except to say that I now have a Wood Badge and the award for 15 years undiscovered crime.
Anyway the pressure lighting beginning was when I went camping with a troop of Scouts and they had these wonderfully bright paraffin lamps. I discovered my own troop owned two Optimus 930 lanterns and these were the first pressure lights I ever used. Wonderful pieces of great engineering that I quickly learnt how to use and service.

The second happenstance was finding, in the stores of the Water Company I worked for, three Tilley FL6 floodlights. I had never seen anything like them and asked the store man what they were. He told me they were some kind of pressure paraffin lamp and they were to be scrapped as the company had changed over to Butane gas lights for night work.
So I very quickly became the proud owner of three nice lamps. I had a use for then too as they went camping with me several times in those early years. Ok so three lamps does not make a collector but then I found a few more storm lanterns in various second hand shops and markets. I looked at these and realised they were all different. That made me think and, whilst up to then I had only bought them to use, I now started to buy to collect different types.
I still have, some 37 years later, those first lamps I bought. I guess over the next fifteen years or so I acquired around fifty or so lamps and lanterns. They were mostly Tilley except for one Bialaddin 300X which was incomplete and I think an Optimus 200. So there I was with around 50 lamps in the collection a few of which were actually quite rare although I was not aware of that and in the years of collecting had never met anyone else remotely interested in what I had. Then I finally made contact with some more like minded eccentrics.

In September 1982 at the Wood Badge Reunion weekend in Gilwell Park I was walking about in the dark with a Tilley AL21 hand lamp hissing away when I was accosted by another leader who wanted to buy it off me. I refused his kind offer but when we got talking he turned out to have been collecting a few years longer than I had and knew about lamps I had never heard of. I met this gentleman a few weeks later when he was driving near to my house after a week lamp hunting in the North of England and he showed me some amazing things that I never knew existed like do nut lamps and irons. A true revelation. He also generously gave me a couple of very rare items which I still treasure in the collection today. Then a year or so later one of those odd coincidences happened.

Night display at Enfield, 2002.

I was talking with a guy in a hardware shop who had some obsolete globes for Tilley and Optimus lanterns when he told me he had seen something in a recent issue of Old Glory, a steam restoration magazine, about the Tilley Owners Club. So a big adrenaline rush and "A Tilley Club? Where? Who do I talk to? Tell me more."

He promised me he would find the article and let me have a copy the next day which he duly did. In great excitement I read about a group of people who collect these things and not only that, but there is a name and a phone number. A group no less! In 20 odd years I have only found one collector and here is an actual GROUP surely meaning more than two at least. With a trembling hand I dial the number that evening and get to talk with the leader of this group, a very nice guy called Martin Ryan who lived in a village just south of Birmingham.
He roared with laughter when I asked about his Tilley club and told me how it had happened. He and a group of friends were displaying static engines at a steam rally. As was their habit in the evenings when the paying customers had all gone home, they were sitting outside one of their caravans, surrounded by Tilley lamps and creating a mound of empty beer cans, when the Old Glory reporter happened to find them. He asked what they were doing and one of them said "Oh this is the Tilley owners club".

These guys were engine fanatics but also users of lamps and had started to collect them as they had realised, as I had years earlier, there were lots of different types to be found. So there was no collectors club it was just an mildly inebriated off the cuff remark made to a reporter who knew very well it was a joke but reported it as a little tongue in cheek filler for the magazine. Still they were collectors so it did not matter. Martin asked me how many I had and was blown away when I told him I had around 120. He then asked me if I could confirm that Tilley had made table lamps. He had been told they did but none of his friends had ever seen one. I told him that not only did Tilley make them but I had a couple of spare table models sitting in the house. That was a Tuesday evening. Martin and his wife and two of their friends drove from Birmingham to Hertfordshire the next evening to meet me and see the collection. They went away with two Tilley table lamps and a burning desire to add to their collections.

I have been called "The Tilley Doctor" since 1989; a name not of my choosing. I was caught at a Scout Jamboree by the camp newspaper reporter, surrounded by lamps of several different types, some lit and some in pieces.
As it was the first day of the camp, and I guess a slack news day, he wrote an article about this crazy Tilley lamp collector in which he gave me the name that has stuck to me ever since.

My 2002 Essex display.

My first display,Lister Petter, June 1991
The next few years were interesting. Martin became obsessed with Tilley model numbers. I had never bothered to do this. I knew they had numbers but because I was the only collector they were not important. Martin however had found an old Tilley catalogue and started talking with me on the phone about all these numbers that meant little to me. He forced me to learn all this stuff so we could have an intelligent conversation. I think it was the following year, or maybe a few years later, that Martin suggested we should get together and display our lamps at the inaugural Lister Petter Tyndale Steam Rally to be held in North Nibley Gloucestershire in June 1991.

We had found another Tilley collector by then, living in the Forrest of Dean, and persuaded John Hine to join us there. John by the way is a very experienced and knowledgeable collector who taught me a lot in those early days. So for one weekend the Tilley Collectors Club actually almost existed and put on a display for the people attending this rally.
We had a rare time and spoke with a lot of people who were very interested in these old lamps. We lit the beer tent as the organisers had not thought to provide any lighting. We also provided a couple of Flood lights to illuminate an outdoor bowling alley and my wife Melina frightened the proprietor by very nearly winning his offer of £10 for anyone who could take out all nine pins with thee bowls.

I had one of those embarrassing moments in the beer tent. We had installed about four Tilley and Bialaddin lamps but I had three 500 cp Anchor and Hipolito lamps which would have really lit the place up. Three of the wretched things and not one would work! They had all performed perfectly the day before and I was an expert wasn't I? I still don't know why they refused to work because all three worked fine the next day. I put it down to the natural perversity of inanimate objects. Was it Mr Murphy or Mr Sod who said "If it can go wrong it will" It sure did that night.
The next few years saw me begin a catalogue of pressure lighting. Inspired by Martin Ryan with his obsession with model numbers and extended by me to include not only the lamps I had but to include the ones I did not, so we knew what there was to be found perhaps. I met this collectors exclave several times and we all expanded our collections by trading lamps. Martin does not collect any more although I understand he has retained most of the collection he had and has passed on the obsession to his son.
I still see some of the others from time to time. They still display engines and I have been displaying the lamps at steam rallies for around ten years now. The game turned full circle a while back when the same reporter found my display at a rally in Bedfordshire and printed a half page article in Old Glory with a nice picture of me with the display. That little article generated some 50 plus phone calls from other collectors all over the UK and a couple overseas.
That was the start of the international circle of like minded eccentric pressure lamp collectors that I am now part of. Martin's obsession inspired the Pressure Lamp Catalogue which has now been in print for over a year and from that small beginning has grown the research that now absorbs much of my time. So Scouting was the spark that began it, Martin fanned the flames, and Old Glory piled on the coal. The fire will now never go out. I still display some of the collection at various Steam Rallies in England and I now also spend a great deal of time researching pressure lighting and keeping the Pressure Lamp Catalogue up to date. I am also having to deal with more and more requests for information and identification.

My lovely wife and best friend Melina McRae, 1947-1999

©2002 Neil A. McRae

For those who might be interested Old Glory has a web site which, for any enthusiasts of Vintage and veteran machinery, might be worth a look.

The above is an edited version of an article first published in Light International Vol 5 Issue 4 Autumn 2002. under the Title "The Tilley Collectors Club".