A model retirement

Words by:
Caroline Bingham
Featured in:
June 2024

Lincoln used to be an internationally recognised centre for the manufacture of excavators and earthmoving equipment. Peter Robinson has spent many years of his retirement creating perfect scale models, which the Science Museum in London will ultimately take under their care. Interview by Caroline Bingham.

During a life that has spanned ten decades already, Peter Robinson has plenty of captivating tales which are testament to his intellect, career adventures – and love of jazz! To describe him as a polymath is no understatement. I had been invited to Peter’s home to view his collection of models prior to a visit from a Science Museum curator.

Lincoln roots
Peter was born in Lincoln but spent his early childhood in Leicester, where his father worked as an engineer. He was returned to live with his grandparents in the city during World War Two, while his younger brother Paul remained with their parents.

“I left Lincoln Grammar School (now Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School) aged 16,” Peter explained, “and I decided to follow my father’s advice to become an engineer too. I began a five-year degree qualification with Ruston-Bucyrus Ltd as an apprentice draughtsman.”

At this time the company was designing and building excavators and earthmoving equipment which was in demand in the UK and around the world.

National Service
The call-up for National Service had been deferred while Peter completed his apprenticeship, so aged 21 he began two years’ service in the RAF, initially as an armourer.

“After six months’ service I was transferred to RAF Fassberg in Germany, which required musicians for their station based bands. I had my own jazz trio in Lincoln with a three year contract at The Falcon Hotel – I was also a keyboard player – so I was a musician for the remainder of my National Service.”

Peter was demobbed in Blackpool but did not return to Lincoln, instead he joined the Nat Gonella jazz band which performed at the Palace Ballroom. After their set finished at 11.30pm, Peter went on to a rather less salubrious second job with the band at the Diamond Horseshoe club. His final performances in Blackpool were at the Butlin’s-owned Metropole Hotel.

His next employment was with the English Electric Aircraft Division in the jig and tool drawing office based in Preston. This was a two-year project working on the P1 prototype of the Lightning aircraft. The fifties and early sixties, before the Beatles era, saw a revival of interest in jazz and after the end of his contract in Preston, Peter returned to Lincoln, to take up a role in the drawing office at Ruston-Bucyrus once more, and he continued to play with bands in the local area.

Peter married Marcelle in 1961. Marcelle also worked at Ruston-Bucyrus, firstly in the sales offices but further into their marriage she became PA to the managing director of Bucyrus Europe.

Their first home was a rented cottage in Ingham. Peter used to walk their dog to Fillingham and it was there he spotted the cottage in which he still lives (Marcelle died in 2023). It was a derelict property which had been a gardener’s cottage for Fillingham Manor. The couple completed the purchase for £800 and lived there while restoring the cottage over an eight-year period.

“I can recall how much work it took as we renovated room by room, including Marcelle helping to mix concrete for the floors.”

Many years later, three more extensions were added, to house Peter’s model collection and archives.

Change of direction
“After nearly twenty years in the drawing office, I decided that I wanted a change in direction in my career – to do something different,” Peter continued. “I applied to Bishop Grosseteste to complete a four-year degree course in Education with Art.”

Peter showed me some of the alabaster sculptures which he completed during this time – including a very handsome horse’s head carved from a block sourced from the quarry at Newark. “I also began to experiment with acrylic, creating 3D contemporary pieces.”

Peter then began a second career in education, teaching ‘O’ level Art at Cherry Willingham School, becoming an industrial liaison officer for the county, an exam moderator and helping to introduce new GCSE courses and qualifications. Peter also published books which supported teachers in this transition.

A model retirement
Most of the models Peter showed me have been created or collected since he retired aged 60. “Marcelle was still PA to the managing director of Bucyrus Europe and they had this extensive archive of drawings and blueprints of machinery dating back to the 1930s. I could buy some models but I felt that I could make better ones myself.”

He decided to concentrate on cranes and excavators, as this was his own background in the drawing office. His first model, with all the plans drawn and pieces fabricated by himself, was made of brass. Perfect to the last detail, it was so heavy that one person would find it hard to lift. Peter’s creativity led him to make the switch to using acrylic sheets for the bodies and other elements which had been made from steel plates on the original machines.

“I experimented to find a way of ‘welding’ the acrylic, which I perfected using ether. Cast components of the real machine I cast on the model using white metal, for which I made moulds out of dental plaster.”

Companies who were purchasing equipment from Bucyrus Europe also sometimes wanted scale models to exhibit in their HQs. Peter’s first commission was for the Swedish company, Boliden AB. His scale model of a Blast Hole Drill, which took him around two years to create, is now in the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm.

“Marcelle and I were lucky enough to deliver some of my commissions personally, so as well as our trip to Sweden we also visited India in 2000 to deliver a model of a Bucyrus Europe W2000 Dragline to the headquarters of their National Coal Board. I could only build models of machines for which there are original drawings and for which companies were willing to let me have access.”

As well as models of Ruston-Bucyrus and Bucyrus Europe machines, Peter has created models of Bucyrus-Erie and Ransome and Rapier types. “There is a museum in Ipswich which preserves the area’s heritage, so eventually my Rapier models will be housed in the Ipswich Transport Museum.”

The recent visit by a senior curator from the Science Museum in London came about because Peter was the inheritor of his father’s natural history collections – a large proportion of this collection he recently donated to the Natural History Museum. After seeing the models on site too, one curator spoke to their colleague at the sister museum and an appointment was made.

“We had a very interesting day discussing which models would be suitable for them to adopt. The chap was delighted that I also had an archive of my own plans and building references for each model. Those will be accompanying each of the seven or eight models the Science Museum will eventually house.”

An example of the type of model they have chosen is the Ruston-Bucyrus 1260-W Walking Dragline, of which six were made in Lincoln. Peter’s model is of ‘Big John’, which was used at an open cast mine near Ibstock, in Leicestershire. “The one model which I cannot part with is my first commission, the Arctic Blast Hole Drill. It has too much sentimental value for me.”

In print
Four years ago, Peter stopped model making to write what is now a four-volume history of Lincoln’s cranes and excavators through the years. Immaculately researched and presented, they are the authoritative publications on the subject. He is still president of the Lincoln Engineering Society and is consulted by die-cast model manufacturers as to the specifications of certain machinery they are looking to create.

“My collection has also been swelled over the years by manufacturers presenting me with models of their machinery. It has become a valuable reference tool for my own and others’ research,” Peter added.
With the final agreements now being drawn up, the Science Museum is set to join the list of establishments where the wider public can admire Peter’s perfect scale models and appreciate Lincoln’s great manufacturing legacy.

Photographs: courtesy of Peter Robinson

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