A remarkable family reunion took place at Leeds Industrial Museum as a vintage, 160-year-old model steam locomotive named after renowned opera star Jenny Lind was reunited with its maker’s Australian descendant. The exquisitely crafted model of the Jenny Lind, built in Leeds around 1849 by local train driver Charles Wilson, has been a cherished part of the museum’s locomotive collection since at least the 1970s.
Rod Wilson, Charles’s great grandson, embarked on a momentous 10,000-mile journey from Caboolture, near Brisbane, to witness his ingenious forebear’s extraordinary handiwork in person for the very first time. This meticulously detailed miniature steam train, once fully operational, features a diminutive coal-fired boiler that still bears traces of the actual coal that powered it decades ago.
The model is an exact replica of the full-sized Jenny Lind, the first among a class of over seventy steam locomotives constructed by E. B. Wilson and Company of Leeds, paying homage to the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Lind, also known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” was celebrated as one of the finest and most popular singers of the 19th century.
Rod’s journey was prompted by a serendipitous discovery during his family history research. While browsing online, he stumbled upon a photo of the model locomotive in a blog post authored by industrial history curator John McGoldrick. Rod soon realised that the model strikingly resembled a similar one captured in a photograph passed down through generations of his family. The vintage picture depicted Charles and his two sons smartly dressed, joyfully riding the model along miniature tracks at the Bendigo Easter Fair in 1895.
After reaching out to the museum, Rod and his wife Rayda were finally able to undertake the arduous trip to Leeds, eagerly anticipating the sight of the model in all its well-preserved grandeur. Overwhelmed with emotion, Rod expressed, “It’s actually very emotional seeing it for the first time- this is a part of my family’s history. My aunt originally told me about Charles and showed me the photo of him and his sons, and it was only when I started researching his life that I realised what a fascinating person he was.
“There’s still a lot about Charles that we don’t know, but from the detail in the model and the craftsmanship that’s gone into it, it’s clear he was a very skilled and talented engineer.
“The fact he was able to pretty much step off the boat and make a new, successful life for himself and his family in Australia also says a lot about him too. It’s just amazing to see the model in person and to connect with him in this way after all these years.”
Historical records reveal that in 1849, Charles resided with his young family in a modest terraced house in Holbeck. Alongside his work as a train driver for the Leeds and Thirsk Railway, he completed an engineering apprenticeship and enthusiastically pursued model making, meticulously recreating the train he operated daily. The exceptional quality of his model earned it a spot at the esteemed 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of all Nations at the Crystal Palace.
In 1852, Charles emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where he promptly employed his engineering expertise by taking charge of Melbourne’s steam-powered waterworks. By 1855, he was operating a steamboat on the Yarra River before venturing to the Victorian goldfields around 1858 and constructing his initial steam-powered quartz crushing mill. In addition to owning gold mining leases, he established a total of sixteen steam-powered quartz crushing mills, extracting gold not only for his ventures but also for other mining leases.
Charles’s success afforded him the opportunity to resume his model-making pursuits. One of his models was exhibited at the 1855 Melbourne Exhibition, where he was awarded a bronze medal. His models were even capable of running on circular tracks and accommodating passengers. Following his retirement, he relocated to Ballarat, the heart of gold mining in Victoria, where he passed away in 1899.
John McGoldrick, curator of industrial history at Leeds Industrial Museum, expressed his gratitude, stating, “Models like the Jenny Lind are invaluable to our understanding of early locomotives and the important role Leeds played in the evolution of the railway industry.
“Getting this kind of unique background detail about the people whose time and ingenuity went into these remarkable models fills in some huge gaps in our knowledge and adds more depth and context to the collection. We’re hugely grateful to Rod for his help and it’s been wonderful to welcome him to the museum and to add a new chapter to the story of the Jenny Lind.”
Leeds Industrial Museum, once the world’s largest woollen mill, presents an astounding assortment of vintage machinery, including traditional looms and textile equipment. Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member of economy, culture, and education, remarked, “The collection at Leeds Industrial Museum meticulously traces Leeds’ journey and the industries that have shaped the vibrant city we know today. Uncovering new dimensions of this narrative demonstrates the richness and diversity of our local heritage and Leeds’s enduring impact on people worldwide.”
For further information about Leeds Industrial Museum, please visit: https://museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/leeds-industrial-museum