HONORARY LIFE MEMBER MOTAT SOCIETY
Les was born in Wellington and from early childhood had a strong interest in models, particularly cars, ships and aircraft made out of cast alloy or carved out of wood. His first job, post-war, was with a model aircraft supply company and in seeking a more serious interest joined Whites Aviation Ltd working with the Leo White photographic collection. (This collection is now held in the Walsh Memorial Library at MOTAT)
He furthered his involvement in aviation by obtaining an airframe apprenticeship with Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) based at Hobsonville which led onto a twelve months course at the RNZAF Technical Training School where he worked on Tiger Moths, Harvards and Mosquitos. TEAL at the time were using Short Sandringham and Solent flying boats, one of which “Aranui” is at MOTAT, and Les had the opportunity to extend his apprenticeship to work on these. During this time Les became interested in aircraft photography and started an Auckland branch of an aircraft interest group with the desire to eventually build his own ultralight aircraft. On his meagre apprenticeship wage building an aircraft was out of the question, so he settled on modelling aircraft instead. TEAL was now based at Mechanics Bay over the road from the railway yards on Quay Street.
Passing the rail yard daily on his way to and from work he became fascinated with the movement of trains on their tracks and decided to try his hand at modelling trains. To build a good model needed detail from drawings or photographs, so with a good background of photography, particularly working with Leo White, he started photographing any part of the railway that would assist him to build a realistic model of the NZ Railway of the 1950’s era. His collection included not just trains but the infrastructure, lineside features, buildings, locomotive and rolling stock details. He became interested in the history of the railway, collecting documents and other information. An invaluable record to be known as the “Les Downey Collection” and through the vision of Librarian Lorraine Wilson and the MOTAT Society the
collection was made available to the Walsh Memorial Library at MOTAT.
His interest in heritage transport was flourishing and he was soon attracted to the activities at MOTAT and by 1970 he had joined the Museum and become a volunteer in the Rail Section. As a volunteer, he was a hard worker, he became Chairman of the Rail Section for a long term, and was eventually elected onto the Museum’s Management Committee serving as a member for about 8 years. He was also employed by the Museum between April 1978 and June 1980 to carry out special projects, reporting to the Director (Ron Richardson) including Sylvia Park Off-site Stores Supervisor, Weekend Duty Supervisor and Special Projects Supervisor.
Les was also heavily involved in several large Rail projects such as the development of the rail yard at MOTAT 1 and preparation for and arrival of the Waitakere station building, and steam locomotives; Ab832, Ww491, J1236 and particularly K900 and the publicity and crowd support it created.
One of Les’s claims to fame, and fitting legacy, was the bringing together a group of fellow Railway Modellers to design and build a model of the North Island Main Trunk railway in the basement of the band rotunda, successfully opened in 1980. During this time it was obvious that the rail collection at MOTAT 1 was outgrowing the site and as there was no possibility of extending the operating part of the Railway onto the Western Springs reserve, as originally hoped, a proposal was put by Les to Management to eventually relocate to MOTAT 2, which was approved. Plans were prepared for the track layout on the site including an operating track which was to receive official status. The Western Springs Railway was officially opened by the then Minister of Railways George Gair December 1982, thanks to Les’s perseverance. Les was still Section Head, Member of the Management Committee until 1984 and for a time served as a Deputy Warden for the Periodic Detention Centre in the MOTAT grounds.
Above: First spike ceremony May 1982. Les encouraging the
Minister of Railways, Hon Geo Gair, who was driving the first spike
for the construction of the Western Springs Railway. The Minister kindly
returned five months later to drive the last spike when the railway was completed.
Les was elected an honorary Life Member of the MOTAT Society in 1988. Because of health problems Les was advised to move to the warmer drier climate of Queensland and in 1994 emigrated with his wife, Diane and family, to Australia.
MOTAT was still part of Les’s life and he was ever hopeful to the end that one day the Museum would feature a Railway display pavilion. Les will be remembered for his ability to communicate well, as a good organiser and
leader, and as a meticulous modeller. As a fellow volunteer and good friend of 53 years, he will be sadly missed.
Les passed away peacefully at his home in Brisbane on the 15th September 2023 after a long and painful illness.