New Year's Day Lecture 2014

by Curtis Devereau

‘The walk round Claughbane’ –familiar to generations of courting couples from Ramsey and the surrounding villages- ran from Glen Auldyn via the Crossags Farm to Ramsey Hairpin. Whilst the trade supplying the needs of Glen Auldyn, not least the ‘Chemical Works’ (believed to be a bleach works) paid the bills for the Glen Auldyn spur off the Northern Line, by the mid-1920’s the management of the railway were keen for the line to earn some additional tourist revenue. The walk round Claughbane was advertised, and an extra carriage added to the usual workings, but it was quickly evident that what was required was a regular tourist service, with the flexibility to match fluctuations in the weather. Recent research by Curtis Devereaux has uncovered correspondence between the IMR and Henry Forbes, CME of the County Donegal Railway. This shows a far earlier link between the two Companies than was previously known; Forbes (sometimes called the ‘Father of Railcars’) was pursuing the development of petrol powered railcars on the Irish line with the aim of cutting costs. His Manx contemporaries’ interest in internal combustion was due more to its novelty than anything else (this was a time when Groudle was experimenting with battery power, after all), but nevertheless Forbes did all he could to encourage the IMR to experiment with petrol engine railcars.

By a happy coincidence, No3 collided with one of the charabancs that plied their trade from Sulby Glen station up to Tholt-y-Will in July 1923; after paying compensation to the vehicle’s owner, the IMR took possession of the damaged vehicle and had it removed to the Glen Auldyn works, where the drivetrain and much of the body were adapted to fit a railway-built chassis. Although something of an ugly duckling, initial trials were successful and the railcar is believed to have been in service by 1925. A shuttle service was established from Sulby Bridge station to Glen Auldyn. The railcar, which seated twenty four, was initially regarded as a success, although its road vehicle parentage soon became apparent. Whilst it possessed three forward gears, there was only one speed in reverse and it was this, along with poor visibility when running backwards, that led to the installation of short, tramway-style ‘turnplates’ at Sulby Bridge (on the Ramsey side of the level crossing) and at Glen Auldyn. A further turnplate is believed to have existed at Ramsey station during the Second World War, although this could have been the Glen Auldyn one, relocated.

The railcar worked the line during the summer seasons from the mid-1920’s until 1939, racking up a total mileage of justover 350,000 miles. A number of major overhauls took place during this time, with the original 20hp engine being replaced by a 40hp petrol unit. The bodywork received an interpretation of the brown and tan coach livery, along with signwriting proclaiming the route –‘Sulby Bridge to Glen Auldyn, for Claughbane’ on the side panels. Subsequent darkening of the varnish led to much of this being obscured. The railcar never received an IMR motive power number (had it done, it would have been ‘17’), but was widely referred to by railway staff as ‘Claughbane’.

The war years saw the railcar commandeered by a succession of RAF and Naval officers for their own personal use between Ramsey and Sulby; wary of its light weight, the Company refused to allow it to travel south of Kirk Michael for fear that it might get blown off one of the viaducts. Rudimentary heating is believed to have been fitted at this time; this had previously been unnecessary, as it had only seen use during the tourist season. At the height of the Battle of Britain the railcar was transferred to the MER and taken to Laxey where it was hastily re-gauged. Part of the roof was removed from the passenger compartment, the interior stripped out and an anti-aircraft gun fitted. The intention was to use it on Snaefell as a rapid response unit in the event of the Luftwaffe passing overhead, but the small engine struggled with the gradient, so it was usually stationed at the Bungalow, with the Royal Navy crew using the crossing hut as a bivvy. Proving the IMR management’s fears to be well-founded, the railcar was blown over one night whilst firing on a passing Dornier. The trigger mechanism on the gun jammed, and it continued to discharge shells into the walls of the Summit Hotel, causing it to be extensively damaged. Following this episode the damaged bodywork was removed and replaced with a flat gun platform, and the armament increased to a single ‘pom-pom’ gun. The Summit Hotel was re-rendered in the spring of 1946.

By the end of hostilities the railcar was in a sorry state. In addition to the damage done as a consequence of the conversion, tales of military personnel taking the controls for high-speed runs down into Laxey abounded. By late 1947 she had been returned to the ore-shed road in Ramsey station with a broken transmission; Curtis has found extensive correspondence between the IMR, MER and the War Office as each sought to charge the other for costs incurred, although it seems the matter was never settled. Ironically, the run-down state of the Northern line brought a reprieve. The demands of track maintenance meant that the PW gangs needed something more substantial than their usual trolleys to transport spikes, sleepers, ballast and the occasional length of rail, so in the winter of 1951 the Claughbane railcar received a planked dropside rear body derived from one of the H wagons. Repair work on the front and rear cab sheets saw the windows reduced in size, and the drivetrain once again replaced, this time with an antiquated tractor engine. In this guise the Claughbane railcar was painted into a variant of the postwar red and cream livery. It saw infrequent use throughout the 1950’s, and few photographs exist of it in service at this time,although there is one in R J Unwin’s account of his abortive attempt to buy the Glen Auldyn spur for preservation, Three Feet to Glen Auldyn, which was published in The Narrow Gauge Gazette in September 1966. By the early 1960’s the railcar was once again standing in Ramsey yard in a very sorry state, weather and decay having taken their toll, and the end looked inevitable. The Ailsa revival, and Sir Philip Wombwell’s drive for commercial custom, saw the railcar finally go south of Kirk Michael, when it was towed to Douglas to see if it could be converted to meet the needs of the ‘Manntainer’ traffic. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t suitable and is assumed to have been scrapped shortly after.

Following a lead from his Aunt Agatha last September, Curtis investigated the conservatory at Minorca House, and found that it seemed to be constructed from the railcar body, with photographic evidence showing similarities in the window spacing. The roof appears to be of more recent construction, which would match the modifications carried out to fit the machine guns. Cross-referencing IMR, MER and RAF Squadron records Curtis found that the body had been removed in Laxey station by members of an RAF Auxiliary Armaments team, who were based in Minorca House. Following the discovery of the railcar body, a group of enthusiasts has approached the owner with a view to buying the structure. Negotiations are ongoing, but it is hoped that this early example of internal combustion on Manx rails can be preserved, and one day returned to service.

In order to raise funds the group have had Reg Unwin’s article reprinted, supplemented with recent drawings and photographs. Two paintings of the railcar by well-known local artist Hector Umbrage have also been commissioned. Prints of these, and copies of Three Feet to Glen Auldyn, are available from the Cleminson Parade Bookshop, priced at £15 and £5 respectively.