New Year's Day Lecture 2017

by Curtis Devereau

I have been island-based for my latest researches. Whilst researching the arrangements made for boarding house tea deliveries for The Gaffer, I came across a number of internet posts referring to a possible Manx National Reserve of locomotives and rolling stock, which had been salted away during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The idea seemed to be that with the danger of a nuclear apocalypse only a three-minute warning away, steam locomotives should be withdrawn from service, renovated, and placed in secure storage to await the day when they were needed. Steam was chosen as it could be pressed into service immediately, whereas electric traction required power generation, and there were no viable diesel locomotives on the Island. The Manx Government have always denied the existence of any such reserve, but rumours have persisted that certain ‘lost’ Manx locomotives were not scrapped, but had been restored and were still held in reserve at a secret location.

I devoted many hours to studying all the available papers relating to the Railway Company: the minutes of board meetings, maintenance records, stock movements –all were scoured for any trace of a National reserve.

The first indication of something untoward was provided by the Signalling Returns from St Germains for March 1947: ‘set loop points for northbound light engine (No 2), 00:15’. Curiously, this locomotive doesn’t appear to arrive at Michael: ‘All signals locked off. First train of the day Sch(ool) Tr(ansport), 06:45 Rams(ey) Gr(ammar). So what happened to that locomotive? Setting aside conspiracy theories about the Gob-Y-Deigan triangle, it appears that locomotive number 2, Derby, left St Germains after midnight, but was not seen –or heard- passing through Kirk Michael. A lucky internet purchase turned up a rare edition of the Driver’s ‘Red Book’ of regulations, issued in February 1947. Most paragraphs take the standard format, but there is one difference: ‘Drivers must gain speed across Glen Wyllin viadust (sic) before shutting off the regulator, to pass through the station inaudibly. Head and tail lights must be extinguished at West Berk’.

This might have seemed like a diversion, but I found another report in a local history project that interviewed elderly Manx residents in the 1970’s. One contributor, a lifelong railwayman, told how he had seen a square-cabbed locomotive crossing Orrisdale No.1 late in 1948, heading north. The event, timed at 3 a.m. He noted that the exhaust beat was too rapid for No.16, and the wrong pitch for No 15. He thought he had heard it only once before, when as a boy he saw MNR No.1 ‘Ramsey’ shunting kipper vans at Peel just before the First War: a more rapid beat, with a coarse rasp caused by an allegedly corroded blast-pipe.

The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place when an expatriate Manx woman posted a request from Foxdale Avenue, Winnetka, Illinois. She grew up in one of the Ushtey houses in the East Baldwin Valley, and remembered hearing her uncle recounting laying temporary rails from a brick shed to the road in the winter of 1947. A dead locomotive, heavily greased, was towed by a (then) new-fangled Land Rover to be winched onto a waiting lorry. Her request –‘Does anyone else remember this?’ brought a response from ‘Scammell2’ –‘My father drove haulage vehicles for Cregeen’s. I have a photograph of him standing in front of a flatbed Scammell 8, which has a small railway engine on it. The locomotive nameplate reads ‘Ardwhallian’ and a note on the back says ‘last run for MN258, Baldwin to Ramsey Jan23 47’. My attempts to contact ‘Scammell2’ have proved fruitless, so this tantalising clue, like that of the Orrisdale sighting, has to be taken on trust.

On that proviso, I gave some thought to the practicalities of the alleged gathering of locomotives. Given the length of Ramsey Carriage shed, and its use for overwintering rolling stock that had been laid up ‘out of season’, it would have been quite possible for locomotives to have been held there unseen by all but a few railway staff. The hostility of the Railway Company to rail enthusiasts made it unlikely that any photographs would have been taken, setting aside the technical challenge of taking photographs in a dark shed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that none of the previous evidence provided conclusive proof of a National Reserve. At this point I was inclined to think the rumours were conspiracy theories generated by deluded cranks and unworthy of further research.

That was until I read the testimony of a tramway enthusiast, written under the nom de plume ‘Shunter’s Pole’ in the Spring 1952 edition of ‘Checkrail’, the Journal of the Tram and Trolleybus Society. In it, the author recounted a visit to the Island, writing at length about a ride from Douglas to Laxey and taking a diversion up Snaefell before completing his travels to Ramsey, arriving at 5 p.m. If I may, I shall quote directly from his article: ‘At this point, having obtained fish and chips from a very down-at-heel establishment, and with forty-five minutes to kill before the next Douglas-bound tram, I made my way to the railway station. A rather dowdy Italianate affair when viewed from Station Road, it proved even more dilapidated when viewed from the trackside. The permanent way appeared to have been ballasted with a mix of dirt, oil and coal dust; the only indication that this was a railway was provided by the parallel silver rails, where they were not obscured by the lush grass growing between and around them. The station itself was deserted, the last train of the day having left, according to the timetable, just before I arrived. I was therefore able to take a leisurely stroll around the station site, noting the Lindley point levers, and a motley collection of goods stock mouldering behind a large shed. Although steam railways hold little interest for me, I took a couple of photographs before I became aware that I was not alone; a smartly turned out railway official was inspecting three steam locomotives that were standing on the line that headed out of the station along the quayside. I noticed that they all appeared to be of different designs, and each wore a unique livery: one was green, another red and the third a shade of mustard, and they were numbered 1, 2 and 3. I would have taken a photograph, but I had only a few shots left and wanted to save them for the tram ride back to Douglas. It was at this point I noticed the time, and left for the tram station’.

This account, with its description of three different locomotives, seems to give credence to the unsupported observations I have already presented, and if taken at face value would place ex-MNR No.1, IOMR No.2 and Baldwin Reservoir No.3. in Ramsey station yard in late 1952 or early 1953; just the thing to deal with the transport problems in a post-apocalyptic IOM.

A final piece of evidence came to light only last month. A woman who wishes to remain anonymous told how the cousin of a sister's boyfriend was ‘having a look around’ the warehouses on Ramsey quay late at night after a couple of bottles too many of Castletown Nut Brown Ale. A minor criminal, he was always fairly vague when it came to facts, but he maintained that he saw three railway locomotives that night when he peered through the dirty windows of Kissack’s warehouse. Sadly I was once again unable to verify any of the details, as the young man in question emigrated to Gabon in 1965 and hasn't been heard of since. The warehouse was demolished in 1979 and the basement filled with concrete so that Deemster Kissack's building company could build a block of harbourside apartments on the site.

So I have to conclude that whilst there is some hazy ‘evidence’ which might support the idea of a Manx Natonal Reserve, there are no signs of any locomotives now, if there were ever any. Should they have ever been gathered together in the way suggested, they were either moved once again (for scrap, perhaps?), or lie beneath a residential development encased in concrete.