New Year's Day Lecture 2019

by Curtis Devereau

Ladies and Gentlemen, you may all be wondering about the change of venue for this year's event.

The reason is that it was agreed years ago that no mention of what you are about to hear should ever be made outside of this locale, not only to protect the innocent caught up in events, but to purge the names of the guilty from the history of the area for ever.

Now that’s a rather strange way to begin proceedings, but the tale you are about to hear proved rather embarrassing for all concerned, ended several careers and left considerable financial hardships that remain,in some cases, to this day. We therefore must ask everyone present to commit what you are about to be told to memory and to respect the wishes of those affected and never to repeat the story.

Having got that out of the way, let me take you back to the heady days of the Lord Ailsa revival of the Isle of Man Railway, and yes, this is fairly recent history.

We are all familiar with the take over and restoration of services on the Peel and Ramsey lines, and partial service in 67 on the south line as far as Castletown. Last year as I ended my annual lecture, I was taken to one side, in fact into a darkened corner under one of Hector Umbrage least liked works (“The Spinster and the Wren”) and had this story related to me.

At first it seemed too incredible to be true, but by patient detective work, cross referencing everything through the newspaper archive and from what railway records remain from the era, I must conclude that I was told the truth and feel duty bound to pass it on to you all today.

We are all pretty much aware that the last steam train movements on the St.Johns to Foxdale line were in 1961, when Sutherland and a string of open wagons was sent to retrieve some trackwork from the Station yard at Foxdale. This trackwork was a set of points and the rails and sleepers used to facilitate the removal of the spoil tip to the east of the Station building, this had been laid in 1939 so was still in good condition, and the rails were desperately needed elsewhere.

It has been, up until today, generally accepted that all passenger movements on the branch had finished by 1941. We are also well aware that in order to shore up the failing locomotive situation and to provide some economies the County Donegal Railcars had been purchased in the early 1960’s. We can now reveal that the last passenger movement from Foxdale to Peel, via St.Johns, took place in 1967, and that this was done using the Railcars.

During the first year of the Ailsa regime, train operations were being masterminded by Sir Philip Wombwell. Sir Philip was keen to find alternative revenue streams for the enterprise, hence the well documented, but disastrous container experiments and the mini car transporter, and in June 1967, as services were beginning establish once again, he was approached by a Mr Cain who told him that along with some friends, they had set up residence in a large house just outside Foxdale. Cain told Sir Philip that the group were all members of an offshoot of the Presbyterian Church and had bought a property in Peel, by the Harbour, in which they intended to hold services, in fact he was one of the Teaching Elders. The Manx were always fair game for fledgling religions. When they had finished renovating the Peel property, which was expected to be by the end of the month then they would all need to get to there to attend the services and meetings, they did not have their own transport and the Road Services buses were to unsuitable times, and therefore they proposed to put some extra business Sir Philips way if he would run a service for them by train from Foxdale. Sir Philip communicated this proposal to Lord Ailsa, along with some projected revenue figures, and agreement was given, on the condition that the Railcars be used and not a steam train.

At first Cain was unhappy at this, as he told Sir Phillip that for the first service at least they would need to move some of the new furniture and fittings into the building and at least one wagon would be required, possibly two. Sir Philip agreed to this, explaining that it was common practice to run the Railcars with a van in between them, and he could relax the rules to allow an extra wagon to be attached to the rear should it be required. The deal was struck and Tuesday July 4th agreed for the first run to take place.

Inspection of the line was made by the PW crew a week before the first run was due to take place, the lead content of the ground had kept any serious growth from taking place, there were some bramble bushes to cut down in the St.Johns area but these were quickly dealt with. The only problem that did appear was that the wooden keys from the rail chairs for the final half mile into Foxdale had been removed (possibly for kindling by the locals) these were replaced on a one in four basis, the rest could be fitted afterwards if the service was a success, a trial run was deemed an unnecessary luxury, a rather gung ho attitude perhaps, but one that was to resurface when the first container trains were trialled some time later.

By the Monday that the first service was due to take place, Douglas Station received a message to say that it was being requested to send the train down to Foxdale on the Tuesday as planned, but the furniture and fittings could only be moved into the building when the painters were finished, and with a liberal amount of Traa Dy Liooar having been applied by the contractors, this had overrun, so if the train could be left on the siding nearest to the Harbour please, then it could be unloaded overnight and return to Foxdale the following day, the new congregation would hold the dedication service and then bed down overnight in sleeping bags after the removals were complete.

And so it was that on the Tuesday afternoon the Donegal Railcars with The covered van between them and M55 being propelled, slipped not too silently out of St.Johns Station, past the turntable and line of abandoned cattle wagons, over the junction points and then, the driver having changed ends gingerly made its way up along the branch line to Foxdale.

On arrival, the train crew, driver and guard, were met by Cain and a group of men, all in clerical garb, who assisted them in hand shunting the open wagon the the Foxdale end of the train. A couple of vans pulled into the Station yard and the group began unloading the contents of the vans. To be honest it didn’t much look like church furniture, some elderly looking chairs and sideboards, a stack of paintings, none of which had any religious connection save one depicting a naked Mary Magdalene washing Jesus feet, at least that is what it looked a bit like from certain angles, and quite a few heavy sacks. Having loaded, the train and it’s passengers set off back down the line passing uneventfully over the bridges and the junction points and thence to Peel, where it was parked as requested. The crew, relieved of duty, returned to Douglas by the next service train.

What took place overnight is shrouded in mystery, with a few conflicting stories of the contents of the wagons being unloaded. Apparently the railway crew had padlocked the doors of the van and taken away the key, resulting in force being used to open them, too much force in fact, as the whole of one of the sides had fallen off and was lying like matchwood on the ground. A passer by, homeward bound to the terrace of Electricity Board houses by the power station, heard Cain shouting that “You were only supposed to crow the bloody doors off”

Others witnessed antique furniture and fittings and many heavy sacks being transferred on to a fishing boat tied up alongside, but by morning all had sailed into the distance, never to be seen again.

Later in the day the news on Manx Radio told of a daring raid on Konslieu House, a fine property situated above the Eairy Dam, removing the contents of priceless antiques and paintings and the contents of the family safe, it looked like an inside job, continued the report, a bogus Teaching Elder, from a non existent offshoot branch of the Presbyterian Church had been staying with the family. The raid being carried out as they were in Douglas for the day. Sadly the family never recovered from their losses, and were not insured, eventually they had to sell up, but remaining members are still in the area, in modest accommodation.

Sir Phillip was eventually relieved of his position, this episode being but one triggering factor to contribute to his demise, you will be no doubt be familiar with several of the others.

The Cain gang were never caught or the stolen goods recovered, the fishing boat capsized and sank with all on board lost, somewhere in the Irish Sea, a treasure trove awaits discovery.

As for the train crew, Lord Ailsa bought their silence to cover his embarrassment and no mention was ever subsequently made, the entire story might just have well been a work of fiction, however, recently a photograph taken by the guard of the train has come into my possession, make of it what you will.