New Year's Day Lecture 2020

by Curtis Devereau

Ladies and Gentlemen, this years New Year Lecture is titled The Calf of Man Tramway. This may seem an unusual choice, given that small island’s international reputation as a nature reserve, but having re-read James Boyd’s three-volume history and having cross-referenced official IMR and House of Keys documents just released to the public, I have an important phase of railway history to expound and explain.

In 1933, the Railway were approached by the Northern Lighthouse Board to provide a spur off the South Line to a quarry up near Darragh; the quarry had been created as cover for a tunnelling project carried out by the British Army in the First World War, in preparation for the assault on Vimy Ridge. The NLB got wind of the abandoned diggings and thought it might be possible to extend the tunnel to permit the supply coal and other supplies to the Calf of Man lighthouse using a cable-hauled tramway, thereby avoiding a treacherous and storm-dependent supply route. IMR wagons would be delivered to the tunnel mouth, clipped on to a steel hawser, and hauled through, returning with waste from the lighthouse station -an early example, perhaps, of recycling. But given the fractured and distorted geology of the area, there were numerous problems with flooding; and although a few trains ran up to Darragh Quarry (comprised of a loco and a couple of M wagons at most), the project was quickly abandoned. Always on the lookout for free materials, the IMR (which, contrary to Boyd, had purchased a chassis for the 4-wheel/flat wagon project, with records being destroyed in the Second World War) sent the new PW Dept combination combination to Darragh Quarry to salvage as much of the cable-hauled tramway rail as possible before the line flooded completely. Unfortunately the line was largely under water, so apart from a few lengths of rail (eventually used for fence posts near Four Roads, and causing much head-scratching amongst my fellow railway historians, who couldn't work out where they came from) nothing of note was recovered. In fact, the state of the tunnel caused so much alarm, that the tunnel was walled up on public safety grounds and the lightly-laid line (which had not been ballasted) was quickly lifted. A subsequent rock fall covered the entrance to the tunnel, with its existence passing from public memory.

In the summer of 2018, Farmer Cringle was extracting walling stone at the quarry when he triggered a further landslip, which revealed a bricked-up entrance. Ever inquisitive, he used his tractor-mounted bale spike to knock a hole in the wall, and peered inside. A short distance away, three foot gauge tramway rails disappeared down a steeply-sloping tunnel into the inky blackness, and running water could be heard. Farmer Cringle sealed the tunnel with rubble and immediately passed me details of his find. One challenge was that Farmer Cringle was not the landowner -he was in fact trespassing at the time of the discovery- so a council a council of war took place in the Jug Bar of the Railway Tavern. By November, the Manx Mines Research Group had been contacted, and they carried out an initial underground survey down to the point where the rails disappeared beneath the water, about 500 metres from the entrance. There was no sign of any IMR rolling stock, and at that point they were unable to locate the other end of the tunnel on the Calf of Man, and having mapped the short line, the tunnel was re-sealed.

I resumed the search for the tunnel entrance on the Calf, running up a considerable debt with Corlett's Cruises in the process. I was pleased to find the opening in June 2019, and once again contacted the MMRG to request a survey. The tunnel was much harder to negotiate, with a combination of rockfall, low ceiling height and rotten sleepers making progress slow and complicated.

But I am now able to reveal a unique discovery: the cavers found a mystery piece of rolling stock which appeared to be wedged firmly in the tunnel. How it got there, considering the cable-hauled section was for wagons only, remains a mystery. Fortunately this end of the tunnel was dry, and the vehicle was found to be in sound condition although cosmetically dilapidated after 80 years underground. It would appear that rather than a four-wheeled carriage body, someone at Douglas had used an E Van body paired with a flat section; presumably the total loss of the vehicle whilst undergoing testing is the reason why it never appeared on the official stock lists.

Given the environmental sensitivity of the Calf, acquisition and removal of 'P.1' as it has been nicknamed (although there is no evidence it ever carried a number, having been lost so early in its working life) was fraught, and protracted negotiations with representatives of the Manx Government slowed the project considerably. But finally, working in complete secrecy (even the Nature Reserve warden was unaware) this unique piece of Manx railway history was removed from its resting place. It is now in the possession of an on-Island collector, who has restored the chassis to bring it up to modern safety standards whilst keeping it under lock and key at a secret location. If you would care to join me in the station yard, you can have first sight of this unique piece of railway history in its 'as found' condition.