New Year's Day Lecture 2021

by Curtis Devereau

Ladies and Gentlemen, this year I am looking at the takeover of the Northern line by the Isle of Man Railway Company, and am happy to include some personal family history into the story that is about to unfold.

As is well documented, once the IMR had taken control of the whole system, the former MNR equipment -Sharp, Stewart locomotives and Cleminson coaches- were regarded with suspicion and largely sidelined, if used at all, they were largely confined to ‘home waters’, i.e. use on the old Northern and Foxdale lines.

Now notable exceptions here of course are the two Hurst, Nelson Bogie carriages, the ‘Foxdale’ coach, assorted goods vehicles, locomotive “Thornhill” and to a lesser extent locomotive “Caledonia “ all of these swing regulars use up until the 1960’s with the Cale and Foxdale coach, together with the sole remaining goods van surviving to this day.

My story of a rather unusual excursion comes from a surprisingly detailed reference in a family diary that has been handed down to me through the generations.

On my mother’s side I am descended from the Cowleys of Little London by way of the Cranstal Cowleys, the Cowleys of East Baldwin and The Lone Cowley of Niarbyl, of whom little is known.

The diary is that of Elisabeth Cowley (Little London), who was born in 1890 and was therefore in her teens at the time of writing. She recalls a summer trip with her parents, uncles, aunts and other family under the auspices of Cowley, Cowley, Sons and Cowley, Grain and Feed Merchants, who at the time were tenants of No.3, The Quay, Ramsey. As Northern folk with an ear to history may know, there was another large family business in Ramsey dealing in legal matters, they being Cowley, Cowley, Cowley, Crowley** and Crawley***. It is important the two establishments are not confused.

The diary opens with a rather florid description of Edwardian chip papers blowing towards the swing bridge, and gulls taking turns to alight on the ridge tiles of the warehouse; before long the party assemble and make their way to Ramsey station, where good use is made of the Refreshment Room; Elisabeth partakes of an early morning sarsaparilla.

With an uncharacteristic eye for detail, she records not only the way the light angles through several glasses of beer, but also the composition of the special train that has been chartered: No.1 Ramsey, plus a pair of six-wheeled coaches, and most unusually the Manx Northern Kipper Van (see The Curtis Chronicles 2012).

Train Guard on the day by chance was her second cousin, Cowley R Cowley, who (10+ years after the take-over) still sported polished MNR brass buttons on his IMR uniform; these buttons were attached through the jacket by a length of string, onto which were also fastened a full set of IMR buttons. When passing from Northern Territory into that of the IMR, the string would be pulled through and the second button set displayed, presumably so as not to incur the wrath of Mr Wood, the IMR Secretary/ Manager. Incidentally, Cowley R Cowley’s brother, Cowley P Cowley (1897 – 1963), also worked for the railways and was said to have a girl at every station, with the exception of St Germains; and Peel Road only on Wednesdays.

But I digress: back to our excursion. The train left promptly at 10:10 a.m., with Lizzie imagining a jaunt to Glen Wyllin; her great Uncle Rowley Cowley* was not given to unnecessary expenditure, and a modest outing was no doubt the order of the day. On reading the diary, we learn that Ballaugh is passed at speed, no pause is made at Michael, and St Germains is reached in near-record time; water is taken on through somewhat unconventional means -details of which are sadly unclear, as there is much crossing out- before the train departs once more.

A brief diversion is made into the old MNR station at St John’s so that tickets can be checked and supplementary paper chits issued bearing the magical destination of Port Erin. After much to-ing and fro-ing (presumably to get the train back onto the main line and into St Johns IMR station, although there is an inference of a ballast wagon picked up), water is taken (and something a little stronger for the Cowley folk at the Railway Junction Hotel) before the special heads on towards the capital.

It is also noted that the Kipper Van is detached and added to the Foxdale train.

Contrary to received history, the exclusively ex-MNR train is permitted to travel over IMR metals, finally reaching Port Erin in time for somewhat tired fish and chips and a cream soda. A blissful afternoon and early evening is spent on the golden sands, with the nautical Cowleys taking a boat to The Chasms and back, while the merely aquatic indulge in paddling and rockpooling. A late tea is taken at Robertson’s, and the train is boarded, making Douglas in good time.

A prolonged spell in the Station Bar is deemed necessary whilst the locomotive is oiled, coaled, watered and looked over disapprovingly by a gathering of IMR staff before the return North is made through the balmy August night, windows open and the stars bright.

From my research, it would seem that this was the possibly the only time an MNR Sharpie ran a passenger train to Port Erin. It is however known as fact that a few years later Ramsey would return as a PW loco to lay in the bay sidings before dropping out of sight, until being sensationally rediscovered by myself several years ago in India (see the Curtis Chronicles 2017, and a prolonged correspondence lodged with Cowley, Cowley, Cowley and Cowley (Advocates IOM) regarding unpaid reverse telephone charges in the case also known as Devereaux vs. Landlord).

Sadly no photographic evidence of any of this summer jaunt survives, but I have no reason to doubt the truth the diary entry; Miss Elizabeth Cowley served on the Douglas Bench for many years with an unimpeachable record and reputation.

The following points were not part of the lecture, but were communicated in subsequent bar-room conversation and have been included here in the interests of completeness.

* Rowley Cowley solely played goalie for lowly Cronk Bwoaillee FC; it was a role he did slowly, and not at all showily. He trained wholly on broccoli.

** It is said that in retirement Mr Crowley engaged in necromancy, following in the footsteps of Aleister (no relation). He was widely referred to a Creepy Crowley, although not to his face.

*** Mr Crawley also went over to The Dark Side: he bought a cottage in South Laxey that overlooked the tramlines and kept a notebook, binoculars and camera on the kitchen windowsill.