New Year's Day Lecture 2023
by Curtis Devereau
A cry for freedom and a small mystery solved
Just when you might think that every detail of Manx Steam railway history had been found, something new and unexpected always seems to crop up.
Attendees of my previous lectures will be familiar with the finding of the last Kipper Van, the discovery of the fate of the vanished MNR Sharpie, the IMR/MER Christmas truce football match and many other tales of derring-do.
It has been my pleasure to relate these over the years and the reward has been the manner in which they have been received, and indeed, chronicled for eternity by the guardians of this fine temple of information.
This year, even I was astonished by the information that was passed on, from one of my highest and most reliable sources which, in accordance with Manx Secret Service nomenclature, I prefer to call ‘Source Mannanan’. Needless to say, it comes with the highest probability of authenticity.
In early February I was contacted by an acquaintance from the Government Offices. Without giving any detail to implicate themselves, (in the true civil service tradition, naturally) it was suggested that I might take an interest in the Freedom Of Information requests section of the Government website on the morning of February 7th; information had been sought on one particular subject, and the response given ‘might set you off on an interesting trail of discovery’, I was told.
I needed no further encouragement, and upon the due date scanned the FOI requests, to find one asking questions on the refurbishment of Douglas Railway Station and an apparent financial discrepancy. The answer to the request was only partly granted, with plentiful redaction covering certain aspects under contractual sensitivity, which was in itself rather puzzling.
Having trawled through previous applications, approvals and debates on the subject, I formed a list of names of those who might know the real answers and divided it into two groups: Drinkers and Non Drinkers. Fully expecting to having to pay out for several rounds of drinks to over a dozen or so seasoned imbibers, I was fortunate to secure funding from The Onchan Brewery which ensured financial security. I was therefore very surprised to get a knock on my front door a night or so later from one of the prominent names on the non-drinkers list, who told me that having noticed my interest in the FOI request, he had something to tell me that he was sure I would find helpful; reaching for my catering pack of Fairy Glen teabags, I put the kettle on and set my smartphone to record…
Now, should this be a television programme or small budget film, this would be the part where the lines go all wavy and into soft focus for a few seconds as the story shifts back into time, as my informant blew the steam from the top of his first mug of tea and began his story. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The clock tower at Douglas Station has stood as the sentinel of official railway time since the 1890’s; its mechanism, supplied by Smiths Clockmakers was wound religiously, twice a week. Up until the mid-1940’s, the task of winding fell to a porter named Alexander Quirk, who was employed at the station. Details are sketchy, but it appears that shortly after the end of the war Porter Quirk was involved in some sort of love triangle, resulting in a pair of bloomers being flown from the top of the clock tower for a few brief hours. Shortly afterwards, Porter Quirk was sacked in a move that was resented by many members of the railway staff: for many years his story would be retold in Douglas shed bothy, N41: and became known, apocryphally at least, as The Quirk Of Fate. What is more certain is that, regardless of any reason why, the task of winding the station clock was taken over by senior members of staff from the Administrative Building next door.
In all truth, the remaining porters were quite glad to be removed from responsibility: the task involved climbing two sets of ladders and then balancing rather precariously on one of the beams behind the clock face, which had played to Porter Quirk’s lightness of foot, nimbleness and agility. Unsurprisingly, the local newspapers recorded Quirk having won several ballroom dancing competitions during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s; he is clearly a man deserving further research.
Whatever its origins, the practice of the clock being attended to by admin managers continued until 1964, when it suddenly stopped and reverted back to the station staff. With many of the formal records having passed into private hands, we are left with verbal history to account for the change: it is believed that a squabble over who was to bear the cost of a replacement ladder may have been the catalyst. Nevertheless, from then on, the only time that the Admin team ever went back into the clock tower was one evening in September 1977. With the railway being in somewhat turbulent times, rostering staff for an apparently mundane task was not a high priority; and in an unfortunate lapse, the task fell to the Admin team.
To set the scene, it is worth knowing something of the architecture of the building: situated at the the top of the structure, the clock room is a fairly large open area; according to my informant, should you ever go up there, you will see a section of recently disturbed brickwork. It is alleged that, during the refurbishment of the clock tower (which was properly costed into the general upgrade scheme) the contractors found a false wall, roughly built; and embedded into this wall was a rough wooden door marked ‘Do Not Open Under Any Circumstance’. Ignoring this imprecation, the contractors opened the door and found, covered in part by an ancient London, Brighton and South Coast Railway tarpaulin, a battered and rusty Milners pattern safe.
Following the careful and technical use of both sledge and lump hammers, and the snapping of several bolster chisels, the safe was lowered gently from the tower and the best locksmith on the island was summoned to open it. Sadly he was Across at the time, so Adey from ManxLox24 attended; he employed a similar approach to the famed Milner-Price comparison although fortunately with less catastrophic results. On opening the safe, and much to the astonishment of all concerned, it was found to contain nothing but a balloon, a 1963 copy of the Playboy Playmate calendar and a scrap of paper with a telephone number written on it and the scrawled instruction to call this number should this safe ever be opened.
After some search made via British Telecom (for of course this was a pre-Manx Telecom number) and the Post Office telephone and telegraph records archive, the number turned out to be connected to a small dark almost forgotten office in the basement of the Treasury section of the Government offices.
The number was called, and after ringing for an eternity, was eventually answered by an elderly and breathless voice. Upon having the story of the safe relayed to him, the answering voice hesitantly said that “this is above my responsibility, you will have an appointment made to speak to the Chief Financial Officer and the Minister, leave this with me”.
And so it was, said my informant (now on his fourth coffee in twenty minutes, and starting to become somewhat agitated) that a delegation from the Transport Division, the refurbishment contractor, and the scheme architects met with the CFO and the Minister, behind locked doors.
It was revealed that during the negotiations that took place leading up to the nationalisation of the Steam Railway in 1977, it was confirmed that from the middle of the 1940’s until 1964 (and as many had suspected), the railway was being heavily subsidised by receipts from both Road Services and the parcels business. This subsidy was hidden through the issue of special tickets by the bus conductors and ticket office clerks, with staff being paid a ‘bonus’ for their efforts; the cash generated was then turned into stocks and shares - and even gold bullion - to future-proof it, with all the documentation being kept safe in the Milner safe up in the clock tower. A quirk of Porter Quirk’s demise was that the accounts could be deposited twice a week by the Administration Building managers - working under direct order from the highest of Authority - without any outside agencies being aware of the practice. It turns out Porter Quirk was not the only one who could lead a merry dance…
The practice ceased after an unfortunate but inevitable passing, at which time an entirely new management took over and the real state of the railway affairs soon became evident. Unknown to them, the secret safe was kept hidden, and almost forgotten about until, as part of the Government take-over, a long-serving member of staff tipped a wink to his local MHK, and under cover of darkness and high security measures the evidence was removed from the tower and into the Government’s care.
Such was the income generated over the years by the stocks, shares and gold over the years that it posed quite a problem as to what to do with it all without raising suspicion and so it was decided that the bulk of the money would be filtered into the general financial channels of the Department through the purchase of a ‘cash sponge’ - there is scope for significant speculation as to what this might have been - although another chunk of money would help finance the Station refurbishment rather appropriately…
Of course none of this can be confirmed and I leave it to you to decide just how big the 'pinch of salt' might need to be.
Ordinarily that would be enough for one year’s lecture, but as an aside, my informant also casually said “by the way, do you know why locomotive number 5 has only one side tank number plate?”
Having studied the various tank side-patches, rivet spacings and numeral plaques for many years, leading to my (currently unpublished) thesis on the subject, I confessed that I did not know, and was intrigued to hear that it was my informant’s grandfather who had fitted the numbers to both tanks of Hutchinson and one tank of Mona. Being of a slight build and height, and therefore unsuited to the Manx Constabulary - which had been his first preference - his grandfather became an apprentice in the steam workshops. It was decided that, as standard practice when the locomotives received new boilers with cast shorter chimneys, the numbers would transfer from the chimneys to the tanks, and being the smallest person in the works it was his grandfather’s job to go inside the tanks while the number plinths were riveted in. They did number 12 first, but by the time it was number 5’s turn, his grandfather had handed in his notice, as he had managed to get better-paid employment with the Steam Packet, and so had only time to do one side before he left, and there was no one else prepared to go inside the other tank to finish the job off.
With this I’ll thank you all and wish you all a Happy New Year, pausing only to say that rides on the railway’s 'No23 Simulator' are available in the car park on a strictly ‘first come, first served’ basis: please form an orderly queue”.