Portadown station in the 1940s

1996/97 - 1997

Living at Portadown station in the 1940s

by Arnold Sleator

What are your memories of where you were brought up? I suppose they are a kaleidoscope of things which seemed so important then.

I lived at Portadown Station for seven years, which covered the war period. Station Villa was a pleasant and roomy house, with a large garden and an orchard - an ideal place to play. Tadpoles and frogs were found in abundance in the drains around the garden which formed the boundary with Eden Hall (now Chambers Park). If you wanted an apple, a plum or a gooseberry in season, you just picked them. Apples were stored in the autumn in wooden trays in a cold store, and this room always had a lovely fruity smell.

Prize blooms

My father grew prize chrysanthemums with the help of Bob McCauley or "Cauley" as he was known to me, who was also a porter at the station. To assist this project, there was a mysterious boiler house underneath a large split level greenhouse. The boiler had to be stoked to keep warm water circulating in large bore pipes in the hot house above, and woe betide anyone who left the door open when the prize blooms were coming to perfection.

The station built about 1863 (now sadly demolished) was an imposing building with a clock above a porticoed facade leading into the booking hall. Just to the left of the portico was the taxi stand. You were rather grand in those days if you used a taxi. The vehicles themselves were like Al Capone saloons and had real leather upholstery. The drivers wore cloth caps and always seemed to have a cigarette at the side of their mouths. My favourite driver was called Hinds. Off the booking hall was a doorway to the penthouse perched on top of the station. The Lambert family used to live there.

Early photograph of Portadown Railway Station

There was a big brass push bell at the entrance inscribed "Ring for a Porter" and the traveller had to queue at a number of little windows which had a small elliptical hole to speak through and a larger arch shaped hole were money and tickets exchanged. The wooden shelf where this took place was worn smooth and hollow with the passage of money and tickets down the years, and a glance through the window showed rack upon rack of tickets to what seemed every destination under the sun. The booking clerk (and Tommy Reilly dispensed the tickets for many years), would snap the bottom ticket out, press each end in turn into a black cylindrical machine which printed the date, and you were off to the next event on your journey.

The "barrier"

This was the "barrier" or to be more precise the ticket collector. His job was to know everything, to nick a little triangle out of the edge of your ticket and then direct you to the correct platform. Portadown had four platforms and almost four hundred arrivals and departures per week. Ticket collectors were well known personalities with a very quick wit. Perhaps the best known at Portadown was Leslie Adams. Haughty lady, to Leslie: "My man, how long will this train be?" Leslie to Lady: "Madam, it usually has an engine, three coaches and a guards van."

During the war there was additional scrutiny at the "barrier". Often a detective would be on duty, and he became the bogey man for all misbehaving little boys. "If you do not finish your tea, Heyburn will get you. " I am sure Detective Heyburn was a kindly man, but I always gave him a wide and fearful berth.

Top link driver Eamon O'Hara of Lurgan who began his railway career as a cleaner at Portadown Motive Depot in the 1940s

Once on the platforms, the traveller could use a number of facilities. There was an imposing refreshment room to the left, run by Miss Combie. This was high ceilinged with small tables and a counter running across one end, with great shining urns which hissed and spat water in the effort to make the traveller a cup of tea. There was also an Easons bookstall at the end of number one platform, just after the tunnel which served the other three platforms. It had a brass bar which you stretched to make your purchase. Later the bookstall was moved to the centre of number two and three platforms at one end of the green wooden waiting room with its small panes of glass. A cafeteria and bar were also later built on this island platform.

The tunnels

The station had two tunnels - the one at the bookstall end served all four platforms, but the one at the north end of number one platform only connected with number four platform and I suspect was the earlier of the two. These tunnels were very frightening places for little people. They were wooden floored, ill-lit and echoed to all the sounds of the station. When a train passed overhead it was as if judgement day had come.

Number one and four platforms were well served by waiting rooms; first and second class with upholstered seats and a big coal fire in winter; third class with more spartan wooden benches. The waiting rooms on number four platform were particularly decorated with photographs of scenes of Belfast, Bundoran, Rostrevor, Dublin, Armagh and Derry as Portadown was a main line junction with lines to Dublin, Cavan, Derry and branches from these serving Enniskillen, Newry and Warrenpoint.

Dublin Express at Portadown

You never insulted the Dublin Express by shouting the names of intermediate stations at it, but other platforms echoed to the sounds of: Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane and Derry or Armagh, Tynan, Monaghan, Clones and Cavan. As the big wheels of the Dublin engines spun before gripping, a cloud of steam and the deep throated cough at the funnel defied anything to stand in the way, the railway station was an exciting place to live.

There were other areas of the station which the travelling public did not see, but which a small boy could usually worm his way into. There was the lamp room. A wonderful place of oily rags and paraffin smells, where the paraffin lamps at the front and end of each train were maintained, as well as the lamps which went into the signals. Much of the safety of the system depended on these lamps.

Telegraph Office

There was the telegraph office just off the station master's office. A mysterious office where bells chimed and the hands of instruments flickered backwards and forwards. The telegraphists sat with a little tapping machine, tapping away at great speed in morse. Their skills were such that they could identify the sender by the way the "clicker" was responding. This was the centre for the good and bad news for the town.

Goods Office

The goods office was a hive of activity, with the consignment clerks dealing with all shapes and sizes of parcels which were suitable for the goods van of a passenger train. In those days the long straw bales of well packed trees and roses from McGredy's Nurseries were a feature, as well as boxes of chirping chickens from a local hatchery, and chests of tea from a local tea blender. The heavy stuff moved from the goods yard up the line, and of course there were always the long lines of cattle trucks, which the shunter had to back-up on loose couplings so that the engine could finally cope with the gigantic load as it moved off. The crash of the buffer's of the goods trains in the sidings is still a vivid sound memory. Another thing you quickly learned was not to walk down the side of a loaded cattle train when it was parked. The cattle seemed to know you were there!

Post Office sorting office

At the north end of platform one was the post office, sorting office, the heavy brown mail bags from all the mail trains were trundled in deep wooden barrows with a cross axle in the middle and a free wheel at each end. The Province's mail was moved by rail in those days, and there was often a mountain of mail bags waiting to be sorted. The sorting office had a separate entrance down a narrow lane from the station forecourt and this was always busy with postmen coming and going on their bicycles.

Stationmaster's Office

Perhaps the most imposing office in the station was the stationmaster's office. You went in through a small vestibule surrounded by frosted glass partitions and into the main office. This had a large desk, and there were side tables and a great cupboard beside the fireplace. The station safe was against the wall, and the master-clock which controlled all the station clocks was enclosed in a long mahogany cabinet. Frith's engraving of "The Railway Station" hung on the side wall going in (now in the Ulster Transport Museum), and except in the summertime there was always a large coal fire burning in the grate. The room was big and comfortable, befitting the position of the man who carried a lot of responsibility for maintaining transport and commerce in the hub of the north.

Wages and statistical returns were prepared in large duplicate books with blue copy paper between the leaves. To assist their legibility these books had to be placed in a cast iron press where the book was screwed between the cast iron plates and left for a time. The station clocks always moved on with a small click as the hand jumped forward. This had a peculiar fascination for a small boy, and one day a combination of circumstances came about which allowed an investigation. The station-master's absence for a moment from the office, and the fact that the glass case of the master clock had been left open, allowed an experiment with time. That day, travellers to many parts of Ulster were ten minutes late, and there were some chaotic connections down the lines. Other connections at home were not as chaotic!

Signalman switching out the North Cabin at Portadown prior to the opening of the new NIR station at Portadown

The station had two foremen, Tom Cassells and Ned Reilly, and the porters I knew included Tommy McKeague and Tommy Woods (later to become a Methodist Minister). Tommy Bullick was a signalman at the north box and allowed you to pull some levers in his warm and cosy cabin and drink black tea from the billycan always stewing at the cabin fire. Tommy Dawson from Park Road was the station carpenter and Matson was the plumber. Jobs required at the station house were always on "The Firm" as well as a number of "Toy Orders" at Christmas.

There was a dark shadow to life at the station when war came. An air-raid shelter was erected in the station forecourt. My recollection was that first of all this had a zigzag roof, but then someone said the bombs would be held in the zigzags and they changed it to a flat roof, presumably so that the bombs would bounce off! There was the wail of the siren, and on some nights when engines were heard overhead there was a quick grab of the bedclothes and a rush to safety under the stairs.

There were other nights of searchlights in the sky and the dull ominous glow of a red sky in the direction of Belfast. There were nights when the movement of troop trains and the storage of train sets from Belfast were never ending and my father came home exhausted, and fell asleep on the bed fully clothed, ready to turn out again at a moments notice.

There was the blackness of everything at night, with black-out curtains, and only glimmers of light from the ghostly station, and the slitted lights of the few cars and bicycles still moving around.

An AEC-Park Royal multiple railcar unit passing the engine shed at Portadown

Railway Street (as it was more often known then) or Watson Street was firmly part of Edenderry. During the war, soldiers were based in the old linen factory or Watson Armstrong & Co., (then to become Wades). At the corner of Watson Street leading down to "The Hollow" was Rocke's corner shop (Rockeden House). This had a small cafe and tea-room at the back and it was not unusual to see woe-begotten groups of German prisoners of' war being fed at the cafe, prior to being put in lorries for transfer to the prison camp at Moyallon. Dinny Rocke also kept a number of cows (which were grazed in the Bann Meadows) in a byre at the back of the tea-room. This was the local milk supply. Next door to the Rockes lived the Downey family.

Down at the bottom of the street were two other notable businesses - John Dermott's grocery shop (now Weir's) and opposite Moffett's Studios, where a large part of the social life and personalities of the town was recorded in photographs. Prominent family names in the street (or in Florence Court as it existed then) were the Roney's, McCrory's and McNally's, some of whom gave decades of service to the surrounding linen factories and Portadown foundry.

Although we left the station in 1944, railways had become part of the fabric of life, and will always have a lasting interest. A traveller coming out of the station a few years later may have blinked once or twice to see a line of elephants walking down Watson Street trunk to tail. Chipperfield's Circus had come to town. You could hardly move an elephant by bus!

Great Northern Railways<
Ulster Railways
Portadown and Dungannon Railway Company