Report by Sandra Millsopp
In Bangor we are fortunate to have a rail connection to Belfast and farther afield. At the Bangor Historical Society talk on 11th March we learnt how there were once many other lines in County Down. The talk was given by Dr. Steve Flanders and was called “Bangor and back for a bob” An introduction to the history of the Belfast and County Down Railway”.
Dr. Flanders began by explaining the background to railway development. The first passenger line in the British Isles was opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington. The first intercity line followed in 1830 and linked Liverpool and Manchester. Ireland’s first railway opened in 1834 between Dublin and Kingstown(now Dun Laoghaire). Ulster acquired its first railway in 1836 with the Ulster Railway Company’s line from Belfast (Great Victoria Street) to Lisburn. There was great public interest in this new form of technology. These railways were developed by private companies and investors were keen to get involved.
The Belfast and County Down Railway came into existence in the mid 1840s. A meeting of financiers, merchants etc was held in the Donegall Arms in Belfast in 1845 in order to set up the company. Its initial aim was to build a line from Belfast to Holywood. It faced competition from other schemes. One was the Great County Down Railway, but its plan to build many lines across the county came to nothing. Another scheme was for an atmospheric railway connecting Belfast and Holywood. This turned out to be a rather impractical scheme which involved building pumping stations at intervals along the track. There would also be a tube along the edge of the track. The pumps would evacuate the sir in the tube and arms would stick out and connect with arms on the carriages in order to pull the train along almost silently. Neither of these schemes went ahead, but the BCDR had to buy off both of these companies.
New railways needed acts of parliament to allow them to exist and cross public rights of way. They also received the right to go through private property, survey the land and forcibly buy out the owners. The BCDR received its Act of Parliament in 1846. We were then shown a map of the railway lines in County Down. Dr. Flanders explained the company’s proposals: a line from Belfast to Holywood and one from Belfast through Dundonald and on to Comber and Newtownards. The latter would then head south from Comber along the coast to Killyleagh and Downpatrick.
The next task of the company was to raise the necessary money. It was slow to come in and the company decided to concentrate on the Belfast to Holywood line in order to get some income. A terminus in Belfast was built at Queen’s Quay, close to the right bank of the Lagan and near the Queen’s Bridge. We were shown an old photograph of the building, although Dr. Flanders pointed out this was not the original station as it had been rebuilt. The line to Holywood opened in 1848 and Dr. Flanders read from the report of the opening on Wednesday 2nd August which appeared in the Newsletter. The carriages were very elegantly fitted up and passengers could purchase foot warmers. The journey took from 20 minutes to half an hour and about four trains a day ran in each direction. The contractor was William Dargan after whom one of the bridges in Belfast is named.
Work then started on the Comber section. This was not easy to build as there was a rising gradient from Ballymacarret to Dundonald. The line then fell way towards Comber. In all the distance was about 8 miles. By 1860 there was also a line to Newtownards with a station on the north side of the town, near the present bus station. By 1855 the company was making a small profit and was able to pay a dividend of 2% to investors. This had risen to 6% by the end of the nineteenth century. We were shown a map plotting railway lines in Ulster in 1860. The Ulster Railway’s line had reached Clones. The Northern Counties Company had opened the line from Belfast to Londonderry. Another line was run by the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway.
By 1855 the BCDR had obtained a second and expensive Act of Parliament. The route to Downpatrick was realigned so that it now ran inland and had a branch to Ballynahinch. This line was expensive to build as it ran through drumlin country and cuttings were needed. The Downpatrick station stood where the tourist office is now. The trains went into the town and then came out again to continue their journey.
The BCDR had never built the extension to Bangor which it had intended to do. A separate company was now set up in the 1850s to carry this out – the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway. It chose to continue the line from Holywood rather than make a branch from the Newtownards-Donaghadee line as the BCDR had planned. The principal man behind it was a Mr. Koch, a somewhat dubious London financier from the London Financial Association. The contractors were the Edwards Brothers. Landowners had to be compensated for the loss of land, when the line ran through their property. In 1860 the company obtained an Act of Parliament and work began on the line. It was only at Cultra that the landowner insisted on specific conditions: Half the trains had to call at the station and there had to be a first class carriage. Lord Clandeboye wanted a distinctive station at Helen’s Bay and it was built in the Scottish baronial style. His family had a private waiting room and a flight of steps linked the station to a courtyard and thence to the road, which ran to the estate. At Crawfordsburn a viaduct was built to carry the line over the river and woods. Finally a station was built at Bangor at the junction of Catherine Place and Abbey Street. We were shown a later photograph of the building. The line was finally opened in 1865.
The company hoped to increase business on the line by taking ideas from other railways which served seaside resorts. It was planned to build a railway hotel. Those buying one of the new houses in the town would be given a first class railway ticket for five years so that the owner could travel to work in Belfast. The company indeed did much to promote the development of the southern shore of the lough. Koch was involved in some dubious financial practices, trying to buy up property along the line in order to develop it for housing. His schemes came crashing down in 1866 when the banks, which he was tied up with, failed.
By 1884 the BCDR and the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway had merged and the wall separating the two operations at Queen’s Quay had been taken down. One of the problems of Queen’s Quay was that it lay on the other side of the river from the centre of Belfast. Then a tram system was developed which linked the two areas. At first the vehicles were horse drawn, but later they were electrified and by the 1930s they were actually entering the station. Dr. Flanders then described the accident on the line at Ballymacarret in 1871. An engine from Queen’s Quay was left in steam, but with no one in charge. It ran away and crashed into a passenger train. Two people were killed. The company tried to cover up the circumstances of the crash.
By 1900 the track to Bangor had been doubled, with the work being undertaken in sections. The line became one of the busiest in Ireland. Its existence encouraged the development of Bangor and other places in North Down, while the BCDR benefited from the growing numbers using the trains. As well as commuters the line became very popular with day trippers. The BCDR was also now running the Bangor boat – the steamer service from Belfast. People could take the train to Bangor and come back in the steamer or vice versa. This became very popular and the company made a great deal of profit.
The speaker then talked abut the line from Newtownards to Donaghadee via Conlig and Ballygrainey. The line went down to Donaghadee harbour as it was expected to serve the Donaghadee-Portpatrick sea route. In fact the route was never fully developed and Larne eventually replaced Donaghadee as the terminus of the short sea route from Scotland. The BCDR did not make the great financial gains it had expected.
The route from Downpatrick to Newcastle was a great success. The railway company built a hotel in the town – the Slieve Donard - and gave money for a golf course. It then began to run first class excursions for golf players. Porters met the passengers at the station and escorted them to the hotel. Then the golfers went onto the links, back to the hotel once more for lunch and then spent the afternoon on the links. They received accommodation for the weekend. Thus by 1900 the company was offering a kind of package holiday to people like wealthy merchants. They also paid money towards the development of the promenade. The hotel was operated by the UTA when it took over transport in Northern Ireland after World War II and was finally sold in 1966. A branch of this line to Ardglass intended to transport fish was not a success.
Dr. Flanders argued that the First World War played a significant part in the ultimate failure of the railway. There was little maintenance and the railway was run into the ground. Later, investment was desperately needed, but was not forthcoming. Road transport was becoming important. Men who had been taught to drive in the army were available for jobs in road transport. The BCDR tried to fight back by building more halts and improving signalling etc. It also became involved with the Ards TT. The Second World War also had a great effect and at its end the writing was on the wall. The UTA was established to take over transport and it closed all the lines of the BCDR except that from Belfast to Bangor.
Dr. Flanders concluded his most interesting talk by explaining that the Bangor line has more recently undergone a renaissance with the new Spanish built trains, the erection of the Dargan Bridge and the creation of Central Station.