Local Stories Maghera Railway

My Grandfather, The Station Master


My grandfather, Wilbert Herbert Wilson was one of those men who commanded a quiet respect- not because of any great achievement but because he led by example. This respect came easily to us, his grandchildren, and to all who knew him. He was a Draperstown man whose father was Royal Irish Constabulary Sgt. William John Wilson and whose mother was Margaret Sargent, a dressmaker from Draperstown.

While still little more than a boy he left Draperstown with his uncle, Henry Sargent, his mother’s younger brother, to seek work in Canada arriving in Manitoba. Unfortunately, young Henry was shot by accident while out hunting a short time after their arrival and sadly did not return to Draperstown. My Grandfather came back to Ireland in 1916 still a young man. He tried to enlist in the army but his application was rejected for medical reasons. His twin brother was accepted and saw action with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. (Like his brother, Gordon was a railwayman too).

On his return, my grandfather obtained work as a railway clerk and married my grandmother, Mary Lynn, in 1918 at Magherafelt when they both were twenty-six. My grandmother was a dressmaker from Tobermore, the daughter of John Lynn a shoemaker, and Margaret Gilmore. Her sister, Margaret, also worked as a dressmaker.

My Grandfather became the Station Master at Killagan Station, midway between Ballymena and Ballymoney, before being transferred to Maghera in 1928 where the family took up residence in the Station House. The family had a maid called Lily who came with them from Killagan and who met and married Joe O’Hagan- later settling in Crawfordsburn close to my grandparents’ house.

My grandfather attended the Parish Church where he was in the choir along with my mother. He was a fine singer with the ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ being a particular favourite. He was also a member of the Masonic Lodge. As Stationmaster in Maghera my grandfather had a considerable amount of bookwork to contend with but was ably assisted by my mother in this capacity if assistance was required. As there was a considerable amount of ground around the stationhouse at this time, even a small field, he was able to maintain a small farm after his career had come to an end. My grandparents stayed at Station House until they moved to Crawfordsburn in 1953.

As a small boy I can recall my grandfather taking me around the Coleraine Road to see the Maghera Reds playing football. We walked along the laneway with the players towards the pitch in there red shirts and white shorts. The Dallas boys, two brothers, were playing at this time. The simple game was much enjoyed by those of us standing at the touchline. He later took my brother and myself to watch Coleraine playing at the Showgrounds. He also took my brother to see Northern Ireland playing at Windsor Park and when I was old enough he took us both. He loved the game and I can remember going down the town on a Saturday evening to wait around in O’Donnell’s shop in Hall Street to get him a copy of the ‘Ireland’s Saturday Night’. The ISN was an important source of information for the ordinary football fan until it ceased publication. Behind the counter ’The Rose of Maghera’ Mary Jane Glass and her assistant were waiting patiently with the rest of us for the precious bundle to arrive. The Derry bus, itself seemed reluctant to stop so increasing the tension and adding a sense of urgency to the occasion lest it should trundle on past without making the important delivery. After the ensuing scramble we each departed to our various abodes with our precious copy of the ‘Pink’ to be read at the earliest opportunity.
My grandfather was a keen angler, and so it was as I grew up I became one too. His quarry was the native wild brown trout and he would have considered the quest for a salmon as pot luck, devoid of the necessary skill involved to catch a decent trout. As a small boy I remember him coming through the door at night returning from the river and dumping his catch on the worktop. He would then sit in a wooden chair which was in the corner of the kitchen so that we could remove the large waders he was wearing and if- due to the large number of patches applied- the socks had got damp we knew not to tell our grandmother about this. He had a selection of fishing rods a hand-made creel and a wallet for his flies.

In particular I remember that he took me to fish with him one day when I was little, near Swatragh and I closely followed his progress along the stream- being careful not to scare the trout in the process. In later life he began to travel with good friends Hans Gabathuler, manager of the handkerchief factory in Hall Street, and Willie McKee the breadman from Tamney Crescent to the Glenelly river which he became very fond of.

One day I also fished there with him myself. As he became older his friends would have been watching out for his safety. At last, sadly, the day came when he had to say goodbye to the river. After that I remember Willie kindly bringing a nice catch of trout to the house one evening for us to eat. If I had a catch myself, I arranged them on a plate and presented it to him for his approval as he sat in his favourite armchair reading the paper or doing the crossword.

Although I no longer fish myself I still have his favourite fishing rod in my collection. Ironically, I was fishing with this on 3rd October ’75 for trout, using light tackle, when I hooked and landed an Atlantic salmon weighing 6lb 3ozs at Drumcannon. The Upperlands river was a personal favourite of mine and produced the best trout fishing in the Maghera area at the time.

I sometime made notes about my fishing with regard to what I had caught and where I had caught it. One day I came across some notes my grandfather had made of a similar nature and I realised how alike we were in our approach to our chosen pastime.

After my grandfather retired from the railway, he became secretary of the Northern Ireland Rifle Association which was a continuation of the clerical work he would have been doing when he was Stationmaster. I can recall being at a meeting with him and my brother at a shooting range in the townland of Moneyshare outside Tobermore on the Draperstown road where my brother and I were changing the targets. It was the month of August and it was nice to get a little trip out of the town. There was a bar in one of the buildings where the barman was Norman Clarke who lived in one of the prefabricated houses in Crawfordsburn- commonly referred to as ‘Tintown’. My grandfather was at the centre of the proceedings making sure it all went smoothly. He was assisted by the marshal- Wee Willie Cunningham with his armband.

He smoked without taking the cigarette from his mouth as he surveyed the range and was generous with the brylcreem trying to keep the hair out of the way. Herbie McNicholl who had a drapers shop in Hall Street at the time was also involved in running the Northern Ireland Rifle Association as Hon Treasurer. I thought it was brilliant the way I could come and go to see Norman at the bar for refreshments and sandwiches as often as I liked without the need for payment.

I suppose this was partly because of our work changing targets- though on a summer’s day in Moneyshare with our grandfather and his companions we would not have required any payment. Sunday was a very quiet day in our household. I attended the Presbyterian church Sunday School in the morning with my friend John Kennedy and then we waited around for the main church service at noon. The family had a seat no. 3 in the balcony and the minister was Rev Denis Clark. The Sunday School Superintendent was Bobby Martin and I still have my prizes signed by the Rev Clark and Mr Martin from 1959 onwards. Our teacher was Sue Peden.

My grandfather was with the Church of Ireland. After we got home from church, we had our Sunday dinner which was the best dinner of the week prepared by my mother. We also wore our best clothes referred to as our ‘Sunday Best’. My grandmother insisted that we kept this day special and so there was no housework done or television turned on.

This was the time that my grandfather, my brother and myself set of up the road in our ‘Sunday Best’ for the Sunday walk. As we walked, we met other groups of people we knew, who were also dressed the same, coming in the opposite direction. There was very little traffic and so it was more carefree than it would be today.

From Crawfordsburn a favourite walk was straight up the Pound Road to a small reed-fringed lake we called Killylagh Lough and then back to the estate. Alternatively, by turning left after the first hill on the Pound Road we headed towards Ballyknock Hill having to pass a house where the dogs were not too friendly along the way. As we climbed the hill the farmhouse on the left-hand section of the road had a magnificent flowering currant hedge which, when in bloom produced a marvellous scent. On Ballyknock itself the view was very impressive.

Here was the beautiful glen that the balladist had been singing about. The verdant braes and the lovely plain. The happy vista of my childhood and my own dear corner of Derry. Then after due appreciation of the splendid panorama we set of down the hill with the option of returning home by a different route through the Glen of Tullyheron. At the foot of the hill the tiny Mullagh river was winding its way through the quiet meadows towards the town on its journey to meet the Moyola at Curran.

Here too was a cottage at the bridge by the stream- and the rustic pathway there. So thoroughly invigorated, we made our way towards the Glen Road corner then Crawfordsburn and home. At the junction of the Pound Road and the Wee Calahame Road there was a patch of land covered in whin bushes called Kelly’s Rock. The first house on the Pound Road adjacent to this place was Dan Scoot’s Cottage.

It is amazing, and perhaps thought provoking, that some people at that time were allowed to live in what was little more than a superior garden shed with a half door, if they so wished, and nobody bothered with them or tried to tell them how to live their lives. The walk along Calahame Road past Kelly’s Rock was very rural with perhaps about two houses.

In the first house lived Miss Kathleen Grey who was in charge of the local girl guides. The second house was Graham’s farmhouse which had an apple orchard and this was more or less the end of the road except for a laneway that ran straight ahead to a derelict cottage with a plum orchard. A laneway continued on around past Graham’s house to a small glen type area known as Fairies Castle.

It continued on to a small wilderness before it joined the main road to Swatragh on the other side of the hill outside town. My grandmother was a lovely person who was perfectly content to look after my grandfather to the best of her ability throughout his life and to do the best for her family. Her work as a dressmaker proved useful as she was later able to make the clothes for her children to wear. She was part of a knitting guild in Maghera which helped to knit items for the soldiers at the front line during the war.

The women sometimes placed notes inside the socks for the recipients to read. My grandmother and her sister Margaret, who had her own little bungalow in Crawfordsburn Drive were always ready to knit a really fine sweater for myself or one of the other grandchildren as soon as one was needed. We were asked to pick the wool ourselves with a personal favourite of mine being an off-white wool with a fleck in it. Those sweaters were made to last! When I was little and out playing in Crawfordsburn I often came through the back door of no 36 to be given a buttered slice of plain white loaf sprinkled with sugar and one for my friend also.

My Grandmother was an excellent cook and loved to bake. My brother and I many times received our supper here before going home and my grandmother and her sister would have taken the trouble to prepare sandwiches for us and home-made buns.

My grandmother was also involved in helping to run the clinic in Maghera at the time when national dried milk and other items were being given out. I remember that she kept a supply of these items in the outhouse at home so that if a woman had been unable to get to the clinic for some reason, she could bring her coupons and still collect her requirements from my grandmother.

She did her best to make sure that no one left disappointed. After I had grown up, if I was beset with any particular problem, I was able to discuss the matter with my grandmother. I could also talk with her about life in general at any time. She was an inspiration to us all. My grandparents enjoyed their time at no 36 in the company of their family and, it would have to be said the most decent of neighbours. I learned so much from them during our time together.

How to enjoy life and be thankful for what I had. Not to get too despondent. The appreciation of the beautiful countryside that was all around us. How not to spend money- or at least to spend it wisely. I very much appreciate this opportunity to pay tribute to Herbie and Mary my wonderful grandparents. It was a privilege to have known them

Local Stories Maghera Railway

The Station Master’s House

The current owner of the Station Master’s House in Maghera is Joe Mallon from Mallon McCormick Solicitors.

“I am a Maghera man. I grew up in Crewe Drive just down the railway line about one hundred yards from where the Station Master’s House is situated...

…As children myself and my three brothers as well as all my neighbours would have played on the line and gone on adventures up to the ‘big road’ on the old path of the railway line. My parents always encouraged us to go out and explore and have fun.

The Station Master’s House was actually a building I walked past every day going to school round the corner at the local seat of learning – Saint Patricks College.

When I left Maghera to go to college in Trinity in Dublin, I never dreamed I would be back one day and to be working in this fantastic building.
Not a lot of detail is known of the history of the Station Master’s House. The station itself was opened by the Derry Central Railway on the 18th December 1880.

It was taken over by the Northern Counties Committee in September 1901. The station closed to passengers on the 28th August 1950. The final closure of the station took place on the 1st October 1959.

For seventy-nine years the railway station served the people of Maghera and surrounding areas. Seventy-nine years of stories and history that I hope to start compiling over the years.

One great old story of the station dates back to 1890..

Belfast Newsletter 10th March 1890
MAGHERA, SUNDAY: After the departure of the 5.40 train last evening Acting-Sergeant Dolan and Constable McDonagh, who were on duty at the station heard sounds as of some person moaning along the line a short distance from the station. Constable McDonagh proceeded in the direction, and had only got about 100 yards down the line when he found a young man named James Mellon close to the rails apparently suffering great pain.

The station-master, the acting-sergeant, and one of the porters carried the injured man on a door to the waiting-room, where he was examined by Dr. McGowan, who was in attendance. The doctor found that Mellon’s right leg was broken a little above the knee. Questioned as to how the accident occurred, Mellon said he joined the train at Kilrea, intending to get out at Maghera, but he mistook the station, and on finding his mistake he jumped out of the railway carriage, with the result already mentioned.

A cart having been procured, he was removed to his father’s residence in the townland of Ternoney.

Somewhat ironic given the now current use of the building some have said!

There were five Station Masters who lived and worked in this fine building over that time: the first was Thomas Butler who was followed by Harry Moore, Jack Bradley, Herbie Wilson and finally Herbert Monteith
At the opening of the Station Master’s House on Thursday the 3rd December 2015 we were delighted to be joined by Mrs Monteith, her daughter Sandra and her husband Richard.

Mrs Monteith was overjoyed to be back in what was her home for many years. Since then, her two sons Keith and Stewart have been to visit the building and recounted many fantastic stories about growing up here.

This has been a recurring theme since we opened for business here on the 1st November 2015 – people calling in and telling us stories of someone they knew who lived here or their vivid memories of the Station. It has been at times magical to see the local people of Maghera engage with the building in this way and it makes all of us who work in this building feel very privileged that this fantastic building has been brought back to life in the manner it has.

That fellow Maghera people are happy that this work has been carried out and new life breathed into this building is an unexpected bonus. Clients have left in old pictures, brought in books on Railway stations and locals drop in with their yarns. We have all been amazed at the reaction.

This firm was started by Tony McCormick in 1971. I myself joined in 2004 as a solicitor and Mallon McCormick started business in September 2008. Tony retired having created his own legacy in Maghera for 45 years at the end of 2015.

The building was purchased in January 2015 and we set about seeking planning permission via my architects McGurk Chartered Architects, Magherafelt – both Colm McGurk, the principal of that practice, and Edelle Henry were instrumental in the design of the building we have today and I am very grateful to them for this.

This application was not without its challenges as the building is a Grade B1 listed building. Planning was granted and local Maghera construction firm P&K McKaigue Limited carried out the complete refurbishment (the building was in very poor repair) in an incredible turn around. Works commenced on my wife’s birthday on the 9th May and we moved in to start business on the 1st November.

Very instrumental in the building we now have is my good friend and graphic designer, Gabriel Muldoon and local joinery firm Specialist Joinery Group who carried out the fit-out to the office.

All work was carried out by local tradesmen and craftsmen from Maghera and the surrounding areas and I am very proud that all this was achieved by people from my home area.

We were very honoured for Anthony Tohill, Chairman of Mid Ulster Council to join us for the official opening of the building in late 2015, along with my own family – my wife Caitriona and my four children Cara, Kate, Erin and Luke – our staff, friends and guests.
I hope this building will remain in its present grandeur and for me, our staff and for the public will provide a service to the town of Maghera and beyond.

I have to say it has been a joy to work here. All our clients who call to the Station Master’s House have given very positive feedback. Our team at Mallon McCormick are all delighted to be working in such a beautiful building which is such an important part of the history and heritage of Maghera.”

Local Stories Maghera Railway

Maghera Railway Children in the 1950’s



During the 79 year existence of the Derry Central Railway (1880 to 1959), Maghera Railway Station played an important role in the economy of the town itself, including its immediate South Derry rural hinterland with the provision of both passenger, freight and livestock transport. It also provided stable long term employment for a core staff of seven personnel, in addition to supporting employment for ancillary personnel, some of whom, were not directly employed by the railway authorities.

Maghera Railway Station first opened for business on 18th December 1880 as one of a number of stations on the Derry Central line which was 29.5 miles in total length, and ran from Magherafelt to Macfin. The other stations/halts on the line were in order – Knockloughrim, Maghera, Upperlands, Tamlaght, Kilrea, Garvagh, Moneycarrie, Aghadowey, Curragh Bridge and Macfin.

The Derry Central Railway was taken over by the Midland Railway and administered by the Northern Counties Committee in September 1901 for the sum of £85,000 and later by the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in 1949.

Maghera Railway Station, as well as all other stations on the line, was closed to passenger traffic on 28th August 1950, largely as a result of an improved road network and the availability of motor cars and buses as the primary means of public transport. There was the occasional exception, which I will make reference to later.

During the 79 years of its existence, the Derry Central Railway never made a profit. With the rise of the motor haulage industry in the early 1950’s, it soon became evident that the remaining freight and livestock core business of the Derry Central Railway was also not economically sustainable in the long term.

As a result Maghera Railway Station, along with the other stations on the line, finally closed on 1st October 1959.


My name is Stuart Monteith and, in my early childhood I lived in Maghera Station House along with my younger siblings, Sandra and Carl. My father was the last of the five Station Masters to reside there. Prior to moving in 1952, following my father’s appointment, my parents, Sandra and I had previously lived in Tamney Crescent, Maghera. Carl was born the following year and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the railway environment until 1961, two years after the station finally closed. My father was subsequently transferred to Magherafelt Station where we again took up residence in the Station House.

Station Staff

Full Time
Herbert Monteith – Station Master
Howard Cunningham – Station Clerk
Tommy Porter- Signalman/Railway Porter
Alex Graham – Lorry Driver (Freight)
Tommy Peden – Lorry Driver (Livestock)
Alex Richardson – Lorry Driver/Helper (Livestock)
Alex McLean – Lorry Helper (Livestock)

Peripatetic Staff
Mattie Harbinson – Engine Driver
Alfie Crawley – Fireman
Matt Bowman – Railway Ganger
George Duncan – Railway Ganger
Jackie Bowman – Railway Ganger

The Station House

The original Station House was constructed circa 1880 and coincided with the official opening of the Derry Central Railway the same year. It was originally a single storey building. A two storey side extension, with a dual pitched roof, was added in the early part of the 20th century. The building, like other Station Houses built around the same period, was mainly constructed of red brick but also incorporated distinctive blue banded brick with saw tooth corbelling around the eaves and yellow brick around the window arches.

The roof was laid with Bangor blue slates. The windows were single pane, wooden sash style and the only means of internal heating was by a Rayburn stove located in the living room.

The Station House had its own well from a natural underground spring located close to the side of the property which was the main cold water supply of the purest crystal clear water I have ever tasted.
The main entrance was located at the side of the house facing opposite to the main railway platform. A small hallway led to the right into the sitting room and to the left into the living room which was the heart of the home with the Rayburn stove, dining table and easy chairs. Leading off the living room was a large bathroom which doubled as a playroom and, on the other side a narrow scullery with sink and storage cabinets for food and household essentials. The scullery led out to an enclosed back yard with two adjoining outhouses on the left, one being the coal shed and the other the general purpose shed. An outside toilet was located at the top of the yard.

Situated beside the outhouses was a metal hand pump which was used to pump water to an external galvanised metal tank situated directly on top of the two outhouses. The water from this tank was heated by the flue from the Rayburn stove to produce hot water and to run a bath. If a bath was required, we children took it in turn to pump two hundred strokes in order to create the required amount of water, irrespective of weather conditions!

The three bedrooms on the upper floor were accessed by the wooden staircase in the hallway. My parent’s bedroom overlooked the rear lawn and garden while we children enjoyed a panoramic view of the daily railway activity from our front facing bedroom windows.
The original single story building, later adjoining the two storey Station House, comprised of the Station Master’s office and the Station Waiting Room, which had an external wooden canopy supported by a metal frame and pillars, and was situated on the main railway platform. The latter provided welcome shelter to both staff, passengers and visitors from inclement weather.

The Station Master’s office, where my father and the Station Clerk were based, had a low wooden desk and seat immediately to the left upon entering where the Station Clerk worked and a small metal weigh bridge to the right, used to weigh parcels. My father’s desk was a higher wooden structure which ran the length of the rear of the office and had a connecting hatch to the Waiting Room to allow passengers to purchase tickets. It also had a traditional George V Clock with Roman numerals on the rear wall which had to be hand wound at the start of each working day.
The Waiting Room had wooden bench seating around the walls and a glass framed noticeboard which had previously advised passengers of train times to and from the station. A door on the right hand side led to an anteroom and the ladies toilet.

The Station House was subsequently listed as a Grade B1 status building in 1994 by the Department for Communities, Historic Environment Division, Belfast, due to both its historical and architectural interest.

Between the Lines
It was the start of the school summer holidays and I was awoken from my early morning slumbers by the unmistakeable shrill sound of a steam engine whistle, announcing the arrival of Number 74 Dunluce Castle , a Class U2 Scotch engine , which had been built by the North British Locomotive Works, Glasgow in 1924. It was one of the 11 engines named after Ulster Castles and, with its counterparts, numbers 77 and 79 serviced the Derry Central Line.

Prior to 1956 the Derry Central Railway was serviced for the previous 31 years by Number 79 Kenbaan Castle, a Class U2 steam engine which was built by the North British Locomotive Company at its York Street Works, Belfast in August 1925. Like its other Number 71-87 sister locomotives, it had identical specifications with a wheelbase length, including tender of 41 feet 11 inches (12.78 metres), overall length of 50 feet 7 ¾ inches (15.44 metres), height of 13 feet 2 inches (4.01 metres) and total weight of 84 tons 9 hundredweight (87,00 kilograms)
In 1956, the Ulster Transport Authority arranged a massive sale of withdrawn locomotives as freight services began to decline, including Number 79 Kenbaan Castle, and the last to go was Number 74 Dunluce Castle in 1962. Prior to preservation, it was restored to its original LMS (NCC) livery during late 1962 and is now preserved at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, County Down.
The Dunluce Castle was dressed in the UTA livery with the engine painted black with vermilion and yellow lining. Buffer beams, name and number plate backgrounds were red with the number on the front buffer beam. It had the UTA 14 inch in diameter roundel, with “Ulster Transport” in orange block capitals, lined in red, surrounding the Red Hand of Ulster, all on a mid-green background and placed in the middle of the tender sides. The attached tender carried five tons of coal and eleven thousand gallons of water.
Jumping out of bed and hurriedly pulling on my clothes, I dashed outside without having any breakfast. I ran round to the main platform to be warmly greeted by the engine driver ,Mattie Harbinson, and the fireman, Alfie Crawley, who were still standing on the footplate The all enveloping smell of steam and engine oil was intoxicating , as Mattie gave me a helping hand up onto the footplate. Alfie opened the heavy metal door of the engine and the heat was overwhelming as I gazed into the fiery furnace. He pulled out a long handled metal shovel and began shovelling coal from the tender into the engine furnace, making this task look effortless.
The train had just arrived from Knockloughrim before making its next stop in Upperlands, where it would pick up linen products from Clark’s Linen Mill on a specially prepared rail siding . It entered Maghera station under a road bridge approximately fifty yards from the main platform. The first task upon arrival was to successfully complete the shunting procedures in order to detach the relevant wagons and position them either in the Goods Shed or beside the platform adjacent to the main platform .This process involved accurate communication between the signalman (Tommy Porter) and the train driver (Mattie Harbinson) .They communicated with one another using high pitched whistles and shouts.

The process began when Tommy was initially positioned in the Signal Box, situated at the far end of the main platform on an elevated base, in order to give a commanding view over the entire station site. The Signal Box was accessed by wooden stairs and contained a small coal fired stove used for heating on the left hand side, a wooden bench for seating along the facing side and on the right a set of six metal levers with release catches on the top of the handles, set into a metal base, which moved the points on the line.

Points are moveable sections of track, allowing trains to move from one section to another. Once Tommy had released the first set of points, the engine was able to move the freight wagons into the Goods Shed. Tommy assisted this operation by uncoupling these wagons using a long wooden shunting pole which had a curved metal hook to facilitate this process. It was a potentially dangerous process for the signalman as he could get trapped by the wagons during the coupling and uncoupling process unless there was excellent communication with the train crew.

The second stage of the shunting involved Tommy returning to the Signal Box in order to release the points for the adjacent platform. The train then shunted the bread wagons and the livestock wagons into position.
All the main bread supplies for Maghera and its South Derry hinterland were delivered by train with the main bread suppliers being Inglis and McCombs, although Inglis Bakery was predominant.

Needless to say, in anticipation of the rich reward of a Snowball or a Paris Bun, I made a beeline to join the bread men at their vans to help with the unloading and restocking of their supplies.

The bread vans accessed the station via a slip road on the Knocknakielt side of the railway bridge and parked under an open ended corrugated iron shelter, situated on the side of the platform. Willie and Sammy Patterson, who were cousins, were two of the Inglis bread van drivers and all these drivers fulfilled a vital community role, not only in delivering bread supplies, but also newspapers and messages for isolated rural customers.
The livestock wagons as well as the general purpose wagons were also positioned further along this platform, ready for loading later in the day and collection by the train on its return journey in the late afternoon.

This completed the shunting exercise and Tommy returned to the Signal Box to release the points and allow the engine to return to the main line. The train crew, Tommy and I then retired to the Signal Box for a well deserved meal break. Both the train crew and Tommy always brought an extra sandwich or roll in their lunch boxes to share with me and I had tea as well from a spare tin mug.

Alfie Crawley liked to toast his sandwiches on top of the stove and I duly did the same, even though the top of the stove was covered in little particles of coal. It never seemed to matter and I remained a healthy child. Tommy always stirred his tea with a stubby pencil that usually resided behind his ear. In my childhood innocence, I thought this was how a real man should stir his tea until I produced my stubby pencil one day when my mother had guests in the house and proceeded to use it in her best china cup. Needless to say, I never repeated this serious breach of social etiquette, except when back in the Signal Box.

In railway signalling, the tablet, which consisted of a metal disc held within a leather pouch, with a large loop handle to allow ease of transfer at each station, permitted entry to the next section of line. The tablet was clearly endorsed with the name of the section of track to which it belonged. This was handed over by the engine driver to the signalman immediately upon entering the station.

The tablet system was commonly used for single lines, such as the Derry Central Railway, to prevent collisions in the event of a mistake being made by the signalman or the train crew. When the train stopped at each station, it had to be surrendered and a relevant tablet for the next section of track collected by the train driver from the signalman immediately prior to leaving for the next station.

Following the morning meal break, the train left for its next stop at Upperlands station, with Tommy handing over the tablet to Mattie as the train passed the Signal Box. The next major activity, which was my immediate port of call, was the offloading of the freight wagons in the Goods Shed on to the freight lorry, driven by Alex Graham. The Goods Shed dominated the bottom right hand corner of the Station Yard and was a massive stone structure with a large sliding door at each end and an additional inbuilt pedestrian access door.

Upon entering, the track lay immediately ahead and ran through the Goods Shed and for a further hundred yards behind.

This latter area was used to temporarily store wagons not in immediate use. Immediately to the right of the Goods Shed, was a set of stone steps that led onto the main concrete floor area and ran the entire length of the building. Halfway down on the right hand side was the loading bay area with a steel shutter opening, where the freight lorries were loaded.

Immediately to the right of the opening was a small office administrative area with a high desk and chair where all movements in and out were recorded. The entire bottom area of the Goods Shed was sectioned off with netting wire and contained bales of Silcocks animal feed which was administered by the local Silcock’s representative, Tommy Hughes. Following the closure of Maghera Station in 1959, the Goods Shed was moved in 2006, as a listed building to form part of the Downpatrick and County Down Railway Preservation Society.

Once I had assisted Alex Graham to load up his green Commer open sided lorry with green canvas side covers, we set about delivering local freight to relevant business premises in Maghera and surrounding villages. During each stop, I climbed up into the back of the lorry and handed down to Alex on the pavement the appropriate parcels. I recall that Alex’s lorry was nearing the end of its working life and finally Alex, with my father and me as passengers, took its final journey to the UTA vehicle depot at Duncrue Street in Belfast. We picked up the replacement lorry, stopping briefly in Antrim on our way home for refreshments. It was there that I received my first ever bag of Tayto cheese and onion crisps, which had just been introduced to the market place and made a delicious change from plain crisps with the enclosed little blue bag of salt for additional flavour.

My busy daily schedule was about to continue as I joined up with livestock driver, Tommy Peden and his assistant, Alex McLean.

Our mission was to collect a herd of pigs from a farm on the outskirts of Draperstown. I recall that the farmyard was narrow, slippery and steep and the pigs were very excitable as we attempted to encourage them up the lowered wooden lorry ramp. In order to encourage the more stubborn ones. I was given a torch style instrument with two small prongs on springs at the front. I was instructed to gently push the prongs against the rear quarters of the pigs, triggering a mild electric shock which had the desired effect in getting them on board! I am sure that sixty years on, this method has long since been abandoned and rightly so. When we returned to the station, the pigs were loaded onto the waiting livestock wagons for onward transportation.

In addition to pigs, the main items of livestock transported by train, were cattle and sheep. There was a pen and dip, specifically provided for the sheep and situated on the adjacent platform to the main station buildings. Sheep were dipped prior to loading, presumably as part of a statutory sterilising requirement to prevent infection. All livestock were transported the same day on the returning afternoon train coming in from Upperlands and using a similar shunting procedure as used on the outward journey.
On this same platform and closer to the railway bridge were a number of small, single storey terraced huts. These were used to store miscellaneous items including seed potatoes. I can recall the potatoes being placed on a vibrating conveyer belt to be sorted and the ones not meeting the standard being discarded.

The remainder were then bagged in hessian sacks with the tops being sealed by binder twine and sewn by a metal needle through the tops, leaving two “ears” to carry them more easily and temporarily stored in these huts. The only other building of note on that far side of the track was a medium size brick hut located at the rear of the Goods Shed and used by the railway gangers to store their equipment. Although they were responsible for larger sections of track than the immediate Maghera section, they kept their maintenance bogie at Maghera Station.

It comprised of a large wooden platform with four metal axle brackets underneath, which was then sat on two sets of metal railway wheels, themselves linked by two metal axles. The gangers then laid their tools on the wooden platform and they sat on the edge of this platform and propelled it by pushing against the sleepers with their feet. The track gauge was a standard five feet three inches wide.

The final part of my busy and enjoyable day was linking up with Tommy Porter to prepare the oil lamps for housing in their holders at the top of the three signals at Maghera station. The two smaller signals were located, at either end of the Station site and the third, which was the tallest, right in the centre. The lamp store was located beside the mens toilets just off the main platform, and immediately next to the boundary wall where the Station House enclosed yard ended. The lamp store was a small cramped space with just enough room for a shelf to hold the lamps and an oil drum with tap underneath. The first task was to trim the wicks, clean the glass surrounds and then top up each lamp with oil, before lighting them. The final and most exciting task was to climb up the narrow metal ladders on each signal, open the lamp holder door at the top, which had green and red glass and secure the oil lamps. I always started with the two smaller signals to gain my confidence, before tackling the tallest which was twenty five feet tall, with a panoramic view from the top. It was always good to finish the day on a high!
Further items of note that were stored securely in case of emergencies and would normally not be immediately associated with railway stations, were detonators. These were small, coin-sized devices which were placed on top of the line and secured with two lead straps, one on each side. They were used as a loud warning signal to train drivers that there was heavy fog ahead and were activated when the wheel of the train passed over them triggering a small explosion and emitting a loud bang.
Thankfully, they were never required to be used as intended during our eight year residence in the Station House. Instead, on 1st October 1959 to mark the closure of the Derry Central Railway, they were laid along the track on the final approach to the station to detonate and celebrate the steam engine arriving on its last journey.
I mentioned in the Foreword that passenger services officially ended on the 28th August 1950. There were, however, a couple of exceptions involving local church Sunday School annual outings to Portrush in the mid-1950s. Permission had to be sought in advance from UTA Headquarters in Belfast and suitable passenger coaches provided for the occasion. My father wore his Station Master’s uniform complete with Station Master’s cap and gold braid trim. Official passenger tickets were issued through the hatch between his office and the Waiting Room. There was much excitement from the children waiting for the steam engine to draw up at the station and sound its steam whistle on approach. The majority had never seen a steam engine before let alone travel on a railway coach.
Tommy Porter was also resplendent in his Signalman’s uniform and he blew the whistle as my father waved the flag signalling the train to depart.
Bits and Bobs
The garden area leading to the main door of the Station House was laid out in grass and was bordered by a small green wooden fence with a gate leading from Station Lane. Immediately to the left stood a huge laurel bush, which was a favourite play area for the three Monteith children. The upper branches were so thick and sturdy that we were able to climb right to the top and it became a hideout from our parents, especially at bedtime and to shelter from the rain.
On the higher ground behind the laurel bush, the Station House was surrounded by fields and there was a fenced off part of the station property where we had a vegetable plot with rhubarb and potatoes. We also had a selection of soft fruit bushes, including blackcurrant and gooseberry varieties.
Further along on the higher ground, we had a large henhouse with nesting boxes constructed from railway sleepers and covered in black felt, which accommodated around twenty hens. We had names for all the hens with personal favourites and really looked forward to the daily task of collecting the eggs. I recall one particular Christmas when our mother had three turkey eggs incubated by one of the “clocky” hens.

Of the resultant three turkeys, one failed to grow and became a family pet called Stephen. Our mother was convinced that he was suffering from chilblains and rubbed his legs with ointment before wrapping them in bandages!!

During the mid- 1950s, construction began of the housing estate on the higher ground fields behind the station , the initial phase of which is now known as Grove Terrace . We regularly visited the building site and later became friendly with some of the children who resided there.

The Goods Shed was also a favourite playground, especially as it contained lots of empty cardboard boxes which we used to join together and build endless tunnels to crawl through. This was also a favourite place to play hide and seek.

Along the left side of the railway track leading towards Upperlands ran a freshwater stream which contained lots of three-spine sticklebacks (members of the minnow fish family), pond skaters and, in season, frogspawn. We spent hours fishing with jam jars and had a collection of fish in the shed at the back of the house.

We used the Station Waiting Room to host circuses, using cardboard boxes for the ring and had acts including juggling, trick cycling and clowns with Sooty, our little black terrier the star of the show. Admission fee was two pence for adults and one penny for children.

Another favourite activity was building gang huts, initially on the railway grass embankments on the Knockloughrim side of the station, using tree branches and natural vegetation. Despite our best endeavours, these tended to leak with any significant rainfall and we then progressed, as the railway began to shut down, to use the sheep dip pen, and finally the Signal Box. The latter became our pride and joy with its elevated site, wooden platform surrounding its perimeter and water tight roof.

My parents were grateful for the part the railway staff and bread men played in positively contributing to our childhood, especially during the school holidays. They never viewed us as a nuisance, readily explained the different routines and their job responsibilities, and satisfied our endless childhood curiosity while allowing us to safely participate where appropriate. As previously noted, they also shared their food during lunch breaks!

Looking back over sixty years later, I still feel privileged to have spent my formative years in such a stimulating environment. I retain wonderful childhood memories of my early life as one of the railway children of the 1950s and can still vividly recall the joy created by the sounds, sights and smells of steam powered railway engines before they disappeared from general use forever.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to Joe Mallon for his aesthetically beautiful and sensitive renovation of the Station House, which acknowledges its railway history, whilst making it suitable for its new role, when he moved his legal practice to the building on 5th December 2015.

Stuart Monteith
5th December 2020

Local Stories

The Life of Charles Thomson

John McHugh (A MHC Member) has made a very informative and enjoyable video on Thomson’s life and achievements. Charles Thomson was a patriot leader during the American Revolution, Secretary of the Continental Congress, signatory to the First Declaration of Independence and designer of the Great Seal of the United State.

He was born here in Maghera in 1729. He emigrated to America as a young boy and, although he arrived as a penniless orphan, he rose to become an eminent figure in his adopted homeland.

John McHugh’s video about the life of Charles Thomson.

He was known for his honesty, humanity and strict principles as well as for his abilities in regard to business and politics.

It is great that such a remarkable person be honoured in his hometown. We thank John very much for the idea of producing this work and for sharing it with us.

John himself was born in Fortwilliam outside Tobermore and, like Thomson, moved to America as a young child. However, he has always kept up his connection with the area and we are delighted with his support and promotion of our history and heritage.

Local Stories

Cave Hill: Lecture by Cormac Hamill

Cave HillOn Thursday 16th March MHS members and guests were privileged to be treated to an unique insight into the geology, archaeology, botany and history of the Cave Hill This was delivered by Cormac Hamill, broadcaster and environmental campaigner. Cormac provided a comprehensive and entertaining exploration of the Cave Hill as he led us from the Basalt origins of the area to the present day hill with its five natural caves. In recent years, Cormac has been to the forefront in campaigning for the preservation of this natural treasure.

On our journey, we learned that man first appeared on the hill some 9000 years ago as the glaciers retreated. We heard how these early settlers made good use of the natural resources of the area, such as flint, to make instruments that aided their survival. The Celtic period, with its forts and souterrains, was also explored as were the 18th century politics of the Volunteers who trained on the hillside in preparation for anticipated French/American invasions.

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Cormac went on to talk about the Donegall family who were the original owners of Belfast Castle, which is situated high on the slopes of Cave Hill. The family’s influence on the city of Belfast and further afield was explored as were their fluctuating fortunes. A Maghera connection was also revealed.

Cormac’s talk was richly illustrated and he had brought with him rock samples and a flint artefact.He concluded with some excellent photography showing the spectacular views obtainable from the top of this historic and natural landmark which dominates Belfast.

Cormac has kindly offered to lead a walking tour of the Cave Hill.  Anyone who attended
the talk and wishes to take part should contact Peter Etherson at the Culture and Heritage Centre.

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Local Stories

Gatherin’ Spuds. By: Kenneth Murray

When I was growing up in Maghera in the fifties and sixties we were given time off school in October, known as ‘the potato gathering holiday,’ This provided an opportunity for us children to participate in the potato harvest – that is, those of us who were willing to take up the challenge and earn some extra pocket money in the process.

On my first day in the field I was gathering for a fair-minded man called Willie Paul. The work was steady throughout the day, and with the approach of evening, Willie duly decided it was quitting time. I received from him the much-loved, and later greatly missed, little ten-bob-note. To put this into perspective, my pocket money at the time would have been one shilling, while a quality bar of chocolate would have cost sixpence. This was the first time in my life that I had earned any money and I arrived back in Maghera, after walking home with my friends, a proud boy. I decided to buy a present for my mother and purchased a small bottle of perfume for 1/6 in Bobby Martin’s Chemist shop, which left me with 8/6 – a small fortune to me.

Conditions varied greatly from farm to farm. I can recall gathering at a farm on the verge of the town on the station road with my good friend Mervyn Cochrane and other children. This was one of the hardest day’s work we ever did. I can remember gathering to meet Mervyn and the large amount of potatoes lying between us. We had to go to the house to be paid, with the two of us receiving ten shillings but with some of the younger children receiving considerably less than this, perhaps as little as five shillings. This caused a bit of a stir when some of the youngsters arrived home, with one or two of the mothers considering going to the house to protest but then, I think, they decided to grudgingly accept it.

I was keen to gather potatoes during these years, even doing so after school, walking down the Mullagh Road with my good friend William Anderson to work on Marshal’s farm. It would have been common at that time for the farmers to have cruised about Crawfordsburn on a Friday night booking gatherers for the next day. If we were heading out into the country to a farm, getting to and from the field was, on occasion, verging on the comical. I was often amazed at how many gatherers could be transported safely in the back of a mini-van.

We gathered the potatoes into a large wooden creel, which two of us could lift, moving it forward of the potatoes yet to be gathered. It was wise to take time to scrape the muck off it as we worked, keeping it as light as possible. If the potatoes were being transferred from the creel to the bag that would have been the wrong time to share a joke, as this could have meant the potatoes toppling down the side of the bag instead of into it!

The small grey Massey Ferguson tractor was popular amongst the farming community in Maghera at that time – even for taking the wife into town to do a bit of shopping. This tractor, with a digger attached, dug the potatoes for us to gather. Once a drill had been dug, if the farmer was in no great hurry, he waited until we had gathered it all before digging the next one. This allowed us to have a short break before resuming work. Alternatively, if the farmer was in a more determined mood, he would have been digging the next drill while we were still gathering the previous one, what we would have referred to as ‘digging two ways’. This, of course, meant no break for us between one drill and the next.

I previously mentioned about the difference in conditions from farm to farm – a difference I still remember to this day. One pleasant day still stands out in my mind, I was gathering for Linton in the townland of Grillagh, and we were gathering ‘blues’. The pace was leisurely and the countryside was peaceful. As we gathered the potatoes they were placed in a heap forming a neat line. They were then protected from the weather by soil and straw. This process was known as pitting. The ‘blue’ potato was well liked and more common at that time than it is today – rather like a plain white unsliced loaf with a hard top and no wrapping paper! It was good to eat and, not being too small, easier to gather. In the middle of the day the woman of the house brought the food to the field in a large basket. I can remember so well the delicious egg and onion sandwiches we had that day along with the good strong mug of tea. It was almost like having a picnic. I received twelve shillings and sixpence for that day’s work. For a young gatherer like myself this was as good as it got.

Local Stories

The Old Bleach Linen Company

Arthur Houston visited the Heritage and Cultural Centre on the 16th February 2017 to deliver a scholarly and educational talk on the historic Old Bleach Linen Company based in Randalstown. Arthur has researched the subject in great depth and his enthusiasm was evident in the work that went into the preparation for this very interesting lecture. We are very grateful for the time and effort put in and all who attended the talk
have come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the subject based on the range and depth of the information presented by Arthur.


Local Stories

Leap Frog and the Stooks: By: James Armour

Autumn was a very exciting time on the farm for myself and my four brothers. At that time of year there was always something interesting happening when we arrived home from school. One of the most exciting activities for us was reaping the corn. Then the neighbours would be there to help with tying the sheaves while myself and my brothers would take turns at sitting on the rear seat of the reaper operating the gear lever that engaged the driving mechanism.

We had lots of fun playing hide and seek around the stooks, watching and learning from the men mowing the hay, gathering sheaves to make stooks and later on ‘carrying in’ to my father when he was building huts of corn. These were the more enjoyable tasks for us when we were young but we also felt that we could have much more fun in the cornfield if none of the older people were around.

On Sunday, after Sunday school, when all was quiet we would disappear after dinner and head outside to make our own fun and have a good time. Uel, my older brother, whom we knew as the ringleader would always devise something. One Sunday he noticed that our neighbouring farmer had just cut his field of corn and of course, the recently built stooks had not yet wilted or bent over.  They were standing very upright as if in a military stance. Uel decided that these stooks were just exactly what we needed to have our game of leap frog. The stooks were of uneven height some had four sheaves others had three, so of course we were daring each other as to which one of us could jump the highest without knocking over the erect sheaves. We played for hours, had a great time but did not realise that half of the field of stooks were demolished as a result of our activities.

We headed home and on arrival we were asked by mother where we were, to which our reply was, ‘Just playing in the field’. ‘What field’? asked mother. ‘Ah just out the lane,’ was Uel’s reply. ‘Alright then, now get ready for bed and don’t forget you have school in the morning’.

Monday morning arrived, we were packed of to school and on the way we passed by the field we had so much fun in the previous day. Perhaps at the same time as we were having our mid-morning break the neighbouring farmer arrived in with my father for a chat and to discuss the problem he had experienced during the night with his field of corn. ‘Sam, did you hear the storm last night, the wind must have been fierce?’ No, I didn’t hear a thing’, was the reply. ‘That’s very funny, because do you know that field of corn we cut on Friday? It was completely flattened last night, must have been the wind. I’m surprised Sam that you didn’t hear it.’ My father would have thought for a moment or two and silently said to himself, ‘I know what happened to your field of corn stooks’.

Local Stories

The Mouse Who Came to Dinner: By: James Armour

The autumn was a favourite time of the year for most farmers. That was when they could harvest the crops that had been planted in the spring. By now the long hot summer was but a distant memory, the days were becoming shorter and the nights much longer. The golden landscape, the trees shedding their leaves, the pigeons coming home to roost in the beech trees before their last leaves fluttered to the ground were signs that a long harsh winter was approaching. Autumn brought the threshing of the corn and seed hay – the result of nature having done its duty over the earlier months.

At threshing time neighbouring farmers would arrive at the farm with an implement of their choice to take up their position around the haystack and threshing machine carrying out the task which they felt most suited them. It could be forking sheaves, taking off and tying bags of corn, threading the baler, feeding the thresher or maybe just wandering around not committing to any task in particular, but having a good craic with everyone. Father would often make the comment about such a person, ‘Sure he’s only here for his dinner’.

At 12.30 my mother would blow the whistle letting everyone know that dinner was on the table. The old Fordson tractor’s revs would be lowered, the drive belt pulley disengaged and, with a snatch of Freddie Caldwell’s sleeved arm, the belt driving the thresher would hit the ground at about 10mph. With the result of its rotational movement, the belt would screw its way along the ground and come to rest many yards away from its working position.

Dinner at midday on a working farm was a very formal affair, each worker entered the kitchen, after removing their cap (which they placed behind them on their seat) and took up their position around the table, the same position they had taken in previous years when helping at threshing time. One particular very close neighbour, Hugh McKeown, arrived every year with his pitchfork with the intention of forking sheaves of corn from the stack up on to the thresher. Normal protocol dictated that whoever was forking from the stack ensured the bottoms of their trouser legs were tied tightly with a piece of binder twine, this of course was to prevent any mice or small rats making their way up the wearer’s trousers. My father often told the story about Hugh, who one year unfortunately forgot to tie his trousers at the bottom with of course the inevitable happening. So, at this particular threshing event, when Hugh was sitting at the dinner table enjoying his well-earned meal, a little mouse made the journey from the leg of his trousers up through his waistcoat and shirt eventually popping out on to his shoulder where it sat wondering what to do next. Then a neighbour from across the table shouted ‘Hugh there’s a mouse on your shoulder’. Suddenly, at hearing the noise, the mouse took one giant leap into the unknown and landed straight in the middle of Hugh’s plate of stew. I think my father exaggerated a little here when he went on to say that Hugh picked up the mouse by the tail, wiped it down with his hand and then threw it out through the door, returning to carry on with his dinner. My father’s final comment was, ‘You see, Hugh doesn’t like to waste good food.’

Local Stories

A World of Possibilities

mhs-a-world-of-possibilitiesOn 24th November 2016 in the Heritage & Cultural Centre Hilary Richardson, who has been involved in Guiding for over fifty years, shared her experiences with us. Hilary spoke about the opportunities guiding afforded her for travel in Europe, India and South America. This interesting, informative and well-illustrated talk showed us the value of the guiding movement as well as giving us an insight into other cultures and ways of life.

Hilary, a retired schoolteacher, is a member of Ballinascreen Historical Society