The Ballacrye Level Crossing
All along the old Northern Steam Railway track, at every road or lane junction, were level crossings, manually operated by gatehouse keepers. A typical one was at Ballacrye near Ballaugh village, where what is now called the B9 meets the main road from Ballaugh to Ramsey at such an angle that it is known locally as ‘Cape Horn’.
The gatehouses were attractively designed and erected on contract by J. and W. Graingcr of Glasgow, as were all the Northern line gatehouses and stations. They were stone-built, with slate roofs, with two bedrooms and a living room with iron range for cooking and heating water, but with no other amenities, not even piped water. In the case of Ballacrye, this necessity had to be fetched in buckets from a well, by kind permission of the owner, and carried across a field about a mile away. Father had this job, carrying a bucket in each hand, helped by the older children when they were not at school. This supply was supplemented by rainwater from the roof collected in a tub and used for washing and bathing. The purer water from the well was kept for drinking and cooking. All hot water had to be heated in kettles and saucepans on the range. Slops were thrown out onto the garden, which was quite extensive and provided potatoes and vegetables for the family, and lots of flowers to decorate the roadside round the gateposts, geraniums being one of the favourites. One hedge was almost entirely composed of old-style cabbage roses, strongly scented. At the bottom of the big garden, surrounded by bushes, was the ‘little house’, the ‘thie veg’, with one hole in the scrubbed wooden seat, under which was a bucket which ‘Pa’ emptied at intervals, on to a midden, sprinkled with lime and eventually scattered as compost on to the garden. On the wall beside the seat hung a wad of newspaper cut into convenient-sized squares with string threaded through a hole in the corner. The cottages, meagre as the amenities were, at least came rent-free and the gatekeeper, who was traditionally the wife, the father earning a living elsewhere, was paid 10/- (50p) a week until 1945, when the tenancy changed hands.
The Gatekeeper’s children rode to school on their second-hand bicycles, first to the primary school in Ballaugh, then by train to Ramsey to the Grammar School.
The duties of the gatekeeper were arduous, as laid down by the Isle of Man Company in 1922, which presumably were the same for the Northern Line.
- The gates were to be kept closed except to allow traffic to pass.
- Gates to be closed to the horse road five minutes before a train was due.
- Special trains had to give a prolonged whistle for crossings.
- A red board by day and three red lights at night to denote that a special train followed. Two red lights denoted a light engine following. These to be displayed on read of train or engines, special to pass within 15 minutes.
- A red board by day or red light at night hung on the front of the train denoted that a special train was to arrive shortly from the opposite direction.
When the traffic got more numerous, these rules had to be altered. Later, the gates were kept open unless a train or engine was expected. The gatekeeper of course had a timetable so that she knew when the regular service was running. In the case of the Ballacrye crossing, she would hear the engine toot when it left Ballaugh Station, or after the stop at the Ballavolley Halt for the Wildlife Park (opened in 1965). But there were many specials to contend with, especially during the war when it is recorded that there were 14,000 special trains. Coming from Ramsey, Air Force personnel got off the train at Sulby Glen or Sulby Bridge for the airport at Jurby. There were specials too for schoolchildren, Sunday School annual outings, markets such as Ramsey Mart, picnic parties, tourists, goods wagons, and a special for the Governor. During the time the Foxdale line was in operation, there would have been wagons passing through taking ore from the
mines to Ramsey Harbour.
The day-to-day (and night) routine for a gatekeeper was to open the two main gates each side of the track, then hang on a pole a white flag to say that all was clear, or a red one for an emergency, while at night an ordinary paraffin lantern showed white for all clear and red for an emergency. She also had to use her discretion whether to let a pedestrian through the small wicket gate when the main gates were closed. In early days, when there were more horses and carts than cars, only one side was opened, the main gate being in two parts, meeting in the middle where they were bolted down. When they were dosed on the approach of a train, a white flag in daytime and a red light at night had to be placed on the
gates themselves to warn approaching road traffic.
The speed of the trains was not often more than ten miles an hour, even along the Ballacrye section, which lay on flat land, in the Curragh below Gob-y-Volley, giving rise to the saying
that a passenger on the front of the train could jump off, pick a few daisies, and get on again at the back! There was probably time for a favourite engine driver such as Billie Crosbie to wave to the gatekeeper’s children.
Although this work meant continual vigilance and no time off unless the children were old enough to take a turn looking after the gates, the position was in demand as it meant rent-free living. When the line closed down in 1968, the chance to make a bid, in a sealed envelope, to buy the cottage, was soon taken up.
From well be fore the First World War until he retired in 1923 or 4, Charlie Cannell was gangers’ overseer and lived in the cottage at Ballacrye, his wife being the gatekeeper. His job involved a great deal of walking as well as keeping a record of the daily wages and ordering necessary equipment such as new scythes, blades, stone, sickles and iron rakes. Evety morning at 7a.m. before the first train came up the line from Ramsey, he ‘walked the line’, to make sure it was clear and that no stray cattle, sheep or dogs had broken through the fences and hedges, or any other hazard. His ‘beat’ was during one week from Ballaugh to Sulby Bridge and the next week from Ballaugh to West Berk, Kirk Michael, alternating with the overseer from the other section.
His main duties concerned his work as one of the three gangers, the other two (according to his record book still in existence), Gill and Faichney. They were kept busy cutting and gathering hay, weeding the track, cutting and digging thorns (perhaps the hedges), cleating ditches, painting Ballaugh Bridge, Glen Wyllin viaduct, renewing mile posts, cleating drains, making pegs for sleepers, keeping the gates in order and so on, going to and from work by bogey. Ganger Overseer Cannell kept meticulous accounts of all the time the gangers worked, sometimes the whole day, sometimes half a day. His well-dog-eared account book for the two years 1918-1920 still exists and his purchases include ‘two pieces of telegraph
poles for gate posts, one piece 7 feet, one 8 feet, Scotch fir for sleepers and fence posts, pounds of staples, fish plate bolts, wagons of stones for Sulby Bridge, spades, etc, etc.’. To give some idea of the costs involved: for the week ending 23 February 1919 for three gangers, the total was £4.12s.2d1’, which included work on roads, clearing a yard, cutting gorse, clearing ‘Formation’, clearing water pipes. For the week ending 6 April, 1919,3 gangers and three men clearing drains at Ballaugh Station and repairing roads, £5.3.7d2, 20 larch posts from Cowley, l7/63.
When he and his wife retired, his daughter took on the role of gatekeeper and lived in the cottage with her husband and children. In those days, before television, it was usual for a Manx family to have a piano and have the children taught to play it and so, in spite of the confined space in the cottage, room was found for one and the Manx musical gift was fostered.
There is a record that, as a child, Sir Hall Caine, the Manx novelist, spent holidays in Ballaugh. One suggestion is that he stayed with his grandmother in the thatched cottage on the Jurby road on the right near the turn in from Ballaugh Bridge. A more plausible one seems to be that he stayed with an uncle, again in a thatched cottage (now a two-storey house) at the junction of the B9 and the main Ballaugh to Ramsey road. This would have been in the 1860s before the Northern line was opened in 1879. His uncle, a butcher, rented 30 acres of land at Ballavolley, so it is reasonable to assume that he lived nearby.
In 1995, the Ballavolley gatehouse was sensitively modernised, keeping its exterior character, and the old railway track, owned by the Department of Transport, is open to the public for anything not motorised. There are no plans as yet (1995) for it to be made into a heritage trail, as is part of the line from Douglas. It seems that the section from Ballacrye to
Ballaugh is used by farm vehicles as it is deeply rutted and the part towards the Wildlife Park by walkers and their dogs. The hard core of the old track forms a good path in most
Mrs D. Dobby, Dollagh Cottage, Ballaugh.
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