Category Archives: Manx Heritage

Reclaiming a wasting asset

Queen’s Pier, Ramsey, Isle of Man (2023)

Photo: © John Binns

When I wrote a blog-article about Queen’s Pier, Ramsey in the Isle of Man in 2011 there was little to suggest that it wouldn’t continue to decay, as it had done for twenty years, yet despite many delays and the tribulations of the pandemic, effective plans are at last in place to restore the Isle of Man’s largest surviving engineering structure.

The island is rich in industrial and transport archaeology because the Manx habitually leave redundant structures standing unless there’s a need or an economic reason to destroy them.

That’s why the island still retains steam and electric railways, a horse tramway, the Great Laxey Wheel and much else in situ and in use.

The flip-side of this conservatism is that the wheels grind slowly when decay becomes dangerous and restoration is urgent.

The last Steam Packet ship departed from Ramsey in 1970;  the disused landing stage became unsafe and was closed in 1979;  the little pier tramway closed in 1981.

In 1991, after the café at the pier head was burnt down, rebuilt and twice vandalised, the Manx Department of Highways, Ports & Properties closed the entire structure permanently and commissioned a survey which concluded that demolition would cost over £1 million and a full restoration £2.5 million.

The Manx government, Tynwald, continued to provide £40,000 a year for minimal safety maintenance, and a Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier group was formed in 1994, initially with the comedian Norman Wisdom, a Manx resident, as president.  The following year the pier was added to the Manx list of protected buildings to safeguard its future.

Discussions about restoration proceeded at a glacial pace, until in 2011 Tynwald allocated £1.8 million to stabilise the structure.

This led to a fresh report which planned a sequenced restoration in seven phases, each of them costing £1.2-1.7 million, overseen by the Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust (QPRT), which in 2016 began work on the fifty metres nearest the promenade.

The first three bays (of a total of sixty) were reopened to the public in 2021, with the return of the tramway’s locomotive and carriage from the Jurby Transport Museum.

The current phase involves restoration of Bays 4-8, of which the first three bays are close to completion.

This steady, methodical process of fundraising and practical work is an admirable exercise in co-operation between volunteers and the Government, which will clearly take a decade or two before the public can, in the words of the historian Richard Crowhurst, “stroll along these decks once again taking in the sea air, and partake of a cup of tea and a sandwich at the end”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Manx railways in the 21st century

Isle of Man Railway between Port St Mary and Port Erin: locomotive 15 ‘Caledonia’

Wheels turn slowly in the Isle of Man.  That’s why one-third of its steam railway continues to operate after 130 years, and why you can still ride on the first two cars delivered to what became the Manx Electric Railway in 1893:  Senior movers | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Inevitably, there have been losses.  There was a cable tramway in Douglas until 1929, when it was scrapped – superannuated, unloved and unbelievably noisy.  The Isle of Man Railway lines to Peel and Ramsey were closed in 1968 and lifted. 

But each of the surviving nineteen-century transport systems – the steam railway (1874), the Douglas horse tramway (1876), the Manx Electric Railway (1893-99) and the Snaefell Mountain Railway (1895) – has more than enough rolling stock to sustain a vigorous present-day tourist trade.

There have been misfortunes:  the Manx Electric lost part of its fleet in a depot fire in 1930.  Two of the six Snaefell Mountain Railway cars have in recent years run away from the summit:  no 3 smashed to pieces, fortunately without injuries or fatalities, in 2016.  A second runaway, no 2, with crew and passengers on board, was brought to a safe halt the following year.  There was a yard sale of surplus horse trams in 2016, all of which went to good homes for sums between £1,000 and £2,800 each.

This tight little island, 32 miles long and 14 miles wide at most, is the home of a unique collection of nineteenth-century rail transport lines still in full working order.

Tynwald, the Manx government, is considering how to develop these assets in future.  The steam and electric railways are already tuned to the entertainment value of heritage transport, like their colleagues across in Blackpool, but the horse tramway has become bogged down in the vexed redevelopment of Douglas promenade.  There is an excellent transport museum at Jurby in the north of the island, but the vehicles have not yet provided a mobile tourist attraction to supplement heritage rail.

The practicality of supplementing modern street transport with heritage services is proven across the world, evident in the success of San Francisco’s cable-cars and streetcars, the Melbourne City Circle and Hong Kong’s double-deckers (which look traditional but despite their appearance are in fact modernised).

Heritage rail has the double advantage of attracting enthusiasts who appreciate its historic appeal at the same time as ordinary tourists enjoy an uncommon holiday experience.

Visitors to the Isle of Man, as well as Manx residents, are invited to give their views on how the heritage transport should develop, in a survey that closes on August 13th 2023:  Isle of Man Heritage Railways Independent Review and Economic Impact Assessment – Cabinet Office of the Isle of Man Government – Citizen Space.

This is an invitation to think imaginatively about how to make the island’s transport even more interesting and financially secure.

But bearing in mind the current lamentable state of the horse trams, it would be wise not to expect rapid change.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Organ for sale

Port Erin Methodist Church, Isle of Man

Photo: Matthew Binns

Anyone want to buy a pipe-organ?  There’s one at the southern tip of the Isle of Man that needs a good home.

The Port Erin Methodist Church in the Isle of Man is about to move into smaller premises.  The congregation no longer wishes to support the maintenance costs of the dignified stone-built 1903 building and is moving into the smaller 1960s Sunday School building next door.

This decision is a matter of refocusing rather than retrenchment. 

Not for the first time, the church members want to direct their resources towards helping the local community rather than paying to keep up an old building that is ill-suited to present-day needs.  It’s the fourth time in their long history that they’ve abandoned one building for another.

This is the oldest Christian congregation in Port Erin, dating back to 1823.

A chapel was built on Dandy Hill in 1832 and replaced in the late 1850s by a 200-seat chapel that survived as a Sunday School until 1963 and was demolished three years later.

The present 1903 chapel on Station Road was designed by the Halifax architect William Clement Williams (1847-1913), who was resident in Port Erin at the time of his death.

The organ, one of the last to be built by the Douglas organ-builder Moses Morgan, dates from 1911, and originally belonged to the Port Erin Wesleyan Methodist Church that is now the Erin Arts Centre.  When the former Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist congregations amalgamated in 1970 the Wesleyans brought their organ with them to Station Road.

It’s described as “an excellent example of a straightforward chapel organ of modest size” with very few modifications to its authentic specification.

Apart from a few judicious improvements to the pipework little has changed, though the gas lights were replaced with electric lights as recently as 2008.

Organ aficionados on the island hope it will remain intact and find a new home.  The Methodists pray that it will continue to be used for worship.

In this video the Manx organist Gareth Moore introduces the chapel and demonstrates the organ’s capabilities:  Port Erin Pipe Organ – YouTube.

Particulars of the building sale are at Port Erin Methodist Chapel – Black Grace Cowley.

Another gap in the Promenade

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man:  demolition, August 31st 2018

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man: demolition, August 31st 2018

Photo:  John Binns

Just because a building doesn’t reach the criteria for listing and protecting as a historic structure doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saving.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about to the loss of the Tudno Castle Hotel, Llandudno, which, though listed Grade II, was completely demolished after an inadequate survey failed to show that a scheme to retain only the façade was in fact impractical:

More recently, my Isle of Man friend John spotted the demise of the long-derelict Imperial Hotel on Douglas Promenade at the end of August 2018:

The Imperial dates from 1891, one of a number of imposing sea-front hotels by the Manx property-developer Alexander Gill (c1852-1919).  Others still remaining include the Hydro (1910) and the Empress Hotel.

The Imperial closed in 2006, and remained unused except as an occasional training site for police sniffer dogs.

Douglas Promenade is actually a series of promenades, built 1875-1890 to take advantage of the broad sweep of Douglas Bay by providing building land for the island’s growing tourist industry.

The whole extent of the Promenade is designated as a conservation area:

It’s a magnificent sight despite regrettable gaps where ungracious modern structures have replaced Victorian originals such as the Palace Pavilion & Opera House (1889 onwards, demolished 1965 and 1994), the Promenade Methodist Church (1876, demolished 1975) and the Villiers Hotel (1879, demolished 1995).

The late Gavin Stamp wrote about the insidious threats to the island’s built heritage when the Villiers Hotel was at risk in 1994:

The Isle of Man’s parliament, Tynwald, has its own system of Registered Buildings, without the grading that applies in the UK.  Manx registrations began in 1983, and so far cover only 275 buildings, with another 250 under consideration.

Consideration of extending the list has not been energetic.  According to Wikipedia – there seems to be no online version of the official list – there were four registrations in 2014, one in 2015, four in 2017 and so far only two in 2018:

An Alliance for Building Conservation (ABC) was formed in 2016 to co-ordinate campaigning to protect the island’s built heritage:

One of the Alliance’s achievements has been a regular series of articles in the Isle of Man Examiner highlighting causes for conservationist concern.  A recent article reviews the glacial process of changing Manx attitudes to historical conservation:

Because it takes so long to list worthwhile Manx buildings, it’s no surprise that less distinguished places like the Imperial Hotel come to grief, yet their group value is invaluable, and when the gaps they leave are replaced by mediocre substitutes, or left empty, the effect diminishes the whole.

Though the Isle of Man is small in extent, it’s rich in history.

In many places in the UK and across the world the historic heritage is seen to be good for the local economy.

Unfortunately, in the Isle of Man investment and commercial development tend to be at odds with the good of the environment.

Undisturbed by Victorian hands: Kirk Malew, Isle of Man

Kirk Malew, Isle of Man

Kirk Malew, Isle of Man

Change comes very slowly in the Isle of Man.

Kirk Malew, the ancient parish church for Castletown, then the capital of the island, probably dates from the twelfth century, though an earlier cell, or keill, probably occupied the site in the centuries before.

The core of the church is a simple rectangle, combining nave and chancel, with a bell turret added c1770.

The chancel was rebuilt in 1781, and two years later a substantial north wing with a raked floor – much more an auditorium than a transept – was added and the entire interior filled with box pews.

A gallery was added for the Billowne family in 1818.

Not only does the interior retain the customary box pews of an eighteenth-century church, it is an odd-shaped space, a T-plan which forces some members of the congregation to face the organ rather than the altar.

The Victorian period brought little change – a window by William Wales of Newcastle (1843) and another signed by the mid-nineteenth century artists Baillie and Mayer.  The old church, dedicated to St Lupus, declined in importance after the opening of St Mary’s in the centre of Castletown, a mile and a half away, in 1828, and Castletown itself lost prestige when the Manx parliament, Tynwald, moved to Douglas in 1869.

Its most recent addition is the Manx artist Bryan Kneale’s monument to Illiam Dhone, “Brown-haired William”, otherwise William Christian, the Receiver of the Island and latterly Governor during the Commonwealth period, executed arbitrarily in 1663.  His nickel-silver bust gazes at the site of his burial in the chancel.

Even though St Lupus’ church is no longer the parish church of Castletown, a tradition remains that each Bishop of Sodor & Man preaches his first and last sermon in the diocese at Kirk Malew.

Runaway tram

Snaefell Mountain Railway no 3 (2014)

Snaefell Mountain Railway no 3 (2014)

By a miracle nobody was killed or injured when the Manx Snaefell Mountain Railway no 3 inexplicably ran down the mountain on Wednesday March 30th:

Someone must have had a heart-stopping moment when they turned round and found their tram had disappeared.

Fortunately there was no-one on board.

Even more fortunately the tram overturned on the bend before it could reach the road-crossing at the Bungalow. 

A road collision at the Bungalow would certainly have been fatal.  

If instead the tram had continued down the line beyond the Bungalow it would have caused even more destruction, whether somebody had had the presence of mind to set the points to run it into the depot or, worst of all, if it had run on into Laxey, over another main road and into the terminus where there are buildings, crowds of people and possibly other trams.

How an empty, parked tram unexpectedly took off down the steep incline isn’t yet explained, but the restoration of the service within three days indicates confidence that the cause is known and can be certainly avoided in future.  This clip from the Isle of Man News gives more detail:

There has never before been a runway on the Snaefell Mountain Railway in 120 years of operation, though there was one on the Llandudno funicular Great Orme Railway in 1932.

Certainly no 3 is matchwood.  It can’t be restored in any meaningful sense, though like its companion no 5, destroyed by fire in 1970, it could be replaced by a close facsimile, which may include components from the original.

Update:  News articles about the subsequent analyses of this incident make interesting reading: and

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Cameron’s cars

Manx Electric Railway "Tunnel" car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

Manx Electric Railway “Tunnel” car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

John Cameron was a Victorian engineer whose career deserves to be better known.

He began his career as a ganger on the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the early 1870s, and was a subcontractor for the Manx Northern Railway in 1878.  He stayed on to serve as secretary and manager of the Manx Northern from 1879, making it the cheapest operational railway in the British Isles, and he built the Foxdale Railway in 1886.

He was appointed consultant engineer for the Douglas-Laxey electric railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, but left the island before the electric railway was extended from Laxey to Ramsey and renamed the Manx Electric Railway.

In 1898 he became secretary and manager of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad.

Both the MER and the Tramroad were promoted by property speculators.  The Manx line started out as a pretext for property development north of Douglas, and became involved in a bubble of enterprise that spread to electricity supply, quarrying and hotels and burst spectacularly in 1900.

The sponsors of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, Benjamin Sykes and his business partner Thomas Lumb, between them owned or had significant control over virtually all the undeveloped land along the tramroad route.  They proceeded cautiously, and eventually sold their line to Blackpool Corporation in 1920.

For both these electric railways John Cameron provided very similar rolling stock, flat-fronted box-shaped single-deckers with corner entrances.  The Manx Electric Railway was laid to three-foot gauge track, but the Snaefell Mountain Railway, fitted with a central Fell rail to aid adhesion and braking, is 3ft 6in gauge.  The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, running along the spacious, gently graded Fylde coast, was built to standard 4ft 8½in gauge.  The obvious similarity of the rolling stock on the two lines is clearly Cameron’s signature.

All three lines remain in operation.  The Manx Electric Railway, though unobtrusively modernised for practical reasons, provides an authentic Victorian travel experience as it grinds its way over the cliffs between Douglas and Ramsey, powered predominantly by John Cameron’s fleet of “Tunnel” cars (1894) and “Winter Saloons” (1899).  (There is no satisfactory explanation of why the narrow “Tunnel” cars are so called.  There are no tunnels on the MER.)

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes visitors from the MER at Laxey to the top of the island’s highest mountain.

The Blackpool to Fleetwood tramway has been upgraded to modern light-rail standards, and is operated by uncompromisingly modern Bombardier Flexity 2 vehicles.   There remains one survivor of John Cameron’s Blackpool fleet, no 40, built in 1914, now part of the National Tramway Museum fleet at Crich, Derbyshire.

By courtesy of YouTube, it’s possible to enjoy a cab-ride from Starr Gate to Fleetwood in six minutes:

The Isle of Man moves at a slower pace, and YouTube offers the real-time experience, complete with rain on the window-glass, of a back seat from Ramsey to Douglas in just over an hour:

(There was another railway engineer called John Cameron, who learned his trade in the south of England and became the locomotive superintendent of the Taff Vale Railway 1911-1922.  He died in 1938.)

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

‘Peggy’ of Castletown

'Peggy', Manx Nautical Museum, Castletown, Isle of Man (2014)

‘Peggy’, Manx Nautical Museum, Castletown, Isle of Man (2014)

The Isle of Man is rich in romantic stories, some of them true, and none more palpably true than the saga of Peggy, George Quayle’s armed yacht, which recently saw the light of day for the first time in perhaps 180 years.

George Quayle (1751-1835) was a trader, banker and Member of the House of Keys, the Manx parliament, in the lively period of the late eighteenth century when the island’s economy struggled against the Westminster government’s opposition to the Manx habit of smuggling.

Peggy, which was built in 1791, was berthed in a purpose-built basement boathouse beside the harbour in Castletown, within sight of Castle Rushen. She would have had no difficulty in sneaking out to sea from her private dock under cover of darkness:

After George Quayle died Peggy seems never to have sailed again. Indeed, for almost a century she was apparently forgotten.

By the time word of her existence got about she was the oldest Manx boat in existence, three times unique as the oldest surviving schooner, of shallop construction, and fitted with sliding keels:

After the death of George Quayle’s descendant, Emily Quayle, in 1935, Peggy and her boathouse was bequeathed to the Manx nation and became the centrepiece of the Manx Nautical Museum, which opened in 1951.

She was very gently restored after the Second World War, and has rested intact and largely untouched until 2014, when a series of super-tides threatened her location.

To safeguard her and to assist her long-term conservation Peggy has been craned out of her berth and taken to a climate-controlled environment in Douglas:

The archaeological investigation and preservation process was expected to take at least five years.

What will happen to Peggy at the end of the project remains to be seen, though a recent Manx Heritage statement said, “The intimate links between Peggy and her boathouse are so very important that the final stages of the project will look at ways of housing her there when the conservation work is completed.”

Almost ten years after the restoration of Peggy began, an ambitious scheme to build a museum around her has been announced.  The readers’ comments to the Isle of Man Today (August 9th 2023) are collectors’ items:  Plans to revamp nautical museum are on display |

Some mother’s son

Unknown serviceman's grave, Kirk Patrick Churchyard, Isle of Man

Unknown serviceman’s grave, Kirk Patrick Churchyard, Isle of Man

My friend John pointed out to me, in the Manx churchyard of Kirk Patrick, a grave to an unknown serviceman, with the motto “Some mother’s son”, a white marble cross inscribed “British – unidentified – interred 27th Feb 1918” and, in tiny lettering at the foot, “Erected by Florrie Forde, 1927”.

Very little seems to be recorded of the circumstances of this story. Florrie Forde (1875-1940) was a hugely famous music-hall singer, Australian by birth, who dominated British variety theatre from the beginning of the twentieth century until the start of the Second World War.

She kept a cottage on the Manx coast at Niarbyl, where this unidentifiable but clearly British serviceman was washed ashore.

Rather than allow him to be buried in obscurity, Florrie wanted to make sure he had a monument, if not a name, as his unknown mother would have wished.

Florrie was entertaining troops when she died in 1940, and her passing was commemorated by the poet Louis MacNeice in ‘Death of an Actress’:

Keeping track

Douglas, Isle of Man:  horse-tram 12 (September 11th 2014)

Douglas, Isle of Man: horse-tram 12 (September 11th 2014)

The Douglas horse tramway on the Isle of Man closed down on Sunday September 14th 2014 for an eighteen-month break.

Service was interrupted in 2015 while almost the entire track, last renewed in the 1930s, is moved sideways to the seaward side of the promenade, which it will share with pedestrians rather than conflict with motor traffic. This is intended to be less dangerous for boarding passengers and more comfortable for the horses:

In the process, the double track has been reduced to single track with passing loops, an acknowledgement that the customary service of two opposing cars, passing once on each journey, doesn’t require the track-capacity that existed when the tramway carried 2¾ million passengers in a summer season.

I’m not convinced that the recent operation of the tramway has made the most of its potential. Late in the day it became permissible to use Explorer tickets on the horse trams.  These cost £16.00 for a single day, £47.00 for a week, and provide unlimited access to buses, steam trains and electric trams as well as the horse-trams.

Yet I heard a palpable gulp of astonishment from a horse-tram passenger when asked for £3.00 for a single journey along the promenade: for that sort of money you can get almost anywhere on the island by bus.

Shortly before the temporary closure I listened to a Member of the Legislative Council of Tynwald, the island’s parliament, explain the financial constraints affecting his government. In that context it’s commendable that the Douglas promenade improvements went ahead, and that the horse tramway was included in the development.

By relaying the horse tramway with heavier rails the Manx Government has made it possible to extend the Manx Electric Railway from Derby Castle, the northern terminus of the horse trams, to the Sea Terminal, running the horse cars in conjunction with an electric service:

In the 1890s by the promoter of what became the Manx Electric Railway, Alexander Bruce, proposed running electric cars along the Promenade and on to the Isle of Man Steam Railway terminus at Banks Circus.  Just because he was eventually exposed as a fraudster doesn’t mean the idea of a rail link all the way from Ramsey to the south of the island wasn’t a logical and practical idea.

A pattern is emerging elsewhere to show that heritage rail transport is a money-spinner, as the authorities in San Francisco discovered when they had to close down the cable cars for a complete rebuilding.

In Whitby a consortium of public agencies has collaborated with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to bring steam trains back to the town at a cost of £2 million, with the intention of generating up to £6½ million within the local economy:

The island’s heritage railways require a £2.3 million subsidy to keep going, yet inject over £11 million into the Manx economy:

Investing in electrification of the promenade tramway and extending it to the railway station is more easily practical now than at any time in the recent past or the foreseeable future.

It will be interesting to see whether the MER trams are equipped with traction batteries or whether Tynwald would sanction overhead wires along the Promenade, the issue that killed Bruce’s proposal in the 1890s.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.