Travel and transport

Vol. 7 No. 3 - 1993

Travel and transport in the north of Ireland

by S.C. Lutton

Having been born in the days of horse-drawn transport and the early days of motor transport, I am in a position to look back and record the previous methods of transport and travel that I have personally witnessed, through the eyes of a child, youth and man, in and around my native town of Portadown.

My first recollection of wheeled transport was being taken from my home, Ballyhannon House, into town, a distance of two miles, in a two-wheeled trap, drawn by a horse called "Bob". This was the way I got into Thomas Street National School, along with other members of the family. As we got out of school at different times, it was a case of walking home on "Shanks's Mare", all uphill. The older members of the family rode into town on pedal cycles, as did my Father, who was Manager of the linen manufacturing firm of Spence, Bryson & Cc Ltd whose weaving-factory was bordered by Portmore Street and Meadow Lane.

My recollections of pony and trap transport are getting somewhat dim, but I do remember the pony always having a drink at the watering trough situated in the centre of Edenderry Square; and being given a feed of oats from a "nose-bag", which was put over its ears, any time we had to stop. This kept the animal quiet while it was standing for any length of time,

I can still remember with some embarrassment the pony carrying out its natural function of dunging at intervals. The pungent smell of the issue of hot, steamy dung, a yard from your face, still lives with me.

Pony and trap to church

The pony and trap was also used on Sundays for the transport of the family to Bluestone Methodist Church, a little over a mile away. There was stabling at the rear of the church for the horses during the service.

On the farm many duties were carried out by the horse, such as ploughing, reaping and general transport with the farm cart. These carts were of wooden construction with iron fittings and steel-rimmed wheels. The sides and tail board could be removed to give a clear flat surface for certain loads. The wheels were of wooden-spoke construction, with steel rims which were made a tight fit by heating the rim red hot; as it cooled it contracted, to bind fast to the inner wooden rim.

A special hay cart was used for shifting hay cocks from the fields to the stack yard. The flat surface of the hay cart, which was hinged in front, was dropped down so that the outer end rested on the ground, A rope band was placed round the hay cock, and the two free ends were attached to a roller which was revolved by the action of levers at either end, operating a pawl and ratch system which drew the hay cock up the sloped float. When the hay cock was in position the float was moved to its horizontal position for transport to the stack yard.

Before the Ulster railway system was constructed through to Portadown, with continuation lines to west and south, passenger transport by horse drawn coach was the usual mode of travel. The main towns had their staging posts for servicing man and beast. The coaching inn for Portadown was the Imperial Hotel in High Street, on the site now occupied by Wellworths Super Valu.

Stage coaches were normally drawn by four horses with first class passengers inside and the rest on the outside at the mercy of every type of weather. The roads were mere tracks and became quagmires in wet wintry weather.

Inland navigation - canals, rivers and loughs

Robb's Ferry and the one at Bannfoot. The latter even ferried cars across the river at a point immediately before connecting with Lough Neagh,

Canal barges were towed by horses, which could draw a barge load of over 30 tons as against less than a ton on land. From the Point of Whitecoat on the Bann, the barges were poled down to Portadown with 40 foot poles. Steam-powered tow boats were used to tow a string of barges across Lough Neagh and up the Bann to Portadown.

As a child I can remember seeing barges loaded with turf and towed by tug boat, off-loading at Hamilton Robb's weaving factory quay.

The railway system

Much has been written in former Reviews about the rail connection which linked

There have already been several articles in past Reviews on the inland navigation of barges or lighters. Briefly, the Newry Navigation canal ran from the Point of Whitecoat on the Bann just south of Portadown to the town of Newry, 18 miles distant. A ship canal connected Newry to the open sea at Warrenpoint on Carlingford Lough.

Great Northern Station, Portadown in course of demolition

The river Bann flowing north from Portadown gave barge traffic access to Lough Neagh. The Lagan Navigation connected Lough Neagh to the Lagan river, and subsequently Belfast. There was no bridge between Portadown and Lough Neagh, but there were several primitive ferries providing river crossings, among them Portadown to the larger towns in the south and west.

Great Northern Railway

The railway system, operating as the Ulster Railway Co. (later the Great Northern Railway or G.N.R.), radiated from the Great Victoria Street station in Belfast which was the terminus and headquarters of the company. The line reached Portadown in 1842; a railway bridge was built over the Bann in 1848, and the line was extended to Armagh and subsequently Clones and Enniskillen. It was not until 1855 that the line was built through to Dublin, with a branch line to Newry and Warrenpoint.

Mogul class locomotive," King Edward VIII",
built at York Road, Belfast

There were two routes to the north-west: the G.N.R. route from Belfast passed through Portadown, Omagh, Strabane and Londonderry.

As a result of the many railway connections, Portadown became a major railway junction, and was often referred to as "the hub of the north". With the policy in recent years of closing down unremunerative lines, Portadown is no longer a railway junction: it is now only a stopping place en route from Belfast to Dublin.

Road transport

Whereas road transport with steam or internal combustion engines only came into general use following the end of the first World War, there had been a few primitive cars and lorries on the roads from the early 1900s.

Austin 12 Saloon owned by Samuel Lutton senior about 1930. This is the car Sam Lutton learnt to drive in 1934.

The earlier cars in and around Portadown in the 1920s belonged to doctors, owners of manufacturing industries and the landed gentry. The very first on the roads were generally steam-driven; but by 1910 the internal combustion engine, using petroleum for fuel, was becoming reasonably reliable,

It is a matter of interest that the first car registered in County Armagh (113 1) was an American-built Locomobile steam-engine car owned by Mr Atkinson of Crow Hill, Summerisland. His second car was a Swift, a petrol-engined car, with the registration number IB 1 transferred, Some time later this same registration number was transferred to Maynard Sinton of Gilford/ Tandragee on a 16 horse-power Clement,

For heavy road transport, steam traction engines were used and in the early 1930s I can still remember a "Sentinel" steam wagon, coal-fired.

There was only one Irish make of car. It was built in Belfast by the Chambers Brothers from 1904 to 1927. They even built their own two-cylinder, and later a four-cylinder, engine. However, with the

Air transport and travel

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945 there was no recognised air transport of goods or passengers, though mail (Air Mall) was flown by light transport planes.

About 1950, some minor passenger services were started from the flying field adjoining Short & Harland's aircraft factory, but the old RAF flying station of Nutts Corner was rapidly developed as the main airport for Northern Ireland. In course of time the major area of the RAF Aldergrove superseded Nutts Corner and now bears the title of Belfast International Airport. The Belfast City Airport has in recent years become a very useful addition to Aldergrove and serves a number of Great Britain routes.

Short Brothers

Northern Ireland has played a noted role in aircraft manufacture. In 1938 Short Brothers, aircraft builders of Rochester in Kent, moved their production to a factory in Belfast Harbour Estate. The new outfit was known as "Short and Harland" and produced planes for the R.A,F. during the years of the Second World War, The magnificent Short Sunderland Flying-boat was for long-distance ocean reconnaissance. Other fighting planes constructed were the Bristol Bombay, the Hereford bomber, and the heavy long-range Stirling bomber.

Shorts "Belfast" freighter flying over Belfast

At the end of the war S & H designed and produced the "Belfast" freighter, which was just a little reminiscent of the Sunderland Flying-boat. Ten Belfasts were ordered for the RAF, but no further orders were received and production came to a halt, Shorts continued to produce complete aircraft up to 1980, namely the Skyvan Freighter and a passenger adaptation named the SD 380, a 35-seater. With mounting losses, Short & Harland was taken over by a Canadian firm, Bombardier, and now only manufactures parts or sections for other front-line aircraft such as engine nacelles, wings and tall units.

Harry Ferguson and Joe Martin with the experimental monoplane they built and flew in 1910

Besides Belfast City Airport, and Belfast International Airport near Crumlin, we now have the City of Derry Airport and St Angelo's near Enniskillen. The main passenger carriers are British Airways, British Midland, Jersey European Airways, and Gill Airways. A recent newcomer is Easyjet.

Source references:

  • Transport in Ireland 1880 - 1910 by Patrick Flanagan;
  • Travel and Transport in Ireland by Kevin B. Nowlan
  • Great cars - Veteran and Vintage by Michael Sedgwick and Mike Atkinson
  • The Engineering Industry of the North of Ireland, by W, E. Coo
  • Northern Ireland 1921-1971
  • Ulster Annuals 1971, 1972, 1973