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JOURNAL 193

Bantry Station Fire 1954

 

OLIVER DOYLE

THE BANTRY RAILWAY

When the Cork & Bandon Railway (retitled the Cork Bandon & South Coast Railway in 1888) opened the Drimoleague-Bantry section on 4 July 1881, the Bantry terminus was situated high above the town, near where the local hospital now stands.  In 1892 the Bantry Extension Railway, nominally independent but always worked by the CB&SCR, extended the line around the town to a new station, situated mostly on reclaimed ground on the north side of the harbour. The line continued past the station to end on the railway pier, as it was generally known locally. The original station closed at that time, but the building remains and is now two private residences.

A feature of County Cork was that every town of any significance had a service provided by the railways. However, in the case of towns on the Beara peninsula, it would have been too expensive to construct a line from Bantry to Castletownbere along the foothills of the Caha Mountains. So, instead, a local company, the Bantry Bay Steamship Company was established to operate a steamer service between the two towns. Steamer services, which started in 1884, were not initially rail-connected, as the railway’s terminus was high above the town. This situation was resolved with the 1892 extension of the line to the new station. From 1906 boats also served the pier at Glengarriff. Passenger services to Castletownbere ceased before the outbreak of World War I, while those to Glengarriff continued until 1937. Goods traffic continued to be carried by boat until the summer of 1946, when the service ceased.

BANTRY STATION

The station building, as originally constructed, incorporated the Booking Office, Parcels Office, separate Ladies and General waiting rooms, and Toilets. In 1900, a Tearoom and an office for the BBSsCo were added. At this stage the building consisted of a single storey timber structure 146 feet long, 17 feet wide and 11 feet to the eaves. It had timber floors, two cross walls, and three brick chimneystacks, and was roofed with Ruberoid – a specialised felt-like material. The western end of the building, for a length of approximately 66 feet, was used by the CB&SCR as Refreshment and Tea Rooms. After the demise of the BBSsCo’s passenger service in 1936 and the closure of the refreshment rooms, there was a surplus of accommodation at the station. Eventually this part of the building was leased for three years to the Commissioners of Public Works for use as an Employment Exchange from 1 February 1944 (the lease was actually dated 23 February 1944) at a rent of £60 per annum plus rates. After the expiration of the three-year period, the tenancy was continued on a yearly basis and the rooms housed the local Social Welfare and Old Age Pensions offices.

My late father was appointed Station Master at Bantry, taking up duty there on 19 December 1949. The family resided at the Station House, which could only be accessed by a ‘barrow path’ across the tracks on the Cork side of the signal cabin. There was an area of unused ground, perhaps an acre in size, between the Station House and the locomotive shed and this was leased to the Esso Oil Co. about 1952 for an oil and petrol storage facility, as car and lorry numbers were increasing after World War II and demand for road fuel was rising. Three circular tanks stood two on-end and one horizontal in an earthen bund. The petrol and diesel arrived in rail tankers and the products were collected by lorry from high-level filling pipes on the opposite side of the station, near the goods office, having been piped across under the station yard.

The rail service to Bantry in the winter timetable of 1953-54 was very limited. It consisted of one return passenger working, which left Bantry at 8:05am for Drimoleague where it was attached to the 8.20am from Skibbereen to Cork (Albert Quay), where it was due at 10.50am. The return working in the evening left Albert Quay at 5.40pm for Skibbereen. There was a connection at Clonakilty Junction for Clonakilty and at Drimoleague a portion was detached for Bantry, scheduled to arrive there at 8.18pm. Upon arrival at Skibbereen, a further portion went forward to Baltimore. On Thursdays, passengers could avail of return tickets to Cork at the single fare of 16s 4d First class and 11s Second class. There was also a return goods working from Cork at 4am, with a scheduled departure at 3.30pm from Bantry. There were no Sunday services.

The Bantry passenger train was usually formed of two carriages, a Brake/1st and a 3rd class vehicle. The locomotive was usually a 2-4-2T, which, on the evening of 11 January 1954, was No. 34, built in 1892.

FIRE

At 1.25am on 12 January 1954, a motorist, Mr Charles McCarthy BE, Assistant County Engineer, Bantry, was passing within sight of the station and observed that the main building was on fire. He went immediately to the Garda Station, where Garda Carroll activated the fire siren to call the firemen from their beds, Mr McCarthy driving some of them to the Fire Station. I awoke to the sound of the siren and within a couple of minutes Locomotive Cleaner Batt O’Brien had knocked on the hall door to advise my father that the station was on fire. My father proceeded, with the assistance of Cleaner Batt O’Brien, Train Guard Donal Collins and Locomotive Fireman D. O’Connell, to take away the ticket rack, record books and cash. My recollection of the ticket rack is that it was small, about 30 ticket types including singles to London (Paddington) via the Cork-Fishguard service of the City of Cork City Steam Packet Co.

Bantry Fire Brigade arrived at 1.30am, but their efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered by lack of water as the tide was fully out. At 1:50am, concerned about the recently erected oil storage tanks close by, my father returned to the house to evacuate the family, my mother and the four children, and we were accommodated in a house at Harbour View owned by a Mr McCarthy, known as ‘The Duke’, about 150 yards away.

The tanks had only been installed by the Esso oil company some months previously and were about 30 yards from the station building with no road access. A south-westerly breeze which was blowing at the time showered sparks and embers onto the tanks and the Esso’s agents were called to the scene to cover the vapour valves of the tanks so as to reduce the risk of an explosion. At 2.30am Skibbereen Fire Brigade, which had also been summoned, arrived. At 3.am my father reported going towards the end of the platform and saw the Social Welfare Office completely destroyed and the Ladies Waiting Room badly burned. The fire was put out about 3.15am, but smouldering continued until about 6.00am. Unfortunately, I was in a rear facing room, denying me the opportunity to observe the demise of a substantial section of the main station building.

The passenger train for the morning’s 8.05am departure to Cork was standing at the platform and was in danger of catching fire. Members of the public, who were watching the fire, pushed the carriages to safety and also assisted in moving furniture from the station buildings. Had the fire occurred six months later, the public would have been unable to move the train as the service was dieselised from 31 May, worked by a Bantry-based AEC-railcar set. A Leyland Matador lorry was parked on the road outside the Parcels Office and this too was pushed to safety. This would not have been difficult as there was a falling gradient towards the town. The lorry and crew of two were Bantry-based and operated a weekday delivery service from and to points along the north shore of Bantry Bay. This was largely the replacement service for the former BBSsCo’s steamer, but it served more communities, including a once weekly trip to Dursey Sound.

In addition to the Social Welfare Offices being destroyed and Ladies Waiting Room being badly burned, the old General Waiting Room, long used as a store room, was damaged by the Fire Brigade breaking windows and sheeting boards in order to play hoses on the fire. The existing General Waiting Room had the paintwork destroyed by heat and smoke. There was also damage to the telephone wires, which were repaired later that day by the Department of Post & Telegraph’s staff. The electricity wires also required attention.

A unique feature of Bantry signalling was that the large pattern Electric Train Staff instrument and ‘block’ telephone were in the Parcels Office and not in the signal cabin. The damage to the telephone wires caused the Bantry-Drimoleague ETS to fail, and Pilot Working was established for the 08:05 train. The telephone records for Bantry station show a call being made to ‘Drimoleague 2’ with the reason given as ‘Pilot Working’. There was strict control of the telephones and every call had to be recorded and the reason for the call stated.

ENQUIRY

A Joint Enquiry attended by CIÉ and Mr Healy, Social Welfare Control Officer, was held at Bantry Station on 5 February 1954. Mr H A Massey, District Superintendent, Cork, was chairman.

Batt O’Brien, the Locomotive Cleaner, told the enquiry that he came on duty at 11:50pm and walked along the platform outside the station building and saw nothing unusual as he went to the ‘Loco Shanty’, as the mess room for the locomotive staff was known. After he had been working on the engine, No. 34, for about an hour, he heard glass breaking and saw smoke coming from the Station Premises and went to the Station House to call the Station Master. While en route he heard the Fire Siren being sounded at the Fire Station. He then helped to clear books etc. from the Station Master’s Office.

Following the Enquiry, Mr Patrick Heneghan, Operating Superintendent, Kingsbridge, advised the General Manager, the Traffic Manager, the Chief Engineer and the Secretary that the fire undoubtedly originated in the part of the buildings which have been rented to the Dept. of Social Welfare for a number of years as office accommodation.

There was considerable suspicion that the fire was caused by cinders from the open fires being dropped on the wooden floor. The office cleaner was queried about the method of disposal of the ashes from the fire but nothing she said could suggest the cause of the fire. After some internal legal deliberation, CIÉ sent a letter to the Commissioners of Public Works suggesting they were liable for the damage. A reply was received four months later denying any liability for the fire saying “We have completed our investigation of the matter and are advised that the fire was not due to negligence or carelessness on the part of the officials occupying the premises”. On 24 August 1955, the CIÉ Secretary, Mr M J Hayes, replied “at the Enquiry it was disclosed beyond doubt that the fire originated in the Hall to the right of the entrance door of the Exchange and was caused by coal embers dropped on the floor”. On 4 January 1956, almost two years after the fire, the final letter was written by the Office of Public Works repeating their earlier statement that there was no evidence of the fire having been caused by coal embers being dropped on the floor, and that they were not liable for the damage caused. The CIÉ Solicitor at St. Johns, Islandbridge advised the Secretary that there was no proof of the cause of the fire and the matter was dropped.

CIÉ asked its Press Officer to submit a suitable letter to the Southern Star newspaper for publication, thanking the public for their assistance on the night of the fire by pushing the carriages away from the blaze, moving the lorry, and assisting in emptying the building. No such letter was subsequently published in the paper.

The fire entirely destroyed the building for a length of 53 feet at the western end and a further length of 27 feet was damaged beyond repair. The latter length included the Ladies Waiting Room and two ladies lavatories. The adjoining former General Waiting Room, used as a store, only had paintwork and glass damaged. There was no damage to the Station Master’s Office, the Booking Office, the Toilets or the Parcels Office. After the fire, the estimated cost of rebuilding the structure as it stood was £2,500, but the making-good of the portion of the station which would be used by CIÉ, including a lock-up store, would cost approximately £400.

In an audit after the fire the Chief Accountant confirmed that all tickets, cash and accounting documents had been brought to safety.

All the Social Welfare and Pensions records were lost. The destroyed section was never rebuilt and the Board of Works formally surrendered its tenancy of the building as of 1 February 1954 and sent a Payable Order for £5 in respect of rent to that date.

In conclusion I wish to thank Neilus O’Donoghue, Ian Vickery and Eugene Field for their assistance in the preparation of this paper.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Irish Railway Record Society Limited
Revised: February 15, 2018 .

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