Oral Testimony of Norman Porter – Railway Days at Toome – Memories of Duneane

Toome Easter Festival Programme 1971 – Lower Bann Voices
14th March 2022
NI100: Ulster University Interactive Media Students Projects
15th March 2022

Oral Testimony of Norman Porter – Railway Days at Toome – Memories of Duneane

Project Attributes


Lower Bann Voices




14th March 2022

TIDAL Toome (Toome Industrial Development, Amenities and Leisure) was established by a group of community stakeholders in 1994 to provide community services for the village of Toome and its rural hinterland and to celebrate the heritage of traditional crafts associated with the local fishing, farming and sand industry. One of the first projects the group initiated was the “Memories of Duneane” group which met at Toome primary school to share memories and reminiscences about the area and to document the changes to the village of Toome during their lifetime. Pupils listened as Lucy Draine, Brian Grant, Brigid Kelly, Trea Kelly, Ruby Lynd, Edmund McCann, Bessie Quinn and Norman Porter told their stories of the past and a transcript of several oral history interviews were made and have been retained in the archives of TIDAL Toome

James Porter is listed on the Irish census of 1911 as the Head of a family of four at the tender age of 28. Sarah Porter, 25, has given birth to three daughters and one son; Caroline and Margaret, aged 7 and 5, Emily, aged 3, and William James, aged 1. Caroline and Margaret are listed as scholars; their father is a labourer and gate house keeper on the railway line.

Their second son, Norman, recalled his memories of growing up on the railway and offers an insight into  the trade and commerce which passed through his father’s post.

“The Station at Toome was a single platform, with a signal cabin commanding 24 levers, which operated inner and outer signals and changed the points to put the trains on to different lines. I think they also released the lock which let the swing bridge be opened for boats passing through the canal. The station also had a goods yard and a large shed for loading and unloading all kinds of commerce. It also had a crane operated by hand which could lift heavy objects from wagons onto other transport, and vice-versa. There was a large sand dock and cattle dock which was kept very busy with the large tonnage of sand which was dredged from the lough. 

“Another thing the railway handled here was a product known locally as Bann Clay. This was loaded by a steam crane which lifted it directly from the boat at the quay on the River Bann into the railway wagons. Going back to the platform again, the accommodation for passengers was quite adequate, there being gents and ladies waiting rooms with coal fires. The ladies also had a toilet, the gents being directly off the platform. There was a luggage room, a Stationmasters office, and a small loading bay for the bread vans to load their wares which came by morning trade,

“Below the signal cabin there was a small lamp room, and all the station lamps and signal lamps, plus handlamps were cleaned and refilled with paraffin oil as needed. Also in the station yard was a weighbridge and a small office where the horses and carts were weighed. There was also a Stationmasters house which faced away from the station, but could be entered directly from the platform. The last Stationmaster in charge was Malcolm Loughlin. Many of the staff, such as the Head Porter Hugh McKeever, were a family concern, as two of his sons followed in his footsteps, plus a son-in-law. 

“The other thing of interest that took place was the despatching of eels which were brought to the platform on a small bogie on the lines straight from the fishery, just on the other side of the railway bridge. These eels were contained in wooden boxes approximately 3 feet by 2 feet, by 6 or 8 inches deep, and the ice would be added and the lids nailed down while on the platform. The railway line approaching Toome from Randalstown had a stone bridge over the railway known as McCormick’s Arch, and three level crossings named McKeever’s, Porter’s and McCoy’s. The first and last were over secondary roads, and in the early days were attended by a man called Toal and his sister Mary. There were no gate-keeper’s houses either, only sleeper sheds to shelter in. 

“In 1915 there was a house erected at the first crossing and was occupied by Mr. Hugh McKeever and his wife and family, and the sleeper shed was kept for storage and coal. The second level crossing was across the main road to Belfast and had very large gates which crossed road and railway lines. There was a semaphore type signal half a mile up the line which was operated by a lever in a yard. 

“This lever also closed the automatic locks which were fitted to the gates. This was all for safety, the idea being that the gates couldn’t be opened by a stranger, and also that the signal defending them could not be put in the operational position when they were not closed against the traffic on the road; all had to work in sequence with each other, and couldn’t be by-passed. 

“This gatehouse at the second crossing was occupied by my father and mother, Mr. and Mrs James Porter, who came there around 1906. My father was responsible for six miles of the railway with three other men. This stretch of line ran from the bridge over the River Bann to the Dry Arch near Magherafelt. Once on this section there was a train smash caused by a train breaking in two. The first half carried on until the driver missed the latter part, which was still travelling slowly. He reversed the train back and collided with the second part, and some goods wagons were wrecked. 

“My mother was responsible for opening and closing the gates. I can remember these gates being smashed 3 or 4 times by road traffic in her lifetime. The system of warning that a train was due was a bell with a code which you returned by pressing a button. The code for a train to Belfast would have been one long ring, which was the call up, and you returned. You then received two short rings, which you again returned. For a train to Magherafelt it would have been one call up, and three shorts. For a train that was cancelled you would have received one long call up, and when you returned, there would be sixteen short rings which you returned again. 

“My father retired from the railway in 1946 and my mother in 1949. My wife was then given charge of the level crossing and carried on until the closure on 1st October 1959, the passenger service having been withdrawn for a goods service on 28th August 1950. The warning bell system changed to a telephone in later years which was internal to the station and the level crossings in that section. 

“Once we had a train which left Toome station before we were warned, and it went right through the gates, taking them three or four hundred yards up the railway. To stop trains in an emergency there were detonators to put on the rail. These caused a loud bang to warn the driver when in fog, also a red and green flag for daylight, and after dark a handlamp which could be turned to red, green or white. This lamp contained oil and a wick. Incidentally, this gatehouse was referred to as Cargin No.1, and had a door number D36H1. 

“The last of the three level crossings was operated by Elizabeth McCoy, who lived in her own house beside the railway. This job passed from her uncle Eoin, and again run in the family. Another level crossing was just over the Bann railway bridge, and crossed a road known as the Strand. It was occupied by a Mr. Samuel Doyle whose wife was in charge of the gate, and he was also a ganger on the lines from Toome Bridge to Cranfield Bridge which was six miles again, with three other men under him. 

“When we were young and played on the railway we were delighted to get a sail on the bogie, a form of transport used by the railwaymen. There was also a two man bicycle used by the Permanent-way Inspector which ran on the rails and could be lifted off when a train was due.”