Simon Colbeck reports on the Isle of Man Steam Railway’s 150th anniversary celebrations, which involved a week of spectacular activities.
In April 2023 I finally ticked off a long-time ambition of mine to return to the Isle of Man Steam Railway as it celebrates its 150 anniversary, with the primary intention of photographing the ‘odd man out’ of the locomotive fleet; the 1885 Dubs-built 0-6-0T Caledonia. Renowned steam charter expert David Williams had organised a spectacular week of railway activity on the island, with a strong emphasis on the beautiful Scottish-built Caledonia, so I set off across the Irish Sea to spend a week in the lovely old resort town of Port Erin.
The three-foot gauge Isle of Man Railway (IMR) company commenced operations in 1873 on the first section of the railway to be completed between Douglas and Peel. Then, in 1874, the line from Douglas to Port Erin was opened. A third line was built between 1878 and 1879 by a new company, the Manx Northern Railway, from St John’s to Ramsey. A further short line was constructed from St John’s to Foxdale in 1885 to serve the lead mines there.
Although it was built by the nominally independent Foxdale Railway, it was operated by the Manx Northern. It was to operate this line that the Manx Northern purchased Caledonia from Glasgow-based locomotive manufacturer, Dubs. At the time it was twice as powerful as the existing Manx Northern locomotives – necessary for the heavy lead ore trains it was to haul on the Foxdale Branch.
In 1895, Caledonia was hired out to help with the construction of the Snaefell Mountain Railway. To facilitate the engine’s use on the 3ft 6in mountain line, a temporary extra rail – at 3ft gauge – was laid up the four-and-a-half mile route from Laxey up the mountain.
After an eventful four months on the mountain line – including running away and ending up in a greengrocer’s shop in Laxey! – Caledonia returned to the more mundane duties of the Foxdale branch.
The Manx Northern and Foxdale Railways both got into financial difficulties and were eventually taken over by the IMR in 1905, giving the combined system a peak total network of about 46 miles.
Shortly after the takeover, the mines at Foxdale closed and Caledonia joined the main fleet of Beyer Peacock tanks working out of Douglas. With its additional power it was mainly employed on special workings, such as the cattle specials, snow plough duties and the internment camp-supply trains of World War 1.
The entire steam railway system closed in 1965, but was then leased by the Marquis of Ailsa who, with the assistance of the Isle of Man government, reopened the whole railway in 1967. In spite of investing a significant amount of money in the railways after two poor summer seasons, the Peel and Ramsey lines sadly closed for good in 1968.
Caledonia hauled its last train in June 1968 before going on display at various locations on the railway.
This meant that all trains on the surviving section of the railway were hauled by examples of the famous ‘Manx Peacocks’, built in Manchester by Beyer Peacock over the course of 53 years.
The 15 members of the class, although displaying detail differences and improvements, all share a common ancestry, and the hallmark angled cylinders and 2-4-0 wheel arrangement.
In 1994, Caledonia was returned to steam and today operates on the remaining 15½-mile line run from Douglas to Port Erin, together with the fleet of beautiful ‘Manx Peacocks’. The railway is now solely owned by the Isle of Man government, along with the Manx Electric and Snaefell Mountain Railways.
The Manx Electric and Snaefell Mountain Railways are remarkable survivors of inter-urban electric tramways, both dating from the 1890s. The beautiful and scenic nature of the routes, and the delightful vintage rolling stock, provide some wonderful photographic opportunities.
2023 is a special year for the Island’s railway systems. The Isle of Man Steam Railway is celebrating its 150th anniversary and the Manx Electric Railway its 130th anniversary. There are plenty of fantastic events planned throughout the year, providing all the more reason to visit this wonderful vintage transport paradise.
All photographs by the author.
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We visit the brilliant Shillingstone Steam Rally