The Railway

In the early years of the 19th Century, Portrush was little more than a small fishing village with a natural harbour for small boats. Substantial houses were few and the bulk of the small population resided in small houses and cabins clustered around the harbour.

By 1834 the town had grown somewhat, and we can see the evidence of this on the ordnance survey map of that period. We have the beginnings of Main Street although most of the buildings are still close to the harbour. The harbour itself was greatly enlarged in 1826/35 by the construction of new piers with the original natural harbour becoming known as the old dock.

In 1837 Doctor Boyd, a native of Coleraine, constructed the first purpose-built hotel in Portrush, The Antrim Arms. In subsequent years this hotel changed hands several times and was subject to many enlargements and improvements. There was also an increase in the number of substantial villas situated in prime locations to provide holiday homes for the wealthier members of society.

This growth of the town, the provision of the enlarged harbour, an hotel and the new big houses, all provided more work opportunities and thus accelerated an increase in population and the need to provide more services and accommodation.

After much negotiation, failed proposals and financial difficulties, a railway line, the Belfast and Ballymena Railway, connecting those two places opened for business on 12th April 1848. Closer to home the Londonderry and Coleraine Railway had reached the market town of Newtownlimavady in December 1852 and on 18th July 1853 opened to Coleraine. But Portrush still had no railway connection.

This was resolved by the construction of the Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway which fully opened to traffic on 4th December 1855. It had already been ceremoniously opened when on 7th November a train left York Road station in Belfast and ran non-stop to Coleraine and thence to Portrush. It conveyed, we were told, the wealth, intelligence and beauty of the north.

Railway bridge across the River Bann in Coleraine 1869.
Railway bridge across the River Bann in Coleraine 1869.

Through running from Londonderry to Portrush was achieved on 19th November 1860 with the opening of a new timber and iron railway swing-bridge crossing the River Bann: replaced in 1924 by an iron and concrete structure with a cantilevered central section which lifted to allow passage for ships. Portrush was now fully connected by rail.

The earliest representation of the railway in Portrush appears on an Ordnance Survey map made about 1855. In simple form it is shown as a double line terminating in a circle with a station structure on the east side of the track. This of course was a much-simplified version of what was on the ground.

The single track approaching from Coleraine branched out into five separate tracks; one forming a branch line to Portrush Harbour; another the line to the passenger platform; a third to the goods platform; and the remaining two forming sidings which abutted the end of the passenger  platform.

Railway Station with two trains
This view from the approach to the station shows two trains. One is waiting for passengers at the single platform and the other is shunted into a siding. The branch line to the harbour can be seen falling away to the left. A wall has been constructed to the west of the main tracks to provide some protection from the prevailing weather. The locomotives date to around 1870 and were manufactured by Sharp Stewart. Many carriages are evident giving an indication of the substantial numbers of passengers then using the railway. The main station building seen here on the right was a substantial stone-built building with all the usual offices such as Waiting Room, Ladies Waiting Room, Left Luggage, Toilets, Station Master’s Office and so on. An overhang on the roof formed a canopy over part of the platform providing some protection from the weather.

A head shunt and return line was provided for the goods platform line and a further crossing may have existed to provide a similar arrangement for the passenger line.

Railway Station Yard with goods platform
The station yard is clearly seen together with two coaches and horses from the Antrim Arms hotel evidently waiting for guests arriving on the next train. Behind these is the goods platform and the branch line can be seen curving down towards the harbour

At the end of the goods platform line a turntable was installed so that locomotives could be turned around in order that they would be travelling forwards for their return journeys. This turntable appears to have some form of winding mechanism by which it was turned but the motive power was probably human.

Over the next 25 years Portrush grew in popularity and blossomed as a sea-side resort. Hotels and guesthouses abounded and catered to all classes of Victorian society. Many of these holidaymakers travelled to Portrush by train and the increasing volume of traffic soon meant that the railway station opened in 1855 was no longer able to cope, or as we say today, it was not fit for purpose. A new, larger terminus was required!

In October 1888 the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway, who had by now had acquired the major North Eastern railways, appointed Berkeley Deane Wise as their Resident Engineer. Wise was a talented and renowned civil engineer who carried out major improvements across the network and introduced important safety measures including new somersault signalling and a tablet system to ensure single usage of any section of track. He was also a talented architect of the calibre of Charles Lanyon although their styles differed greatly.

Railway locomotive with manual winding gear
Railway locomotive with manual winding gear

Wise planned a completely new railway layout and station for Portrush to cope with the massive increase in traffic, especially during holiday times. Three platforms were to be provided, each of 600 feet in length, double that of the original single platform from 1855. A train shed providing effective weather protection was provided over all three platforms for 200 feet and a Grand Concourse or General Hall was to be constructed to provide all the offices and circulation space required for the handling of large numbers of passengers.

Essential services such as water towers, coaling stations and a new locomotive turntable on the ground behind Salisbury Terrace were provided, as was a new modern signal box, operated for many years by Charlie Morrow, and, in 1895 a Goods Shed, platform and yard were added with access from Eglinton Street. The new station opened in the spring of 1893 having been constructed by McLaughlin & Harvey Ltd. of Belfast. Together with the new signalling and trackwork it had cost more than £10,000.

Station Square and the New Station at Portrush
Station Square and the New Station at Portrush

The new building was truly impressive and certainly one of the most handsome railway buildings in Ireland. The style was Mock Tudor in stucco painted black and white on a red brick base. A well-proportioned clock tower rose to a height of fifty feet with four dials each five feet in diameter. Ornate glazing provided shafts and washes of coloured light within the building and some of this remains today as a reminder of that time.

The new platforms could easily accommodate the longer trains now arriving in Portrush both as scheduled services and day excursions bringing “trippers” for a day on the beach or to special events.

The General Hall, separated from the platforms by elegant wrought iron railings and platform gates, was 100 feet long by 60 feet wide and provided with all the usual offices splendidly furnished. With its high open ceiling it formed a well-proportioned and impressive space to welcome visitors to Portrush.

Portrush Railway Station
The general Hall or Concourse with the Long Case Clock and a sales kiosk

Of special note were the two charmingly odd kiosks for the sale of refreshments, sweets, tobacco, newspapers and similar essentials of railway travel. These were designed in a Tudor Cottage style with pitched, tiled roofs and leaded glazing. Only one of these survives today in the Transport Museum at Cultra.

Time was off the essence with railway travel. Strict timetables always had to be adhered to and it was essential that both railway staff and travellers were aware of the correct time. To this end a spectacular long case clock was provided within the General Hall in a position where it could be seen from both the Hall and the platforms.

The clock was some seventeen and a half feet tall and had two faces, front and back, each three feet in diameter. Reputed to be the tallest grandfather clock in the world it had an eight-day mechanical movement with a single weight that was wound from the face. The maker’s name, inscribed on the clock face, is ‘Sharman D. Neill’ of Belfast and the clock was dated 1892 on the centre wheel. The pendulum was some 44″ long and weighed 14lbs. and the striking gong was 40lbs in weight.

The clock was removed from the station in 1971 when the station closed for business and was rescued from scrap in 1984.  It has now been restored and returned to the area where itis now temporarily displayed in the entrance hall of Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council office in Coleraine awaiting a move back to Portrush. This clock lives on in many memories of meetings, leavings, and romances which started or finished “under the station clock”.

The Station also had a licensed café and restaurant with seating for 250 to 300 people with an open balcony overlooking the Pleasure Gardens and West Bay which were also owned by the railway company. Underneath this were large cellars which were the central stores for liquor for all the BNCR railway hotels, dining cars and refreshment rooms. Some 90 by 30 feet in size it could accommodate up to 300 diners. Throughout its life it performed many functions, as a café and restaurant and a venue for meetings. By 1924 it was being used as a concert hall with a stage at one end and during the Second World War American soldiers used it as a canteen and recreation space. In later years it saw duty as a school meals canteen amongst other things. By the 1970s it had become unusable and was demolished.

Station Cafe laid out as a Theatre with Stage
Station Cafe laid out as a Theatre with Stage

Station Cafe laid out for meal service
Station Cafe laid out for meal service

Berkeley Deane Wise’s fine building was the gateway to Portrush for vast numbers of visitors. Arriving through the monumental General Hall travellers were decanted into a large open station square where they were met by many forms of onward transport. Guests of the railway’s own grand hotel, The Northern Counties, were met by the hotel’s carriage at the main entrance to the station from whence they were transported in some style and comfort to that hotel. This carriage always had priority within the station square and was the only vehicle permitted to park immediately outside the station entrance. For many years the railway company made a point of closing the station square to all non-railway vehicles for one day each year to maintain their sole ownership and to prevent any rights-of-way being established over it.

Sadly, as time marched on, train travel was overtaken by motor vehicles and the need for a large station in Portrush decreased. By the end of the 1960s the writing was on the wall – Portrush railway station would close. Then the arrival outside Coleraine of the New University of Ulster adjacent to the railway line provided a lifeline. A commuter service from Portrush to Coleraine was established with new halts being provided at Dhu Varren and the University for the convenience of students and a utilitarian seasonal station at Portrush. The dilapidated station was sold off to make a new life as a nightclub and amusement arcade.

Thankfully the major part of the building was maintained in its original state. It stands today as a landmark in the town with its tall clock tower still one of the first things seen by visitors to Portrush.

Thanks in large part to the staging of the Open Golf Championship in 2019, trains now arrive at a new station and three platforms are once again available for use. However, they remain a mere shadow of the original station and very much over-shadowed by that fine building.