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16 October 2014
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John Bennett's Railways Journeys

BBC Radio Ulster six-part series dedicated to the wide-ranging wonder of railways and trains

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Part 3: Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

In the days before air travel became available to the masses, travel between Belfast and London invariably meant a trip by steamer and train, and one of the popular routes for businessmen, politicians and tourists was via Larne and Stranraer, taking advantage of the Short Sea Crossing.

One such businessman was Sir John Magill, creation of Ulster railway engineer and top crime novelist of the 1920s – 40s, Freeman Wills Crofts. In this week’s programme John Bennett finds out more about Crofts and retraces Sir John Magill’s Last Journey.

John began his journey outside the former New Scotland Yard building on the Thames Embankment because one of the many detectives based in this building in the 1920s, 30s and 40s was Inspector French. And in 1929 one of French’s many cases involved the murder of Sir John Magill, a well-known figure in public life in Northern Ireland, as he was travelling on the night sleeper from London to Stranraer.

All fiction of course because Inspector French, who way back then was probably as famous as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, was the creation of one of the Big Five crime writers of that era – Freeman Wills Crofts – while he was living in Jordanstown, just outside Belfast.

Before setting out on his journey, John spoke to Derek Martin, another former Jordanstown resident, who has taken a keen interest in the life and works of Crofts.

John outside the former New Scotland Yard building on the Thames embankment

       Listen to Derek Martin


John’s railway journey proper began, as did Sir John Magill’s Last Journey and Inspector French’s subsequent journeyes as he carried out his enquiries, at London’s Euston Station, very different to the Euston Station of today. The huge Doric Arch at the entrance and the massive Great Hall which French passed through were swept away in the 1960s, when the station was replaced by the present more utilitarian structure. And the great steam locomotives which hauled the trains north to Scotland have been replaced by electric traction. Sleepers still operate to various destinations in Scotland but, sadly, there is no longer a through service to Stranraer.

Caledonian Sleeper
John boarding the Caledonian Sleeper for his journey north

So John took the Glasgow “Caledonian Sleeper” and after sampling the facilities in the lounge car he headed to his berth before getting his early morning call, and a first class breakfast, in time to leave the train at Carlisle at 5am!

He could have stayed on the train to Glasgow, and got another couple of hours sleep, and then taken a train to Ayr and then on to Stranraer, but as he wanted to travel the route used by Sir John Magill and Inspector French as closely as possible he had to change at Carlisle and take a “Sprinter” railcar to continue his journey over the Nith Valley Railway to Dumfries. Sir John’s and Inspector French’s trains would have continued directly to Stranraer, via Castle Douglas, over a section of line known as “the Port Road”, but it succumbed to the Beeching cuts of the mid-1960s, leaving passengers today to take a diversion via Kilmarnock and Ayr.

P&O FerryAt Stranraer John had to change his route again because ferries no longer leave from there to Larne – indeed it’s now over a decade since the last ships sailed from Stranraer to Larne with Stena Line preferring to operate their high speed ferry to and from Belfast. So John had to resort to taxi for the short journey to Cairnryan where John boarded a conventional ferry for the crossing to Larne.


And, as at Euston, the railway scene at Larne Harbour today is very different to that which greeted Inspector French as he disembarked from his steamer, way back in 1929. The railway station was on the quayside – indeed it was designed by Freeman Wills Crofts’ uncle, Berkeley Dean Wise who was responsible for many delightful station buildings in Co. Antrim – and it was unusual in that it straddled a level crossing, so that a moveable section of platform had to be inserted when a train was in the station. There French would have had a choice of two routes out of Larne. There was the narrow gauge line to Ballymena which boasted the fastest and most luxurious trains anywhere on the narrow gauge in the British Isles, but passenger services on that line ended in the 1930s, and of course there was the broad gauge line to Belfast.

French’s journey on the boat train express to Belfast’s York Road Station took little over half an hour, running non-stop. But it’s now over a decade since the boat train ran and today Larne Harbour enjoys only a limited service of stopping trains which take nearly an hour to reach Belfast.

John’s journey took him along the shore of Larne Lough, through Whitehead which was developed by the railway company as a seaside resort and where the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland now have their headquarters, along the shore of Belfast Lough to Carrickfergus with its impressive Norman castle and fine Victorian railway station, recently restored by Translink, through Jordanstown where Freeman Wills Crofts once lived and where he created Inspector French, past the magnificent Bleach Green viaduct which carries the main line to Portrush and Londonderry over Valentine’s Glen on the loop line on which Crofts worked in the planning stage, and on into Belfast.

Nowadays the trains bypass the site of York Road station, where French would have disembarked from his short train journey, and continue over the new Dargan bridge into Central Station, and journey’s end.

       Listen to the entire programme...



Radio series produced by Ian Sinclair © BBC Northern Ireland

< back to Programme 2


Relevant web-links:

The Caledonian Sleeper and services to and from Stranraer are operated by First Scotrail:

Some links with further information about Freeman wills Crofts:


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