On Friday 21st December 2007 I was part of a group from the City of Belfast Concert Band playing carols in Forestside Shopping Centre, raising money for our tour to America the following summer. I was there with my cousin (also in the band), his parents and our granda.
My granda sat as close as he could to us both, feet tapping throughout, and seemed to be really enjoying his night. After I had been left home, my uncle was due to leave my grandfather home but phoned to say that my granda was complaining of not feeling well and that they were taking him to hospital where he was admitted.
The following day I was bag-packing (again as a fundraiser) in Sainsbury’s at Holywood Exchange. I noticed my dad outside a lot earlier than I was expecting him and he told me that my granda had died. A part of my world fell to pieces. This was the person who I had spent the majority of my summers with growing up, had travelling the length of Northern Ireland and further afield with and who I had seen on a daily basis for the majority of my life.
Taken at a family photo in July 2007
My granda, John Johnston, was born on 8th March 1913 in Martinstown, 8 miles outside Ballymena. His father (also called John) was the Station Master for the narrow-gauge railway before my granda later took on the position following John Snr’s death. My granda stayed at Martinstown for a few years before transferring to the buses. He stated working out of the Ballymena depot as a conductor and would stay there for the next while. His stories always fascinated me but particular the tales of what it was like working during the Blitz and having to manage a bus service in pretty much total darkness during the ‘black out’. During his time in Ballymena he married Meta before they moved to Belfast (to the house I now live in) in 1947 and my granda rose through the ranks to Inspector and then then Chief Inspector. He was responsible for the introduction of the ‘one man bus’ (which removed the need for a conductor as the driver issued tickets) and trained every driver in Northern Ireland in how to use the new ticket machines.
In the mid 1970’s he moved back to Northern Ireland Railways and the highlight of his career was becoming the first Station Manager of Belfast Central when it opened in 1976. With this appointment brought many more opportunities for future stories from him bringing people home to his house who had missed their train or to opening the door to his office and seeing the army who were running a surveillance operation as his office overlooked the Markets area.
From as long as I can remember, my granda had me on a train as frequently as he could. He used to travel anywhere for free, in the days before free travel for every older person, and he used this perk as often as he could. My grandparents travelled throughout England most summers and even ventured into the continent to France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.
One memory which will always stand out is one summer when I was probably five or six when my granda and I set out from Finaghy for Bangor very early one morning. We went to Pickie Pool to feed the ducks before a scone in the Heatherlea café. My granda then produced a timetable and said that if we were quick, we could get the train to Portadown for our lunch. We promptly made for the station and caught the train, with me reciting all of the station names along the way, before arriving at a café in Portadown for my favourite lunch, a cucumber sandwich (don’t ask). We headed back towards Belfast and decided to stay on the train to Larne as the weather was nice. After a brief stop in Larne, we got the train back towards Belfast. It was then, as somewhat of a joke, that I said we had been on three of the four lines. My granda, sensing a bit of a challenge, then decided that we were heading for Londonderry before heading straight back to Belfast. We arrived back in Finaghy about 10pm and arrived at home to be met with my very anxious mother. This was obviously in the days before mobile phones so my mum didn’t have a clue where we were as she was expecting us back for our lunch. A few words were spoken between my mum and her dad before I announced that I had a great day and all was calm after that.
Taken in Tenby, South Wales.
My granda was, rightfully, proud of his railway background and always mentioned it any time we were on a train, which more often than not resulted in some sort of reward. We visited London when I was about 6 and my granda and I set off for York on the ‘Flying Scotsman’ route. He mentioned his previous job and the conductor came to see us and asked would I like to see something special. He escorted us to the cab and I got to sit in the drivers chair as it did 130mph passed Peterborough. Incidentally when we arrived in York, we stayed a grand total of seven minutes before we headed back to London.
His background also got me into First Class to Dublin on several occasions as well as into a lot of driver’s cabs in Northern Ireland. I was also one of the first people to be shown around the new Great Victoria Street station when it opened in 1995 and I was also the first person to walk across the Dargan Bridge when it opened in 1995.
On the Dargan Brige in 1995
I am incredibly proud of all that my grandfather accomplished, both professional and personally, and a lot of people have only positive memories of him. If I can grow to be half the man that he was, then I’ll be a very happy guy.