Railway Competition in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s and the unfortunate experience of Peter Lumley of Tullamore, by Peter Burke

The railway connection from Dublin was completed to Tullamore in 1854 and from Tullamore to Athlone in 1859. Here Peter Burke, a ‘railway buff’ tells of some of the shenanigans that went on to stifle competition. For what happened to Peter Lumley of that well-known Tullamore business family read on.

Competition can be the life of trade. It benefits customers with good service and keen pricing. Suppliers are kept on their toes, enhancing services and pruning costs. At least that is the theory. However, when keen competitors are also bitter enemies logic tends to go out the window. Doing down the competitor takes precedence over serving the customer. When this is carried to extremes nobody wins. In retrospect the results can seem ridiculous if not hilarious, although damaging at the time.

161 Railway Station

A prime example of this was the long-running battle between The Great Southern and Western Railway (Great Southern) and the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland (Midland). In a sense it was inevitable that there would be some enmity as the Midland was formed by former directors of the Great Southern following a series of boardroom disputes. The greatest bone of contention was probably the connection between the South of Ireland and the West.

069858 Ireland Railway Map (Free State)
Railway map

The Great Southern had built their main line from Dublin to Cork via Portarlington. The Midland main line connected Dublin to Galway via Mullingar and Athlone. The Great Southern was seeking Parliamentary approval to build a line from Portarlington to Tullamore with the intention of eventually extending it to Athlone where it would connect with the Midland line to Galway. The Midland, for their part, sought permission to connect from either Mullingar or Streamstown to the Great Southern at Portarlington either directly or via Tullamore. This would give them their connection from Galway to Cork.

The battle was on. Each Railway did everything they could to frustrate the other’s plans. They did this both openly and behind the scenes through various intermediaries. Getting Parliamentary approval was a costly business as it necessitated the employment of a Parliamentary Agent in London. Various objections could cause the adjournment of debates in Parliament thus adding to the cost.

In the end the Great Southern got approval for their branch line to Tullamore – known initially as the Portarlington and Tullamore Railway. This meant that the Midland plans for their connection to the South fell by the wayside. Parliament would not give approval for two competing lines in a start-up situation. As their competitor feared, the Great Southern later applied to extend the Portarlington and Tullamore Railway to Athlone where it would connect with the Midland. Parliamentary approval was granted. Its official terminus was on the Westmeath side of the Shannon – known to this day as the Southern station. It was also given approval to connect just beyond this station to the Midland line and cross the Shannon on that company’s bridge to the Roscommon side and continue on that line to Galway.

Although they were defeated, the Midland were down but not out. They had one final tactic left. They delayed for almost two years making the connection to the Southern station. This caused great inconvenience to passengers of the Great Southern who would have had to walk or take a cab for over a mile to access the Midland station on the opposite bank of the river. However, there was an alternative. They could walk across the river by the railway bridge, a distance of a few hundred yards. Unfortunately, this bridge belonged to the Midland Company. Unfortunately, because the Midland obliged passengers from other railway companies to take the long route by road. And thereby hangs a tale. The tale of Tullamore business man, Peter Lumley.


Railroad Bridge, city of Galway 1897
Railroad Bridge, City of Galway, 1897

Mr. Lumley intended going by train to the great October Fair in Ballinasloe. He took the Great Southern train from Tullamore to Athlone. There, he and other passengers heading for the Fair walked across the bridge not being aware that in doing so they were in grevious contempt of the regulations of the Midland Company. On reaching the other station they got onto the down platform to await the arrival of their train for Ballinasloe. They were approached by the station superintendent who singled out Mr. Lumley and ordered him to recross the bridge to the other side of the Shannon. Mr. Lumley strongly objected and remarked that he might meet another official there who might order him back to the Midland station. Such see-saw promenades would not only be pointless but also uncomfortable. This light-hearted response seemed to incense the superintendent. He repeated his order and threatened, in the event of non-compliance, to take Mr. Lumley into custody. The latter persisted in his refusal. The superintendent then consulted one of the directors who happened to be in the station-house. The upshot was that he gave Mr. Lumley into the custody of a policeman with instructions to bring him before a magistrate.

Hanly 17131 Railway Bridge over the Canal, Tullamore c
Railway bridge over Canal, Tullamore


Accordingly, the respectable Mr. Lumley, notwithstanding that he had given his name and address and stated the necessity for his being at the Fair in Ballinasloe, was marched hither and thither through the streets of Athlone in search of a magistrate. When, at last, one was found he at once dismissed the charge as frivolous and released the prisoner. Mr. Lumley hurried back to the station. But when he arrived he found the train had gone and that there was no other suitable train that day. So the hapless Mr. Lumley never got to Ballinasloe to transact his business. On his return to Tullamore he consulted his solicitor and it was decided that he would take an action against the Midland Railway for false imprisonment.

070461Tullamore Railway Station Staff 1968 See Archive Data Base for Correct Order

This was not a very serious incident but it does give an idea of the pettiness and vindictiveness that seemed to accompany the competition to open new lines at this stage of the development of the Irish railway network. The irony of the situation was that all the proposed development was based on the expectation of an increase in population and prosperity as the country recovered from the famine whereas, in fact, it would be over a hundred years later before population and prosperity would show any signs of increase.