Hens, donkeys and dead rabbits registered by Customs officials

In light of the much-discussed abundance of checks and documents required by the Protocol, and while we’re commemorating Northern Ireland’s centenary and the establishment of the border, it is intriguing to be reminded of Customs procedures in days of yore.

Customs officers checking Jim Johnston’s car, Tullyhommon, August 3, 1946
Customs officers checking Jim Johnston’s car, Tullyhommon, August 3, 1946

Roamer has just been loaned an original Irish Customs Seizure Register packed with handwritten details by Customs officials of the daily, sometimes hourly, movement of all sorts of goods, products and merchandise, across the border between 1937 and 1945.

The Register came with a British Government official Customs Requirements manual, relating to:‘Traffic from Great Britain to the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland’, printed in London in 1930.

Much of it relating to the customs post in Pettigo Railway Station, the old Register was recently donated to Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen by Arlene Little. Arlene found it whilst clearing a house, and knew of the Museum’s interest in the history of local cross-border railways.

Ballyshannon railway platform, 1951. Photograph by Henry B Priestley. (Charles P Friel Collection)

Both documents have thrown up a few surprises for Selwyn Johnston curator of Headhunters and regular contributor to this page.

“Particularly the Seizure Register,” he told me, “which has provided new insight into how partition affected local people travelling across the border.”

Both of the historic manuals are going to take a while to properly peruse and there’ll be more here shortly.

Selwyn added: “Stories of what was smuggled across the border have been recounted for generations. The Customs operated at the railway station, post office and border patrols, looking for illegal cross-border traffic.”

British Customs sign, Headhunters Railway Museum, Enniskillen

On the Bundoran Branch line, passengers arriving at border railway stations such as Pettigo and Ballyshannon were subjected to Irish Customs while those arriving at Belleek and Kesh had to contend with the British equivalent.

“On the station platforms,” Selwyn recounted, “passenger suitcases were opened and rummaged through by Officers, and passengers were searched for items such as butter, brandy, bicycle tubes and sugar, to name but a few!”

The Seizure Register from the Irish Customs at Pettigo commences in 1937 and covers the war years until 1945.

“It documents the date, name of offender, description of goods and the manner in which the goods were disposed of or sold,” Selwyn explained, adding, “there are some interesting entries with the names of many local people amongst its pages, including a large number of RAF personnel from Castle Archdale and Killadeas, in possession of chocolates, butter, whiskey, ladies stockings and jam!” On page 74 of the register, in the column headed ‘Name of Offender’ there are details of a Pettigo lady at the railway station at 11 am on 3 September 1943 with “one wireless set, declared value £8 10 shillings.”

On the same day an RAF Gunner from Castle Archdale was stopped and “three contraceptives” were confiscated, then illegal in the Free State.

Whether on patrol, on the station platform or in the Post Office, 3 September 1943 was a busy day for the Customs men, who also confiscated a twelve and sixpenny woollen pullover, a two-piece suit valued at £8, four pairs of gents boots, 2 lbs of butter, 1 lb of raisins, a man’s pocket watch and five bicycle tyres.

On 14 September 1944 an RAF-man from St Angelo airport was intercepted with 3lbs of chocolate and a pair of stockings.

A lady from the Fermanagh townland of Clonelly was caught with eight dozen rolls of wall paper on 8 September 1942; a man from Carn, Pettigo, was caught with two dead rabbits and two live hens, seized on 26 January 1942, while a man from Cullion, Pettigo, tried to get a donkey across the border but was intercepted on 22 February 1939.

Animals and perishable goods seized by Customs officers could be sold locally and the money forwarded to the State Warehouse.

Other goods were forwarded in special hampers to the State Warehouse, “sealed at the four corners and done in such a way that the insertion of a hand to extract goods would be impossible without breaking the seals”, explained an official memo in the register.

Handwritten notes about each seizure describe how the confiscated items were disposed of, and a memo in the register confirms many ‘discrepancies’ between the quantities of goods actually received in the State Warehouse and the quantities forwarded.

Selwyn reckons “one can only surmise that many items never reached the warehouses!”

There’ll be more details here soon from the Seizure Register and the Customs Requirements manual but to end today’s summary, Selwyn’s biggest surprise was finding his late father and grandfather both mentioned amongst the offenders!

Logged in the Seizure Register on 27 July 1944 is his grandfather’s name, David Johnston, who was intercepted by a border patrol and one pair of children’s shoes valued at 10 shillings was seized.

The entry is ticked with a pencil - case closed!

Selwyn’s father, Jim Johnston, got a mention on 9 January 1945 when a pair of lady’s shoes valued at £1 two and six were confiscated at the Post Office in Pettigo.

The Customs books will soon join all the other exhibits in Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum, Enniskillen. Full details of the opening times are on Facebook, and a big thank you goes to Selwyn and Arlene Little for giving News Letter readers a sneak preview.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper whenever you are able to do so.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspaper when you can safely.

You can also enjoy unlimited access to the best news from across Northern Ireland and the UK by subscribing to newsletter.co.uk

With a digital subscription, you can read more than five articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Thank you