Most railways have had some colourful characters associated with them over the decades. Some were fettlers, drivers, stationmasters, or the like, but early in the 20th century, on the Tasmanian Main Line between Hobart and Launceston, one was Mrs. Margaret Delaney.
Mrs. Delaney was a middle-aged lady of Irish origin, who had never lost her accent. She was renowned for her lightning-fast wit, and razor sharp tongue. Each day, she left her small shop in the small hamlet of Rhyndaston in the care of a young boy, boarded the north-bound express train, and travelled to the next station at Parattah.
Her journeys were always free of any charge, as it was commonly believed that, many years ago, she had noticed a washaway on the railway one stormy day. Hearing a train approaching, she took off her red flannel petticoat, and ran towards the train, waving it madly to warn the engine crew of the danger.
For saving the train and many lives, she was given the privilege of free rail travel for life.
After north-bound trains arrived at Parattah, the trains would stop to enable engine crew to take on water for the steam locomotive and clean its fire. Mrs Delaney would set up a stall and sell to the train passengers, who were getting rather peckish by then, produce such as apples, sometimes of questionable quality.
In January 1909, Hobart’s Tasmanian Mail newspaper referred to a “Mrs. Maloney”. Whilst the surname differed, there is absolutely no doubt about who was referred to.
We all know good-natured Mrs. Maloney’s wealth of repartee. She is always fresh and cheery, and is as much an institution at Parattah station as the refreshment room. She hates anything like snobbery, and is never slow to check. She gave two examples of that last week, when she was approaching a carriage occupied by a lady and gentleman looking as if they were on their honeymoon.
“You can’t go in there”, said the young man standing on the footboard.
“Oi can’t, can’t oi; an’ how’s that?”
“Because it’s engaged”, he replied.
“Engaged it is, is it? By the looks o’ you, you ought to have engaged a cattle truck!”
Of course, all bystanders all laughed with the utter confusion of the victim.
In another report, she entered a carriage compartment, in which a well dressed fellow was seated. At her approach, he drew up in the corner.
Not being even slightly nonplussed, she flopped down, and placed her fruit basket and umbrella on the seat. Noticing he was annoyed, with her ready wit she said, “Perhaps you would like it better if I were a gentleman?”
“Yes, I would”
“Be jabbers, now, that’s strange. I was just thinking the same about you. There, now, me foine fellow”
Not even politicians were immune to her wit, in particular, one Federal member, by the name of “King” O’Malley.
One day, Mrs. Delaney became aware that someone of importance was aboard the express. She pleaded with a local resident to tell her who the guest of honour was, and was told not to embarrass the town with any of her sharp remarks.
“Oh, no, dearie, if you’ll tell me who’s on the train, I promise I’ll be very well behaved, and I won’t say a word”
So, she was told the V.I.P. was none other than “King” O’Malley, to which she expressed great excitement.
Mrs Delaney was not one to stand quietly and discretely in the background. She turned many a head as she pranced from one end of the platform to the other, swinging her hips, swishing her long skirt, and calling out loudly.
“What do I care for ‘King’ O’Malley? What do I care for ‘King’ O’Malley? What do I care for ‘King’ O’Malley?”
On another occasion, “King” O’Malley again came off second-best, when he happened to be travelling in the same compartment with Mrs. Delaney.
Giving Mrs. Delaney a prod in the abdomen, he said, “And what are you going to call it?”
Not the least concerned, her immediate reply was, “Well, if it’s a boy I’ll call it Patrick after the saint, and if it’s a girl I’ll call it Brigid after me mother, but if it’s what I think it is, all piss and wind, I’ll call it ‘King’ O’Malley!”
A commercial traveller braved the pouring rain at Parattah one day, and dashed across the station platform to buy some of Mrs. Delaney’s apples. These she put in a paper bag, which the traveller thrust into his coat pocket. He soon realised the lining was torn, as the apples landed on the platform. Hastily scooping them up, he rammed them into the pocket on the opposite side, but that one was no better, and the apples poured back onto the ground again.
Red-faced with embarrassment, he was again retrieving the fruit, when the entire world learned of his misfortune. This was when a well known voice yelled,
“If you’re as hole-y as all that, you art to be a praist!”
Legendary though Mrs. Delaney is, even she was not immortal. The “Tasmanian Mail” reported in July, 1919:
Passengers by the express trains on the Main Line to-day will miss the familiar figure at Parattah station of Mrs. Delaney, the vendor of apples, who every day for a great number of years has boarded the train at Rhyndaston with her basket of fruit and proceeded as far as Parattah, returning by the next train.
When alighting from the train yesterday afternoon the old lady slipped and broke her leg, necessitating her removal to the Hobart General Hospital.
The limb was set, and her condition was reported to be satisfactory.
Unfortunately, it appears that some form of medical complication set in, for Mrs. Margaret Delaney passed away in the Hobart General Hospital on Sunday, August 17, 1919. The Tasmanian Mail reported, in a regular column a few days later:
Many will regret to hear of the death, at the General Hospital this week, of Mrs. Delaney, of Rhyndaston. On July 2nd, she fell when alighting from the train at Rhyndaston and broke her thigh, and was brought to Hobart for treatment.
It has been her practice for many years to join the express at Rhyndaston, and alight at Parattah in order to do a trade in fruit. She was notable for her powers of repartee, and passengers who knew her delighted in providing her with opportunities for displaying them. She usually gave more than was sent, all in the greatest good humour.
It may be added that she will be missed, humble though her station in life.
Mrs. Delaney’s mortal remains were buried in the cemetery of St. Patricks Roman Catholic Church in Colebrook, close by the Main Line railway, with which she was so familiar. It would be very interesting to hear her comments if she was able to return today, to see the long grass where the Rhyndaston station once stood, and to discover the total absence of passenger rail services.
Do you have a story like Dennis’s? Who are the interesting characters in your area? Tell us about them below.