Tickets please! Meet the Portadown man taking customers down memory lane with railway tickets

James Swan sells original tickets from Ireland’s railways from the 1950s-1970s to delighted customers both at home and abroad

Belfast to Portrush Day Excursion Ticket
James Swan says tickets which bring back memories of childhood day trips by train to north Antrim coast destinations like Portrush are especially popular

When James Swan first stumbled across some old railway tickets at a car boot sale at Nutts Corner in 2013, he could never have imagined what would come of his discovery.

“I’ve got a couple of hundred thousand tickets at home,” he says, laughing, more than a decade later.

Since 2013, James has been selling upcycled original rail tickets from the 1950s-1970s for various lines across Ireland and, more recently, Scotland.

Customers as far away as Australia purchase his upcycled tickets online through his ‘Ticketsplease’ Etsy store and Instagram page, and his products can now also be found in stores in the US and Canada.

“It has a big following for Irish people who left Northern Ireland or Ireland in the 1950s and 60s and emigrated to Canada and America,” explains the 46-year-old Portadown man, who says the response has been “brilliant”.

“We’ve had really good feedback,” he says. “My stuff isn’t copied, so it’s personal. I’m not mass-producing stuff and photocopying tickets – these are the actual original tickets.”

While the Irish diaspora across the globe enjoy his work, James’s products can also be found locally in craft shops across the north, including in Banbridge and Lurgan.

'Tickets Please' framed products on display
A trip down the memory train line...

James says he takes joy from helping people take a trip down memory lane - though maybe ‘memory line’ would be more appropriate...

“When I first started out, I thought it was just for dads and grandads who were railway fanatics,” he remembers.

“But it’s amazing how much people love nostalgia and a trip down memory lane.

“When you find tickets that people are looking for and you’re putting together a frame and you post it to them and you see a photograph of it up on the wall somewhere… you’re making someone’s day, and I do get a buzz from that.”

James, who works full-time as a kitchen designer in Belfast, spends his evenings creating his nostalgic framed ticket and luggage tag products.

'Tickets Please' owner, James Swan
James Swan says he gets a buzz out of how his train tickets can mean so much to some customers

Some of the orders have meant so much to his customers, that they have been brought to tears.

“There was one girl who asked me for a Sunday school excursion ticket from the 1950s, I think it was Belfast to Portrush,” he says.

“She thought it was a long shot, but I had a couple of these in stock and I was able to put it together in a frame and she was in tears.

“She couldn’t believe that something was held on to for this long.”

It’s amazing how much people love nostalgia and a trip down memory lane. When you find tickets that people are looking for and you’re putting together a frame and you post it to them and you see a photograph of it up on the wall somewhere… you’re making someone’s day, and I do get a buzz from that

—  James Swan

The requests he receives have included special bridesmaid gifts for a transport-loving bride-to-be and a map of a loved one’s daily commute to work.

“I got a commission from someone whose husband worked in Belfast for maybe 40, 50 years, but he was from Portadown,” he says.

“I was able to commission a frame of the journey that he took every day to work.”

Other requests have been on the quirkier side.

“I have dog tickets and bicycle tickets, believe it or not,” says James.

“Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, you had to pay for them.

“I was able to put together a frame for a dog lover - she always had to buy a ticket for herself and a ticket for her two dogs, so I was able to put that in a frame for her.”

'Tickets Please' framed tickets
Old train tickets that feature destinations on the north Antrim coast are especially popular, says James

The most popular tickets, however, are holiday destinations along the north coast and closed stops in Donegal.

“I have plenty of tickets for the north coast and people love having a keepsake from there – especially Portstewart, which closed,” says James.

The business has continued to expand over the past decade, with James now also offering fabrics, mugs and prints of his tickets.

However, the journey has not always been easy, as he attempts to manage the business alongside a busy work and home life.

“I’m juggling a young family,” he confesses. “My wife and I have got three children and I work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.

“In the busy times, I have to get my dinner and lock myself away for a couple of hours and get stuck into framing.”

When James first started out over 10 years ago, he was inspired by how fascinating he found the tickets.

“I thought to myself, ‘These are too nice to be boxed away here in somebody’s roof space or attic’,” he recalls.

“Obviously, lines had been closed 50, 60 years, so I thought this could be something I could make a go of – people love talking about the days gone by.”

However, the business was also borne out of financial necessity; James’s work was still feeling the impact of the financial crash and he needed extra income.

“We were down to a four-day week at the time,” he said.

“I thought to myself, “I need something here to up my salary...’”

'Tickets Please' owner, James Swan
James Swan has added mug and posters to his framed train tickets

Now, while he doesn’t envisage himself leaving his full-time job for his ticket business, he does hope to continue growing.

“I’d love to reach out more to America and Canada,” says James.

“I’ve got a dozen stockists in Northern Ireland and I’m hoping to keep branching out because there are loads of areas, around the world even, I’ve been posting to.”

For James, the ultimate goal is to reach as many people as possible, especially ex-pats.

“Hopefully I’ll run out of tickets,” he laughs.

However, this is unlikely to become a problem for James, who sources his thousands of tickets from a network of collectors and train enthusiasts.

“People do ask me, ‘Why do you do this?’,” says James.

“But people love nostalgia; people still love a bit of history in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“If I keep getting the emails coming in then I’ll keep doing it.”