Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,
Oh I do like to be beside the sea,
And I do like to stroll along the prom prom prom,
Where the brass bands play, tiddley om pom pom...
Take a stroll on a sunny summer day along the promenade of Madeira Drive at the gently decaying Victorian seaside resort of Brighton, in East Sussex, England. As you wend a leisurely way along the pave with its ornate cast iron handrail, drinking in the sea breezes, watching the seagulls wheel and soar as they covet your ice cream, you may become aware of a slight commotion intruding upon your reverie. The noise becomes louder; the clanking of steel wheels and rattling ironwork is accompanied by the occasional chiming of a warning bell and the screams of excited (or terrified) children. You are finally forced to look behind you and take regard of a rather quaint, rattling contraption, going only slightly faster than yourself as it approaches from the rear. It will be carrying day-tripping holidaymakers enjoying a ride on the margin of the beach with the sea. It is the Volk's Electric Railway.
During the summer months Brighton is a relatively popular resort on the south coast of England. Originally a spa town, during Victorian times it was a popular watering place for the gentry from London, Surrey and Sussex. The Prince Regent built a pavilion there in a mock-oriental style, and many of the houses still reflect an aura of rundown wealth. The hotels and boarding houses reach down to the seafront at the main centre and commercial western end of town. Madeira Drive stretches to the east of the main town, along the seafront with a backdrop of high cliff faces topped off with the sprawl of houses extending the town into its suburbs.
At the end of Madeira Drive nearest the town centre is the Palace Pier, and 100 yards along on the landward side of the drive is the Brighton aquarium. The drive stretches in a gentle curve for more than a mile beyond the site of the old Chain Pier, past the Banjo Groyne at Paston Place, and on to Blackrock.
Built in 1823, the Chain Pier was Brighton's first such amenity to provide a pick-up point for steam packets to the continent. Constructed from wooden piling that supported three arches, the pier was suspended from these arches by chains. It gloried in its official name: the Royal Suspension Chain Pier.
Further along the drive at the suburb of Paston Place, the Banjo Groyne is a stone-built pier that doubles as a defence against tidal action washing away the beach. So called because of its shape, Banjo Groyne juts about 100 yards into the sea and ends in a circular caisson with a slipway. It is, almost needless to say, reminiscent in shape to a banjo.
Magnus Volk was born in Brighton in 1851. He was the first son of a German clockmaker and evidentially endowed with some degree of a scientific bent. His enquiring mind took him to experimenting in scientific matters. He was the first person in Brighton to provide his home with electric light. Volk also designed and installed electric lighting at the Brighton Pavilion, while another experiment provided a hydraulically powered ball to rise and fall, on the hour, for Brighton's town clock.
The Electric Railway
Volk's lasting contribution to Brighton's amenities was opened on 4 August, 1883. Designed and built from scratch to function as a tourist attraction, the electric railway ran along the edge of the beach above the high-water mark from a point adjacent to the Palace Pier. It terminated at the Chain Pier, about a quarter of a mile distant.
A single carriage, carrying up to ten people, covered the distance at a stately 6 mph using a 1.5 horsepower electric motor. The electricity supply was provided by a gas engine driving a Siemens 50 volt DC1 generator. The current was supplied through the 2ft gauge line rails, using one as the supply and the other an earth return.
Shortly after it opened, Volk applied to extend the line west towards the town centre, but the proposal was rejected. A second application to extend the line to the east, along the edge of Madeira Drive to Paston Place, was later accepted. The extended line was opened on 4 April, 1884, incorporating a number of improvements. The gauge was widened to 2ft 8½in to accommodate larger and more comfortable carriages, and the line was raised on wooden trestles to provide a uniform height.
The new terminus at Paston Place provided storage sheds on the west side of Banjo Groyne, while a passing loop for two carriages was incorporated into the line to allow the service to run every five minutes throughout daylight hours. At Paston Place, the company also rented one of the under-cliff arches to provide office and workshop space, and a home for a larger capacity gas engine and dynamo, necessary to supply sufficient current for the longer line and multi-car operation.
The new line still had its drawbacks. There was opposition from fishermen who had to negotiate crossing the line with their boats, and from carriage operators who saw the line as taking their trade. Nevertheless, the Volk's Electric Railway was proving popular enough with the general public to warrant the addition of two further cars in 1892, and a fifth in 1896.
Despite its position at the highest point of the beach, rough weather could still force waves up onto the track. It was not unusual for car drivers to have to wear protective oilskins to prevent them from being soaked by the incoming tide. This also had the effect of leaking the current supply to earth. The remedy was to re-lay the track using a third rail between the two existing ones to provide the electricity supply, and use both of the existing rails as the earth return. Meanwhile, Volk was looking at another project.
With the line now fully established as far as Paston Place, Volk contemplated extending the line a further three miles to Rottingdean. However, the topography of the sea-facing cliff side west of Blackrock made this an impracticable proposition. It meant either taking the line up a steep incline to the top of the cliff, or building it at the bottom of an unstable under-cliff. In what can only be described as an extraordinary solution, he came up with the impressively titled Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, later to become known as the 'Daddy Long-Legs'.
The Daddy Long-Legs
The Daddy Long-Legs was advertised as 'A sea voyage on rails'. The concept was to run a track from the mid-point on the Banjo Groyne to the small village of Rottingdean, some 2¾ miles to the east. The track was laid along the centre-line between the low- and high-tide marks, and terminated at a purpose-built, lightweight pier at Rottingdean where passengers could disembark. The track consisted of a pair of dual rails, each essentially the same as those used by the Volk's Electric Railway. The outer rails spanned 18ft and were mounted on concrete sleepers set into the bedrock.
The Daddy Long-Legs itself was a bizarre mix of tramcar, pleasure yacht and end-of-a-seaside pier, all mounted on four 23ft-tall legs. To get a mental picture of this contraption, now named Pioneer, you would have to imagine the end 40ft of the Brighton (Palace) Pier suddenly detaching itself and wading off into the surf.
The car, which measured 45ft by 22ft and weighed an estimated 45 tonnes, had space to carry up to 160 passengers. It consisted of an enclosed saloon completely surrounded by a veranda, and surmounted on its roof was an open promenade deck. The whole machine was powered by a gas-driven generator housed at Rottingdean Pier. This supplied electric motors on board Pioneer via two overhead cables, supported on wooden posts running in a line alongside the track. The electric motors drove wheels encased in two of the four multi-wheeled bogies on the base of the legs.
Classified as a seagoing vessel, Pioneer was subject to the maritime law of the period, which required it to be equipped with a lifeboat, lifebuoys and a qualified seagoing captain. The enterprise was financed by private investors, principally Edward Bleackley, who became chairman of the managing company. Construction began in June 1894, and the project was completed and ready for opening on 28 November, 1896.
Bedecked with flags and flying the Red Duster2, with invited dignitaries from Brighton and Rottingdean (including the mayor of Brighton and the town's two MPs aboard), Pioneer set off on its maiden voyage. The day was sunny but cold, and the one-way trip took about 35 minutes. Upon its return, there followed a luncheon, and by all accounts the day generally went well, with the first trip hailed a success.
On the night of 4-5 December, 1896, just over a week after the line's inauguration, Brighton suffered one of its worst storms in living memory. Pioneer, which had been moored overnight at Rottingdean Pier, broke free of its moorings, rolled down the slight incline of the track, and was overturned by the force of the storm. Lying on its side, it sustained severe damage, as did some of the power supply pylons and parts of the rail. The storm also demolished the old Chain Pier and damaged the track of the original Volk's Electric Railway.
Pioneer was salvaged and rebuilt, incorporating new, even longer legs. Repairs to the track were carried out in record time to enable its re-opening on 20 July, 1897, in time for the summer season. During the remainder of the year Pioneer carried over 44,000 people at 2½d3 each way.
The operation of Pioneer carried on for a further three years, during which time the line had carried many thousands of passengers. But Volk still had problems. Pioneer was under-powered and slowed to a crawl when pushing against the resistance of high water. In fact, such was the problem that at high tide Pioneer would often have to restrict its trip to trundling out and returning when just a few hundred yards from the pier. Lack of funds due to the delay in re-opening precluded the purchase of new, more powerful motors, and the building of a second Daddy Long-Legs car.
In 1900 it was discovered that two new council-built groynes, to the east of the Banjo Groyne, were causing scouring to the beach and undermining the rail sleepers - so much so that the line had to be closed for repairs during the high season months of July and August, causing a further disastrous loss of revenue.
The final straw came that year when the council warned the company that further sea-defence work would have to be carried out: it would involve the line having to be moved further out to sea. This was clearly beyond the finances of the company, so when in 1901 the council removed parts of the rails to carry out projected work, Volk was forced to close the line. Pioneer was moved to the nearby pier at Ovingdean, where it remained until 1910, when it was broken up for scrap along with all the other paraphernalia of the line.
Back to the Electric Railway
Even with the writing on the wall in 1900, Volk was not yet finished. He applied again for a further extension to the Volk's Electric Railway. The new proposal was to run it from the Banjo Groyne to Black Rock, which would extend the railway to a full 1½ miles. This time the application was granted, and by September 1901 the extended line was open for business.
The sheds at Banjo Groyne now became an access tunnel where the new extension began. The new line started by crossing the groyne at its mid-point - seaward of the high-tide point. Due to normal tide action, the level of the beach shingle on the eastern side of the groyne was several feet lower than on the west. This required the building of a raised viaduct for the cars to run from the centre of the groyne back inshore towards the sea wall. Even there, the height of the shingle was low enough to warrant a raised wooden trestle to carry the rails for several hundred yards at the same level.
The extension required increased power, which was provided by dispensing with the old generator and hooking the line up to the town's main electricity supply. To maintain the frequency of the service, three further carriages were built and put into use, bringing the running total to eight. For a time Wolk enjoyed a relatively trouble-free period of operation, with his railway carrying over a million passengers each year. A further two cars, bringing the total to ten, were introduced to cope with the service's increased popularity.
In 1930, redevelopment of Madeira Drive required the Palace Pier station to be moved to a point opposite the aquarium, losing the first 100 yards or so of the line. The new station became known as Aquarium Station, and is the current most westerly point of the line. Meanwhile, the Paston Place station became Midway Station, and the terminus at Blackrock took on that name. A further all-metal car, designed specifically for the ravages of winter, was designed and put into operation.
Up to that time, Blackrock offered almost nothing by way of facilities, except for a long walk back or a walk in the opposite direction over the cliffs toward Rottingdean. The town council decided to build an open-air swimming pool and lido and commandeered the land on which the terminus station stood. The line lost 200 yards to the new development, and a new station had to be built. This was opened on 7 May, 1937, and the long-suffering Volk, now 85 years old, took the deputy mayor and other dignitaries on an inaugural trip in the number ten car. This was to be Volk's last public trip, as he died at home on 20 May. The line then fell under the control of his son, Herman.
In 1940, Brighton Corporation, using the 1938 Transport Act, took the railway under its ownership, initially leasing the line back to Herman. However, war clouds loomed and the threat of invasion required the beach to be fortified. The railway was closed during the World War II, with the last train running in July 1940.
Post-World War II Operation
With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, Brighton council began to look towards rebuilding its share of the tourist trade. Unfortunately, the rolling stock had not weathered well during the enforced sojourn. Two of the cars had deteriorated to the point of being unrepairable and the winter car, contrary to expectations, had rusted badly. All three had to be scrapped. To make up the numbers, two cars from the Southend Pier Railway in Essex were purchased and adapted to run on the line. New rails were laid, the remaining cars refurbished and a new station built at Blackrock, in an Art deco style to complement the lido. The line opened for business on 15 May, 1948.
The post-war years brought a new-found affluence to the British public, which meant more holidays taken abroad on cheap package tours, in place of holidaying at home. The popularity of the British seaside declined, and usage of the line inevitably declined, too.
From the start of the 1954 season, the year-round service was curtailed to only operating during the summer months. In 1962 the cars were given another facelift, and a change of livery to brown and yellow with V-R emblazoned on the side with the Brighton crest of arms. A new children's funfair at Halfway gave it the new name 'Peter Pan's Playground', and brought a temporary increase in numbers. In 1964 the cars were coupled in pairs, enabling them to carry more passengers while halving the required number of drivers. But, overall, the popularity of the attraction was in decline, and not helped by the closure of the lido's swimming pool in 1978.
The decision was eventually taken to keep the railway open until its centenary in 1983, and then reconsider its future. For the celebration, two of the cars carried commemorative headboards displaying the centenary years, and one was driven by Conrad Volk, Magnus' youngest son. One last change occurred in 1993 when a new storm drain was constructed at the Blackrock end of the line. The 1948 Art deco station was subsequently demolished. The line lost another 100 yards, but another new station, this time resembling a mausoleum, was built at the new end of the line.
The line continued in popular use beyond the centenary and on to the present day. In all its forms, Volk's Electric Railway is the oldest operating railway of its type in the world. Volk was an engineer whose innovative ideas provide an insight into the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit. This is recognised by the band of enthusiasts who formed The Volk's Electric Railway Association with the aim of keeping the line running and preserving Magnus' spirit.