Electric Seashore Railway: opened 1896

Please note that this text is an extract from a reference work written in 1990.  As a result, some of the content may not reflect recent research, changes and events.

The Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was the brainchild of Magnus Volk , and ran from the terminus of his other electric railway at the Banjo Groyne to Rottingdean Pier, a distance of 2.93 miles.

a) CONSTRUCTION: An authorising Act of Parliament was obtained in July 1893, and construction of the twin tracks, which each had a gauge of 2 feet 8.5 inches, commenced the following summer. They were laid to an overall gauge of 18 feet on concrete blocks built into the chalk foreshore about 60 to 100 yards from the cliffs, but progress was slow owing to bad weather and because the line was submerged most of the time. Construction took over two years at a cost of around £30,000.

b) ROTTINGDEAN PIER: The Rottingdean terminus was a light, steel jetty about 100 yards long and 20 feet wide, just to the west of the gap to which it was connected by a short walkway. The pier-head was 60 feet wide and stood 30 feet clear of high water, with steps down to the landing stage. Beneath the pier-head was the railway’s electric generator, a 60-kilowatt, 500-volt steam generator which powered the car via a single cable carried on poles, the return path being provided through the rails. The pier opened on 11 June 1895, and became a favourite fishing venue of Rudyard Kipling.

c) PIONEER: The car itself, which was named Pioneer, was built by the Gloucester Wagon Company. The elliptical deck measured 50 feet by 22 feet and had a decorated saloon with a promenade deck above; it was supported by four 24-foot legs carrying the drive and brake shafts to the wheels. The wheelbase was 28 feet, total weight was 36 tons, and Pioneer soon acquired the nickname ‘Daddy-Longlegs’ .
Before a licence was issued however, the Board of Trade insisted upon several conditions: that a lifeboat and individual lifebelts be provided; that no more than 150 passengers be carried; that a maximum speed limit of 8 m.p.h. be operated, with no running in bad weather; that a telephone be fitted for emergency use; and that a daily inspection of the track be carried out. The appropriate certificate was issued on the day before opening.

d) OPERATION: The railway opened on 28 November 1896 when Pioneer made an inaugural journey in thirty-four minutes; a celebration lunch was served at the Madeira Shelter Hall afterwards. The public service started two days later at a single fare of sixpence (2.5p), but at high tide, when the tracks were submerged by up to 15 feet of water, the speed of the vehicle fell almost to walking pace and very often only short journeys were made from the Banjo Groyne before returning for another load of passengers.
On 4-5 December 1896 however, just a week after opening, the railway was severely damaged by the storm that wrecked the Chain Pier. The car broke loose from its mooring at Rottingdean and was wrecked, and the Banjo Groyne terminal jetty collapsed, but there was little damage to either Rottingdean Pier or the track. Pioneer was subsequently reconstructed using the engines and other parts salvaged from the wreckage, and the Banjo Groyne jetty was rebuilt, although without a terminal building; the railway reopened on 20 July 1897. On 20 February 1898 the Prince of Wales made two trips on the railway in the one day, and in the same year a tall landing stage was built on the foreshore at Ovingdean Gap as a request stop.

e) DEMISE: After four years of operation, the railway closed temporarily for repairs in 1900 following damage caused during the construction of two new groynes. On 1 September 1900 the corporation gave Volk three months’ notice to divert the line 200 feet southwards to make way for further groyne extensions at Kemp Town. Realising that was not practical, Volk suggested shortening the Rottingdean Railway by building a new terminus at Black Rock while extending his other railway from the Banjo Groyne , but this proposal was rejected by the council. Consequently, in about February 1901, the borough surveyor removed the track as necessary and thereby closed the railway. Powers were obtained to construct a viaduct along the base of the cliffs as a replacement, but this new plan failed through a lack of finance. Volk was allowed to extend his electric railway from Banjo Groyne to Black Rock as compensation, however.
Pioneer was moored to the jetty at Ovingdean until 1910, when it was scrapped along with the jetty and Rottingdean Pier was demolished. Now the only surviving relics of the former Rottingdean Railway are the concrete blocks that supported the track, still visible along the foreshore to the east of the Marina at low tide. A model of Pioneer may be found in BrightonMuseum.

Any numerical cross-references in the text above refer to resources in the Sources and Bibliography section of the Encyclopaedia of Brighton by Tim Carder.

The following resource(s) is quoted as a general source for the information above: 188,189

Comments about this page

  • “A model of Pioneer may be found in Brighton Museum.” Recent inquiries at the Museum have elicited the reply that they have no record of this. Volk’s original model was shown on a BBC Coast programme but I remember a far grander and more detailed model being exhibited at the Museum in the 1960s. Does anyone know where the larger more detailed model now is?

    By Chris J Brady (15/02/2012)

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