Volk's Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric railway
A 'sea voyage on wheels' on the Daddy Long Legs, Brighton, England.
Report by urban75 editor, June 2006
After the success of his Brighton electric railway, local inventor extraordinaire Magnus Volk looked to find ways to extend his line eastwards to nearby Rottingdean.
To advance his existing railway would have involved costly works to construct a steep climb to the top of the cliff or a viaduct running along the unstable undercliff, so he hatched a somewhat bonkers alternative plan to create an railway which ran through the sea.
Somehow finding the necessary finance locally, construction of the line started in June 1894.
Built by British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd., the line had two separate 2ft 8½" gauge tracks with their respective outer rails 18ft apart.
The 52lb per yard flat bottom tracks were fitted in 30ft lengths and supported on 5ft x 3ft concrete blocks morticed into the chalk bedrock every two and a half feet.
Starting from a point about 100 yards out from Madeira Drive at Banjo Groyne, the railway maintained a distance of 60-100 yards from the shore all the way to Rottingdean, some 2.8 miles (4½ km) to the east.
At the terminus, a 100 yard-long light steel pier was constructed to meet the track from Brighton.
Volk's Brighton railway station, c.1898.
Rottingdean railway station at low tide
The Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company were employed to build a sea-going tram for the line, which was to be powered by electricity supplied by trolley-style suspended cables running along the land side of the track.
Although the car was fitted with two trolley poles, there was only one overhead wire, with the return current running through the rails at low tide or going straight into tje sea at high tide.
It's believed that the second trolley pole was later added as a security precaution - without it, there would be no way to get passengers back to dry land if the first one failed!
The tram (known as 'Pioneer') was a curious invention with an elliptical deck 45ft long by 22ft wide supported on four braced tubular legs each 23ft long.
Weighing in at about 45 tons, each leg hosted a bogie housing four 33" wheels encased in steel plates, with one bogie on each side being driven - via a shaft and worm gear arrangement - by two General Electric 25hp electric motors.
The other two legs carried the brake rodding to the remaining two bogies, with all bogies fitted with scrapers to push aside seaweed, stroppy crabs and shingle from the track.
Described as a mix between an 'open-top tramcar, a pleasure yacht and a seaside pier,' the deck was fitted out with an 25ft 3" x 12ft 6" ornate saloon (complete with leather upholstered seats!) and a promenade deck slapped on top.
As the Pioneer travelled over the sea, UK law demanded that a trained sea captain be at the helm (or available at all times), and the tram be fitted with a lifeboat on the back and a number of lifebelts around the edges.
Promptly nicknamed, 'Daddy Long Legs', this bizarre vehicle could carry some 160 passengers, and the line was opened to the public with the usual Victorian razzmatazz at noon, November 28th 1896.
The day was sunny, although travellers had to face a bitterly cold east wind as the tram trundled through the low tide waters from Brighton to Rottingdean.
The journey took about 35 minutes, with tickets priced at 2½d (1.5p) each way.
Sadly, catastrophe struck just a week after opening, as Brighton was hit by a fearsome storm which destroyed the old Chain Pier, seriously damaged the original electric railway and caused immense damage to the new venture.
During the storm, the tram had broken free from her Rottingdean moorings, slid down the 1 in 100 slope from the jetty before ending up on her side, suffering major structural damage.
Despite the ferocity of the storm, the track survived with only one breakage and the overhead wire remained intact.
After being salvaged by Blackmore & Gould of Millwall, 'Pioneer' was rebuilt with new, longer legs adding another 2ft to the tram's height with the railway, remarkably, reopening on July 20th 1897.
That year, a grand total of 44,282 passengers enjoyed a year round service, but the future was far from rosy.
Close up of the sea-tram in action
The tram was woefully underpowered for travelling through anything other than shallow water, and at high tide the thing crawled to a near standstill.
Although new electric motors could have solved this problem, the company was still reeling from the costly reconstruction works, with a proposed second tram already cancelled.
The tram at low tide
The final body blows came early in the new century, when two new concrete groynes* constructed by the Corporation east of the Banjo Groyne were found to be responsible for considerable scouring of the seabed, causing serious damage to the trackbed.
(*A groyne is a protective structure extending from shore into the water to prevent a beach from washing away.)
This forced the closure of the line for several weeks over the peak summer season, with the tram lying dormant between the lucrative months of July and August 1900
The 'Pioneer' tram docked at Rottingdean Pier head with passengers alighting. passengers are getting on. The electrical power unit can be seen underneath the pier.
In September 1900, the fate of the line was sealed when Volk was informed that he would have to divert his line into much deeper water to bypass new sea defence works between Paston Place and Black Rock.
Such a construction proved beyond the financial means of the company, and in January 1901 the Corporation, following on from their early warning, removed those parts of the track which were in their way.
Engraving from an early pictorial postcard, 1899
END OF THE LINE
Now with a broken track and no means of income, the Board ordered operations to cease immediately and the line was abandoned for ever.
As for the old sea-tram, it suffered an ignominious fate, being tied up against Ovingdean pier and left to rust away until 1910 when the remnants of the railway were sold off for scrap.
Sharp eyed folks can still spot a few reminders of this fabulously eccentric railway, with several concrete sleepers visible at low tide at Rottingdean and - apparently - some remains of the iron platform in the eastern side of the jetty at Banjo Groyne.
Turn of the century photo of the tram in action.
VIRTUAL SEA TRAM
Short animation of the Volk's Pioneer electric railway by Conor Gorman. conorgorman.com