Magnus Volk's Seashore Electric Railway
In 1883, an innovative inventor named Magnus Volk opened Britain’s first electric railway at Brighton in Sussex. It proved to be a successful tourist attraction, and its successor still runs today. It was when Volk decided, in 1890, to extend the line east to Rottingdean, that things took a turn for the bizarre.
The new line would have to scale a steep incline to the top of a cliff, or be built into the unstable undercliff, and neither was practical. So with Victorian resourcefulness Volk came up with an unusual plan. He would lay the railway lines under the sea and run the train on long steel legs 24 feet above the waves. He called it The Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway.
Magnus Volk, whose Germanic name came from being the son of a German clock maker who had settled in Brighton, was a forthright, precise and fastidious person who, from an early age, was fascinated by electricity and model making. A master electrical engineer, Volk was the first in Brighton to own a telephone and equip his house with electric light. Appointed as electrical engineer to the Corporation of Brighton in 1883, he soon installed electricity in the Brighton Pavilion, the town’s one-time royal residence. A few years later, he built a very early type of electric car.
Construction on the Seashore Electric Railway began in 1894 with labourers working only at low tide, during a bitter winter that caused the sea water to freeze on the beach. Their job was to lay four rails, consisting of two parallel sets of two-rail tracks. The gauge of each pair was 2ft 81/2 inches and the distance between the outer rails of the four was 18ft. The route was kept as level as possible, its steepest gradient no more than one in 300.
Square holes were dug in the chalk of the shore between the low and high tide marks and filled with concrete, boxed above the surface so that, when set, part of each embedded block stood above the ground. The tracks were then fastened to the blocks. When the tide came in, the sea covered the lines and the workmen retired until the next low tide.
The single railway carriage was built by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, which set up business at Gloucester in 1860. Among its products, the company made goods wagons, passenger coaches and stock for
Above: the carriage running through the sea at high tide.
Below: running across the seashore at low tide
the London Underground. They also undertook special-purpose work – and Volk’s project certainly came into that category.
The single carriage was like a tramcar crossed with a yacht on legs. Electricity to power the motors was generated by a gas-driven generator, producing 500 volts and housed below the pier at Rottingdean. It was supplied via twin connecting rods from the carriage, each tipped with small wheels to run along an overhead cable slung from poles beside the tracks. On board, 25 horsepower electric motors drove long shafts which ran inside the tubular legs, geared to the wheels which were enclosed in metal casings, shaped to push debris out of their path as the contraption made its way through the sea. The wheels on the two legs on one side of the carriage ran on one set of tracks, and the wheels on the two legs on the other side ran on the second set of tracks. Volk called the carriage Pioneer. The public renamed it Daddy Long-Legs.
When the tide was out, the rails could be clearly seen. At high tide, they were submerged up to 15 feet below the surface. The electric current picked up from the overhead cable was returned to earth via the rails and thence into the sea. Although it seems there was no immediate danger, it has to be said that the mixture of electricity and water is never a good one and must have been unnerving for bathers and paddlers in and around the passing carriage. The Victorians, of course, were not as hot on health and safety as we are today!
Although designed to run on rails and therefore justifiably called a railway carriage, Pioneer was actually classified as a seagoing vessel. As such, maritime law required it to carry a lifeboat and lifebuoys, and the driver had to be a qualified sea captain.
Passengers alighted and disembarked at piers built out into the sea at Brighton and Rottingdean, with an intermediary stop-off pier at Ovingdean. Use of the piers put passengers on the same level as the carriage, high above the water level. Once aboard, they found themselves on a veranda 45 feet long and 22 feet wide that surrounded an enclosed saloon with an open promenade deck on its roof. The saloon was equipped with plush, upholstered seats, curtains and even plants. The carriage took a maximum of 160 passengers, and the whole thing weighed in the region of 45 tons.
Daddy Long-Legs made its first journey – or maiden voyage – on 28th November 1896. The mayor of Brighton, the Chairman of Rottingdean Parish Council, the town’s two members of parliament and other dignitaries were on board. Proceeding at a leisurely pace, the carriage’s 23/4 mile journey took 35 minutes and, on its return, a celebratory luncheon took place.
Newspaper reports were enthusiastic. One suggested that that Pioneer would revolutionise sea travel as trains once revolutionised land travel, envisaging a day when such a railway would run from Dover to Calais, or even London to New York, though how railway lines could be laid along the Atlantic seabed wasn’t mentioned.
A week after Pioneer’s launch tragedy struck. It came during one of the worst storms ever remembered on this part of the south coast. Pioneer, lashed to its moorings at Rottingdean Pier, broke free to be overturned and smashed by the storm winds. Some of the rails and poles that held the overhead cables were also damaged.
Remarkably, Volk managed to salvage and rebuild Pioneer in time for a summer re-opening in July the following year. After that it ran for another three years, carrying thousands of passengers, including the then Prince of Wales, who made the trip twice on 20th February 1898. A ticket cost sixpence
English novelist Angela Thirkell, in Three Houses, her book of childhood memories of and around Rottingdean, later referred to it as ‘the most preposterous machine… more like a vision of the Martians than anything else you ought to see at a peaceful seaside village.’ Her comparison was with the long-legged Martian fighting machines described by HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, at the time Pioneer was running.
“We were never allowed to go in it,” Thirkell wrote, “partly because no grown-up thought it amusing enough to go with us and partly because it had a habit of sticking somewhere opposite the ventilation shaft of the Brighton main sewer and not being moved till nightfall. When it discharged its passengers at the pier it took on a fresh load and stalked back to Brighton leaving us gaping in admiration.”
How the railway was advertised to attract visitors
Passengers boarding the carriage at the Brighton terminus
The year 1900 finally sounded the death knell for Daddy Long-Legs. First it had to be closed during the peak summer season while repairs were made to the concrete blocks that had been undermined. No sooner had that difficulty been overcome than the local council announced that sea defence work meant the Pioneer’s rails would have to be moved further out to sea.
Cleary this was impractical. Even as it stood, when the tide was high and the water deep, Pioneer’s speed was reduced to little more than walking pace. In fact, there were times, if the water was especially high, when it was impossible for the carriage to move much further than a few hundred yards from the pier before giving up and having to return.
Moving the rails further out into deeper water, even if it had been practical to lay them, would have slowed Pioneer down more, and it wasn’t practical to replace the electric motors with more powerful versions.
In 1901, council workmen moved in to remove some of the rails to carry out the projected work on sea defences. Pioneer was taken to Rottingdean Pier, where it remained for the following nine years, slowly rotting away, until it was broken up for scrap in 1910. The pier survived for around another four years, before also being demolished.
Today, the only sign of Volk’s achievements are a few rows of jagged concrete blocks straggling along the shoreline between Brighton and Rottingdean. Few who even notice them, as the tide recedes to uncover their remains, realise that they mark the foundations for the tracks on which Daddy Long-Legs ruled the waves for a few brief Victorian years.
Stone blocks along the seashore at Rottingdean - all that's left of Magnus Volk's amazing Seaside Electric Railway today
Read more about Magnus Volk's Seaside
Electric Railway in my book The Ingenious
Victorians. Click here for more details