The short-lived Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway must have presented quite an amazing spectacle even during those late Victorian days of engineering excellence.
Affectionately known as the ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, but also termed the ‘spider car’, ‘sea-going car’ ‘sea-going railway’ and ‘sea tramway’, it presented the amazing spectacle of a part tram, part boat, part seaside pier moving by itself through the sea.
Built by Magnus Volk as an extension of his Volk’s Electric Railway, which opened in 1883 and is the oldest electric railway still running today, the Daddy-Long-Legs ran for only five years before new sea defence works forced its closure in 1902. Yet, over a century later, the Daddy-Long-Legs leaves a lasting impression on everyone who sees the old photographs of it, and it rather typifies Brighton’s ‘Bohemian’ aspect.
Permission was granted for the railway on 27 July 1893 and construction commenced the following year. However, progress was slow because the line was submerged under the sea for much of the time.
The first part of the project was to construct the pier at Rottingdean. On 11 June 1895 a light steel structure of 91 metres in length and 6 metres in width was situated just to the west of Rottingdean Gap, to which it was connected by a short walkway.
The pier stood 9 metres clear of high water and steps led down from the pier head to the landing stage. Beneath the head was located the railway’s generator of electricity, a 60kw 500w steam generator. This provided electricity to power the railway. The current passed through the 24ft high pier-like legs to the driving wheels and brakes. The car ran upon two parallel lines of rails. Concrete slabs laid on the seabed supported the rails.
The platform of the car consisted of an upper open deck with seating and a luxury saloon on the lower tier. This was fitted with a fine upholstered Ottoman down its centre, stained glass windows, carpet, potted plants and aspidistras, heavy curtains and a refreshment booth. The builder was the Gloucester Wagon Company and the car was officially named ‘Pioneer’.
Up and running
Eventually, on 28 November 1896, after costing £30,000 to build, Magnus Volk opened his new wonder railway through the sea with an official ceremony at the Brighton terminus.
The public service commenced two days later, and unsurprisingly the railway was initially a great success with large crowds flocking to the terminus at Paston Place to patiently await their turn to experience a ride through the sea.
However, disaster was to strike on 4 December 1896 when a severe gale wrecked both the Paston Place terminus and Pioneer, after it had broken loose from its mooring at Rottingdean Pier.
Undeterred, Volk rebuilt Pioneer (with taller legs) and built a new smaller landing stage off the Banjo Groyne, enabling the service to be resumed on 20 July 1897. A request stop was opened at Ovingdean Greenway Gap using a rather fragile sloping wooden landing stage.
On 20 February 1898 the Prince of Wales took two trips on the railway, but for the general public, a ride on Pioneer was only accessible for those wealthy enough to pay the 6d fare each way.
An hourly service was provided from Rottingdean in the summer, although short trips from Banjo Groyne became increasingly popular due to a journey along the full length of the line and back taking up to 1½ hours to complete at an average speed of only 6mph. At high tide the car would crawl at a walking pace and for some the journey could become quite tedious.
Breakdowns were also common, causing the timetable to be suspended for weeks on end, whilst bad weather also brought the service to a halt. However, there was no denying a journey on Pioneer was a unique and unusual experience, especially when it was ploughing through a high tide of 15 feet of water.
Unfortunately, the life of the Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was to be all too brief. During the summer of 1900, the service had to be suspended when the track was damaged by the scour from the construction of two concrete groynes, built to prevent erosion of the cliffs.
Then on 1 September 1900 Brighton Corporation gave Volk two months’ notice to relocate the track at Kemp Town southwards to make room for groyne extensions. Volk suggested building a new terminus at Black Rock, and extending his shore railway to it, but this was rejected.
In February 1901 the Borough Surveyor removed a section of the track and the service was suspended. It was officially abandoned the following year. However, in compensation, Volk was given permission to extend his Volks Railway to Black Rock.
The elegant Pioneer was tied up at the Ovingdean landing stage, where it was left to die a slow death until it was removed for scrap in early 1910. The pier at Rottingdean had been removed by December 1911.
Some of the concrete blocks which supported the rails survive to this day leaving, at low tide, a visible reminder of the line’s existence. Stumps of some of the wooden poles that supported the overhead wire can also be seen.
Volk’s unique and imaginative railway through the sea was, in the end, probably a failure. However, its uniqueness has ensured it has an honoured and treasured place in the annals of British seaside history.
Martin Easdown is a long-time member of the National Piers Society and one of the acknowledged experts on British piers. He has written extensively on the history of piers and Britain’s seaside in books, magazines and newspapers. ‘The Extraordinary Daddy-Long-Legs Railway of Brighton‘, Martin’s latest book, will be published on 15 August 2019 by Amberley Publishing