Sussexias - Articles - Glynde Telpher



From Sussex Industrial History No.17 1987

Mineral Transport by the Telpher System -
The Pioneering Work of Prof. H. C. F. Fleeming-Jenkin
(The Story of the Glynde Aerial Railway)

This is the story of the Telpher aerial electric railway at Glynde, Sussex; also of its inventor and promoter, Prof H C Fleeming-Jenkin. Both are largely forgotten today, yet in their time the construction and operation of this aerial railway created immense interest, which was widely reported in both the technical and popular press.

The most striking evidence of its existence now surviving is the wood--cut engraving shown in Fig 1, which once served as a book illustration. When the Telpher Line opened on 17 October 1885, it became the first electrically powered aerial railway in the world. Even then it incorporated an automatic system of absolute block working, making it physically impossible for two Telpher trains to enter the same section of track.(1) To put this achievement into perspective, it should be remembered that the world's first public electricity supply only came into operation at Godalming, Surrey, on September 1881.(2) Then, less than two years later, the first public passenger carrying electric railway in Great Britain was constructed in Sussex, by Magnus Volk of Brighton.(3) The original line ran for mile along the Brighton sea front in an easterly direction, starting from the Aquarium. It was constructed to a two foot gauge and opened to fare paying passengers on 4 August 1883.(4) Following its immediate success, work started in January 1884 to re-build the line using a 2' 8"' gauge and extend the route to Paston Place, giving a total length of 1400 yards, including a passing loop.

The Telpher system of mineral transport was first patented in 1882(5) and so dated from the earliest days of the commercial exploitation of electric power. It is this factor which makes the sohpistication of the Telpher line at Glynde all the more remarkable


The life and Work of Henry Charles Fleeming-Jenkin
Henry was the only son of a Royal Navy officer, Capt Charles Jenkins RN, of Hythe in Kent. He was born on 25 March 1833, near Dungeness, where his father was posted on coastguard duty. The unusual name of Fleeming-Jenkin seems to have been in deference to an Admiral Fleeming who had, at some time, been a patron of his father.

Because Capt Jenkin was often away at sea, his wife spent much of her time in Scotland, with the result that Henry was educated first at Jedburgh and later at the Edinburgh Academy. On his father's retirement from the Navy, Henry moved with the family to Frankfurt in 1847. Then followed another move to Paris, in 1848, just at the start of unrest leading up to the Revolution of that year. This necessitated a further rapid move, now to Genoa. Fleeming-Jenkin, as he became known, attended the University of Genoa, subsequently obtaining a first class honours degree, with specialisation in electro-magnetism, during 1850.

After graduating, he spent some time working in a locomotive engineering shop, where he acquired many of the skills that would subsequently be put to good use in development of the "Telpher" system. On returning to England, he held various posts involving engineering and draughtsmanship, eventually settling in London where he met his future wife, Annie Austin.

In 1857, Fleeming-Jenkin joined Messrs R.S. Newall and Company of Gateshead, to work on the first Atlantic submarine telegraph cable. He continued with other submarine cable contracts until 1861, when he left Newall and Co to set up a business partnership with a Mr H.C. Forde. In this capacity he was involved in designing a submarine telegraph cable for a "Mr Reuter", who subsequently became world famous. This cable was manufactured by Messrs W T Henley and Company, then laid between Lowestoft and Norderney in 1866.

During the same year (1866) H C Fleeming-Jenkin was appointed Professor of Engineering at University College, London, but insisted on retaining his business partnership. Then two years later he became Professor of Engineering at Edinburgh University, subsequently forming another partnership with Sir William Thomson.

For the next few years little information is available about his career, until in 1882 he patented the system of transporting materials by aerial railway, which he called "Telpherage". This is described on the following pages.   Tragically, Prof Fleeming-Jenkin died before the first commercial Telpher System opened for traffic, at Glynde, Sussex, in October 1885. In fact he died in June 1885, probably as a result of blood poisoning, following a minor operation. Apart from his invention of the Telpher system, which is still in use, Prof Fleeming-Jenkin is also remembered as the author of a standard text book on electrical engineering,(6) now of course obsolete.

The Telpher Line at Glynde
The history of aerial ropeways can be traced back a very long way indeed, certainly as far as 1411.(7) However, Telpherage differs from the earlier aerial ropeways in that instead of hauling the suspended wagons by means of a continuous moving cable, the wagons themselves were powered by electric motors, taking their current from the aerial lines.

Telpherage was the invention of Prof H. C. Fleeming-Jenkin, who patented the system in 1882. The first experimental line was installed at Weston, near Baldock in 1883. This line was approximately 700ft in length and designed to carry a suspended load of up to one ton. Power was supplied to the motorised wagon by means of two contact wires, carried above the cable which supported the wagon itself. In the following year a similar system was set up at the Millwall Docks, London.

One great advantage claimed for the Telpher system was that it provided automatic block working, comparable with the best railway practice. Each train of wagons automatically cut off the electricity supply to the previous section, thereby ensuring that there would always be a "dead" section of line between any two trains. The ways in which this was achieved are discussed in the next section. Telpher trains could either be run on taut aerial cable ways, or on overhead steel monorails supported by poles.(8)

The first commercial application of the Telpher system was the installation of a double track aerial cableway between transfer sidings at the LB & SCR station, Glynde, Sussex, and some brick clay pits on the estate of Viscount Hampden. The route was approximately one mile in length but crossed about mile of tidal marsh on the banks of Glynde Reach, a tributary of the River Ouse, as well as the waterway itself. A conventional railway could thus have encountered considerable engineering problems, while the value of the goods to be carried was relatively low. The Telpher line employed steel rods as running rails supported about 18 ft from the ground by wooden posts, at intervals of 66 ft. A good general impression of the line and its environment can be gained from the contemporary woodcut engraving, shown in Fig 1. Unfortunately no comparable photographs exist; however, a photograph does survive of a Telpher wagon in use during the nineteenth century, showing some details of the electro motors and traction power supply (Fig 2.) Precise details of the method of operation remain obscure, but it clear that a live contact wire was carried above the electric motors and the running rod provided an earth return. The length of each train of wagons was kept exactly to the distance between the supporting posts, which divided the track into block sections. As it advanced, a train energised the section of track ahead and automatically cut off the power supply to the section behind, thereby ensuring that it was impossible for two trains to enter the same section of track. Hence if one train stopped, then they all did.

Construction work was carried out by "The Telpherage Co Ltd" and the line was officially opened on 17 October 1885. A copy of the programme for the opening ceremony is shown in Fig 3. Each train consisted of ten wagons, travelling at 5mph; in this way some 300 tons of clay per week were delivered to the main line at Glynde Station. Sadly, Prof Fleeming-Jenkin died in 1885 and the system did not survive him for very long. However, Telpher lines were installed abroad by the  "Consolidated Telpherage Co" of New York and later by Siemens Brothers at Woolwich.

Mechanism of Operation of the Telpher System
Surprisingly few details of the method of operation of the Glynde Telpher Line can be gleaned from contemporary reports. Quite possibly this was regarded as an industrial secret at that time. However reference to the various patents(10) filed by Prof Fleeming-Jenkin during 1884 indicate fairly clearly how automatic absolute block working could have been achieved. Of the references cited, No.8751 is the most informative. Two methods of absolute block working are described; both apply to double track Telpher lines such as that constructed at Glynde. A pair of heavy gauge conductors are used both to carry current to the traction motors and to support the Telpher trains, forming one "up" and one "down" line. In addition, two auxiliary conductors are needed, one for each line, to carry the return current. These auxiliary conductors are much lighter, since they do not have to support any load, apart from their own weight.

The auxiliary conductors are divided into block sections, each of which is cross connected to the heavy power cable of the opposite track, as shown in Fig. 4. Power is supplied continuously from a suitable generator to the two main cables MI and M2.

The simple method of absolute block working requires the use of a third conductor resembling a telegraph line; this was termed "the blocking cable". As a Telpher locomotive (TL) travels along a block section, a contact on the locomotive connects the blocking cable (b) to the main supply cable (M2), thereby energising the relay from M1 M2) and switching off power to the auxiliary line of the previous section (A2). Since power is supplied to the Telpher locomotives via M2 and A2, any train coming to the previous section will be brought to a stop. Only when the locomotive, shown as TL in Fig. 4, has progressed beyond the centre section, can the relay release the contacts which connect A2 to M1, electrifying the right hand section. Hence there should always be a "dead" section between each Telpher train, the length of which must clearly be less than that of a block section. For ease of explanation, only the block circuit of the lower line is illustrated in Fig. 4; the upper-line would be exactly the same in its method of operation.

It will be obvious that any failure in the contact between the blocking cable and M2 will invalidate the blocking system, while intermittent contact could lead to current surges if a locomotive was standing at the previous section. Fig. 2 shows no evidence of a separate blocking cable, so it seems probable that the second method of absolute block working described by Fleeming-Jenkin(10) was employed in practice.

This more sophisticated system of automatic absolute block working is illustrated in Fig. 5 and no longer relies on switch contacts being operated mechanically by the Telpher locomotive itself; the blocking cable is also dispensed with. Instead, two separate relays are employed to control each block section. Relay P has a high resistance electromagnetic coil, while Q is double wound with high and low resistance coils, both creating a field in the same direction. The Telpher locomotive (TL) is shown on the middle section of Fig. 5, power being supplied by the main and auxiliary cables M2 and A2. The contacts of relay P are normally in the closed position when the coil is not energised; conversely, the contacts of relay Q are normally open.

Hence on the unoccupied sections of track ahead of the locomotive TL, P1 is closed. Current can then pass from M1 through the series low resistance coil of QI and energises A2. This section of track is therefore "live"; however, with no locomotive on this section, no current actually flows, so that Q1 remains open.

Considering now the centre, occupied, section of track, since Q1 is open P2 is closed (normal position); current flows through the series coil of Q2 and the motor of the Telpher locomotive. This closes the contacts of Q2, thereby operating P3.

With the contacts of P3 open, no power is available on the previous section, which becomes "dead"; Q3 remains in the open position. In this way the presence of a Telpher locomotive on any section ensures that the preceding block section remains "dead", thereby making powered collisions impossible.

It is hoped that this paper helps to explain one of the least recorded, but nevertheless brilliant achievements of Victorian engineering. The name of Prof H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin seldom comes to be mentioned when great engineers of the nineteenth century are discussed. This is a pity and is due largely to the fact that he died before he could exploit the immense potential of Telpher transport. Telpherage systems remain in use today, in many different countries, although sadly little trace of the pioneering installation at Glynde is still visible.

The author would like to thank :-
Mr T. R. Smith, of G.L.I.A.S., Mr R. F. Jones and Prof E. O. Taylor of S.I.A.S., for information and advice.
Department of Chemistry, Portsmouth Polytechnic

1.   D.G. Tucker, Industrial Archaeology Review 1, 126 (1976)
2.   F. Haveron, The Brilliant Ray, Godalming Centenary Celebrations Committee, (Godalming 1981)
3.   C. Volk, Magnus Volk of Brighton, Phillimore, (Chichester 1971), pp 55 et sec.
4.   C.M. Cock, Proc Instn Elect Engr, 97, (lA), 6 (1950)
5.   H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Mechanism for transporting goods and passengers by electricity", Brit. Pat. No. 1830 of (1882), H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Improvements relating to mechanism for transporting goods and passengers by the aid of electricity and regulation of the speed of machinery driven by electricity", Brit. Pat. No. 4548 of (1882)
6.   H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, Electricity and Magnetism, (5th edition 1880)
7.   E.F. Carter, Design and Component Engineering, 6 October 1971
8.   A.J. Wallis-Taylor, Aerial or Wire Ropeways, (1911)
9. H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Improvements in Telpherage", Brit. Pat. No 3795 of (1884), H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Improvements in Trucks and Locomotives for Telpher Lines", Brit. Pat. No. 3796 of (1884), H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Improvements in Telpherage", Brit. Pat. No. 5020 of (1884),H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin and A.C. Elliott, "Improvements Relating to mechanism for Transporting goods and passengers by the aid of Electricity", Brit. Pat. No. 8460 of (1884), H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "An Improved Telpher Locomotive", Brit. Pat. No. 8751 of (1884), H.C. Fleeming-Jenkin, "Apparatus for the regulation of currents employed in Telpher and other electric motors", Brit. Pat. No. 8906 of (1884)
10. Brit. Pat.. No. 8751 op cit

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