Colonel Stephens

 

 

THE SUSSEX RAILWAYS OF COLONEL STEPHENS

JOHN S.F. BLACKWELL
Holman Fred Stephens was born on 31 October 1868, the son of art critic Frederick George Stephens, who was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his wife Rebecca Clara. Following a typical middle class Victorian education, both at home and on the Continent, he studied civil engineering at University College London and mechanical engineering at the Neasden Works of the Metropolitan Railway. At the age of 22 in 1890, he took up his first appointment as resident engineer to the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway in Kent. Although the Paddock Wood Railway was built by an independent company, it was worked by the South Eastern Railway, who purchased it after it was completed to Hawkhurst, and Stephens had no further involvement.
In 1895 his next railway appointment was that of engineer to the Rye and Camber Tramway the first of his three Sussex lines. At the same time he set up home and office in Priory Road Tonbridge where he employed William Henry Austen as his assistant. Austen, whom he had employed when he was in his early teens, became his life long friend and managed his group of railways, following Stephens' death. Having completed the Rye and Camber Tramway, Stephens was appointed in 1897 to the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway. Stephens was obviously a competent and enthusiastic engineer and the passing of the Light Railway Act in 1896 was ideal for the type of railway that suited Stephens' interests. Stephens' third Sussex Railway, and probably the most famous, was the Rother Valley Railway, running from Robertsbridge to Tenterden (later extended to Headcorn), which was one of the first railways to be constructed under the Act.
By early 1900 his office had moved from his home to 23 Salford Terrace, Tonbridge. Here, he not only engineered light railways, but also obtained a managing interest in them. By the mid 1920s his group consisted of eight railways and he had engineered a further eight. Like many other Victorian civil engineers, Stephens was active in the Territorial Reserve Army and acquired the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1916. Henceforth in connection with his railways he was always known as Colonel Stephens. With the competition of the motor bus, the Colonel's Sussex railways,  which were never very prosperous, became run down but were still operational at the time of the Colonel's death in 1931. His "empire" was then managed by W. H. Austen.


1. THE RYE AND CAMBER TRAMWAY (Newsletter 81)
In 1894, Rye Golf Club was opened on the sand dunes towards Camber, on the east side of the River Rother. On the opposite bank was the goods-only branch of the South Eastern Railway, to Rye Harbour, completed in 1854. A group of local businessmen decided to form a company for the construction of a line from Rye, along the east bank, for the benefit of golfers and for a ferry for fishermen to cross from the terminus at the Golf Club to the west side of the river. The Rye Town Council agreed to lease a portion of the land at the south-east corner of Monkbretton Bridge. In 1895 at the age of twenty-six H.F. Stephens was appointed engineer.
The company was registered on 6th April 1895 and the line opened on Saturday 13 July!! The tramway was built to a 3 foot gauge and being on private land it did not require parliamentary powers. Stephens suggested using an "oil motor on a passenger car bogie" as motive power and if it had been successful it would have probably been the first "diesel" type vehicle. However the promoters had already ordered a steam locomotive from W. G. Bagnall Ltd. of Stafford, appropriately named "Camber", plus a carriage divided into a closed first class half with curtains, and an open second class; and two wagons. Messrs.
Mancktelow Bros. of Horsmonden were the contractors for both the track and station buildings. Stephens had first encountered this contractor on the Paddock Wood branch where they were responsible for the station buildings. These were all constructed using corrugated iron on wooden frames with the roof providing a canopy supported on two wooden uprights with V braces. All had decorative barge boards. The 1 mile line had a station at each end, Rye and Golf Links. No trace remains at the Rye end but nearly 100 years later Golf Links is still recognisable being in use as a store or similar.
The fare for a first class ticket when the line was opened was 4d single and 6d return. Second class was 2d single and 4d return. During the first 6 months following opening 18,000 tickets were sold and a dividend of 7.5% declared. The success provided another carriage built locally by the Rother Ironworks at Rye and a new engine, also from Bagnalls, was named "Victoria". An extension to Camber Sands was opened in 1908 to cater for day trippers to the sands. This was a much simpler station building constructed of old sleepers. In 1925 the company obtained a four wheeled petrol locomotive from the Kent Construction Company of Ashlord, which looked like a giant lawn mower but proved to be so effective that "Victoria" was sold for scrap and "Camber' rarely used.
A prank that the young blades of the golf club used to try was to withdraw the pin that coupled the two carriages together, hoping that the driver would not notice that he had left a carnage behind.
Although the line never formed part of his "group" the Colonel advised the line until his death in 1931, after which W. H. Austen acted in this capacity. During the 1920s and 19305 many golfers started to become car owners and the fortunes of the line declined until war was declared in 1939. During the war the Admiralty constructed a continuous jetty about 1000 feet long on the Camber side of the River Rother. The tramway was requisitioned and brought back into use for the transport of men and materials.  It was at this time that the concrete was laid either side of the track which can still be seen at Golf Links Station.
When war was over, the line was returned to its owners but its track and rolling stock was by now so neglected that it was decided to wind the concern up. What an attraction it would have been today!

Further reading:The Rye & Camber Tramway by Peter A. Harding - obtainable from the author at Mossgiel, Bagshot Road, Knaphill, Woking, Surrey GU21 2SG at about ?.??: well worth the price!!

 

2. The Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway (Newsletter 91)

The Selsey peninsular lying to the south of Chichester was originally an island and then formed part of the Hundred of Manhood (main wood) i.e. it was originally part of a huge forest. It was, and still is, primarily an agricultural and sparsely populated area except for the post war development at Selsey.

By the end of the nineteenth century, improvements in communications between Chichester and Selsey were mooted, with The Selsey Railway and Pier Act of 18 which would have provided a connection to the LBSCR at Chichester and terminated with a pier for steamers, near the coastguard station at Selsey. Capital required was 75,000 but the scheme was not proceeded with. In 1895 a simpler scheme omitting the pier, estimated at 21,000 was proposed but this too run into difficulties, probably with local landowners, until it emerged again at a meeting attended by city worthies at the Dolphin Hotel, Chichester, on the 1 1 th March 1896. From this meeting, the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramways Company Limited was formed. which being a tramway was not subject to the Light Railway Act, but had therefore to make inconvenient detours by skirting fields and running through farms to get a right of way, with a capital of L12,000. Later demands raised this to 21,500.

H.F. Stephens was appointed Engineer in January 1897. The contractors, Messrs. Mancktelow Bros. of Horsmonden Kent, previously used by Stephens on the Rye and Camber Tramway, undertook to lay the permanent way within four months following the delivery of the materials. They were presumably also responsible for the station building, as they were of the same corrugated iron sheet on wooden frames as used on the Rye and Camber. The line opened for traffic on the 27th August 1897 It was 7 miles long (stopping initially short of Selsey Town Statio The following year a half mile extension took the line to Selsey beach. An inauspicious start to line's career was made with the first train arriving an hour late for the inaugural journey from Chichester with three coaches of which only two could be accommodated at the platform. The lines prospectus had stated "it is not intended or desired to run trains at express speeds" a statement which proved all too true in the years to follow. In 1898 a "Railway Magazine" reporter noted after arriving forty minutes late at Selsey & fifteen minutes after the train was advertised to return. "I am told that originally the Company did not state the arrival times of trains, I am rather surprised that they do so now. it is an overbold stroke of policy".

The line prospered until about 1920 indeed in 1913 powers were sought for a Light Railway Order for a branch from Hunston to West Itchenor and East Wittering with a 200 foot long pier at West Itchenor. The first world war intervened and the powers lapsed in 1921. The line continued to operate without parliamentary powers until January 1924 when application was made under the little used Railway Construction Facilities Act of 1864 for a change of name to the "West Sussex Railway - Selsey Tramway Section. More importantly this empowered the ailing line to enter into negotiation with the newly created Southern Railway with regard to re-construction, working and management of the line, having been left out of the 1923 grouping.The Southern Railway were not interested and with increasing bus competition passenger traffic decreased from 102,292 in 1919 to 13,416 in 1931, when a receiver was appointed. By November 1934 there was only one train per day each way and on the 19th January 1935 the service was "suspended until further notice". Shortly after the line's assets were disposed of for scrap.

There were eleven stations on the seven mile line and today some 60 years after closure the course of the line can still be largely followed, (a recommended excursion). The Chichester terminus was situated to the south of the LBSCR station behind Terminus Road opposite the canal basin. There was a single track connection between the two Companies but neither Companies' locomotives were allowed on the others metals. On leaving the terminus in a westwards direction a sharp curve was negotiated, before crossing Terminus Road across land which is now covered by factories. and then over Stockbridge Road. Here the line continued along the present footpath and then along the west bank of the canal, which was crossed by a bridge at Hunston. This lifting bridge was built and owned by Chichester City Council who charged the tramway 2 per annum. When it required to be opened for small sea going vessels, which during the time the tramway was operating were horse drawn from Birdham lock to Chichester basin, five men were needed for the operation which included the removal of fish plates. The concrete abutments remain. From the south side of the bridge a footpath follows the course of the railway to the site of Hunston Station which was situated to the south of the main road to Selsey.

Hoe Farm Halt was a private "station" for the local farmer/landowner with no building but Chalder some mile further on was the standard corrugated iron and timber framed structure. The next stop was Mill Pond Halt North Sidlesham. Sidlesham was the site of a tide mill erected in 1755 with eight pairs of stones. It lost its source of natural power in 1876 with the reclamation of Pagham Harbour but continued working until 1906 using steam power. The building collapsed around 1920 but the foundations are still visible. On December 15th 1910 there was a catastrophic flood which inundated 2,000 acres of the reclaimed land in one hour, flooding the line to a depth of 12 feet. A replacement service was provided by a stagecoach, a portent of things to come! At this date the Company was prosperous enough to pay for a mile long embankment 15 feet high on which the track was re-laid. The corrugated station building was placed at right angles to the track facing the road and never replaced on the reconstructed platform. The hump where the road was raised and the embankment are still there.

Ferry Station. opened on the 1st August 1898, was situated where the track crossed the main road on a very dangerous (and still dangerous) blind bend. With no gates and increasing motor traffic, it is not surprising there were several accidents here in the latter years.

Golf Club Halt. a private "station" for members, was the site of a major derailment on the 3rd September 1923. when the fireman of the locomotive was killed. Although the inquest verdict was accidental death, the Chief Engineer (Stephens) was held indirectly to blame as there was evidence of neglect in the upkeep of the track. One juryman declared it was possible within 200 yards of the accident. to lift out bolts supposedly holding rails to the sleepers.

Selsey Bridge Station was situated in a cutting near the present police house but has been completely obliterated. A siding just north of the station served the Trojan brickworks. Another brickworks had sidings south of the canal bridge at Hunston.

Selsey Town Station was situated opposite and to the north of the present "Stargazer" public house, originally the "Railway Arms". Chichester and Selsey Stations were the only ones with any form of illumination, both being lit by gas supplied from local gas works. There was a small goods shed and transport of produce. and in the early days the Pullinger patent mousetrap, provided an important income to the Company; of the total receipts of 2,400 in 1933. 1,800 was for carnage of goods. The loco shed with facilities for six engines was also sited here.

Up to 1912, a half mile extension to the east beach operated at least in summer.

The Company only ever bought one new locomotive "Selsey" in 1897. The other locomotive used at the line's opening, "Chichester", was acquired in 1897 but built in 1847. Various other decrepit locomotives between 20 and 40 years old were used at various periods in the lines existence. Carriages fared slightly better, three being purchased new for the opening and a further one in 1900. Seven second-hand carriages were obtained between 1910 and 1916, the time of the line's greatest prosperity.

Because of the poor condition of the locomotives and in a bid to reduce operating costs, Stephens pioneered the use of rail cars, these were basically lorry/bus chassis with flanged wheels and a body with longitudinal wooden seats. They ran as pairs with often an open wagon for goods and luggage coupled in between. Only the leading vehicle was used as motive power the rear one being towed dead. It was noted by one traveller like, being "transported in an oil drum leaving one with a continual ringing in the ears, the stench of petrol in the nostrils and an extremely sore behind". The first set was supplied by Wolseley Siddley in 1921 followed in 1923 by a set from Edmunds of Thetford using a Ford Model T chassis and finally in 1928 two Shefflex sets.

H.F Stephens died in 1931 and did not live to see the final ignominious years of an undertaking that had started so full of hope.

 

Further reading:‑
The Selsey Tramways by Edward Griffith 1974
Branch Line to Selsey K Smith & V Mitchell Middleton Press

 

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