1896: Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway

I doubt too many people know about this electric train. The Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was a unique coastline railway in Brighton, England that ran through the shallow coastal waters of the English Channel between 1896 and 1901.


The aim of the railway was to extend the reach of the existing Volk's Electric Railway eastward. Since the eastern section of coast ran out of seafront, and quickly ended up with cliffs that were directly against the sea, Volk was confronted with the intimidating and costly prospect of an expensive project to build the railway extension onto the cliff-face.
  • Volk's solution was instead to build the railway out at sea, with the electrically-powered car built on four cross-braced stilted legs that kept the passenger section well above sea-level, and to also build a special alighting-platform at Rottingdean.

The railway itself consisted of two parallel 2 ft 8 1⁄2 in (825 mm) gauge tracks, billed as 18 ft (5.5 m) gauge, the measurement between the outermost rails. The tracks were laid on concrete sleepers mortised into the bedrock. The single car used on the railway was a 45 by 22 ft (13.7 by 6.7 m) pier-like building which stood on four 23 ft (7.0 m)-long legs. The car weighed 45 long tons. Propulsion was by electric motor. It was officially named Pioneer, but many called it Daddy Long-Legs. Due to regulations then in place, a qualified sea captain was on board at all times, and the car was provided with lifeboats and other safety measures.


Construction took two years from 1894 to 1896. The railway officially opened 28 November 1896, but was nearly destroyed by a storm the night of 4 December. Volk immediately set to rebuilding the railway including the Pioneer, which had been knocked on its side, and it reopened in July 1897.


The railway was popular, but faced difficulties. The car was slowed considerably at high tide, but Volk could never afford to improve the motors. In 1900, groynes built near the railway were found to have led to underwater scouring under the sleepers and the railway was closed for two months while this was repaired. Immediately afterward, the council decided to build a beach protection barrier, which unfortunately required Volk to divert his line around the barrier. Without funds to do so, Volk closed the railway.


As you can see above, the train traveled along the coast line, and the amount of water depended on high/low tides. Was this solution really superior to extending the landline over the cliffs?

Below we have an 1893 plan of the proposed ‘Brighton and Rottingdean car on stilts’.
  • Where is the engine?

Apparently the water train was advertised, and the fare was 6d. each way. I am not sure what "d's" they were talking about. If you know, please share.


In 1901 the right-of-way was broken up for construction of the barrier. One further attempt was made to raise money for a conventional over-water viaduct along roughly the same route. The track, car and other structures were sold for scrap, but some of the concrete sleepers can still be viewed at low tide. Eventually Volk's Electric Railway was extended onshore, covering a portion of the same distance; it remains in operation.

Magnus Volk

Magnus Volk was a Brighton-born inventor and electrical engineer who achieved a number of early successes and world firsts in the field of electrical engineering, including the world's first electric railway (still running!), early electrical public lighting and telephony, and early examples of electric cars.
Volk was born in a house on Western Road in 1851. During his early life he had some success producing parlour telegraph sets which were little more than toys for rich men to impress their friends with. He first became properly well-known in 1879 when he installed the first telephone line in Brighton from his house in Preston Road to another nearby in Springfield Road.
  • The following year he cemented his fame by being the first person in the town to light his home by electricity. This success led to him being awarded a contract for installing electric lighting throughout the Brighton Pavilion gardens and within the Brighton Museum and Corn Exchange complex.
  • In 1883 he launched his most famous and long lasting project. The Volk's Electric Railway which still runs along the seafront today, making it the oldest electric railway in the world that is still running. A model of one of the V.E.R Carriages is on display in the museum.
  • In 1896 he launched his Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway which has become better known as the Daddy Long-Legs. It ran on a three mile track between Banjo (Paston Place) Groyne and Rottingdean powered by overhead cables like a tram. Despite its popularity, the novel railway was forced to halt operations in 1901 when extra sea defences built by Brighton Town Council intersected the trackway. A model of the Pioneer car is also on display in the museum in Arch One.
  • Volk continued to be involved in various projects in and around Brighton until his death in 1937.


Sources and Links:

KD: Some things just make you wonder. This train is one of those for me, for I find the official explanation hard to believe. Is it plausible enough to meet the plausibility threshold? I don't know.



What do you think?
Some things just make you wonder.
Yeah. Like what is it with these oddball, obscure tram projects getting destroyed almost immediately after being opened and then having to be reconstructed?
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.
Apparently the water train was advertised, and the fare was 6d. each way. I am not sure what "d's" they were talking about. If you know, please share.
"d" stood for pennies (pence) in old British currency.
6 pence = 1 sixpence (a 'tanner') (6d)
Edit: The video seems to have been made by Robert W. Paul. Here's his wiki, a site attributing the film to him in 1897, and IMDB confirming him as the producer for the documentary "Rottingdean Electric Railway" (although IMDB is probably just knows from the other site). His wiki is worth a read, as it's full of crazy accomplishments and strange timing coincidences, which seemingly was the custom at the time.
Edit edit:Here's what I was really looking for though:
Throughout his film career Paul produced more than 800 titles, quitting the business in 1910 and destroying the negatives of many of his films, for which his motive remains a mystery.
Whatever wasn't destroyed eventually ended up with the British Film Institute and they put everything out on a DVD in 2006. I presume that's where our clip in this thread came from. Anyway, sorry for the minor detour, but I really think it's important we understand where these videos come from.
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