1890s Cameras & Cycling

Victorian Brighton: Volks Electric Railway

The late Victorian Age saw many interesting inventions that we may take for granted in the 21st century. Some novelties of that era are interesting because they helped the development of other technology. Before cycling and motoring changed the face of the world forever, the primary medium for transportation was the railway system. British inventors led the world in the design of steam engines and early railway development. The Prince Regent chose Brighton for his seaside home, and the London-Brighton railway link opened in 1841.

Much of Brighton’s Victorian history is still easily accessible. Seaside holidays were among the fastest-growing industries in Victorian Britain, and Brighton was the biggest and most famous of the resorts. Investment in new amenities included two piers and an aquarium, and a burst of expansion in the 1870s took the population past 100,000. Below, you can see the Volks Railway.




The Volks Railway opened in August 1883, and was the first electrified line in the country. It was essentially a light railway, and remains so today, in its extended form. Its originator was the remarkable Magnus Volk, born at 40, Western Road, Brighton, on 19th October, 1851.

Magnus Volk was a true pioneer of electrical engineering. His house was the first in Brighton to have electric lighting, and in his workshop he made telegraph sets, telephone exchanges, an electric motor-car, and much more.

The Corporation then employed him to supervise the installation of electric light in the Royal Pavilion and he completed this successfully in 1883. At this time he had on his hands, an electric motor which he had made, a Siemens D.5 dynamo and a 2 h.p. Crossley gas engine. He realised that with this combination he could move a railway car, and sought permission from the Corporation to build a short line on the sea front to try out his plan.

A six-month license was granted, and Magnus moved his gas engine and dynamo to the Royal Humane Society’s Arch under the promenade. A Brighton man, J. T. Chappell, laid him a light 2 ft. gauge track on a shingle embankment extending about a quarter of a mile east from the Swimming Arch (near the Aquarium) to the old Chain Pier. The 50 volt output of the power plant was fed to the two running rails, which were flat-bottomed and spiked to well-tarred longitudinal sleepers. A Brighton man named Pollard, who lived in Church Street, constructed a simple double-ended, four wheeled car, with tiny end platforms, and a canvas canopy. Volk equipped this with his motor, using a belt to drive the axles, the current reaching the motor through the wheels via wires rubbing the tyres, and returning through wooden-centred wheels to the opposite running rail. Small brushes were fitted before each wheel to sweep the rails clear of seaweed, etc. The sides of the car were decorated with the flowery capitals, V.E.R.

Medical opinion was quoted in support of the Brighton Railway. Said Dr. Hawkesley of London and Lewes Crescent:

‘As a physician I can conceive of no more advantageous mode of administering the reviving and purifying influence of sea air than by the action of these smoothly gliding cars, conducted almost on the sea itself.’

‘Almost on the sea’ was also a disadvantage, with serious damage wrought by the gales of September, 1883, December, 1884, October, 1886, and December, 1896. He also met trouble from cabmen who felt their trade menaced along the Madeira Drive and from the boatmen who thought the line cut off the beach and made people less interested in boating. These gentlemen were apt to sabotage the line in the small hours. But the general feeling in Brighton was that it was an asset to the town and an attraction for visitors.

In 1892 with the Electric Railway now comfortably installed as far as Paston Place, Magnus cast his eyes towards Rottingdean. To extend the existing railway the three miles would entail either a steep climb to take it along the cliff top or a man-made viaduct along the unstable undercliff. Understandably he was not keen on either alternative so he turned his mind to building a completely new railway that would ‘travel through the sea’. A similar system was already in operation across St. Malo harbour in Brittany but this was pulled along the rails by chain rather than being self-propelled, and ran through sheltered water not the English Channel.

Finance for the new railway was found locally. One of the biggest investors was Edward Bleackley who became the first Chairman of the new company. R. StGeorge Moore, later to be engaged as the designer and engineer of the new Palace Pier, was taken on as the project engineer, and under his guidance a Bill was submitted to Parliament applying for an Act to incorporate a Company and then empower that Company to construct an electric railway on the foreshore between Paston Place and Rottingdean, together with the associated works and piers that would be needed.

The pier at Rottingdean was built as the eastern end of Volk’s Electric Railway between 1894 and 1896. Between Black Rock and Rottingdean the sea thunders against the chalk cliffs so Volk’s solution was to build a sea going railway. The Railway ran at the foot of the high cliffs and was 2.75 miles long. This photograph was probably taken in early 1896 when the pier was still under construction. The railway opened on 28th November 1896 to a great fanfare. Less than a week later, on the night of the 4th and 5th of December a great storm destroyed Brighton’s old Chain Pier, badly damaged the original electric railway and all but destroyed the project. Pioneer had broken from her moorings at Rottingdean and was exposed to the full force of the storm. By morning she lay on her side broken almost beyond repair. The damage was repaired and the railway reopened in July 1897 and continued until January 1901, despite frequent storm damage and shifting shingle often covering portions of the track. The building of sea defences near Black Rock in 1901 forced the closure of the sea going railway. No longer required Pioneer was lashed to the pier at Ovingdean and remained in situ gently rusting away until 1910 when the remnants of the railway were sold for scrap. The only traces that remain of the railway are carved ruts in the chalk, a series of concrete blocks and the stumps of wooden posts that become exposed at low tide.