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By Nick Ansell on

Daddy long-legs—a weird and wonderful railway

Photographic Archives Volunteer Nick sheds some light on an unusual discovery.

One of the most unusual photographic collections in the National Railway Museum’s archives which I’ve come across as a volunteer cataloguer is one by Ellis Kelsey, an amateur photographer who lived in Eastbourne, Sussex, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work was regularly exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) exhibitions in London between 1899 and 1914.

The ‘Pioneer’ car approaches Palace Pier, with Marine Drive in the background. The uniformed captain is at the controls, and the lifeboat can be seen suspended at the rear of the carriage (Ellis Kelsey collection)

A collection of 29 of his photographs was donated to the museum, some of railway-related subjects and others recording aspects of Sussex life.

The series includes six images of a unique electric seaside railway by Magnus Volk, the electrical engineer who designed and built Volk’s Electric Railway which opened on the seafront at Brighton in 1883 and is still in operation to this day. The Electric Railway ran eastwards as far as Paston Place, but the terrain made it impracticable to extend it to Rottingdean, so Volk decided to construct the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway which would run on rails under the sea close to the shoreline.

A poster for the seashore electric railway
Volk’s Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway poster (SSPL)
The 'Pioneer' car shortly after departing from Palace Pier at high tide
The ‘Pioneer’ car shortly after departing from Palace Pier at high tide. The two trolley poles drawing electricity from the supply cable are behind the flag (Ellis Kelsey collection)

Construction started in 1894 and the railway was opened in November 1896. Passengers were carried in a large tramcar-like carriage on a deck mounted on long stilts. It was named ‘Pioneer’ but popularly known as ‘daddy long-legs’. It was equipped with a lifeboat and lifebelts, and had to be operated by a qualified sea captain.

A view of the 'Pioneer' car, taken from ground level
A view of the ‘Pioneer’ car, taken from ground level at low tide at Rottingdean pier in July 1898 or July 1899. The electricity supply pole and cable are clearly visible, with the two trolley poles connecting the cable and the car. (Ellis Kelsey collection)
A view of the 'Pioneer' car in July 1898 shortly after departing from Palace Pier at low tide
A view of the ‘Pioneer’ car in July 1898 shortly after departing from Palace Pier at low tide. The lifeboat is suspended at the front. The bogies at the bottom of the four legs are clearly visible (Ellis Kelsey collection)

Power was provided by an electricity cable mounted on tall poles along the shoreline, connected by trolley poles to motors in the bogies at the foot of the stilts.

The 'Pioneer' car approaching the photographer at low tide
The ‘Pioneer’ car approaching the photographer at low tide, apparently on a dull day. The uniformed captain is at the controls. The line of tall poles carrying the electricity supply cable extend along the coast (Ellis Kelsey collection)
The view from the upper deck
An image taken on the upper deck of the ‘Pioneer’ car, looking east towards Rottingdean. Two passengers, warmly wrapped up, are seated on a bench. The line of poles carrying the electricity supply cable curves round a groyne into the distance (Ellis Kelsey collection)

Only a few days after it opened, the railway was put out of action by a severe storm. It reopened in July 1897 and ran without major incident until damage to the trackbed meant it couldn’t operate during the summer of 1900, causing a serious loss of business to Magnus Volk. Then in 1901, Brighton Corporation exercised its right to remove some of the track to enable sea defences to be built, and the project came to an end.

Read more about the ‘Daddy long-legs’, with more photographs, on the Volk’s Electric Railway Association website.

15 comments on “Daddy long-legs—a weird and wonderful railway

  1. How did the “daddy long legs” move? If the electric motors were below sea level they would have shorted. If the motors were above sea level and under cover of rain there must have been some mechanism down to the wheel bogies.

    1. I can only guess that the casing seen around the motors will have had water-tight seals to prevent such a thing, I’m only guessing though I’m no expert

  2. Ian Abley – the VERA site via the link at the end of the blog states:
    At the bottom of each leg was a bogie housing four 33″ wheels. One bogie on each side was driven by a shaft and worm gear arrangement from 2 General Electric 25hp electric motors. The other 2 legs carried the brake rodding to the other two bogies.

    This strongly implies that the motors were on the superstructure, but it’s not clear from any of the photos exactly where. This Brighton Museum site …
    … has a long string of comments including one by Graham Jenkins following a BBC ‘Coast’ programme, who says:
    ‘This vehicle is more important than most people know as it represents one of the, if not the, earliest overhead line powered rail system in the world. It was powered by 500 Volts DC which was generated in the workshop on the top of the cliffs as shown in the BBC ‘Coast’ programme. Although electric powered by two motors mounted on the deck in diagonally opposite corners, the other corners had a braking system. All the power was transfered down the legs by shafts onto bevell geared axles in each of the pods at the base of the legs.’

  3. Thank you for putting up such an interesting series of photographs and well researched captions. They answered many questions I have had. I have always been fascinated by the Volk Electric Railway at Brighton. It was magnificent – complete lunacy – but magnificent. Sadly I fear It is the sort of thing that some combination of Health and Safety, accountants, local officials and the like would stomp on these days.

  4. A fascinating idea, but even without the problems caused by the storm and Brighton Corporation, I expect that the corrosion caused by the salt would eventually have destroyed it. With careful maintenance (and perhaps no world wars to distract therefrom), the thing could have survived for decades, and would have been a fascinating and most scenic thing to travel on.

  5. What was overall length of the track?
    Is there any map showing exact course of the line ?
    Can you publish it here or send onto my email, please?!

    I browsed several sources with no answer to above questions.
    (Course of the line on “OpenStreetMap” is positioned onto present day map
    with Marina in Brighton, and apparently as shown on photo above
    “An image taken on the upper deck of the ‘Pioneer’ car, looking east towards Rottingdean. “, there was a curve round groyne,
    not shown on (in this case) inaccurate “OpenStreetMap”.

  6. shows “Volk’s Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway” between Brighton Marina (built over the original alignment in the early 1970s) and Rottingdean, if the ‘Infrastructure’ map style is selected.

  7. The National Library of Scotland has numerous OS maps of various dates and scales see:

  8. What an interesting concept. Just looked this up having seen a mention of the train in a Peter James novel. Left you Dead. A truely wonderful piece of engineering ingenuity. I’ve always been interested in seaside structures and did write a book on Seaside Piers nearly 10 years ago

    1. I just did the same as you. Peter James book. I used to be a Train Driver is South Africa.

  9. Likewise – just come across this in the Peter James book.
    Wonderful, quirky concept.
    Given me an idea for a Listener crossword theme.

  10. The railway did not run from the Palace Pier, as stated here, but from a small cast iron pier built against the Eastern face of the substantial existing stone groyne at Paston Place.

    Paston Place was the Eastern terminus of the narrow gauge Volks Electric Railway that ran ( and still runs ) from a terminus just west of Palace Pier to Paston Place, where there were car sheds and a workshop, all of which still exists.

    After the demise of the Daddy Longlegs, Volks did get approval to extend the VER east to Blackrock ( through the back of an existing car shed and across a steel viaduct which is now buried in shingle up to trackbed level ) but going sny further would have involved both expensive heavy engineering and a fearsome climb up to the clifftop that would have defeated the tiny motors on the early cars.

    The terminus at Blackrock, in a rather desolate area, remains the end of the line for now but there is outline approval to extend a little further east into Brighton Marina if the money can be found.

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