Two villages less than a couple of miles outside the town of Lewes were the sites of exciting and revolutionary industrial developments in the 19th Century. Yet visit the sleepy backwaters of Offham and Glynde today and you would scarcely believe the important role both played in the history of transport innovation.
Best known is the funicular railway that served Offham Chalk pit. Built in 1808 by George Shiffner and William Jessop, the railway transported lime produced in the pit’s kilns down a steep hill to barges waiting below in a cutting.
Once full a barge would be pulled by horses the few hundred yards to the River Ouse from whence they could be taken upstream or downstream to Lewes and on to the port of Newhaven.
Though short in length, the funicular is considered to be the first railway in Sussex, if not in the whole of Britain. The small wagons that contained the lime descended laden down a brick-lined tunnel. As a wagon went down a pulley system pulled an empty wagon back up via a second tunnel. Ingeniously simple, the railway was in use until 1870 and was only abandoned when the relatively small chalk pit became uneconomic.
Visitors to the present-day Chalk Pit Inn (located in what were the offices of the business) can still see clearly the top of the two tunnels. As a youngster I remember scrambling up the tunnels from where they emerged at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t aware then of their historical significance; they were simply great places for kids to explore.
Offham is to the north west of the town and Glynde is to the south east. The latter village witnessed an equally astonishing technological leap forward in 1885. “Telpherage” was the name given to an electrically-powered transportation system able to take the place of horses. The name derives from Greek words – “tele” meaning “over a distance” and “pher” meaning “to bear”. Essentially it was able to convey freight in moving buckets suspended by a grip from an elevated wire cable. All becomes clear when you look at the big illustration.
The system inventors set up the Telpherage Company in around 1883. Two years later the owners felt confident enough to embark on their first commercial venture. A deal was struck with the Sussex Portland Cement Company for the construction of a telpher line to carry clay from the clay-pits on Lord Hampden’s estate at Glynde to the village railway station.
The first day of operation for this very first telpher line was 17th October 1885. The Sussex Express carried a lengthy account of the opening ceremony and listed all the worthies who had come down to Glynde on a special train from Victoria. These were mostly engineers, military officers and ‘scientists’ but also included “Mr Chang from the Chinese Embassy”. The visitors - along with many intrigued locals - witnessed the inauguration of the system from a position by “the engine-house, near the bank of the Glynde river”, better known today as Glynde Reach.
Everything went off without a hitch and the first buckets swung along their wire cables with all the ease of flying men on a trapeze.
Yet at the end of his account the Sussex Express correspondent was hardly sanguine in his summary: “As an experiment, the telpher line is a decided success, and little doubt is entertained that the company will be able to carry out their engagement to deliver 150 tons of clay per week to Glynde station for the cement company; but whether the work could not be done in this flat country cheaper with an ordinary tramway and trucks, drawn by a horse, is another question.
In a more difficult country, where chasms, rocks and rivers have to be crossed, the telpher line may be adapted with advantage”.
Somewhat prophetic words as the telpher line does not seem to have been a great success. By 1899 the Ordnance Survey Map seems to show that the line had been replaced by a tramway which had been constructed on a causeway built to the east of Glynde station and running north to the clay pit.
It crossed Glynde Reach via a wooden bridge that has since been dismantled; rumour has it that the bridge and much of the redundant telpher materials helped fuel the 1935 George V Silver Jubilee giant bonfire built up on nearby Mount Caburn.
The clay pit itself had a short working life of three decades or so. It is still there, deserted but serving a useful purpose as a sanctuary for plants, birds and other wildlife.