KEVIN GORDON - Making town a ‘gem on bosom of England’

One of the steam engines that frequented Seaford. Picture taken in October 1962 by Jim Marsh
One of the steam engines that frequented Seaford. Picture taken in October 1962 by Jim Marsh

This weekend there will be a flurry of activity at Seaford when two steam trains are scheduled to visit to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the railway arriving in the town.

The first railway in Sussex was established at the chalk pit between Lewes and Offham to take chalk from the pit (near where the Chalk Pit Inn is today) down a steep incline to a cut off the River Ouse. It was a simple gravity powered railway and was in operation by 1809.

One of the early steam engines that frequented Seaford.

One of the early steam engines that frequented Seaford.

In 1835 the plans were announced to build a ‘British Cross Channel Harbour Railway’ from Newhaven to London via Hailsham but this grand scheme did not materialise. The first length of railway line (for steam trains) in Sussex opened between Brighton and Shoreham in 1840 and the London to Brighton line opened the following year.

The Sussex Advertiser announced in August 1844 that the railway line between Brighton and Hastings via Lewes had been marked out with flags but the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company would wait until the harvest was gathered until work could start in earnest. The first trains ran from Brighton to Lewes on June 8, 1864, and the entire line to Bulverhythe (near Hastings) was opened a couple of weeks later on June 27. The Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company were short lived and only ran trains for four weeks before they were taken over by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway.

The first regular ferry services between Newhaven and Dieppe commenced in 1825, so the railway were keen to connect the port to the railway network. The line south from Lewes was opened for passenger traffic on December 8, 1847, although it had been opened for goods traffic since August. Originally, the idea was to run the line along the west side of the river but this would have caused too much disruption to the Ouse Valley villages.

But what of Seaford?The town believed that they were missing out on the ‘railway boom’. A meeting was held at the Town Hall in 1860 then the Bailiff (mayor) and other prominent members of the town spoke of the need for the railway to be built to connect Seaford with the rest of the railway network. He said that in 1859 about 600 visitors had stayed in the town but the railway would increase that number so much that new hotels and houses would be needed to accommodate them.He also said the line would enable the military to move troops and ammunition to the town’s two batteries (forts).

One of those attending the meeting was William Tyler Smith, a London obstetrician, who had made his money by lecturing, editing the Lancet magazine and from the Equitable Life Assurance company which he founded. He had property and land in Seaford and sold it to the railway company for the new line.He was responsible for building some of those hotels and houses that would profit once the line was opened, including the grand Pelham Terrace and the Terminus Hotel (now the Shore Inn). Another local land owner was Thomas Crook. He was also a property developer and had built the town’s first gas-works. He owned the Dann Field and it was here on March 14, 1863, where a ceremony was held to mark the start of the new railway line.(Dann Field is now the site of Seaford Railway Station).

Some 200 men were used to build the railway, which cost £24,000 in total, but it also took the lives of three men who were killed during the construction of the deep cutting through Hawth Hill at Bishopstone. The line was completed on May 25, 1864, and 40 of the workers were treated to a meal at the Terminus Hotel. The line finally opened to passenger traffic 150 years ago this week on June 1, 1864. Tyler Smith was pleased with the new line and said that the opening of the railway had turned Seaford into ‘one of the gems on the bosom of England!’

Tomorrow there is lots to see and do on the line between Brighton and Seaford. A steam train (The Oliver Cromwell) is due to visit Seaford between 11.45 and noon. The railway brought economic prosperity to the town so many of the Seaford shops have special window displays to commemorate the event (I counted at least a dozen - how many can you find?)

If you like model railways you are in for a treat!The Toy and Model Museum at Brighton Station will be launching their new Sussex themed OO gauge layout tomorrow and the Newhaven Model Railway Club have been given to hold a special display at Newhaven Harbour Station from 10am to 4pm. Seaford Museum will be open from 11am to 4pm where there is a beautiful model railway showing the eastern end of the line. The museum also has a special railway exhibition to mark the anniversary.

Much of the hard work in organising this occasion has been down to Sam Bryant, of the Sussex Community Rail Partnership.Their website has a list of events. Do come along to take part in the fun and do take the opportunity to travel by train – as William Tyler Smith would have wanted.