On January 25, 1837, a public meeting was held in Brighton to discuss building a railway between London and the South Coast. Several schemes were discussed but the consensus was to use the scheme proposed by Mr John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856) for a railway line from Elephant and Castle, London to Church Street, Brighton (much closer to the seafront than the present station).
The proposal included branch lines west to Shoreham and east to Lewes although a separate scheme from the South Eastern Railway proposed a railway from Brighton to the harbour at Newhaven. The House of Commons accepted the Rastrick route on May 3, 1837.
The London to Brighton line was completed in 1841 and of course changed the fortunes of Brighton forever. Plans were soon being made to extend the railway eastwards.
The Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company was established in 1844 with a committee of 15 eminent gentlemen which included William Catt the owner of the Bishopstone Tide Mills. It was estimated that the cost of the railway would be £475,000 and the engineer was of course Mr Rastrick. He proposed a double line from Brighton to Lewes with a single line onwards to Hastings. It was proposed that the main station for Eastbourne be located at Polegate and that there would also be railway stations to serve Glynde and Firle, Selmeston, Westham and Bexhill. Meetings were held at town halls along the proposed line and representations were made to parliament, the one from the people of Lewes mentioning the defence implications of having a railway along our ‘vulnerable coast in time of war’.
On August 13, 1844, the Sussex Advertiser reported that the railway line between Brighton and Hastings had been marked out with a number of flags on prominent parts of the proposed line. The report says that construction work was planned as soon as the crops were removed. At Lewes a large flag had been erected at the bottom of Saint Mary’s Lane (now Station Street) to mark the proposed railway station.
The main features of the line were the huge and impressive viaduct between Brighton and London Road Station and the Falmer Tunnel, both engineered by Mr Rastrick. The railway between Brighton and Lewes opened on June 8, 1846, although the station on “Ham Field” had not been completed. Strangely there seems to have been little rejoicing about this momentous occasion.
A suggestion that there should be a half-day holiday and shops closed was rejected and the local press said that there was ‘pre-eminent indifference’ to the event. This may have been due to differing ideas as to where Lewes Station should be situated. A few days later, on June 27, the line was opened to Hastings. Again there seemed to be little excitement at Lewes.
At 9.30am there was a small crowd to witness the arrival of the first train from London. (This would have arrived via Brighton as the Keymer Junction to Lewes branch line was not open until October 1, 1847)
The first train to leave for the coast departed from Lewes at eight minutes past ten following the firing of a cannon.
It took eight minutes for the train to arrive at Glynde where it stopped for two minutes before setting off for Berwick Station (This name had been chosen over ‘Selmeston’). Here there was a large crowd from surrounding villages that met the train with hearty cheers. It had taken 17 minutes to get to Berwick as the train had to stop en-route to take on water.
It took a further eight minutes to get to Polegate where there was an even larger crowd. Eight minutes later the train arrived at Westham Station where the train had to wait to take on more water.
Twelve minutes later the train arrived at Bexhill and six minutes after that it arrived at Bulverhythe the temporary location of the Hastings Terminus.
There were five trains a day between Brighton and Hastings, 33 miles away, and just two on a Sunday. There was also an obligation to run ‘Parliamentary Trains” These were services which had to offer cheaper fairs for working class passengers. These left Brighton for Lewes at 9.40am and 2.30pm.
The new railway company was was not to last for long - in fact just four weeks! On 27th July 1846 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway was formed from the London & Brighton Railway, the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway and three other railway companies.
The building of the Railway helped to reduce crime in the area. The Chaplain’s report from Lewes Prison in December 1846 showed that although more ‘strangers’ (people from outside the county) had committed crimes in East Sussex the crime numbers had fallen - the reason was that ‘a large number of persons have found honest employment on the railway who would have otherwise swelled the criminal returns’ .
The railway helped reduce crime by employing police officers to patrol the line as it was being built.
Find out more about the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Police in next week’s paper.