Typical bonkers Victorian engineering hubris!

The Brighton Daddy Long Legs is the nickname of an extraordinary railway that ran between the seaside towns of Brighton and Rottingdean in Sussex. It opened in November 1896, and was unusual for several reasons- it was electric and the tracks were under the sea for much of the day.

It was built by Magnus Volk as an extension to the existing electric seafront railway which had been running since 1883. He wanted to bring this service an additional 4.5km (approx 2.5 miles) along the coast to Rottingdean. But the geography of the region thwarted normal designs. Unstable chalk cliffs marred the route, and would have required steep climbs and viaducts. Chunks often crumbled off, so running tracks along the base of the cliff would also have been problematic.

Volk was not a conventional thinker, and soon hit on the idea of laying his tracks on the seabed. His train design incorporated a single 15m-long carriage with four 7m steel legs that kept the double passenger deck well above the waterline. Two tracks were laid 5.5m apart and the train ran along both. The tracks were between 60 and 100m out to sea for the whole route. At the foot of each leg, a small truck provided motive force to four wheels via two 25 horsepower GE electric motors. Scrapers were in place to deflect seaweed. But it was a little underpowered, and ran noticeably faster at low tide than at high tide.

The double track was supported by regular concrete blocks on the chalk seabed. They ran between a platform at Madeira Drive, Brighton to a steel pier at Rottingdean. Power was supplied to the train by an overhead cable, and was generated at a small plant under Rottingdean pier.

The train weighed about 45 tons and carried 150 passengers. In operation, it must have looked like a chunk of pier had broken off, and ambled along the beach to the next town.

Storm damage in December 1896 lead to a major repair programme, including the rebuilding of Rottingdean pier and improvements to the train. However, the system was a great success with novelty-seeking Victorians. Even at 6d. per journey, over 40,000 passengers used the service between July 1897 and the end of the year.

In September 1900, Brighton planned new sea defence works that would require Volk to move his line further out. He had already lost revenue from the peak season that year, due to emergency track repairs. In January 1901, the authorities removed some sections of track to begin their works, using emergency provisions in the Act of Parliament that had established the service in the first place. Volk was forced to abandon the line. The train was lashed to the pier and allowed to rust away until 1910, when it was sold for scrap. Although he was granted permission to build a cliff-spanning viaduct into Rottingdean, he couldn't raise the required capital.

Today, at low tide, visitors to Brighton can still see a few of Volk's track supports- a reminder of one of the quirkiest sea-front entertainments in Britain's quirkiest seaside town.

  • http://www.btinternet.com/~ted.power/rp0724.html
  • http://whitstablepier.com/volks/dll.htm
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/southerncounties/history/daddy/long_legs.shtml
  • (Google Maps does not yet have any images even nearly detailed enough to see the remains. I'll send a postcard to anyone who can provide me a URL for any mapping site that does)

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