Britain’s pioneering work on establishing the railway network has long been a source of national pride. Rail travel has impacted many different aspects of West Sussex life; from transporting post and essential goods across the South Downs, to popularising seaside holidays, the county has a deep and rich connection to the railways.
Railways on film
Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.
Railways in the Archive
Inexpensive accommodation was often attached to – or within a minute’s walk or so of – a station. Proprietors attracted clientele who perhaps needed an overnight bed or just a rest; these tended to be people travelling for work. Services such as horse and carriage companies, post offices, and cooked food could also be had on demand.
Additionally, having a hotel on the doorstep of a station was also excellent for local tourism. The speed at which you could travel into the countryside and unpack your belongings was very appealing and railway companies were known to rent properties to exploit this opportunity. Prior to the 20th century railway hotels were common and sometimes luxurious. Although today, with modern transportation, staying so close to a busy station is no longer as desirable.
The town of Billingshurst hosted what was considered to be Britain’s oldest operational signal box; today the small wooden structure resides in the collection at Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre. In addition to the historic signal box, Billingshurst station is particularly noted for its age. Built in 1859 by Mid-Sussex Railway Company, it is one of the oldest in West Sussex and its platforms remain very busy to this day.
Like many other railway towns around the county, Billingshurst experienced an increase in development around its station. By 1911, houses took over a large portion of the once rural land, which provided a perfect base for those who relied upon the railways for employment.
Worthing Direct Railway – QDP/W154
In 1867, Edward Wilson, Engineer, and Maclure, Madconald & Macgregor, Lithographers to the Queen, drew up this document to illustrate where the intended direct line (shown in red) between Reigate and Worthing would be constructed. This route intersected predominantly rural areas straight through the South Downs and only passing by villages, much to the concern of some stakeholders. A Mr Wyatt, as reported in the Sun newspaper in 1866, opposed building a line that did not serve multiple towns; his opinion highlighting the Victorian’s belief that railways should strengthen the local economy.
Royal Funeral Train
When Queen Victoria died in January 1901 it fell to her son, King Edward VII, to arrange her funeral. As the Queen had spent her final few days at Osborn House on the Isle of Wight, her death presented some logistical issues regarding transporting her body to London, ready for a journey to Windsor Castle for the funeral.
Though the Queen hadn’t used the London Brighton and South Coast Railway network for travelling, preferring a more direct route, Edward awarded the Brighton company the immense responsibility of transporting her. Thus, she travelled through West Sussex on route to her final resting place.
AM 1229/1 – Timetable of the train for the London & South Western and London Brighton & South Coast Railways, February 1901.
However, the train did not trundle through the countryside at a respectable speed. Edward, knowing the importance of punctuality, saw how late they were running and ordered the driver to speed things up. The funeral carriage therefore flew through the county at a whopping 80 mph, twice what she had stipulated in her own funeral instructions. The German Kaiser who was one of a number of Royal Heads on the train was so ecstatic about the high-speed journey that he sent an equerry to congratulate the driver and fireman.
With thanks to Bill Gage, former Assistant County Archivist, for his research on this event.
The late Ronald Shephard was a resident of Linchmere where he was president of the Linchmere Model Railway Club and had an extensive O Gauge model railway in his garden. Over the course of his life, Ronald took thousands of photographs of railways across the country and also internationally. His extensive collection is held here at WSRO.
Ronald was a member of the Permanent Way Institution, which “exists purely for the world of rail infrastructure engineering.” He also acted as an adviser during the Second World War on the defence of the narrow gauge railways. In addition to his photographs, Ronald amassed a vast collection of railway books and was consulted frequently by two other famous railway authors, O. S. Nock & C. Hamilton-Ellis.
WSRO are fortunate to hold the archive of employment cards for the Southern England Railway. Spanning almost two centuries, this archive of small but numerous records provide us with an insight into the lives of men and women who worked on the county’s railways. Work to process these cards is ongoing, but they continue to surprise and intrigue us. To read more about this significant archive and the project to catalogue them, follow the links in the list below.
Read more about the Railway Card Project on these blogs:
The Seley Tramway was originally a light railway service operating between Chichester and Selsey between 1897 and 1935. As a light railway, it served passengers and essential services, such as local farms and dairies, but did not transport heavy goods. As a high speed connection, it allowed residents of Selsey in particular to access the shops and economic opportunities of the county town.
The line also had several stops along the way, which was perfect for residents of Chichester wanting a rural day trip. However, with the increase in car usage during the 1920s, the need for the tramway declined and it was eventually closed in 1935.
You can read more about the Selsey Tramway here.