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The Electric Telpherage Railway

(Reproduced, and updated with additions, from an article first published in The Glynde Archivist number 2, 1985)

According to South Coast Railways: Brighton to Hastings by V Mitchell and K Smith, Newington’s Pit had two standard gauge and two narrow gauge lines and the steward’s day book of the Glynde Estates show that between 1860 and 1863 the Estate paid Rickman and Co, and then Newington and Co, a total of £100 for ‘a New Arch way’ with £256 13s 6d ‘allowed for a tramway’. This sum is for the tramway to Brigden’s pit, the archway presumably being the bridge taking Ranscombe Lane over the tramway.

The final development of the pit industry in Glynde and Beddingham was the opening of a clay pit in an area east of the Decoy Wood and to the north of Glynde Reach. The pit was opened in a raised area called the Great Milbourn Field on the Glynde tithe map of 1838.

This pit was to supply gault clay to the new Sussex Portland Cement Works at South Heighton. The Hon Arthur Brand, son of Viscount Hampden, was one of the directors of the new company and both the cement works and the clay pit were sited on land owned by the Glynde Estates. The works at South Heighton were a far larger undertaking than anything in Glynde and a description of the new enterprise appeared in the East Sussex News of 11 September, 1885:


An official inspection of the works of this new company, situate close to Newhaven, was made on Friday by the shareholders and others interested in its success, at the invitation of the directors, viz the Mayor of Eastbourne (Mr G A Wallis), the Mayor of Lewes (Alderman Thorne), the Hon A Brand and Mr Robert Crosskey. The party started from Lewes by the 11.47 train to Newhaven Town. A special train was here in readiness to convey the party over the Cement Company’s special lines to the works. Amongst those present were Mr W L Christie, MP, Hon A Brand, Mr G Whitfield, Captain Luckcraft, Mr R Brown, Professor Perry, Mr W L Wallis, Mr J H C Coles, Mr Jes. Farncombe, Mr J G Blencowe, Mr R Crosskey, the Mayor of Lewes, ME E Merrifield, Dr Arnold, Dr Smythe, Mr J Adames, Mr J Eggar (solicitors to the company), Mr H Card, Mr G Stone, Capt White (traffic superintendent at Newhaven), Mr Bull Mr W J Williams, Mr Councillor Hack (Brighton), Mr Ernest Crosskey, Mr Wilson, Mr T Simmons, Mr F A Hall, Mr A E Carey (managing director and engineer), Mr A J Jacj (secretary), etc.

On arriving at the works a general inspection took place, and the majority of those present expressed themselves surprised at the extent and substantial character of the building and plant. The various points of interest were explained by Mr Carey, the following being a brief outline of the undertaking: After a preliminary meeting, to consider the advisability of establishing a Portland Cement Works at Newhaven, the formal registration of a company took place on August 4, 1884. No time was lost in forming the company and, as soon as the preliminary arrangements were completed, the works were actively commenced, nearly 200 men having been employed for some months. The chalk which had to be excavated on the site of the kilns was utilised for the construction of the siding, and also for raising the level of the works, which are connected with the railway and river by means of a narrow gauge double line of tramway. The company hold altogether, in Heighton and Glynde, 18 acres of land, on a 99 years’ lease. The total area of clayland, for which the company have the monopoly of digging, is 90 acres. The collective rentals for these properties is, for the first year £50, for subsequent years £250, in each case merging in the royalties, which are 2d a ton on chalk and 3da ton on clay. The total number of kilns erected is 16, the output being reckoned at 300 tons of cement per week. The building include a store capable of holding over 2000 tons of cement, wet mills, dry mills, engine house, boiler-house, wash mill and a convenient range of stabling and outbuildings. The main shaft is about 100 feet high, standing upon a concrete base 20 feet square. The works are fitted with the most modern and economical plant in all respects. There is an ample supply of excellent water on the premises, which is a great advantage to the process of manufacture. The estimate for the construction of the works was £29,000 and the actual cost will be under £28,000. It is believed the works will be able to turn out cement at a cost comparing most favourably with that of other establishments and one large field of business which the company hope to develop is the foreign and export trade, for which there is probably no port so well situated as the port of Newhaven. At Glynde, where the gault clay is obtained, an electric railway has been erected by the Telpherage Company, who contract for conveying the clay from where it is dug to the railway trucks standing in the siding. This overhead railway is quite a novelty and attracts considerable attention on the part of passengers by rail to Eastbourne, as it runs almost parallel with the permanent way for some distance near Glynde station. It is confidently anticipated a large trade will be developed, as arrangements have already been made for large sales of the company’s cement.

The tour of inspection being completed, the company were invited to luncheon in the building known as the cooperage, where a substantial repast was partaken of, kindly provided at the personal expense of the directors. At the conclusion of the luncheon, Mr J G Blencowe proposed ‘Success to the Company’, and expressed the thanks of all to the directors for giving them an opportunity of inspecting their works and for entertaining them in such a hospitable way. He was sure all had been very gratified with what they had seen and heartily wished every success to the undertaking (applause). Mr Crosskey, in responding, said the directors had every confidence the company would turn out not only a financial success but be the means of developing a new industry in the South of England and employing a large number of people. Every precaution had been taken to have the plant of the best and most modern manufacture and complete in every respect, and it was very satisfactory to know that the cost of erection and fitting up the place was within the original estimate. The cement which they would be able to manufacture had been thoroughly tested and found satisfactory in every way, and there was every reason to believe there would be a brisk demand for it.

The company returned by the special train to Newhaven and were thence conveyed back to Lewes, where they dispersed.

Although this article mentioned that ‘the overhead railway’ was working and proving quite a novelty in September the East Sussex News edition of Friday 16 October noted that ‘The Telpherage Railway, the first in England, will be formally opened on Saturday, when a luncheon will be given, presided over by Lord Hampden. The object of the railway is to convey gault clay, dug on the Glynde Estate, to the railway station, for transhipment to the recently constructed Portland Cement Works at Heighton, where it is used in combination with chalk for producing cement. The railway is a most ingenious contrivance and its economical and successful working are looked forward to with great interest.’

The official opening on 17 October, 1885, was well covered by the local press, with the East Sussex News giving the best account of the working and economics of this strange new rail system:


A numerous company of scientists assembled at Glynde on Saturday to witness the starting of the electric railway for some time past in course of construction on the estate of Viscount Hampden. The company arrived by special train from Victoria shortly after one, and soon after Lady Hampden ascended a dais erected outside the engine house to perform the initial ceremony. On pressing a button protruding from the table the loaded ‘skeps’ began to move and they continued their journey in a most satisfactory manner, the loaded vehicles reversing and depositing their loads in trucks standing in the railway siding. The proceedings throughout were watched with great interest. A luncheon took place in a tent erected on the rising ground near the Trevor Arms, supplied by the host thereof in a very creditable manner. In consequence of temporary illness, Viscount Hampden was unable to preside and his place was filledby Mr Pryor, chairman of the Telpherage Company. Complimentary speeches were made and ‘Success to the Undertaking’ was heartily pledged.

Telpherage is a conception of the late Fleeming Jenkin, one of the ablest of our electricians and, therefore, naturally arrests attention. The automatic transport of goods by electrical means is the object of the system to which this name has been applied, and the design of the road and rolling stock specially suited for the employment of electricity in the transmission of the power required has been the outcome of the late Professor’s genius. The idea was first made public at the British Association at Southport in 1883 and several experimental lines have since then been constructed. The Telpherage Company have now completed at Glynde their first commercial line, of nearly a mile in length, for the Newhaven Cement Company. This is constructed so that each train shall carry 150 tons of gault clay per week from the pits on the estate to the siding at the railway contiguous to the station. The Telpher line is a double one, of steel rods each 66 feet long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. These rods are attached to posts of an average height of 18 feet from the ground, each post having a cross saddle atop to the ends of which the steel rods are secured. In this way an up and a down line is formed. Each alternate section on either side is insulated, and all the insulated sections are joined by cross-overs. The electrical locomotive and the carrying skeps are suspended on the steel rod line and are constructed on the bob-weight principle, with grooved rollers on the line, and the motor and skeps attached to rods hanging down from the pulleys. The skeps are kept at 10 feet distances apart by light rods and, the electric current being supplied to the line, the suspended locomotive can be started or stopped by a switch connecting its motor to, or disconnecting it from, the current. A train of ten skeps, each containing 3cwt of clay, was used in the opening ceremony. This train conveyed one ton nett. The details of the system have been worked out with great care, there being automatic arrangements for regulating the current to the locomotive all along the line, and for assuring uniformity of travel for the trains, whether one or many be running at the same time, or whether descending or ascending the ‘swag’ or catenary curve formed in the rods by the weight of the train. It was a particularly interesting sight to see the electric locomotive crawl up the steepest gradients and surmount the posts one after another with perfect ease and steadiness. The great practical feature of the system is that such a line could cross any district without interference with its fields, rivers or roads. No ground is required to be purchased as for tramways. Commercially it will have to compare with the wire tramway systems, in which a continuous wire rope is driven over the whole circuit – a mode of action very trying except for short distances. In the Telpher system the line is fixed, is erected at a minimum of cost, and the current flows along it as required by the electric locomotives working the suspended trains.

The coast of the Glynde line is stated at £1200 including steam engine, dynamo, permanent way and five trains, with locomotives to carry over 100 tons daily. The working cost, including coals, stoker and electrician, and 12½ per cent for depreciation, it is stated, will be under 3d per ton, the skeps being empty on their return journey. A double line like that at Glynde, but ten miles long, would, it is calculated, carry the material at 2d per ton per mile. One very important feature in respect of the Telpher lines is the fact that the larger part of the cost is due to plant, such as locomotives, trains and dynamos. This plant can be increased in proportion to the work required, thus there is a very moderate increase of cost in the rate per ton per mile for a small traffic as compared with a larger one. And on the other hand a line laid down for a small traffic will accommodate a much larger traffic with no fresh outlay on the line itself. A single engine and plant of dynamos and trains might work many circuits radiating from one centre, and under these circumstances it would pay to erect lines intended only to be worked to their full capacity for a couple of hours each day or for one day in a week. In fact, the function of the Telpher line is not to compete with railways, but to do cheaply the work of horses and carts’.

The Sussex Express also gave a lengthy account of the opening and gave a list of the people who had come down to Glynde on the special train from Victoria. These were mostly engineers, military officers and ‘scientists’ but also included ‘Mr Chang (Chinese Embassy)’. These people witnessed the starting of the railway from a position by ‘the engine-house, near the bank of the Glynde river’.

However, at the end of the account the Sussex Express correspondent gave a prophetic judgement: ‘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 at 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’.

Indeed, the Telpherage Line does not seem to have been a great success. I have been unable to find anyone who can remember it in operation in Glynde, or even to have heard an account of its success or failure as a commercial venture. We do know that by 1899 the Ordnance Survey Map shows that the telpher 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 with a wooden bridge spanning Glynde Reach. Some of the sleepers and metal pins for fastening the rails can still be seen on the north side of the river although the wooden bridge and the sleepers on the southern side have since gone (used, I believe, in the 1935 Jubilee bonfire on Mount Caburn).

The expense of building a causeway across the marsh and laying down a permanent way for horse drawn trucks was obviously thought to be more economical than the telpher line which appears to have lasted little more than a decade, if that. The clay pit itself had a short life of perhaps thirty years and is now an unworked and deserted haven for birds and plants.

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