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A Most Marvellous Machine

By Rob Simpson

A Most Marvellous Machine
Famous Brighton engineer Magnus Volk recounts the almost preposterous story of his lesser known feat of design: The Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway. This is the story of the ‘Daddy-Longlegs’.


The Pioneer- that’s the name I gave to that marvellous machine that sat atop the foundations of my Seashore Electric Railway. Now I sit here as a witness to its almost inevitable demise, I can recall the endeavour that was at once impressive, always entertaining and the most valiant of my attempts in the field of electrical engineering.

In my lifetime I have seen the dawn of the age of electricity, that most mysterious of technologies, giving light and life to our mechanics. How could anyone fail to be enthralled by its very existence and the almost endless potential that its existence suggests?  I made it my occupation in life to be a master of the subject; this began as a pursuit to fill Brighton with the wonder of electric light. As an electrician I became acquainted with the specifics of harnessing its power, but later as an engineer my desire was to use it to transform the seafront into a display of its possibilities.

Of course you must know of my electric railways!  The Volk’s Electric Railway was the first of its kind, a public railway, powered not by the brawn of the steam engine, but the delicacy and precision of the electric current. My railway is talked about all over the world and visitors flock to Brighton seafront to be delighted by the spectacle. It will be remembered as my crowning achievement. 

Perhaps I began to dream too much. Perhaps my fervour was too great to take on this next venture. My wife Anna and I had lived in London for a short while between 1889 and ‘92, but I found myself longing once more for Brighton and the glory of the railway. I wanted to re-live… no, re-invent that wonderful period of creativity. We returned to Brighton, and with my passion sparked once more I set about plans for a new project, greater in its scale and ambition than my last.

It was to be a new railway that would provide a passage along the coast to Rottingdean, beginning where my first finished at Paston Place. With the cliff top above too steep to traverse and the prospect of a train line at the base seeming an impossibility, I decided upon a unique solution: a railway that would travel through the water. Perhaps the idea was ludicrous from the beginning, I wondered at the scale of the undertaking and the chances of its failure; yet the grandeur and audacity of the project fixed my gaze upon its completion.

The building work began in the summer of 1894. Two years of construction followed; we suffered countless delays with the tide presenting itself as our daily opponent. Though the end seemed often to be unachievable, I finally oversaw the completion of the landing pier at Rottingdean- at last our efforts had been rewarded. A route formed of concrete and steel cut into the bedrock of Brighton beach would be the new passage to delight tourists and locals alike.

The opening was a triumph and my concerns were laid to rest. I watched in awe as the carriage was placed upon its tracks; the waves broke across the line where the tall, spindly legs of steel protruded from the hidden wheel base below. High above the tumult of the sea, sat the luxurious saloon, complete with ornate balustrades and its own promenade deck. I named it the Pioneer in honour of the triumph of Victorian engineering; I had created a moving pier to transport my admiring public across the waves in a means that did not surrender to the conventional. My second railway was born.

The clamour of attention was enough for me to feel that it was a great success; the Pioneer was reviewed with fervour and admiration by the press, with its first journey to Rottingdean passing in a mere thirty five minutes. This positive atmosphere did meet its match however, in the comic adulation of its public, who nicknamed it ‘Daddy-Longlegs’ after that most foolish and ridiculous of insects. I could not deny the comedy that ensued during high tide as the voyage was slowed to near walking pace by the extent of the sea below, children on the waterside found much joy in the employment of racing the carriage between the jetty at Banjo Groyne and Black Rock.

A week after opening, fate did determine that I should become a miserable comedian, as the great storm that wrecked the Chain Pier also reduced the Daddy-Longlegs to a wreck. The infernal contraption was torn from its moorings at Rottingdean and rent the seabed in a cacophony of steel and timber. To make matters worse, the Banjo Groyne jetty in Brighton collapsed into the sea, leaving the project in ruins.

Being a man of proud constitution, I am not one to admit defeat easily: my study and application of electrical engineering has proven to have as many failures as it has successes- to my mind this project was no different. The infamous Daddy-Longlegs was to have its day again, with the track remaining mostly unscathed and the overhead electrical wire still in place, there seemed to be no reason not to resurrect the railway. The wreck of the carriage was salvaged for repair and the construction of a new jetty began.

After a season of restless endeavour, the railway re-opened in the summer of 1897, and it enjoyed a prolonged period of success. I watched on with delight as the Prince of Wales took two trips on the railway the following year and the construction of another landing stage was completed later in 1898. The railway was a popular attraction for the next four years. I have often wondered as to the reason for this, given the limitations of the carriage’s speed and capacity. But I would surmise that there was something uniquely suited to Brighton about the contraption, a sort of glamorous ridiculousness that was fitting to the setting it found itself in. People flock to Brighton to be entertained; my railway provided entertainment, humour and a sense of the audacious in the otherwise sensible culture of this age.

Alas, in spite of everything, the Pioneer was eventually destined to fail. In 1900 I was ordered to divert the line to make way for proposed sea defences between Paston Place and Black Rock. I protested the plans and tried desperately to find the finances to make the necessary changes, but the wreck of the first week and subsequent repairs meant there was no possibility for the future of the railway. By February the next year, the necessary track was removed and the Pioneer met its final resting place, tethered to the abandoned jetty at Ovingdean.

I often walk atop the cliffs to the see the remains of the carriage, a lonely object buffeted by the waves, its spindle legs rusted and decayed by the salt sea. I recall with some enthusiasm the days of its success, standing proud amongst the waves, neither a boat nor a train, but an object of delight and comedy in a town built for the same. The Daddy-Longlegs is a monument to both the pleasures of Brighton and my ambitions as a pioneer and an entertainer.

This page was amended on 09/04/2014


Thank you, I'm trying to portray Magnus as a romantic engineer from days gone by, passionate about his inventions to the end!

From Rob
29.02.2012 16:50:34

I enjoyed the extravagant language and the linking of the machine to the character of Brighton - very interesting!

From Jane Lucas
29.02.2012 06:34:45
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A Most Marvellous MachineA Most Marvellous Machine
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