The nineteenth century was an age of science and industry, and one where individual inventors could transform the world. These enterprising pioneers are still ritually recalled alongside their inventions: Marconi and radio, Bell and the telephone, Benz and the motorcar. Although far less famous, Brighton’s Magnus Volk also personifies this spirit of technological endeavour.
Volk is chiefly remembered for the railway that bears his name on Brighton seafront: Britain’s first public electric railway that still operates during the summer. Yet Volk’s most extraordinary creation was the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway. Its car was appropriately named ‘Pioneer’, but it became more commonly known as the ‘Daddy Longlegs’ or the ‘Spider’.
The railway was not just a daring feat of engineering; for me, it represents the triumph of ambition over common sense. All scientists know that sea water and electricity is a dangerous combination, yet Volk still built an electric powered railway that ran through the sea. Its spindly legs seem far too weak to bear the brunt of the waves, and the car was wrecked by a storm just a week after it opened. The car also struggled to move through the sea at high tide, and could only run in good weather.
Unsurprisingly, the railway only operated from 1896 until 1900. Nothing remains of it now, other than some concrete blocks that supported the rails. But it has left a bewitching visual legacy in the form of numerous photographs and postcards. The railway was such an unviable idea that it was never emulated; there has been nothing else like it in the world. Its impracticality made it unique, and if it were not for the visual evidence, it would almost be hard to believe that it ever really existed.
This fascination in images of the railway began shortly after its demise. It is frequently depicted in local postcards that we hold, and almost all were produced after it ceased operation. The postcard featured here is the only one we hold which was produced while the railway still ran. It was sent, however, on the cusp of closure, in September 1900. That month, Volk was informed that the railway would have to be diverted to make way for the extension of the groynes in that area. Unable to do this, he eventually agreed to close the line.
A sad end for the railway, perhaps, but it was probably a canny move by Volk. It is hard to believe that the railway would have survived for long, and it could well have left him in financial ruin. Yet its visual legacy ensures that it is never forgotten, and has the curious effect of making a 36 ton electric vehicle seem like a half-remembered fragment of a dream.
Kevin Bacon, Curator of Photographs