Brighton and the Pullman car

Once an important leader in the field of luxury train travel, the Pullman Car Company and its workshops at Preston Park (together with the former locomotive works of the erstwhile London, Brighton and South Coast Railway – ‘LBSCR’) are indelibly linked to Brighton and its glorious history.

Everybody of course knows Brighton! Even those who have never been there would doubtless agree that it is probably the best-known South Coast resort. Her attractions are so great and so varied that at one time she was justly called the Queen of Watering Places – a claim not disputed by more than a dozen of those who would like to have been deemed her rivals! There is but one London, and there is but one Brighton. Not two. Nearby Hove is also quite distinct, even though during the Millennium celebrations, Brighton and Hove together with Portslade have now been granted city status.

Brighton Belle Pullman
Brighton Belle Pullman

At one time, Brighton was seen as too closely in touch with the Capital of the Empire to feel itself provincial in any sense. Eloquence about London-by-the-Sea may be platitudinous today, but to many it is exceedingly true. But the love of Brighton by the true Brightonian, then and now, is passionate and even fierce. You can almost feel that they are in much the same peril as in the Prophet’s opinion were the citizens of Damascus, when Mohammed is said to have refused to abide among them, exclaiming ‘Here I cannot tarry, lest having found my Heaven on earth I might cease to seek one beyond the grave’.

The American physician, poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) visited this ‘magnificent city built for enjoyment’ in 1886, travelling from London Victoria on the original ‘Pullman Limited Express’ – a seven-days-a-week all-Pullman train inaugurated in December 1881. Holmes paid a glowing tribute to the attractions he saw in One Hundred Days in Europe, but the fame of Brighton is well secured in the New World if imitation is indeed akin to flattery. There is a Brighton in Massachusetts close to Holme’s own birthplace – another in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and several in between.

Despite the erroneous impression conveyed by some guide-books, the history conscious Brightonian waxes indignant at the suggestion that Brighton is an upstart town, the child of a Prince’s gaudy whim. The town actually figures in the Domesday Book as Bristelmestune, already a considerable village. Until comparatively recently it was spelt Brightelmstone, but in all probability it was always pronounced as Brighton. (Many Sussex villages were in fact pronounced shorter than they were written; Selmestyon was Simson and Heathfield Heffle, for example). But whereas in modern times these pronunciations have been dropped in favour of a literal rendering of the name as spelt, in Brighton the traditional pronunciation has triumphed over the spelling. The Duchess in Alice in Wonderland would doubtless have found a moral in that.

Every generation tends to despise the taste of that immediately preceding, and admire that of the one before. And it seems the Royal Pavilion has taken more generations than usual in its promotion from the fanciful, exaggerated or an apparent atrocity, to a well-loved oddity. The exterior imitates, or rather caricatures the buildings of the Indian moguls, but it is constructed in wooden fretwork and painted stucco instead of marble and mosaic. Of course, its influence was for many years generally profound on seaside architecture, and to complete this architectural picture postcard, a series of fine Regency terraces, grand hotels and bow-fronted houses with their elegant canopied balconies have often been noted by visitors as unsurpassed.

The old part of the town may still be seen in the Lanes; although very few ancient buildings remain, the narrow winding passages – known as ‘twittens’ – were in days gone by, and are often thronged nowadays, with antique or curiosity shops.

Perseus as part of the Britsih Pullman of the Orient Express at Brighton station
Perseus as part of the British Pullman of the Orient Express at Brighton station

Yet on the whole the period of Brighton’s rise to prosperity as a resort coincided with an age of dignity and good taste, and its nearness to London was of course hastened with the opening of the ‘LBSCR’ in September 1841. Increasingly attracting the ‘masses and the classes’, as the Victorians called them, visitors were apparently drawn to the exhilarating air, vast expanse of sea with decorative pier in front (later, two) – contrasting with the immense green sheltering stretches of the Downs behind, not least offering some of the more unusual attractions, including Volk’s electric powered railway (1883), the first proper electric railway in Britain – all of which combined to favour the town.

In the period just prior to the reign of King Edward VII there appears to have been an enormous jump in the number of people able to afford to take a holiday or short-break by the sea. This unprecedented increase had further far-reaching consequences which encouraged a substantial building programme involving an extension to the promenade by a further six miles; the addition of a new outdoor swimming pool, water gardens and renovated aquarium, together with a seemingly implacable building of attractive lodges and small hotels. It was at this time that Pullman car travel between London and Brighton seemingly flourished after an uncertain start: at first, accommodation was limited only to those passengers holding first class tickets, who were conveyed in enormous American-built vehicles, dwarfing the railway company’s ordinary carriages. By 1898, the ‘Pullman Limited Express’ became so popular that the ‘LBSCR’ re-introduced an all-Pullman Sunday service with six or more vehicles on an accelerated timing of 60 minutes in each direction, and it was on the same line that electric lighting became a ‘first’ on the Pullman trains.

Pullman camping coach
Pullman camping coach

This distinctly superior mode of travel was only changed with the advent of third-class Pullman accommodation being made available in 1915 initially on services to Brighton, Eastbourne and Worthing, later paved the way for a Sundays-only third-class limited Pullman Express running between London and Brighton, calling at Clapham Junction and East Croydon.

Pullman car No 54 of 1923
Pullman car No 54 of 1923

Coinciding with these developments, the very words ‘Pullman’ and ‘Perfection’ seemingly became synonyms when referring to railway carriage building, ‘in which art the Pullman Car Company leads the world’ claimed the 1916 Pullman Car Guide. And with a touch of purple prose the intending passenger was advised that ‘…in elaborate design, substantial construction and luxurious finish [the vehicles] represent the highest standard of excellence. Ingenuity and skill are constantly being applied to the improvement of details with a view to adding to the comfort of travel. Every car is in charge of an experienced, well-trained conductor, whose services are always at hand from start to finish of a journey, and invalids and ladies with children can always rely upon ready attention to their comfort and convenience. Cleanliness is also a special feature, coupled with perfect ventilation and good lighting, thus making travelling a real luxury.’

Pullman car Minerva
Pullman car Minerva

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Pullman cars became an increasingly familiar sight on many services to South Coast resorts, including Bexhill and Eastbourne. In conjunction with the ‘LBSCR’, a huge array of colourful booklets and brochures were regularly published, invariably revelling in the fact that the railway company was the first to link with Pullman in the South and, on 1 November 1908 a new train of wholly British-built vehicles was introduced at great expense. These cars featured elliptical roofs and luxurious internal furnishings, while retaining many of the distinctive American-style Pullman design features. Clearly the star service of the ‘LBSCR’, this special train was bestowed with the evocative title of the ‘Southern Belle’ (the forerunner to the ‘Brighton Belle’ in 1934) making its inaugural run from London Victoria, and quickly established itself.

Local semi-professional photographer, the late Mr Joe Kent, worked as a skilled carpenter for the Pullman Car Company shortly after World War II until Preston Park Works closed in 1964. His collection of Pullman car photographs are an important testimony of how important Pullman cars were to the development of train travel, and their works as a source of employment to the people of Brighton. Many of the images give a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the brief heyday of luxury travel when Pullman cars were some of the finest railway vehicles. As a curator for The Pullman Society I was invited to catalogue many of these photographs, most of which are unique and show a selection of long-distance vehicles more familiar on services out of London King’s Cross.

Antony Ford, Pullman Society Curator and Archivist

  1. joolsstone

    Reblogged this on Trains on the Brain and commented:
    Interesting piece on the Pullman Train co (written by the Pullman Society’s Curator Antony Ford for Brighton Museums’ blog) and its impact on British seaside tourism, to Brighton and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *