Volk Heroes: Heritage Learning gets Inventive

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove
©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a bit of a rail travel buff. In fact when I moved to Brighton just over a year ago and found that the Volks Railway (the world’s oldest electric railway, established in 1883) was pretty much on my doorstep, well I won’t say that it was the deciding factor in picking my flat, but I’m happy to admit that it was a definite plus point!

So when I heard that the museum was involved with a Heritage Learning project on the Volks Railway inspiring primary school children to imagine and design alternative modes of seaside transport, naturally my interest was piqued.

Magnus Volk
Cartoon depicting Magnus Vollk from Brightonian magazine, 17 November 1883.


Magnus Volk was an extraordinary inventor. Today he’s remembered just as much for one of his creations which did not stand the test of time as for his railway, which remains a popular summer seaside attraction.

The Daddy Long Legs was a remarkable folly, a boat-like structure which ran on rails 23 foot high above the seabed (and along tracks set some 18 feet apart) between Rottingdean and Paston Place. Unsurprisingly the ingenious contraption was beset with technical and financial problems and – despite being completely rebuilt once after a serious storm lashing –  it was eventually scrapped four years after it debuted in November 1896.

Postcard showing 'Daddy Longlegs', early 1900s. Shows seagoing rail car on stilts heading west from Rottingdean to Brighton. Brighton beach and cliff top in background.
Postcard showing ‘Daddy Longlegs’, early 1900s

Now all that remains of this amazing invention are the concrete foundations, still visible at the Rottingdean end when the tide is out. Volk was also responsible for installing electric light in the Royal Pavilion, hence the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ connection with this equally imaginative education project.

The project, which started in September, was the initiative of Heritage Learning Brighton, and a collaboration between Royal Pavilion and Museums, STEM Sussex, Brighton Toy & Model Museum and of course the Volk’s Railway itself. Heritage Learning exists to provide local schools with a great choice of partners to work with on similar initiatives, including Brighton Fishing Museum, the West Pier Trust and the Regency Townhouse, among others.

Pupils from five local primary schools were treated to a ride on the railway, the start of their ‘magical mystery tour’ in search of a mysterious top hatted lady in possession of a golden ticket. Printed on the ticket was their mission: to take a tour of the Volk’s workshops, learn what being an engineer entails, and set to work designing their own innovative transport prototypes.

The project was designed to promote values such as ‘innovation, invention and perseverance’ and the results unveiled at a special exhibition in November were an impressively creative and colourful showcase of models, taking in such diverse and forward-thinking concepts as a wind propelled big wheel, a sail powered car, a glass bottomed submarine – and the wonderfully-named Disco-Bobulator. Collected together they resemble a set of designs for a less destructive version of Robot Wars.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove
©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

VERA Vice Chairman Peter Williams commented that ‘a wonderful display of imagination has been shown in this challenge. The children spent the day with us and have really grasped the concept of what an engineer does. Most importantly of all, they’ve learned the true meaning of the word ‘perseverance’, which is something which Volk would not have succeeded without. Hopefully we’ve planted a little grain that they can take with them.’

The results of their perseverance and imagination were unveiled at a special Celebratory Day, where BBC broadcaster Nick Owen rewarded the school groups with certificates for their efforts.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove
©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

The children clearly enjoyed the project too. One said:

‘I liked all of it, from start to finish. From making the model to seeing it in the museum and getting a gold star for best model from St Marks Primary.’

The past, present and future seemed to collide perfectly with this project which shows how much fun you can have while learning some new skills.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove
©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

2 Responses

  1. Frank Parsons

    Good morning, just a wee bit of history, my father while growing up lived in the same road in Brighton as the Volks family and used to play with the young Volks boy. Thus he grew up knowing everything one needed to know about electricity. One of his first jobs out of school (around 1924) was rewiring Hove Telephone Exchange! He soon joined his father in the family business (J.Parsons), they were marquee & tent makers. When he built my first model railway in the early 50’s naturally it was electrified with points and signals and hand built turntable all fully operational from the “signal box”! My grandfather (a prolific photographer) took a photo of “Daddy Longlegs” but it was mislaid a decade or so ago. Best wishes, Frank Parsons

    • kevinbacon

      Thanks for sharing this, Frank. Lovely to hear that Volk was able to inspire your father.

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