Harry’s Ramblings Chuff Chuff to Eastbourne
by Harry Pope
I use the expression chuff chuff because in the old days of steam railways that was the sound made as the steam exited the chimney on top of the engine. Lovely history lost to generations only experienced when visiting steam heritage railways.
Eastbourne on the south coast had its first railway station in 1849. This was in response to local landowner the 7th Duke of Devonshire realising that it was ideal for a resort to be developed along lines suitable for upper classes to appreciate, rather than common places like Hastings and Brighton, with Eastbourne in between. The London Brighton and South Coast Railway was originally going to bypass the coast due to lack of interest, so it took two years to complete the single-track stretch. The original carriages would have been very basic, with wooden benches in roofless carriages. Very little is known about the first station, as it was demolished and replaced in 1866. No photos, not even a record of how many platforms, though it is safe to assume that there was probably one.
Polegate two miles inland to Eastbourne was built as a branch line, which is why it is a terminus. The natural route would have taken it along the coast as much as possible from Brighton in the west to Hastings in the east, via Newhaven, Seaford, and Bexhill, The cliffs at Beachy Head get in the way a little, so the track was laid via the Sussex county town of Lewes, still the administrative centre. The Duke would have been influential in the train’s route as a major landowner, also the location of the station.
The original site was only a couple of hundred yards away from the present location, passenger traffic was increasing so a more suitable location was agreed. 1886 was the year that the present station opened, with lots of photos recording the history over the years. Originally four platforms, there are now three. Originally with the current station there would have been tracks alongside, so the engine could pull the train into the station, detach, adjacently run back, then re-attach to pull away. Now it doesn’t matter if the propulsion is at the front or the rear of carriages, the driver controls are always at the front.
When the train detached and went to the front it would first visit the water tower to replenish supplies, so the Eastbourne railways yards were quite complex, with goods yards as well and unloading areas for vans. The population of Eastbourne in 1850 was 2,000, thirty years later when the new station opened would have been close on 40,000, such was the way that the town developed due to the railway. Eastbourne would never have grown without it.
Not much happened with the railways for the next few years, apart from some troop movement involved with the Boer War 1898-1901. WWl was completely different, with thousands coming to the town for two main reasons – embarkation and recuperation. Huge temporary tented cities were erected on the South Downs out of town while the troops were kitted out for France. They were then shipped out of Folkestone.
The recuperation was a different matter. These men had been injured, but were going to be sent back to fight again. If they were officers of the Catholic faith, then they were sent to the Esperance private hospital. All others usually billeted at the tented city, they wore special blue uniforms denoting that they had already been in the conflict. Those men not in uniform frequently received a white flower from women denoting that they were cowards not prepared to fight for their country. The blue uniform showed that they were good men and true.
As a holiday destination between 1918 and 1940, Eastbourne relied on its train service to bring in the holidaymakers. Some people arrived by car, or even a coach called a charabanc, but most arrived via the chuffer train. The service was so prompt and regular that day trippers preferred its gentility to that of brash Brighton. The August Bank Holiday Monday on the 4th in 1939 (the holiday was always at the beginning of the month until the 1960s) was a very wet one, but there were still 60,000 day trippers visiting, many hiring the seafront deckchairs. The theatres and cinemas did a roaring trade, turning patrons away. But then came WW2.
There is a famous black and white photo of children being evacuated, sitting in the railway carriage with the door open as they are waiting to be taken away from their parents for their safety. The town was heavily bombed, with the station suffering extensively more than once, always being re-built.
On Monday 25th August 1958 the only recorded train crash occurred. 36 passengers were on the Glasgow to Eastbourne overnight sleeper train, 150 people were on the local train on platform 4 at 7.29am. the driver of the mainline train failed to see that the signal outside the station was set to danger, and at 25mph crashed head-on into the local train that had just departed. Five died in the local train, with over forty injured. The driver was later acquitted of manslaughter.
The goods shed is still there, now used as the Enterprise Centre. This is for smaller local businesses, quite a thriving little community, with the goods yard now the car park. The train operator since 2001 has been Southern, and the station was Grade ll listed in 1981.