By Kenneth M Clark – (Rya)
The South Eastern Railway’s single line branch to Rye Harbour, which had been opened in 1854 was only utilised for goods traffic and, consequently, there existed no means of transport between Rye and Rye Harbour for fishermen and such other persons as made their living at the Harbour. It was only during 1894—the year in which the Rye Golf Club was founded—that a group of prominent local citizens decided to build a light railway which would not only link Rye with the Golf Club but enable fishermen to travel to the Harbour—crossing the Rother by means of a ferry.
Having obtained the necessary leases to build its line on private land, the Rye and Camber Tramways Company Limited was registered in April, 1895. The whole of its capital was expended in building and equipping the line, the construction of which was carried out under the supervision of the late Lieutenant Colonel H. F. Stephens of Tonbridge.
From the terminus, situated at the south east corner of the Monkbretton bridge, the line ran almost parallel to the river, between two fences, as far as the Broadwater bridge it continued thereafter across the Northpoint beach to Halfway House—a golfers’ resort established for the purpose of picking up or setting down passengers—and terminated almost exactly opposite Rye Harbour village.
Economy being the watchword the line was single—the 3ft. gauge track was made of light rail, spiked direct to wooden sleepers—with loops at each of the stations to allow the engines to run round the coaches. The length was about one and three quarter miles. It may have been intended to site the Rye terminus on the Salts, but this would have entailed a bridge over the river, the cost and maintenance of which would have been too heavy for such a small Company.
As Stephens had a large hand in the design of the railway, it is not, perhaps surprising to find that the station buildings strongly resembled those that were to ‘adorn’—if that is the correct verb—the Kent and East Sussex Railway, as they were typical of the line’s architectural standard. Built of corrugated iron and wood, both stations had a single platform, a canopy, waiting room and booking office, while at Rye there were additionally engine and carriage sheds. Whether or not the stations were linked by telephone—as has been suggested—is unknown, but the fact that the principle of “one engine in steam” at a time was rigidly adhered to would seem to render such a link unnecessary or unlikely. As public telephones were only installed in Rye in 1904, the link seems even more doubtful. No doubt, many will remember the roof of Rye station being boldly inscribed in white “Tram Station”—a rather unique piece of advertising.
To work the railway the Company purchased an engine and a carriage from W. G. Bagnall Limited of Stafford. The dimensions of the locomotive named “Camber” have been variously stated, and the following are those furnished by the makers themselves. Cylinders, 5.5in. x 9in.; leading wheels, lft. diameter; driving wheels, lft. 8in.; working pressure, 1401b. per sq. in.; tank capacity, 120 galls.; heating surface, tubes 55 sq. ft., firebox 12 sq. ft., and grate area 2.5 sq. ft.; weight in working order, 6 tons. Her normal speed was about 10 m.p.h., although she was capable of better things. She was painted light green with black bands and red lining and bore the maker’s number 1461. Owing to the sandy nature of the line and the proximity of the outside cylinders to the track, the piston rods and cross heads were encased.
The passenger car weighed about three tons and rested on two small bogies with spoked wheels of lft. 2.5in. diameter; the bogie centres were l2ft. 6in. apart and the bogie wheel base was 3ft. 6.5in. It was nearly twenty-six feet long and had entrance platforms at each end. The car was divided into first and second class sections. The first class portion accommodated 12 passengers and was fitted with cushioned seats and curtains, while the second class portion was provided with longitudinal strip-wood seating for 20 passengers and had sash-type windows which could be removed in hot weather. The two compartments were divided by a partition, to which a clock was affixed for the benefit of first class passengers. The car was equipped with a hand-brake and simple pin and link couplings.
The line was opened on Saturday, 13th July, 1895 and soon proved a success. On August Bank Holiday alone the receipts amounted to £12 5s. and during the first six months about 18,000 tickets were sold. The fares were reasonable and were to remain so throughout the line’s history. A first class single cost 4d. and a return 6d.; second class single cost 2d., return 4d. Season tickets were issued from the start. Fishermen availed themselves of an annual season ticket for £1 10s., available for a whole crew of a boat. Between July and December of the first year the tram covered no less than 7,000 miles at a total cost of £200, including expenses of every description, which is approximately 7d. per tram mile. That the undertaking was more than paying its way was evidenced by the declaration of a dividend of 7.5 per centum on the first six months working. It is, consequently, not surprising that the Company soon found itself able to order a further engine and coach.
The second car was built by E. P. S. Jones of the Rother Ironworks in 1896—a new venture for this firm. Beautifully constructed, it accommodated 25 third class passengers and had a platform at one end only. The new engine “Victoria”—another product of Bagnall’s—only arrived in 1897. Although substantially of the same design as “Camber”, she was in fact a far more powerful engine. Painted in blue with yellow lines, she bore the maker’s number 1511. As a result of her arrival, “Camber”, which had proved to be “an uncommonly good” engine and had been the sole motive power up to 1897, was at last able to be completely overhauled. It was about this time that several waggons made their appearance.
Nothing succeeds like success and for such a small undertaking nothing could succeed but success. In spite of several alarms the company prospered and celebrated its thirteenth birthday on 13th July, 1908 with the opening of the extension to Camber Sands. The new terminus was an open raised platform -probably made from old standard gauge sleepers— utterly devoid of shelter. Situated, as the timetable quaintly stated, “far from the madding crowd,” it was indeed an ideal spot for picnics, with the sands stretching for miles, firm in characted and golden in colour. How much one would like to turn the clock back to those peaceful days. The extension was built almost entirely on an embankment and terminated in a run-round loop. The old terminus was renamed Golf Links.
As a result of the extension the service was amended so that during the summer months there were 13 trains each way daily, of which only 7 went through to Camber Sands. A special late train was provided for the golfers on Saturday nights, which left Golf Links at 8.15 p.m. On Sundays the service was restricted to only nine trains each way, five going through to Camber Sands. During the winter, in which all trains terminated at Golf Links, the service was limited to seven trains each way daily, with nine on Saturdays and four on Sundays. Special fares were charged on the 10 a.m. tram on Sunday mornings, which was intended primarily for golfers.
Fares were similarly amended as follows: First class, 6d. single to Golf Links, 9d. return. (The fares to Camber Sands were the same). Second Class, 3d. single to Golf Links, 6d. return; 4d. single to Camber Sands, 7d. return. Third Class, 2d. single to Golf Links, 3d. single to Camber Sands, 5d. return. Books of tickets were sold at a reduction of 2/- in the £ on forty 6d. tickets. First class season tickets cost 30s., while cheap season tickets were available for fishermen. Small parcels could be sent from Rye to Rye Harbour via the ferry, including delivery, for 4d. Whether there was a short siding from Golf Links station to the river edge which gave access to the ferry—as has been suggested by some commentators—is unknown.
It was not until the mid twenties that competition from the bus and motor cars, together with other adverse economic factors such as the high price of coal and the cost of continual repairs to the engines, made themselves felt. Economies were demanded and, consequently, in 1925 a four-wheeled petrol tractor was purchased from the Kent Construction Company of Ashford. It possessed a small half width cab for the driver, who had to sit sideways. At a later date it was virtually rebuilt, the cab being extended to full width. In spite of its rather ugly appearance, it proved itself capable of pulling both the cars and the trucks and, consequently, the steam locomotives became little more than spares stored at Rye. In 1926 the winter service was abandoned entirely. About this time the two cars were considerably reconstructed. The end platforms were incorporated in the main part of the bodies, while the partition was removed from the first/second class car. What happened to the clock on the partition is still unknown. Both cars became third class and the cushioned seats were taken out of the old first class section.
As with the majority of English light railways, the tram’s heyday was over: it now entered upon a period of decline. In spite of drastic economies, the Company found it increasingly difficult to balance the budget. Little of this, however, was ever communicated to the pleasure-seeking public, which enjoyed the tram’s rather leisurely speed across the flats to Camber, especially in the open passenger trucks ! The driver-cum-conductor kept the petrol tractor in immaculate condition, while no one could complain of the condition of the cars. But, with the outbreak of war in 1939 the tram bade farewell to all those who had loved it. Never again was it to be seen on its peacetime duties. During part of the war it was used by the Admiralty for various purposes but, when peace returned, the rolling stock, track and station buildings were in such an appalling condition that the Company decided to terminate the undertaking. In Rye its passing was barely noted.
What was the achievement of this little undertaking? Unlike the majority of the lines managed by the late Lieutenant Colonel H. F. Stephens, it was always spick and span. The staff, although few in number, were dedicated men who took an immense pride in their work and were well endowed with skills. Despite the enormous difficulties experienced at times in balancing the budget, the Company never fell into the hands of an Official Receiver. Throughout its history, fares remained reasonable and, even though speed was never one of its hallmarks, it had an excellent record for punctuality. Like the Kent and East Susex Railway it had a splendid accident-free record—a feature that so nobly distinguishes it from the present age of the lethal motor car. When the company was formed in 1895 it fulfilled a real economic need of the district but, with the advent of the motorbus and the growth in popularity of the motor car, it became progressively less important until it ultimately purely provided a unique and rather pleasant mode of travelling for the many visitors—and Ryers—who wished to go to Camber Sands. If the line had been extended into Camber itself and, perhaps, even to Dungeness, the undertaking might have survived. Had it continued to exist, there can be little doubt that it would be making a good profit today, especially in the summer months. It would have attracted a host of railway enthusiasts—largely non-existent before the last World War— who may well have pursuaded the owners to return to steam motive power. What an attraction that would have been! But the clock cannot be turned back. One will never see its like again. That the little tram succeeded as well as it did and gave so much pleasure to so many, especially to children, is but the achievement of those public spirited men of Rye who had set the undertaking on its feet in 1895 and had sustained it until, at. the bitter end, the burden became too heavy for so few.
Reprinted from the September 1967 issue of “Rye’s Own”