Seaford’s railway history

by Kevin Gordon

Just over a hundred and fifty years ago the good people of Seaford were getting excited.  The town was about to be connected to the ever expanding railway network and as far as the population were concerned it was about time too!  The ‘permanent way’ had arrived in Sussex in 1841 when the line between London and Brighton was opened.  In 1847 the tracks were extended southwards from Lewes but stopped short at Newhaven Harbour.

Seaford was probably the largest town on the Sussex coast not to have a railway link and was missing out on the ever increasing Victorian tourist trade.    A newspaper report of 1859 said that Seaford was a delightful watering place which would be much improved by being connected to the railway. 

In October 1860 a meeting was held at Seaford Town Hall in South Street to discuss a railway scheme. The meeting was chaired by Henry Simmons, the newly elected bailiff (mayor).  Two men were particularly keen; William Tyler-Smith, a London surgeon, and Thomas Crook, Major in the Honourable Artillery Company. Both had a keen interest in developing the town and were rivals. Tyler-Smith had bought up large tracts of the land (indeed much of the land that the proposed railway was due to use was his), and he was the chairman of the ‘Seaford Improvement Committee’ which had been established three years earlier to ‘improve the beach, provide seats for tourists, lay out footpaths and plant more tamarisk’.

Thomas Crook also owned land in Seaford and established a gas-works in the town to provide street lighting.  Crook hoped that gas-lighting would be installed in the new hotels and guest-houses, and in order to advertise his product he ensured that one of the first buildings to be lit by gas was St Leonard’s Parish church.

Amongst the people attending the meeting were the Newhaven Station Master, Mr Turner and the Chief Engineer and the Solicitor from the London Brighton and South Coast Railway.  The meeting went well. The chairman said that the previous year between 500 and 600 visitors had lodged in the town, but there had been complaints due to the problem of access. He believed that if a railway were to be built, people in London would send their families to Seaford ‘for the season’  The increase in demand for accommodation would cause more houses to be built and would obviously improve the fortunes of the town.  Not everyone was as keen and there were those who worried that a new railway would destroy the ‘retirement’ of the town and there would be a risk that Seaford would be ‘invaded with excursionists from London’.  These fears were overlooked and there was unanimous agreement for the railway to be built.   £24,000 was set aside for the project.

The railway was to be built ‘from Newhaven Wharf Station to a point 80 yards from Seaford Parish Church’.  Work started on 14th March 1863 in the Dann Field (now the site of Seaford Station) and 200 navvies were employed.  (The term navvy came from the canals or ‘navigations’ that men had been employed to dig many years earlier. Although today we think of navvies as being Irish, most came from the English agricultural classes and many were local lads).

Whilst men were excavating the 36 foot deep cutting to the rear of the Coastguard Cottages at Hawth Hill, 19 year old navvy James Drury was killed when he was run over by a railway truck taking chalk from the site. The coroner was told that this was the third fatal accident during the construction of this short railway extension. 

The railway line was finished on 25th May 1864 and forty of the navvies were treated to a slap-up supper at the Terminus Hotel (now the Shore), a hotel built close to the new Seaford railway station by William Tyler-Smith.   The railway line opened to the public a few days later on 1st June.

The railway between Newhaven and Seaford was doubled in 1904, just a decade before the start of the Great War.  During the War thousands of soldiers from all over the Empire trained in two massive military camps. Most of them, along with horses, tons of equipment and ammunition, arrived by train. The war took its toll on the station and in 1919 a local councillor complained that the building was so dilapidated it should be demolished.  It wasn’t, and the line from Lewes was electrified in 1932.