Tenterden Terrier

Holman F Stephens, Promoter and Manager of Model Light Railways

In an article published by the Railway Canal and Historical Society Brian Janes attempted to provide a rounded summation of the achievements of Holman Fred Stephens. Stephens was clearly one of those larger-than-life characters that have grabbed the imagination of railway enthusiasts but Brian asked whether he is remembered for the wrong reasons. It is reproduced here in amended form.

The rise of the motor lorry and bus in the 1920s stripped the rural branch railway and particularly the rural light railway of much of its purpose. Goods traffic, particularly the high-value parcels and smalls traffic, transferred to the roads. Passenger traffic had never been great, for country people did not travel much except to market, and now when they did it was by the cheaper and more convenient motor bus. The local railways run by the mainline railways survived by drawing on the funds and engineering assistance of the wider railway and the Railway Grouping of 1923 under the Transport Act 1921 saved many; but the remaining independents were by the late 1920s and early 1930s in financial difficulty.

Lovers of the picturesque now discovered these decaying railways. They became something of a local, if not national, joke with old locomotives and carriages compared to kettles and hencoops. This image became all-pervasive and personified in the person of Colonel Holman Fred Stephens and a group of still independent light railways given the epithet 'The Colonel Stephens' Railways'.

To the author's mind, this is an entirely unfair judgement on a man whose distinguished engineering and management career was recognised in the highest circles of government and who had in his time brought much needed transport to deprived rural areas. He had done so by promoting the essential economy advocated by the light railway theorists of the late Victorian period. Railways were then, as now, very expensive creations, and the national tide of railway building had long passed its high-water mark and was ebbing away from rural areas. Such areas remained desperately in need of cheaper transport than the horse and cart if their economy was to survive and thrive.

The concept of light railways was thought of as a method of bringing cheap transport to rural areas but, with capital and traffic thin, railways would have to be cheaply built for later improvement, if and when the expected increased traffic returned and resultant access to capital resulted. With the passing of the Light Railways Act in 1896 enthusiasm for such lines was at an all-time high; but it was still necessary to turn a vision into practical success and it was this problem Holman Stephens and others sought to solve with their engineering and management skills.

The young Holman Fred Stephens, as a qualified Civil Engineer, had his first experience of railway building as site engineer on the South Eastern Railway's satellite, the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway. This was a branch line built to main line branch standards but Stephens gained further experience with the construction and success in 1895 of the tiny and cheaply built Rye and Camber Tramway, on which he even advocated using an internal combustion engine powered railcar. He set up a newly established consultancy, and was then well placed to take advantage of the demand created by the Act, which he did with vigour on many projects in the following optimistic years. Indeed his practice had grown to such an extent that in 1900 he had opened his well known office at 23 Salford Terrace, Tonbridge where some 17-20 staff were employed for most of the next 50 years.

The Light Railways Syndicate

Although for the next decade Stephens produced many more plans than physical lines on the ground, he became the leading independent engineering dynamic behind the light railway movement. At first he allied himself with an organisation led by Edward Peterson, a solicitor with a practice in Staplehurst, Kent, whose enthusiasm for light railways came about in anticipation of the 1896 Act. Peterson formed a company called the Light Railways Syndicate in July 1895 for the purpose of financing bills or orders in Parliament for proposed new railways. The intention was that once the necessary authorisations had been obtained, a separate company would be formed for each scheme to raise the capital and the syndicate would receive a fee for its services. Only one railway, the Sheppey Light Railway, was built but when the concept and companies collapsed in Edwardian times with the end of optimism for light railways, Stephens still pursued the Gower Light and the Orpington, Cudham & Tatsfield (which slowly evolved into the Southern Heights Light) proposals until the 1920s when they both came within a whisker of being built .The Peterson proposals were all clearly intended to build light railways and, in accordance with hallowed tradition, off load them on the mainline railways.

Independent Management

Stephens had meanwhile been working with other financiers to design and build other railways, notably the Kent and East Sussex and the Selsey Tramway. His experience with the Peterson syndicate seems to have turned Stephens away from building railways for subsequent sale and he effectively became an entrepreneur for many schemes which, although he did not own them, were his creation, and independent management was to become his key philosophy.

At this stage of his life Stephens was wholly committed to promoting and creating light railways. He was responsible for nearly 10% of all orders made under the 1896 Act up to March 1908 (27,including extensions of time, of the 311 orders made up till the end of March 1908) and when it is considered that one-third of statutory light railways were street tramways then his significance to the rural light railways movement becomes obvious. He continued this activity to some extent until his death. Running them was almost a subsidiary activity until after WW1.

The enthusiasm for rural light railways did not last very long. Applications for light railways fell from 88 in 1898 to 2 in 1914. During the Edwardian years the 1896 Act was held to have failed. Light railways had arrived too late and costs could not be kept low enough to service viable transport rates. Local funds were not available and Treasury grants were not enough. The mainline railways had never shown much interest for they now spent most of their capital on improving capacity rather than geographical expansion. Even worse, lightly built equipment often did not stand up to the rough and tumble of service and no funds were available to reinvest in better. By 1914 the concept was effectively dead but Stephens did not give up: he persisted with several schemes and built them when he could.

Stephens built his first lines almost slavishly following light railway principles. His first two important lines, the Rother Valley (later Kent and East Sussex) and the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey, were extremely lightly built and both had brand new purpose built locomotives and coaches; and they were both successful, paying modest dividends and developing their districts. However it soon became clear that they were too light to economically perform the task of hauling the traffic they had generated. Limited finance was the great problem and so it remained, second hand stock and track became a feature of his lines, and however well maintained they were, for the next twenty five years they formed the basis of the latter false image of ramshackle railways.

Now all that could be hoped for was modest profitability with more robust second-hand equipment. Stephens adapted, the railways he managed to build survived, but many projects died stillborn. For a period of over 30 years Stephens managed to scrape together enough capital to build railways that did, at least until WW1 changed things for ever, provide some return on capital. He worked phenomenally hard over this period. As an example of his energy and enterprise one can only look at his achievements over the period 1908-1914. In these years he put together several orders for the East Kent Light (which was partly built), reconstructed the Burry Port & Gwendreath Valley, and the East Cornwall Minerals as the Plymouth Devonport & South Western Junction Railway's independently run Callington line and the long defunct 'Potts' line as the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire .In addition there were orders for the new lines of the West Sussex and the Callington line and its (unbuilt) extension, the revised Gower Light ,and the North Devon & Cornwall Junction Railways. Each of these projects involved advising (and often actually finding the members of) the Boards, surveying, and negotiating the necessary land and equipment acquisitions; usually without adequate capital. On top of this he was very active, as an engineering volunteer, in increasing military preparations for the defence of Kent for which work he was eventually made a Lt. Colonel in 1916.

In raising capital for the schemes when he was effectively the principal promoter Stephens was nothing if not versatile and certainly opportunistic. The Treasury had largely failed, as with all other 1896 Act projects, to provide any useful amounts of capital, although the ND&CJR was finally built with Treasury funds provided for unemployment relief (as was the Welsh Highland before Stephens became involved) .However, even that success ensured that the Gower Light, which competed for the same funds, would never be built. He often turned his persuasive talents onto the local authorities who stood to benefit from the lines but with limited success. Private capital was perhaps more readily available before the light railway optimism evaporated and there is some evidence that perhaps the largest and most innovative of insurance companies, the Excess Insurance , was persuaded . More research is however needed in this somewhat murky area. Speculative funds became available for the East Kent Light Railways through the dubious activities of the Group of companies developing the coalfield controlled by Arthur Burr, and the poverty stricken form this company took was due to their failure. There is also limited evidence of contractor involvement in financing but again more research is needed into this. Stephens himself acted as contractor in this fashion on the S&MR but the source of funds behind this, the Severn Syndicate, is mysterious. He was also involved with fund managers specialising in turning unattractive stocks round, particularly Sidney Herbert. The mainline railways provided only limited support but the Headcorn extension was guaranteed by the S&ECR and the Southern became effective owners of the East Kent in 1926 to revive the company.

Stephens himself, though moderately wealthy through inheritance, was not a substantial investor in his companies, usually only holding enough shares to qualify, if needed, as a director. He earned his income in a variety of ways, initially through surveying and engineering and consultancy fees but increasingly from management fees. His Salford Terrace business was a personal one and all expenses came to be paid through these fees etc. Many of these fees were paid to him in Debentures and he became a substantial holder of such certificates, for instance at one point he held £26,000 of debentures in the East Kent. He involved his social contacts in investment and in the case of the Selsey Tram he persuaded a friend, H Montague Bates, to buy the tramway in an attempt to rescue it, and when he died intestate became almost sole owner when the shares were bought or gifted to Stephens. Earlier in 1923 he had personally bought the Snailbeach District and he held virtually all the shares in the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire (which was the operating company for the owner –Shropshire Railways) from inception. He was also Chairman of the FR /WHR, the SMR and Selsey for extended periods but was not fond of committee work and generally preferred to leave such duties to others, particularly close acquaintances.

After the Great War

Stephens in the 1920s

The end of the Great War changed the direction of Stephens' business and increasingly he became less a promoter and builder and more a manager. His Salford Terrace office turned from design and construction to centralised accounting and administration, engineering maintenance and oversight. Local management was often limited to a single man in charge (there was a variety of local titles often informal) to oversee day to day operations. Multiple short memos and telegrams and flying visits from Stephens and his outdoor assistants (principally William Austen) and audit visits were designed, usually successfully, to keep local management taut.

Nevertheless Stephens remained a promoter and still managed to build the Ashover Light and the last standard gauge Light Railway, the North Devon &Cornwall Junction (Torrington to Halwill) He was also fighting hard to build the Gower and the Southern Heights line from Orpington to Sanderstead; the latter only finally terminated by his death and the coming of pooling of traffic receipts under the London Passenger Transport Act.

For a very few years after the war, a future for rural railways looked reasonable and with the formation of a new Ministry of Transport, the encouragement of more such railways was a possibility. The Ministry undertook a comprehensive official review of the problems of light railways in which Stephens was heavily involved but this proved inconclusive and the rise of road transport began to kill the need. Survival now became the name of the game. If Stephens had a fault it was that he, like many other railway managers, did not appear to foresee the competition that would come from road transport after WW1, nor the economic depression of the early 1920s. But the fact that most of his lines survived those troubled times is a testament to his skill in organisation and financial control.

Stephens had meanwhile been active in successfully lobbying the Ministry and government to enable light railways to retain their independence from the grouping of railways under the Railways Act 1921. In the event only a handful of these independents took this option, the majority under Stephens' leadership. Stephens strongly held the view that such railways should have separate management or become lost in the oversight of the major railways. To an extent he did prove this, even though his efforts were crippled by lack of capital. He was a tough and innovative manager (for instance on taking control of the Selsey Tramway in 1923 he quickly dismissed the long serving local manager, Phillips, on cost grounds), introducing pioneering i/c railmotors and light shunters and cutting costs. His lines in his latter days may have been run on the proverbial shoestring, but at least they did run and provided a real benefit to the local communities through which they passed. His methods impressed contemporaries and he was, for instance, brought in to save the sinking Festiniog/WHR combine which nearly closed at birth, and kept it going in almost impossible circumstances through the 1920s.

Despite innovative use of limited capital for projects like the famous Stephens' rail motors, independent railways fell into decline and bankruptcy. Ultimately the price of independence from the remote management of the main line companies was poverty, often worse in its effect than neglectful centralised management. Indeed, certainly after Stephens' death and in one case before (the East Kent Light), independence was only ultimately maintained through the financial and practical charity of the principal companies. This effectively disappeared as the railways became part of Government and the rural railway disappeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

Stephens' Promotion, Financial and Management Involvement

In raising capital for the schemes when he was effectively the principal promoter Stephens was nothing if not versatile and certainly opportunistic. The Treasury had largely failed, as with all other 1896 Act projects, to provide any useful amounts of capital, although the ND&CJR was finally built with Treasury funds provided for unemployment relief (as was the Welsh Highland before Stephens became involved) .However, even that success ensured that the Gower Light, which competed for the same funds, would never be built. He often turned his persuasive talents onto the local authorities who stood to benefit from the lines but with limited success.

Private capital was perhaps more readily available before the light railway optimism evaporated and there is some evidence that perhaps the largest and most innovative of insurance companies, the Excess Insurance , was persuaded . More research is however needed in this somewhat murky area. Speculative funds became available for the East Kent Light Railways through the dubious activities of the Group of companies developing the coalfield controlled by Arthur Burr, and the poverty stricken form this company took was due to their failure.

There is also limited evidence of contractor involvement in financing but again more research is needed into this. Stephens himself acted as contractor in this fashion on the S&MR but the source of funds behind this, the Severn Syndicate, is mysterious. He was also involved with fund managers specialising in turning unattractive stocks round, particularly Sidney Herbert. The mainline railways provided only limited support but the Headcorn extension was guaranteed by the S&ECR and the Southern became effective owners of the East Kent in 1926 to revive the company.

Stephens himself, though moderately wealthy through inheritance, was not a substantial investor in his companies, usually only holding enough shares to qualify, if needed, as a director.

He earned his income in a variety of ways, initially through surveying and engineering and consultancy fees but increasingly from management fees. His Salford Terrace business was a personal one and all expenses came to be paid through these fees etc. Many of these fees were paid to him in Debentures and he became a substantial holder of such certificates, for instance at one point he held £26,000 of debentures in the East Kent. He involved his social contacts in investment and in the case of the Selsey Tram he persuaded a friend, H Montague Bates, to buy the tramway in an attempt to rescue it, and became almost sole owner when the shares passed to him. Earlier in 1923 he had personally bought the Snailbeach District and he held virtually all the shares in the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire (which was the operating company for the owner –Shropshire Railways) from inception.

Stephens managed the K&ESR, EKR and S&MR directly from inception and remained engineer, or consulting engineer, for most of the railways he built .He was General Manager of the Weston Clevedon & Portishead from 1909; and Chairman and General Manager of the Festiniog /WHR combine from 1925 (engineer from 1923) and receiver of the WHR from 1927. He was also Chairman of the FR /WHR, the SMR and Selsey for extended periods but was not fond of committee work and generally preferred to leave such duties to others, particularly close acquaintances.

Relationship with other Railwaymen

He was much liked and respected by many senior railwaymen, including arguably the best manager of his generation Sir Herbert Walker (who was quite candid about the poor viability of Stephens' lines) and Walker's successor Gilbert Szlumper was his close friend. Stephens acquired and cultivated a wide circle of such acquaintances and Sir George Barrahell, whom he seems to have met as a senior Treasury official associated with transport issues and who was later Chairman of Dunlop, was his most frequent luncheon companion.

Conclusions

Faced with the problems that Stephens had to face, many would have gladly given up their independence. There is no doubt he was an optimist who put his private money into these railways. The make do and mend of his last years, together with the perceived need to maintain his balance sheet by not disposing of assets, combined with a probable sentimental attachment to some items ,led to the accumulation of obsolete and worthless rolling stock which was perhaps misunderstood. Nevertheless, he kept the railways going.

Stephens was in the last analysis a man of his time and, like the Light Railway Act so associated with him, was perhaps born too late. We should however admire him for his energy and achievement in the circumstances of his heyday and not for the observably crumbling elements of his achievements that were all that was evident to later, and indeed current, generations.

A full CV up to 1918 prepared by Stephens is here

This Article was originally published in the Railway Canal & Historical Society Journal No 200 (2007). It is reprinted on this site in amended form with Thanks and Acknowledgements