Kent & East Sussex Railway
This was the quintessential Stephens' light railway and was always the heart of his empire. Conceived as the Rother Valley Railway, it opened from Robertsbridge to Rolvenden (then named Tenterden) in 1900 and Tenterden Town in 1903. Despite legally authorised extensions over much of the Kent Weald to Maidstone, Rye and Cranbrook, lack of capital meant that only an extension to Headcorn was to be built and opened in 1905. Built as a model light railway, expediency and lack of capital eventually forced it to become the make-do and mend railway so beloved of railway enthusiasts. It served a deeply rural area it was initially profitable but suffered severe road competion fromthe early 1920s. Only track relaying and imported motive power during World War II and at nationalisation in 1948 saved it.
Passenger traffic and the operation of the Headcorn extension ceased in 1953 and the railway closed completely in 1961.
Enthusiasts rescued the line and despite much official obstruction in the 1960s it was progressively reopened from Tenterden in 1974 and reached Bodiam in the millennium year.
A Short History
Tenterden had yearned for a railway connection for many years but finally received a connection in 1900.The origins of the line seem, in fact, to lie elsewhere than Tenterden. The new line was to be named the Rother Valley Railway (RVR), after the river whose course it was to follow for much of its length. The impetus for this route seems to have come from landowners and businesses in Northiam and Bodiam in late 1894. The railway was authorised by its own Act of Parliament in 1896, but with the passing later that year of the Light Railways Act, the directors obtained permission to bring the RVR under that Act for construction and operating purposes.
By Victorian standards construction progress was slow. The engineer, Holman F Stephens, had pegged out the centre line of the track by November 1897, but slow land purchase and a community that proved reluctant to invest in its sought-after railway caused delay. Construction work commenced in 1898 but it was not until 9th January 1900 that the line was reported complete from Robertsbridge Junction to Tenterden. Bad floods hit the Rother Valley in February and although no damage is known to have been caused this probably delayed the opening of the line, which finally opened to goods traffic on 26th March and to passengers on 2nd April.
None of the financial difficulties experienced seems to have deterred the promoters' enthusiasm for light railways, and extensions had been planned and approved as early as October/November 1898. Foremost amongst these was a planned Cranbrook-Tenterden-Ashford line but lack of finance cut it back to the essential Tenterden Town extension. On 16th March,1903 the existing Tenterden station was renamed Rolvenden and the line extended 1½ miles to a new terminus at Tenterden Town.
Simultaneously the South Eastern & Chatham (SE&CR), decided to rid itself of an obligation to build its long envisaged line to Tenterden. The RVR agreed to build and operate a line to Headcorn, in return for SE&CR’s financial guarantee to make up any losses. On12th March 1903 a contract to build the Headcorn and upgrade the Rother Valley line was signed. The wisdom of this upgrade can be seen by comparison with the similarly lightly constructed Selsey Tramway which, despite being profitable, did not undertake reconstruction and was thereby crucially handicapped in its later years by its light construction.
The line from Headcorn Junction was opened on 15th May1905 with further locomotives and coaches purchased with the SE&CR’s guaranteed funds, but the expansion programme had come to an end. Heady ideas of commanding enough finance to build lines to Rye, Cranbrook and Pevensey, all authorised over 1898-1900, together with Maidstone in 1905-06, faded. The early optimism probably led to the proposal to rename the RVR the South Kent Railway but this was ruled out by the Light Railway Commissioners on the dubious grounds that it was geographically inappropriate. So, in 1904 (officially on 1st June), the new title Kent and East Sussex Railway (K&ESR). was adopted, possibly in acknowledgement of the proposed Northiam-Rye line which had been dubbed the East Sussex Light. However the line was now as complete as it was ever going to be. The RVR had been an operational and commercial success, but it was probably fortunate that much of the wider network was not built.
When this extension fever was over, the K&ESR was established as a growing and mostly profitable concern. In 1910 the decision was undertaken to upgrade the rolling stock to more comfortable steam-heated stock and obtain more locomotives. Second-hand stock had to be used with consequent disposing of older stock to other lines. The ‘new’ stock was however at the time superior to virtually everything available on most rural branch lines. Indeed in the provision of steam heating it was in advance of many main lines. Such was the line’s reputation that when in 1913 Parliament inquired into the need for general improvement in rural transport it selected the line for study and found it to be the best solution. Ten years later it might be a very different story but before the Great War the K&ESR was seen as a progressive, and indeed model, light railway that served its community with distinction.
One question which must be asked about the K&ESR, and indeed other railways that Holman Stephens ran, is why and how it retained its independence in the face of continuous financial pressure for railway amalgamation and the statutory Grouping under the Railways Act 1921. The answer lies in Colonel Stephens’ mission to maintain independence for what he thought of as railways of local interest. He held the view that the centralised management of large railways meant that local interests were neglected. Economies could certainly be realised by the centralization of activities like accounts, legislation, engineering etc. and pooling of other resources but otherwise local management achieved through independence of ownership was a paramount consideration. This was the basis of Stephens’ organisation of his group of railways based at his offices at Salford Terrace, Tonbridge from which all centralised services were run.
As the Great War came to an end the Government decreed that the railways be re-organised into large private companies generally known as 'The Grouping'. In large part by pressure exerted by Stephens and his associates, it was decided to exclude Light Railways. The K&ESR kept independent but at heavy cost, The wear and tear on the line in the Great War was such that that the nominal amounts of post war compensation were totally inadequate. Now wider economic difficulties had set in and all railways faced a world of rapid change. Ex-army motor lorries and buses flooded the already diminishing transport market.
To compete for passengers Stephens then brought in some railmotors to supplement the existing somewhat minimalist steam services established during the Great War. The battle was however lost; in 1913 105,000 passengers were carried; by 1919 the figure had dropped to 85,000; and to 68,000 in 1922. The remaining passenger traffic continued to drop and, most importantly, the profitable general merchandise traffic followed. The railway was only sustained by reducing costs and a steady grip on the relatively less profitable coal and mineral traffic. By the 1930s it had lost much of the farming traffic it had been built to carry. General agricultural traffic could be considerable, but was very seasonal. The K&ESR settled into a period of greater quietude, useful primarily to the farmers and small tradesmen in the locality, as well as those travellers who were not on a bus route. Only in the brief hop-picking season did the bustle return as the hop-pickers and their friends arrived from London for their annual invasion.
These changes reduced the line's profitability dramatically. Dividends fell to 1% in 1920 ¾% in the following year and ¼% in 1926, and expenditure was continually postponed. Although never profitable, the Headcorn extension now became a near terminal millstone. The Rother Valley section would always show a favourable margin, however small, but losses on the Headcorn extension climbed to catastrophic levels which, even with the mainline subsidy, could not be sustained.
The railway went into by receivership in 1932 and looked increasingly to the Southern Railway as a patron. With some additional help from the mainline railways in the form of deferred debts, it continued. Hiring locomotives and engineering services became the usual practice. Formerly a model of its kind the K&ESR was now perceived as a run-down decrepit railway of the greatest charm.
On 1st September 1939, with the immanence of WW2, the railway came under Government control which proved a temporary salvation, for otherwise it would have closed in whole or part. It was, after 10 years of the most stringent economy, in 'a very low condition'. Some nine to ten miles of track had to be entirely or partially relayed in the war years. On 8th February 1941 the War Department brought in two rail-borne super-heavy battery guns for coastal defence, hauled by WD ex-GWR 0-6-0 Dean Goods which remained until 8th August 1944. Their arrival probably precipitated the clearance and disposal of the scrap stock that had accumulated in Rolvenden yard. As the war effort intensified with preparations for the invasion of France, heavy demands were made on the Railway. Heavy troop trains, composed of bogie corridor stock from the major companies, were worked over the line and from May 1943 to May 1944 some 110 special trains conveying materials for aerodromes in the vicinity were run between Headcorn and Tenterden. To cope with all this traffic several SR engines were drafted in from 1940 and as traffic increased class O1s tender engines were drafted in. The first came in late1942 and they became a feature of the northern section of line until closure, for nothing larger than a ‘Terrier’ was permitted from Rolvenden to Robertsbridge Junction in BR days. Through trains were worked by Southern Railway engines and one suspects that a quiet veil was drawn over the types used. The K&ESR had performed remarkably well for a rundown light railway with minimal resources. This is best summed up by the fact that goods train mileage (including through trains) comfortably doubled from a healthy mid-thirties annual average of 173,000 to an annual average in 1943 and 1944 of 377,000.
With the end of the War, the Transport Act 1947 took powers to acquire all railway undertakings and this spelt the end of the independent K&ESR and indeed its partial closure. As early as April 1948 it was considered for closure but 'it was generally considered that [closure] would not be a good policy to adopt so soon after the nationalisation.. of the railways and would bring forth an outcry from the public’. The commercial section tried to develop the K&ESR and introduced day excursion bookings with accelerated timings of Tenterden-Headcorn services to attract London traffic. Despite this, passenger traffic on this section remained minimal though the enhanced service continued until the end.
It could soon be seen that efforts to improve and integrate the K&ESR into the national system had come to an end and the writing was on the wall for the closure of the K&ESR. It had not, of course, made a penny since at least 1932, but other lines had not made a penny since they were built and lost far more. The line was taking £269 per day of which only £33 came from the Headcorn extension, which was only taking some 6 passengers a day; 15 parcels and 11 tons of goods (perhaps 1½ wagons at 1952 average loadings). The Tenterden to Robertsbridge section was stronger but 71 passengers per day was hardly healthy. Goods fared better with daily figures around 88 parcels and 100 tons (say 14 wagons). The obvious conclusion was to shut down the passenger service and retain the goods service on the old Rother Valley section only. The passenger railway finally came to an end on Saturday 2nd January 1954.
The Rother Valley section continued for goods with one morning and one afternoon service. In the hopping season special passenger trains commenced running to Northiam and continued at weekends for the three week season. Such workings continued on a diminishing basis until the 1958 season. Meanwhile, lifting of the Headcorn extension commenced in early 1955 near Tenterden and continued northwards for most of the year, leaving only the station buildings for further use. In the same year signalling on the Rother Valley section was simplified and all the buildings at Rolvenden were torn down leaving only watering facilities. Traffic began a further decrease in the wake of the disastrous ASLEF strike of June 1955, and, after 17th October, only the morning service continued.
Steam working with the immortal ‘Terriers’ was also coming to an end. The then new Drewry locomotives (later designated class 04) were chosen as replacements and in 1958 steam was finally displaced, a decision probably precipitated by the rundown of St. Leonards steam depot in the wake of the Hastings Diesel Electric Scheme (fully implemented from 9th June 1958). The first recorded diesel working on the K&ESR was on 27th May 1958 and a Drewry also worked the last hop pickers’ specials that autumn. Steam was now only seen for occasional failures and one or two enthusiasts’ and ramblers’ specials.
Despite this modernisation, the end was in sight and traffic decline was now steep. The final working was the 7.55 am working from Robertsbridge on Saturday 10th June 1961 followed the next day by a rail tour with coaches topped and tailed by ‘Terriers’. However preservation as a Heritage Railway beckoned.
A full list of the K&ESR's Locomotives and Rolling Stock can be found here.
- The Kent & East Sussex Railway, Brian Hart, WSP, 2009.
- Kent and East Sussex Railway, Stephen Garrett, Oakwood Press, 1999.
- Portrait of a Rural Railway: The Kent & East Sussex Then & Now, K&ESR, 2004 and subsequent editions.
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