A Talk on the Camber Tram

The late Ken Clark spent many years researching the Rye and Camber Tramway with the intention of publishing a book that was never published. However he published articles and gave many talks the text of which is held together with his extensive correspondence in the Museums Archive. The text of his talk is hereby reproduced below in memory of his research achievements.

Mr.Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, let me say right at the start that for obvious reasons it would be impossible to cover the whole of the Tram's story in this talk - technical data, for example, is totally omitted.

1. How did one get to Camber in 1890?

Well quite long ways round via 2 tollgates or by ferry across River Rother at Rye and walk.

2. Opening of the Monkbretton Bridge and road to East Guldeford

•(a) As early as 1877 (George Henbrey of East Guldeford) had suggested something should be done to lessen the distance from Rye to the Marsh. Various plans were put forward for building of a road to East Guldeford, involving the construction of a bridge over the Rother these had the support of a man we will hear a great deal about, namely J.S.Vidler. But nothing decisive was done; until E.S.C.C. came into existence in 1888 - agreed to contribute £500 towards the cost of the undertaking besides taking over maintenance of the bridge. The Corporation contributed £1,000, the remainder of the cost being met principally by a voluntary call on the landowners and public subscription.

•(b) Bridge and roadway opened 25th April 1895. The importance of this event cannot be over-estimated for even at this early date Camber was increasing in popularity and a Golf Club was in the last stage of gestation.

3. Foundation and Opening of Rye Golf Club

As no Golf Club existed at Rye or Hastings at this time and Littlestone was refusing to elect new members, certain leading townsmen caste their eyes around for a suitable site. The/ fields round Camber Castle and the sand dunes at Camber were mooted as possible positions. It was not until Messrs. Sutherland Graeme and Carless visited the dunes and pronounced them ideal f or the purpose that the project assumed definite shape.

By end of 1895, the club had been started under the presidency of F.A.Inderwick, Q.C. - a personal friend of J.S.Vidler, who had naturally been a leading figure in its foundation. Allegedly only 20 minutes drive from Rye station, the club was formally opened on Monday 5 February 1894.

Challenge cups were presented by the Rye Trade Association (Vidler was president!) and all seemed to augur well for the growth of both the Club and Camber.

BUT - yes, there are always BUTS -

•(a) S.E.R's service, especially from Rye on Sundays was wretched.

•(b) Conveyances from the station were few and, consequently, most golfers had to walk. Distance may not have deterred them, but 2 factors made the journey rather unpleasant

o(i) The bad state of the road - often little better than a quagmire -Golfers arrived, according to one source, at Rye station with sufficient mud plastered on their boots and stockings to fill a decent-sized flowerpot", and

o(ii) The pestilential odours arising from the Broadwater sewer

Nothing succeeds like success", so the saying goes, and J.S.Vidler realised that if the Golf Club was not to fail, and nothing could succeed but Success.

4. Opening of the Tramway

Whether or not Vidler himself actually conceived the idea of building a tramway to connect the Club to Rye is uncertain and immaterial. What is certain is that he was the driving force - as he was in so many things for the benefit of Rye - behind the project from its inception.

At a meeting of the promoters - Richard Pomfret Burra, Reginald Blomfield, Dr.Skinner and others - it was decided to obtain the necessary leases from the Corporation and the Golf Club to build the line on private land, thereby avoiding the necessity of having to obtain an Act of Parliament. These were duly obtained and the ‘Rye and Camber Tramways Company, Ltd' was registered in April 1895. The original directors were Cuthbert Reginald Blomfield, Richard Burra, F.A.Inderwick, Ashton Selmes, Thomas Sharpe, Dr.Skinner and, of course, John Vidler. Virtually the whole of capital (£5,000) was expended in building and equipping the line, the construction of which was carried out under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel H.F.Stephens of Tonbridge, a name well known in connection with various other light railways, e.g. Kent and East Sussex and the East Kent, and Edward Percy Stokes Jones of the Rather Ironworks. The line was opened to the public on Saturday 155 July 1895.

5. The Line/Buildings/Advert/Rolling Stock

From the terminus, situated at the south-east corner of the Monkbretton bridge, the line ran almost parallel to the Rather, between two fences, far as the Broadwater bridge it continued thereafter across the Northpoint beach to Halfway House - a golfers' resort established f or 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 l 3/4 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 & East Sussex Railway, as they were typical of that 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. The signaling is easy to describe; there wasn't any. 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 a diminutive engine named "Camber" and a carriage from W.G.Bagnall Limited of Stafford. "Camber's" 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.

The passenger car weighed about three tons and rested on two small bogies with spoked wheels. 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 the first class passengers. The car was equipped with a hand brake and simple pin and link couplings.

NOW let us have a look at a few photographs - firstly of the Line:

Click on image to enlarge

6. To 1897

The line quickly proved a success. On August Bank Holiday in 1895 the receipts amounted to £l2.5s. 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 £ l.l0s, available for the 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 1/2 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 ttVictoriat1 - another product of Bagnall's - only arrived in 1897. Although substantially of the same design as "Camber", she was in fact a 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.

7. To 1914

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 115 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 railway sleepers -and at first 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 character 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.

Camber Sands Station in later days

The fares were 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 2s. in the £ on forty 6d. tickets. First class season tickets cost 50s., while cheap season tickets were available for fishermen. Small parcels could be sent from Rye to Rye Harbour via the ferry, including delivery, f or 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.

As a result of the extension the service was amended so that during the summer months there were 15 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 Cambers 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.

8. 1914 - 47

Between 1914 and 1916 the two cars were considerably reconstructed, probably to give more seating accommodation. The end platforms were incorporated in the main part of the bodies, while the partition was removed from the first/second class car and second class seats abolished. The cushioned seats were taken out of the old first class section. What happened to the clock on the partition is still unknown. Both cars did not become third class, however, until the early twenties.

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 two new trucks that had been purchased from an ammunition factory and, consequently, the steam locomotives became little more than spares stored at Rye. In 1926 the winter service was abandoned entirely.

As with the majority of English light railways, the train'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 that enjoyed the tram's rather leisurely speed across the flats to Camber, especially - as we have seen - in the open passenger trucks! George Wratten 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 1959 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 and War Department 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 determine the undertaking. In Rye its passing was barely noted.

Rye Station 1946

9. The Achievement

What was the achievement of this little undertaking? Unlike the majority of the lines with which Lieutenant Colonel H .F. Stephens was involved, 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 Sussex Railway it had a splendid accident-free record - a feature that so nobly distinguishes it from the present age of the lethal motor car and Aeroplane. When the Company was formed in 1895, it fulfilled a real economic need of the district but, with the advent of the bus and the growth in popularity of the 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, evens 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 persuaded 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 measure of 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.