An Appreciation of His Life and Works
Holman Fred Stephens died at the Lord Warden Hotel, Dover, on 23 October 1931 - 77 years ago; he was in his 63 rd year. During his lifetime he built or was associated with some 16 light railways, ranging from the diminutive Rye & Camber Tramway on the Sussex coast, to the Bere Alston and Callington line, with its magnificent viaduct of 12 arches, each of 60ft span and standing 120ft above the River Tamar; a structure infinitely more graceful than Brunel's, but to this day hardly known.
Stephens was born into a family where art and literature predominated (his father was F G Stephens, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and critic, examples of whose work Stephens bequeathed to the Tate Gallery) but his interest in railways was apparent at an early age. Having studied civil engineering at University College under Sir Alexander Kennedy, " Holly" Stephens was apprenticed at the workshops of the Metropolitan Railway, Neasden, in 1881 before embarking on a career of light railway construction and management that was to span a period of 40 years.
Stephens' educational achievements were noteworthy rather than outstanding. After matriculating in 1887, he studied engineering briefly at University College London under the Professor of the faculty, Sir Alexander Kennedy. In 1888 his father, Frederick Stephens, arranged with John Bell, General Manager of the Metropolitan Railway, for him to enter the Company's works at Neasden as a pupil of the Locomotive Superintendent, John Hanbury. Hanbury was a distinguished engineer and had served his apprenticeship under Matthew Kirtley at the locomotive sheds of the Midland Railway at Derby. In due course, Stephens pressed for the opportunity of gaining experience in civils work and Hanbury suggested that he approach Seaton, who was working for the Metropolitan on extensive alterations to Baker street and Portland Road stations. Stephens, who never hesitated to take advantage of family connections, made play of his family's acquaintance with Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of both the South Eastern and Metropolitan Railways and this was probably enough to persuade Seaton to take Stephens on. Edward P Seaton, a consulting engineer with 20 years’ experience was responsible for the design of the route and structures of the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway and Stephens was employed by him as his first railway project. He was, at the relatively tender age of 22 still a student, but many of the distinctive features and materials used in the buildings on this line were adopted by him subsequently on other schemes. He did, however, claim to have had the responsibility of sole supervision of the works, including setting out the line and was resident at Cranbrook throughout the construction period. The Hawkhurst railway project was an ideal opportunity to gain practical experience. The line was an offshoot of the South Eastern and one of the few schemes directly involving a major established railway company with which Stephens was to become involved.
The Hawkhurst line was opened from Paddock Wood to Cranbrook on 1st October 1892 and to Hawkhurst on 4th September 1893. After the line was completed, Stephens stayed on for the customary maintenance period and then returned to London with little prospect of any immediate work. He carefully nurtured an acquaintanceship with Sir Myles Fenton, General Manager of the South Eastern Railway, by sending him tickets for Royal Academy exhibitions and gifts of engravings, supplied by his father. He claimed that Sir Myles had virtually promised that if the proposed extension of the Hawkhurst line to Appledore were to go ahead, he would be given the job of supervising the works, but this line was not to be. In May 1894, Seaton proposed Stephens' application for associate membership of The Institution of Civil Engineers. Other distinguished members who put their names to the application included his old tutor Sir Alexander Kennedy, W. Wainwright and James Stirling. From then on Stephens was suitably qualified to undertake projects in his own right.
Stephens was essentially an individualist, who set out to build and operate railways of economical construction in circumstances where the establishment would have felt that the odds were heavily weighted against success. His philosophy was clear and decisive; "it is absolutely essential to have a policy and stick to it", he wrote to his parents in 1891, "if it fails try some other way, I am sure that this is the only way to get on". Whilst at Cranbrook Stephens built up a friendship built up with Edward Peterson, the son of the Rector of Biddenden, the Rev William Peterson and a solicitor with a practice in Staplehurst. 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. A total of seven schemes were formally proposed by the Light Railways Syndicate and its sister company, the Economic Railways Company, formed in 1898, but only one, the Sheppey Light Railway, was built. In all cases, Stephens was to have been the engineer and had a smallish shareholding in the syndicate
The failures Stephens had in the early years were balanced by many successes, commencing with the Selsey line in 1895 and the Rother Valley (later the Kent & East Sussex) in 1900 - the first line to be constructed under the provisions of the 1896 Light Railways Act. Thereafter a whole string of schemes came to fruition - the Sheppey Light, Bere Alston & Callington, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, Burry Port, to mention but a few.
In 1918 Stephens prepared a full C.V. which showed the great extent of his interests and achievements.
After the Great War, Stephens remained active in railway development where others would have found the environment impossible. The North Devon & Cornwall Junction Light, for instance, constructed in the early 1920s against fearsome odds, both practical and financial. Indeed, if any criticism can be directed against Stephens, it is that he failed to anticipate the arrival of the motor bus and its impact on rural travel.
Nevertheless, he saved the famous Festiniog Railway from bankruptcy in the 1920s and had the Kent coal fields achieved their expected potential they would have been amply served by a network of lines engineered and managed by him. His biggest disappointment was the Southern Heights, a projected electric line in Surrey on which he was working almost up to the time of his death and which failed to come to fruition, largely as a result of the negative attitude of the Local Authorities.
In private life Stephens was an enigmatic, even an eccentric character. A tall, striking figure, instantly recognisable, with a military bearing; an arrogant man, but with immense personal charm and wit, much admired and liked by his staff; his attitude to women always courteous, sometimes supercilious - occasionally mysterious, he nevertheless had few friends outside his business acquaintances and lived a solitary existence mainly in hotels or at his clubs. A lifelong bachelor with no close relatives, he had few interests apart from his railways; his army service was spasmodic, but he attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1916, mainly in respect of services to the Territorial Force, a contact that he maintained throughout most of the 1920s. His interest in classical mythology, if somewhat superficial, is evidenced by the naming of many of his locomotives after goddesses.
When Stephens died his funeral was held at St. Peter's Hammersmith. Internment was however in the family grave at Brompton Cemetery. Stephens name was inscribed on the side of the Tombstone -his parents name is on the front.
Stephens was a man of his time; had he survived the 1930s he would have seen his empire of light railways crumble as surely as they did without him. Ironically, it is the revival of the Kent & East Sussex, the Festiniog and other minor lines around the country in the motorway era that has created renewed interest in Stephens'life and work. True, these railways fulfil a very different role to the one he envisaged, but railway preservationists today have something very much in common with Stephens - a tenacity and dedication of purpose that is surely as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.
Overshadowed by the charisma of the mighty Colonel, little has been written about Austen himself. When he succeeded to the top job in 1931, Austen was, by all accounts, a hardworking and versatile manager, but he undoubtedly lacked the pragmatism and innovation of Stephens and never attracted the awe and affection of his staff for which the Colonel is remembered. Stephens' relationship with Austen was certainly one of mutual respect, paternalistic, perhaps bordering on friendship; gifts were exchanged between the two men and Stephens acted as godfather to Austen's only son who also bore his name. But Stephens never socialised with Austen in the way that he did with, say, Gilbert Szlumper of the Southern Railway and other influential members of his London clubs, probably because of Austen's humble origins.
Communications between the two men were more akin to master and servant over a period of forty years, evidenced by surviving correspondence. Referring to Austen in connection with a visit to his parents at their riverside home in Hammersmith in August 1895, Stephens wrote, "Can you let me man have the servant's room?", and on Boat Race day in March 1897, "May I bring my man with me? He has never seen the race and would appreciate it I think". However, by the 1920s attitudes had softened and Stephens wrote, "Dear WHA" in memos when Austen was away on site visits.
After Stephens untimely death in 1931 and against the background of mounting recession, Austen dropped all ideas of expansion. This was in stark contrast to the late 1920s when Stephens was still forging ahead with plans for new lines including extensions to the East Kent Railway and a completely new electric light railway, the Southern Heights, designed to serve new suburban housing estates near Croydon. After Stephens’s protracted illnesses culminating in his death, Austen finally bowed to the inevitable and abandoned them.
Stephens did not have a hierarchy of titles at the Salford Terrace Office, the business was much too personal for that but he referred to Austen verbally as his "outdoor assistant". In practice, this meant acting as resident engineer in the days of building new lines and general trouble-shooter in the latter days of management by memo and make-do and mend.
The Salford Terrace offices finally closed on 7 June 1948 after the Kent & East Sussex, the East Kent and the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire railways were nationalised and much of the general consultancy practice lost. Austen, then aged 70, retired.
William Henry Austen was born at Snodland in Kent on 8 May 1878. His father was a labourer at the nearby Aylesford paper mill. William was however largely raised by his grandmother at Cranbrook. When William left school in 1891 he was apprenticed to Messrs Joseph T Firbank, the contractors then engaged in the construction of the Cranbrook & Paddock Wood railway. It is almost certain that here he first came into contact with Stephens who at the age of 22, was working as resident engineer on the line. By 1894 work was coming to an end and Stephens obtained a brief to design and supervise the construction of the Rye & Camber tramway. Austen joined him where he was "put in charge of the locomotive workshops" and to all intents and purposes was employed by Stephens as his assistant from this time.
After Stephens' death Austen moved to ensure the continuity of the railways notably by purchasing 23 Salford Terrace. His key operational appointment was of managing director of the Kent & East Sussex in November 1931 becoming receiver and manager on 22 April 1932 at the behest of the Southern Railway, the principal debenture holder. He became general manager of the East Kent in 1932 and was appointed director of the Shropshire Railways Company in the same year. Both the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead, and the West Sussex lines were already in receivership and Austen was appointed general manager for the former, and engineer of the latter. He became consulting engineer to the Ashover and Rye & Camber lines in succession to Stephens and director of the North Devon & Cornwall Junction, which had been worked by the Southern Railway since its inception in 1925. Austen was also director of a curious outpost of the empire, the Snailbeach District Railways which Stephens had acquired in 1923.
Austen's involvement with the Festiniog and Welsh Highland Railways was no less stormy than that experienced by his predecessor. Stephens had been chairman and managing director since 1925 and his bombastic style of management was not popular with the workforce. Austen became engineer and locomotive superintendent but was not offered a board appointment and the Tonbridge influence gradually diminished. In 1936 cuts in essetial maintenance by the Festiniog chairman were the last straw for Austen and he tendered his resignation saying that the decision showed "no consideration for tomorrow".
Austen married twice and had a son by his first wife, Holly, who preserved many of the relics we now hold in the museum. Austen died at home on 26 February 1956. Looking back on his career, he certainly provided the continuity that was needed following Stephens' death, a task which he did more than adequately, despite having no formal qualifications. The question of succession never really arose in Austen's mind as he had long maintained that the days of independent railways were over and that nationalisation was inevitable.