Holman Fred Stephens - known to his friends as Holly - was born on 31 October 1868 in West London, the son of art critic and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood member Frederick George Stephens. He went on to become involved with 16 railways around England and Wales, as engineer, locomotive superintendent, manager or director.
He became master of a new style of railway: the light railway provided for by the Light Railways Act of 1896.
This allowed railways to be built, usually in rural areas, much more cheaply than before. They followed the lie of the land, had small, out-of-the-way stations and in later years, especially, ran trains of antiquated locos and rolling stock. As a result, they had immense charm and character. Stephens made them his own with a talent for running them on a shoe-string budget.
He enabled them to survive for many years after the onset of serious road competition after the first world war and the economic depression of the twenties. One of his innovations was to introduce petrol engined railmotors on several of his lines, long before the big mainline companies realised their value in cutting costs.
At the age of 22, Stephens started his career as resident engineer of the Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway in Kent. He became a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Engi¬neers in 1916 and was thereafter known simply as The Colonel. By this time, he had established an office in Ton¬bridge to manage his railway empire, aided by his right¬hand-man William Austen.
Stephens died on 23 October 1931, but the appeal of his unique railway legacy lives on, and is catered for by The Colonel Stephens Society.